Okay, tell me folks, how many of you have traveled by that last coach on every train- the coach that goes by the name of “General compartment” in Indian railways parlance but which we lesser mortals call “unreserved”? I am sure many of you have seen the crowds milling around it as touts and porters rush in to grab a seat for people for a price- a price that must be far higher than what is the actual amount charged by the Indian railways!

My father being the  railway man always had that attitude of scorn where it came to the people who traveled by this “janta class”. His argument being – “if people can plan their journeys and book their tickets well in advance there is no need to travel like cattle”. However  what he probably does not realize that traveling in India is often fraught with unexpected hurdles where planning usually does not help. Besides, everybody is not as senior as he is ( or was) within the railway establishment to get things done at the click of a finger  or a telephone receiver.

My first experience traveling by this unique class in the railways was when I was doing my post graduation. I was to return from Bombay to Hyderabad for my break after the third semester. I had done some bungling where the dates were concerned and so when I reached  the Victoria Terminus railway station in Bombay, I found that I did not have a ticket on the Hyderabad express for that date. The option was to go back to the institute and come back couple of days later for which I did have a confirmed ticket. However, I decided against it as  all my friends had left by then and I had no intentions of staying alone at the hostel for two days. I called my father’s friend and told him to inform Appa that I would be traveling on that day. Khushalani Uncle was aghast when I told him how I proposed to travel! He suggested I contact a TTE and try to get into a reserved compartment using my gender and railway heritage as excuses. But unfortunately there was no time left. I just told him “Okay Uncle” and proceeded towards the train with my huge “Aristrocrat” molded luggage in hand ( the wheels had come off so I HAD to carry it).

But getting into that “ladies compartment” ( to be referred to henceforth as ladies unreserved) was in itself becoming a challenge! There were porters offering to enter the coach for a fee and reserving a seat. However I was young and full of ideals. I shouted at them to leave me alone and rammed my way into the coach using the suitcase as a bulldozer as the hundreds of women in front of me cursed in various Indian languages. Once, I had made my way in, I found there were no seats to be had.  Just as I was wondering how I was going to travel that entire distance standing, I heard a hoarse voice call to me from the upper berth.

There was on the upper berth a “lady” of the third gender. She beckoned to me to climb up and sit next to her. She even helped to haul that bulldozer up and gave me a hand. Once I was up, I found that this was probably the best seat I could have had because no body was even interested in competing for it because of two reasons- one of course being the acrobatics involved in accessing it( these coaches do not have any support to climb on to the upper berth) and the second being that special  person of the third gender that they would have to share the seat with.  So I had what could be called a very comfortable journey given the circumstances spending  time talking to “her”. “She” taught me a few  tricks about luggage management from that point. The slippers/ shoes had to be tucked above the fan so that they were safe.  I even managed to sleep through the night resting my head on “her” shoulder. When the Begumpet railway station came, my father was horrified to see me emerge like a “wounded soldier” from the ladies unreserved followed by a “lady” of the third gender handing me my slippers. “Why did you travel like this? Didn’t Khushalani Uncle tell you to catch hold of a TTE and request for a seat?” he scolded me all  the way home.

I often used to think of this experience with nostalgia. So the gods decided to favor me with another such experience- this one being a couple of days ago from Mysore to Chennai. This time I had company-two young girls working with our organization as interns!

It was at the Gudalur bus stand that we came to know about the Kaveri agitation in Karnataka . We were on our way to Mysore from where we had reserved tickets on a KSRTC bus to Chennai. Some one also informed us that  there was a KSRTC strike. We finally managed to get a cab whose driver agreed to brave the Kannada crowds who might be “stoning vehicles with TN registration” and drove into Mysore from where we decided to take the Kaveri express. I knew very well that no tickets were available on it but anyway, we decided to try out luck.

The train was scheduled to leave by 8.30PM and we reached the station by 8.10PM. With just 20 minutes to go I asked the girls to wait with the luggage while I ran for the tickets. I must say that today’s generation is more pragmatic One of the girls went to an ATM nearby and drew some money to “bribe someone if required” ( they were quite willing to go with the fact that they would not be able to claim it from the organization).

