The trip that wasn't
One upon a time long long ago….there was a bunch of MBA students who decided to go on a long journey....
Many years back when we were in MBA school, we decided on the spur of the moment to go to IIM Calcutta for an inter MBA school festival that they were going to have.
A lot of debating, shilly shallying, yes-no happened and till the penultimate day, we were still not decided who should go to represent the institute, and chances were that finally it would be a no-show from our end. Then we got news that IIM Lucknow was having a fest at the same time, and two of our colleagues had gone by flight to attend it. This sparked off our resolve and we decided that we would go to Calcutta
Finally it came down to three people who were willing to go – Me, Chinmay and the great man – Anand “Cute” Kute. The obvious question was “how?!!!”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Chinmay, with the smug assurance of the seasoned traveler (a complete sham, as we discovered later) “We’ll just take tickets in black, or take an open ticket and go in the general compartment.” He made it sound as if reservations, berths and all that kind of stuff were for wussies. In our innocence (and hope) we swallowed that line, and turned up at the Bombay VT train terminus that evening with bag and baggage, having wished our surprised folks a cheery good bye.
Words couldn’t describe our swagger as we came to VT, we were the chosen ones, from a premier MBA institute, and were embarking on an amazingly adventurous journey. We were looking down our noses at the proletariat who were rushing hither and thither to get tickets or find their berth.
Soon it was time for the first reality check. It turned out that due to some problem or the other, trains for Calcutta had been canceled for the past 3 days, and out of the 3 trains scheduled today, 2 had been canceled. So the entire load of 3 days (9-10 trains) had come on to one train, and VT was looking more like a flood or riot refugee camp than a train terminus. Any way, like those who rush in where angels fear to tread, we did not understand the import of that situation.
As per Chinmay's instruction, we started looking out for a tout. Strangely, the atmosphere seemed entirely toutless. Generally they are all over the place, and bother you, and get in your way, but here we had to look around quite a bit until we found one. Anyway, we found one finally.
“Kahan jaana hai?”
That answer seemed to throw him a bit. He pondered a bit and said, “Hmm… AC ticket is possible...”
We all had some 500-600 bucks in our pocket, so AC was out of the question.
“No, we want 2nd class tickets”
The tout looked at us, looked around at the huge, milling crowd and started laughing, and went away.
We were a bit taken aback at the failure of the first strategy, but we were not to be defeated. We shifted to plan 2 - an open ticket. After standing for what seemed to be an interminable time, we finally reached the counter and became the proud possessors of 4 open tickets to Calcutta at the cost of Rs 152 each. We were very happy about the bargain – cheap travel, save money.
The train had not come in to the station yet, the track was looking empty and forlorn. The platform was really packed. We were wondering how to enter the general compartment, seeing the huge crowd, full of rough and dangerous looking characters. Seeing us standing there, a coolie came along. He was an imposing figure – tall, sinewy, paan chewing, slightly drunk – looked totally homicidal.
“Kidhar jaana hai?”
“Want a seat?”
Seat? We had thought that there was no reservation in an open class bogey. But Chinmay, the great traveler, told us what he meant.
“Arre, these guys have a total Mafia going. They enter the train first and grab seats, beating up anybody who tries to sit there. He will get us the seat, but keeping it is our problem.”
Oh. Good. We bargained the rate at 30 bucks per seat, and were again pleased with ourselves at the economical way in which we were traveling.
Soon the train finally arrived, and a sea of humanity flung itself at the general compartment. Words cannot describe the bedlam, desperation and agony of that rush. Though as Bombayites we are phlegmatic about such things, and proudly show the world how we enter and exit out of the madly packed local trains every day, this was something out of our league. However, we fought gamely and managed to make our way into the bogey in the first lot, and sure enough, our Mafioso coolie was standing on a berth like a colossus, warding off all comers.
It was a surreal scene - the lights were not on in the compartment, it was full of smoke for some reason and the noise of the platform was dimmed inside the bogey. It was a strange, dark scene with various coolies and other thugs standing on seats and screaming away like demons. It reminded me of Tolkein's description of Sauron’s forge “This was the centre of Sauron's power on the middle-earth and all other powers were here subdued”. We made it to him and nearly got clouted by him before he recognized us. Finally we got the seat; he collected his money and vanished.
Four of us were sitting scrunched up on a berth made for three, when suddenly another ruffian came along and started to seat another guy next to us. Anand, our muscleman, objected.
“What is this? The seat is full and we have paid for it”
“Shut up!” he responded. “This seat is for five”
Anand flexed his muscles and said, “We will not allow him to sit”
The ruffian immediately jumped on the seat, and before we could realize what was happening, reached up and broke the over head bulb with this fingers, took out a jagged fragment of glass and brandished it in Anand’s face, causing him to blanch and quietly deflate like a balloon with a large hole in it.
“Cool, man, cool……by all means let him sit.”
All of us were huddling in our seats, awed by this raw display of aggression and brutality. The guy was plainly willing to slit our faces into shreds if we argued, and one glance of the crowd showed that there would be no help forthcoming. He sat the guy down next to us, and he slipped the ruffian some money, which plainly the ruffian found unsuitable. He grabbed his client by the collar, put the glass piece to his face and showed him his hand, which had got cut while breaking the bulb, and menacingly said,
“Old man, I cut my hand while breaking the bulb. Any natak out of you, and I will put these cuts on your face.”
The man paid up without a word.
Soon, the thugs left the compartment, and left it to the travelers. The only people there were either those too poor and ignorant to afford reservation, or those desperate to get to their destination. It was amazingly crowded, like a Virar local in rush hour. People were sitting 5 to a berth meant for three, five on each overhead luggage rack, sitting on the floor between the berths, on the causeway. It became so packed that I could not move my led from one position to another. I had to request the people in front of me to move so that I could shift my leg by a few degrees.
