Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Second Bombay Trip Post, OR The Sub-Sleeper Classes

A veteran of many train journeys, I always knew that many of those who get up on a train compartment do not have reserved seats. Unlike certain ‘reserved’ passengers who cast cold looks and emit unfriendly grunts at their ‘unreserved’ brethren, I have even been uniformly accommodating towards them, moving up to make space and sharing my biscuits. This is perhaps because I have often been in their place myself: Vasudha and I were once Waiting List 131 and 132 on a train from Bangalore to Chennai, and on another occasion, five of us shared two and a half berths when returning from a field trip to North Bengal tea gardens.

But on the train to Bombay, I studied the phenomenon of unreserved travel more closely. I realized that there are hierarchies even among the unreserved. I call them, the Sub-Sleeper Classes.

Lowest in the hierarchy are those who have no tickets at all. They are mostly beggars and suchlike. They occupy the best seats in the compartment: on the floor right next to the open doors. The only drawback is that they get sprinkled with water by people who have just used the washbasin and are shaking their hands to dry them.

Above them are those who have tickets that entitle them to get up only on the General Compartment. Some of them (understandably) blanch at the prospect of a 36-hour GC journey and prefer to try their luck illegally in the relative comfort of the sleeper. They try to sidle into empty berths, and if you ask them for their ticket, they flourish it before your eyes very quickly, perhaps hoping that you won’t notice it’s not a sleeper ticket.

Higher still are the daily passengers with short distance passes. Their passes entitle them only to board express trains. To board, mind, and not to occupy seats. But these men are seasoned campaigners. Let them spot a small unoccupied part of a seat, and they home in on it and park themselves with a confidence that even we, legitimate ticket-holding travellers, are hard put to muster. But they travel only for a few stations.

Right at the top is the Waiting List brigade. Even among them there are subtle gradations: Waiting List 27 gets precedence over Waiting List 28 unless Waiting List 28 has bribed the TTE first. These hierarchies are jealously defended. The gentleman sitting next to us from Wardha onwards utilised every opportunity to advertise his status as Waiting List 9, making it abundantly clear that he would contest his claim with anyone in the double digits or higher. When a GC ticket holder (a whole two ranks below him) requested him to move up, the Waiting List man went on the offensive and completely demolished his rival. Himself a man without a reserved seat, he lashed out at the GC man, first in Hindi and then in Marathi, before sending him slinking back to his rightful compartment, humiliated and broken.

In other train-related news, they’ve introduced a side middle berth in some sleeper compartments. My Calcutta-Bombay trip was in such a compartment. I was on the side upper bunk. The ceiling’s so close, it’s like waking up in a coffin. And for the relatively simple operation of lowering the middle bunk for sleeping, they have a diagram so complicated it looks like the instructions for assembling Apollo 13. I wish I’d taken a picture of it so I could post it here.

Now I’m one of the staunchest fans of the Indian railways you are likely to encounter. One of my F.A.R.T.s (which Saha praised and everyone else hated) was in fact entirely about the Indian railways. But sometimes, they do things which sorely try my faith. Like introducing a side middle berth. Or not having dustbins in the sleeper compartments. But that’s a rant for another day.


Revolver said...

As I said, it's not dark and morbid poetry. And at three in the morning, that is good enough for me.

Doubletake, Doublethink. said...

given my eternal obsession with the indian railways, i automatically have to love this post.

i especially like the drunkards who lie asleep between the two toilet doors. it somehow makes me feel like i've surpassed many barriers when i finally reach the toilet, although that isn't saying much.

What's In A Name ? said...

and we faced people smuggling bottles of RS in their bags. One bottle broke and the entire compartment kept reeking of cheap whiskey .

Heady journey that was!

Pratiti said...

ah...i want to be on a train.
did you forget about the FARTs, btw?

Shrabasti Banerjee said...

yes yes, bring back the FARTs! what a fun post :D

Rahul Saha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sroyon said...

@Revolver: That's not saying much, is it?

@Doubletake: Ever seen drunkards sleeping IN the toilets? I've seen that too.

@WiaN: See? Everyone has a blog-worthy railway story to tell.

@Pratiti: Happy now?

@Shrabasti: Fun? Try sleeping on the new side upper and then talking about fun.

@Saha: I'm surprised you survived. Both of you.