However we found out soon that bribing was not necessary. The ladies unreserved was quite empty. We got comfortable seats and good luggage storage space too. The crowd from Mysore to Bangalore was largely of local commuters- simple and gentle ladies talking to each other in soft tones. There was an earring seller from Chennapatna who was rather curiously dressed – in jeans with a water proof jacket and a big bindi and flowers. She was obviously familiar with the regular commuters younger ones of whom she called by first name and the older  ones “Aunty”! She took a fancy to one of our interns telling her in Kannada ( which S could not understand) about the toys of Chennapatna.

But the crowd that got in from Bangalore was a different cup of tea altogether! Mostly Tamil women, they were extremely aggressive. Special mention must be made of a mother in law / daughter in law duo who came in with an eight year old boy. Their son/husband was banished into the “general compartment” and asked to “stay put there”!. Between the two of them, they tried to make themselves comfortable. They made the boy sleep under one of the lower berths astounding  my young friends! The mother in law then spread  a bedsheet and stretched out on the aisle while the daughter in law squatted on one of the seats with us. Somewhere along the way at a wayside station, the husband came by and tried to wake up his sleeping wife asking for a bed sheet. She was in no mood to oblige and gave him an earful. He replied back crudely demanding for his bed sheet. She continued to be rude saying that she could not give it to him as it was inside a bag which his mother was using as a pillow. The mother in law meanwhile woke up and cursed her son for “troubling the girl” asking him to leave. The daughter in law used that opportunity to grab the bag, remove the bed sheet and fling it out at her husband through the window! Wow! What a loving family..!  I was just thinking about how she might deal with the guy if he ever disturbed her at night demanding his conjugal rights ( and he looked the kind who would be inconsiderate enough to do so, concerned as he seemed to be only about his own needs)

Come Arokkonam and there was a flood of female commuters who wanted us to move so that they could squeeze in- it was amazing the idea that they had! On a seat meant for three, on which there were anyway four of us, they wanted  six to sit! They felt that if we unfolded our legs and put them down it might work. However we could not do so because our infamous co passenger – the mother in law had now shifted to sleeping on the floor between our seats. Just as the fight was reaching its climax, Mrs Kumbhakarna woke up and bared her fangs!! She used words that would put CMWSSB to shame!! We listened open mouthed ( and then with suppressed laughter) as she compared the commuters to “hair growth” at unmentionable parts of the body, questioned their ancestry in very creative ways and then rounded off by asking if they were “concubines of the railway minister”!! The commuters were shocked! “Tcha your mother in law is too much” they complained to the daughter in law who ignored them stoically !

When both women exited at Thiruvallur, it was like people were returning after watching the latest Rajnikanth movie. They discussed the old lady’s performance all  through their journey right up till Perambur where they disembarked!

Well, the journey post Perumbur was very uneventful! My young friends felt cheated of further entertainment considering the train was made to wait for about 45 minutes outside Chennai Central before we finally pulled into the platform.

I think this was one of the most fun trips I had post college! As far as  entertainment was concerned, it was priceless considering that the princely sum of Rs 325 that the three of us paid from Mysore to Chennai was lower than what we might have paid for a movie in a multiplex. Yes, it was tiring but then what are weekends meant for if not to sleep off such tiredness?  The most curious comment came from one of our interns “Ma’m I don’t think anyone other than us would have bought tickets. And I doubt any ticket checker would have dared to ask THAT old lady for her ticket”!!

I agree, there are certainly advantages of being undesirable company !

  ( for the uninitiated – CMWSSB stands for the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board/ KSRTC stands for the Karnataka Road Transport Corporation,  Kumbhakarna was a character from the Indian epic Ramayana. He was a demon and was blessed with six months of continuous sleep every year. He had to be woken up in between his sleep cycle by his brother Ravana who was fighting a losing battle with Rama- the exiled prince of Ayodhya. I will not explain who Rajnikanth is - I refuse to believe that there may be people who do not know HIM!)


  1. Loved it. Your keen observation and the way it was presented made it great reading. I am a big fan of the Indian Railways. I always preferred travelling in the Sleeper Class while on official tours even when I was eligible for the AC classes simply because there is always more to observe within the coach and its easy to look outside the windows at night. There is such an amazing variety of people in India that one wonders how we manage to be one country! I must confess that I never dared to travel in the unreserved coach and I applaud your bravery!