Phir bhi, all in all, we felt it was OK. A few hours of discomfort and we would be in Cal. Unfortunately, the railway authorities did not share our optimism. The train remained where it was. For 3 hours. And people were streaming in all the while. Where they were getting space god only knows, but we could see people entering the bogey. We thought it had reached maximum extent of overcrowding, but it just went on and on.
Finally, the train shook it self and started moving, a palpable cheer went through the crowd. The train staggered out of the platform and again stopped. We were rather taken aback. Well, we shrugged to ourselves; at least no more people are getting into the damn train. Knowledgeable people started talking about damaged tracks and slipped points (whatever that means) and that’s why the train was late.
Suddenly Kute looks at me.
“I have to piss”
“Congratulations. There’s no room to move an inch. Just hold it”
“Hold it? How? I have to piss.”
I passed him our (now empty) bottle of water. He looked at it.
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Don’t be silly” he got exasperated.
I shrugged and looked out of the window. Suddenly there was a rushing moment by my side, and when I looked there, Cute had vanished!! I was foxed!! Where the hell did he go?
“Here” came a voice from above, and I looked to see that Cute had done a pull up on the luggage rack and was swinging from bar to bar like Tarzan!
“Hold my seat for me….” Came his voice as he took his aerial route. After a few minutes he came swinging back. Our neighbour was trying to doze, but the movement woke him, and he got a huge shock as Cute crashed, apparently out of mid air, into his seat.
“Never mind,” said Kute consolingly, “go back to sleep.” Turning to me he said, “Arre, there was a whole family inside the loo. They wouldn’t shift when I told them to, so I had to piss over their head into the bowl.”
Sometime during this, the train had started to move, and was limping along like an arthritic old man, and finally huffed and puffed its way into Dadar station. There the crowd was even worse, and more jam-packed, as the platform area is lesser. I couldn’t believe it, but I saw even more people jam themselves into the train!
The crush was unbelievable. Not an inch could be seen of the train, except for glimpses of the roof. The rest was one solid pack of sweating humanity, many of them illiterate Bengalis bound for Calcutta. There was one guy who was looking half-dead. He was hanging on to the bar, and swaying with each movement of the train. ‘What’s the matter with him?’ we asked his companion. The companion was happily chewing away on a wad of tobacco. ‘Oh, him?’ He answered nonchalantly, ‘He’s got jaundice.’
Jaundice? Then why is he traveling?
He is going to Calcutta for medical treatment.
Medical treatment? The world comes to Bombay for treatment. Why are you taking him away from Bombay?
Apparently he would take treatment only from some quack in his village.
There was another guy near him, who was in equally bad shape. He was something hanging on to the bar, and every now and then, his eyes would roll up and we could see only the white in his eyes.
And what’s the matter with him ?
Oh him? He’s got TB. He was going to Calcutta to see the same quack. You see, they are from the same village.
Wonderful, we thought.
After some time, Chinmay started crinkling his nose. There was a funny smell in the air. Very familiar…..what could it be……..
“KEROSENE” someone shouted, and the crowd cleared somehow, like the Red Sea being parted by Moses.
Sure enough, there was a huge puddle of kerosene on the floor. One guy was carrying all his worldly possessions in a gunnysack, and the stove inside it did not have a fuel lid, and all his kerosene had leaked out on the floor. Everybody started shouting at it, but being a bewildered villager, he just looked at them and said nothing, did nothing.
All 4 of us were silent, but I was just thinking of the crush and sheer impossibility of getting out in case of a fire, when the guy in the overhead rack calmly pulled out a beedi, and lit a match!
All of us whirled around, and Chinmay shouted, “Are you crazy? There’s a kerosene spill and you are lighting matches?!!!”
The guy calmly blew out a cloud of smoke and said, “Not to worry saa’b! This happens all the time….”
Finally a Bengali traveler spoke to the villager in Bengali and managed to get him to mop up the spill, keep his stove upright, and throw away the remaining kerosene.
After several stops and delays, Kalyan junction came into view. Remembering the experience of Dadar, some travelers closed and bolted and the doors. Sure enough there was another mammoth crowd at Kalyan as well. They were already exasperated by the delays and cancellations, and when they saw the bolted doors, they just went mad. The whole crowd burst upon the train like an army besieging a castle – hammering and banging on the doors and cursing away with all the profanities they knew, involving the ancestry of the people inside, their sexual preferences, their profession etc. one guy came to our window and cursed us and demanded we open the door. Chinmay retorted, “I can’t move an inch in here, how do you expect me to get to the door?”
“Kutte, @#@#$%, E%#$%$#%, main tujhe dekh loonga…”
Suddenly, some weak minded person opened the door and the crowd streamed inside and started whacking that poor fellow.
“Is this your father’s train, you bastard?”
“You son of a…$#@%”
“But I only opened it for you…” the poor chap tried to say.
“Who told you to lock it, you @#$$%?”
It was now nearly 8 hours since we had sat in the carriage. It was clear that the normal journey of 36 hours would now take 4-5 days, and the train was due to pass through Bihar and UP. We had little food, no water and limited money.
Quietly and shame facedly we got up, and when the train finally limped into Kalyan after an hour and a half, we fought our way to the door and struggled out of the train.
AAAHHHHH!! What a relief!! It was like a baby getting out of the womb.
We gorged on omelet pav and hot tea at the platform and took the early morning local back to town.
Thus ended the trip that wasn’t.
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!