Thursday, May 12, 2011

Travelling on Second Class Sleeper, a Traveller without a Territory of His Own

We entrained at Panvel and I didn't know the travails of travel would
catch up so soon.

There was this need to define territories and borders, a lot of
perambulation around the

compartment, a lot of opening and closing of large bags. A man had a
tought time managing his five children. I felt sorry for him. Managing
one is such an ordeal, imagine having to cope with five. Some ordeal
this! We are bad travellers and don't plan our journeys, as was
obvious. Women with children were the most miserable. one had
odd-shaped underwears slung on the lever that holds the seat in place.
An assortment of bottles and tissues were resorted to, to keep the
young calf in good humour. She screamed all the while, a
disconcertingly piercing scream. Reminds me my son didn't scream when
he was small and we took him on holidays. But not children are also
differently enabled. I must remember.

People were finding their territories and defining them. Territories
that existed only in the mind. One was keen on using up all the space
available for his huge suitcases and a hundred small packets all of
which - I found later - contained snacks. My ticket was still under
reservation against cancellation (RAC) and therefore I didn't have a
seat to myself. All I had was a seat - no 39 - I shared with another
man. He had the right sleep on the seat at night, while I only could
sit on the seat. That was the arrangement. It's summer holidays and
these type of adjustments were quite common.

A man with a huge suitcase came and told me to vacate the seat I was
occupying since it was his confirmed seat. The way he asked for it was
quite rude as if he was willing to fight for it. I said he can sit
beside me and that at night I will let him sleep. "No," he says, "you
vacate the seat now." I become quite angry at this, being already
disturbed by the heat. I shout back, "I have a right to sit here. What
do you think?" Though I am a pacifist, I was willing to fight for my
rights for this piddling instance. I also didn't like the tone and
tenor of his voice. I dislike bullies. I have stood up to a lot of
them though it has made me unpopular. I don't mind being unpopular at
that.

Then wifey interferes. She has a similar shared seat with a friend's
wife who is travelling with us. I share their seat for a while.
Effectively I am without territory in the compartment. The sultry
afternoon is passing by in a scene filled with nostalgic green. I gaze
at brick and mortar houses, cattle sheds, bullock carts, winding
roads, the brilliant summer sun caught in the opalescence of
chlorophyll-filled leaves. A sense of liberation overcomes me as I
stand at the door of the train enjoying the passing luxuriance, the
essence of rural life which is fast becoming extinct in preference for
cities.

Then I talk to the man who had evicted me from my seat. I realise his
misadventure of the morning. He had taken a rickshaw from Bandra to
Kurla and in between the rickshaw broke down. By the time it was back
on the road and they reached Kurla the train had left. They then
engaged a taxi to Panvel. The taxi driver brought them on time to
entrain from Panvel but charged them Rs 400 more. He was in quite a
dither, so he had shouted at me. I shake his hand and assure him that
I didn't mind.

Then I become quite liberal and let him take my seat and he, his wife
and his young daughter take the side seat while I loiter near the
door. I usually travel by air-conditioned but I wanted to test the
sleeper class as my friend's wife was also travelling with us. The
romance of travel can only be experienced in an open compartment where
you can actually see the passing scenery through the open windows. I
had travelled thus in my childhood from Bombay and I realised it
brought back to me the long-lost romance of travel.

Travelling in my childhood was by steam engines. The steam was
generated by feeding coal into a furnace. So actually it was a coal
furnace engine and when it came near it resembled a beast with the
hiss of steam and the hot crackling of coal in the furnace. Some of
the coal escaped from the furnace and if I put my hand outside the
window there was a steady rain-like spattering of hot coals on the
hand. I became darker than I am after the two nights and three days I
spent in the train and my friends in Kerala would have difficulty
recognising me when I arrived.

Those were the halcyon days! These are the troubled times. Computers
are used to book tickets (we used to stand in queue for three days to
buy a ticket in those days), however there still is a shortage of
seats. There are a hundred trains and all of them go full to brimming.

(To be continued...)

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