    From another perspective, the suffering of those who travel in unreserved coaches is pathetic. The overcrowding is a clear indication that the railways have not kept pace with the demand. I read that the extension of rail track since independence is only 15% of its length. The last 5-6 years have been the worst for railways with even online booking of tickets proving to be a nightmare. The Trinamool Congress which virtually managed the railways in the last half a dozen years or so has done NOTHING to improve rail travel for the poorest class of travellers - the same people for whom they readily shed crocodile tears in public.

    One of the other things I enjoyed while travelling is observing some of the small and old railway stations which were probably built in the pre-independence days. Quaint stone structures and a lone station master absent mindedly waving the green flag while the express charges through it with hardly a passenger on its platforms. The structures still stand proud and speak of a bygone age.

    You should urge your father to write on the railways. I am sure it will be very interesting with his long years of experience and an insider's view.

    Thanks for the delightful post Meera and keep writing

  2. Christopher, the Indian Railways is a wonderful institution though it is struggling to meet with the current demands. I was once told by my father that the objective is to reach passengers "safe" never mind the compromises made with regard to punctuality. As you say, the Trinamool has done nothing except probably remove that infamous middle side berth introduced by Lalu. Yes, the old stations are really beautiful. The deserted villages beyond are unfortunately not so deserted these days - what with our population bursting at its seams!

  3. I would not have bothered much and anguished when I was much younger if fated to travel in similar cattle class conditions. In fact I have had quite a few such experiences.

    But now well, I will see such a travel unbearable.
    You seem to have a fair bit of patience.

  4. Meera,

    I really admire your courage to travel from Bombay to Hyderabad that way. You took right decision to have her company. Your second one is so hilarious as you had such free entertainment all the way in company of your interns. Indian Railways, if anyone from that organization reads this, may send you a bill for entertainment tax.

    Take care

  5. Super. Interesting and unforgettable experience. If we travel in the trains in India, we can observe lot of interesting stuff.

    Just one question regarding your Bombay to Hyderabad journey. You were in college and your dad was working for Indian Railways. This was not an “emergency” travel. Holidays after end of semester are pre-scheduled. Your dad is entitled to free passes. Being a senior officer, first class passes. How come he did not arrange a pass for you? Why do you have to “buy” a ticket?

  6. @ SG if you read carefully you will realize that I had bungled up the dates and had obtained a ticket two days later than the date of the journey (3rd para)

    @ Jack now don't give the Indian railways any more ideas to make money.

    @ Anil, patience is not my virtue either. It is just that sometimes humor is the only way to cope with a situation like the one I was in !

  7. It is a virtual torture.Imagine the need to go to a smelly toilet ine night wading through a mass of passengers.But then if you think of the mind boggling job of transporting lakhs of people and goods with such regularity in reasonabley comfortable way (except ofcourse un reserved class)the railways are doing an admirable job for a fraction of the amount charged by autosif you are lucky at 15 rupees a km!!!

  8. Iam a fan of Indian railways just for the sheer size of this establishment...but they have a long way to go in terms of hygiene and hospitality. But its improving for sure...

  9. blessings....
    Public travel is interesting, entertaining and enlightening in so many ways.

    You survived and with a story to share.
    thanks for sharing.

    stay blessed.

  10. That is such an ordeal! travelling unreserved..

    But every experience makes you wiser..

  11. Thanks KP for being that Indian Railways Champion!!!

    @ Ashok my father always said that the motto of the Indian railways was "safe travel" I guess they prioritized this over " on time travel"

    @ Aparna, it is only humour that will help you cope with that ordeal!

  12. Isn't it an experience?
    Some times it is humbling. But you get to see many characters (and tons of material for a blog post)
    I have yet to write about the travel I had from Ernakulam to Dadar (via Arkonam in those days) and I traveled STANDING for three days !!!!!

  13. Interesting experiences! Have traveled in the general compartment twice from Mumbai to Jaipur and once without ticket from Kolkata to Malda!!They were life teaching experiences!!:)


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