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!)