Monday, December 14, 2015

Travelling on Trains in India

I was on a train from Madgaon to Bengaluru. I stocked up on food and drinks for the train journey. I have a sleeper seat in the upper bunk, in a relatively less crowded coach. That is a good sign. Life is kind. As soon as you get into the sleeper coach, there is a ritual you must follow. You place your bag in one corner, lay out the bed sheet and pillow, and take all the things (books, laptop, food) you will need for the journey. Just before the journey starts, the coach starts filling up. This is when an experienced train traveler in India stays detached. It is chaotic and messy. Egos are hurt. Bags are thrown around. People fall. You just observe, or even better listen to music, so people do not know you are observing. If you try solving any of the train problems, then you will end up further aggravating it. You are no messiah. So shut up and stay seated.

"Sir, you are sitting on my seat."

Ma'am, can you please move your bags?"

"I have the window seat for this journey

"My family is here, do you mind taking a seat in another abandoned corner of the train, so that I can sit happily with my family here. It is only a 24 hour journey"
And more. If you have an upper seat bunk, you can just observe. It is almost like you are God. Silently observing, aware that we beings fight over the silliest of thing. But if you are in the lower bunk, prepare to be bugged at least a 100 times before the journey begins. Who causes most of the problems?

The people that travel on RAC, a Reservation against Cancellation Ticket. This ensures certainty of travel, but does not guarantee the ticket holder a berth. The ticket holder gets a berth, only if the person that has a confirmed ticket, cancels his trip. What are the chances of that happening? I mean which person in his right mind, would cancel a railway ticket that you have to hire three months in advance. Yet it seems like on every trip, there are at least a 100 extra RAC Passengers. The poor things just want to get to the next destination. They find an empty seat and they sit down. But what do you do, when you have a young person that has a confirmed ticket, and an old person that has an RAC ticket. Yes, the young person that booked his ticket three months in advance will have to give up his seat for the aged citizen. Yes, this must be done. You should give your seat to somebody that needs it more. But why in the world would you design a ticketing system where such a situation will arise? Why are there 100 extra RAC passengers on every journey. Well, I had an upper bunk today. I would not be a martyr.

But beyond all the problems of rail journeys in India, there is so much to look forward too. If you are the kind that likes observing people and their behavior in different situations, train journeys are a great place to learn. I remember observing a young couple and their baby son. The father had got a new smart phone and wanted to get the child to pose for a picture. The child was so excited, and kept walking around and bumping into people. The parents tried their best, to make the child stand stable for a year. But what was interesting was how unafraid, the little child actually was when he was around his parents. I thought about this situation, and wondered if it that was why little kids were so curious and explorative. It seemed like they had this innate awareness, that their parents, would be there for them, if they fell down. How did kids pick up and communicate a new language before the age of four? Was it because they had a safe environment, to explore and understand things around them? What happens when these curious, brilliant four and five year olds enter school. Are they allowed to fail at school, knowing that when they fall down, somebody will pick them up? Or are they considered a failure or given a low grade when they do not score well enough on a test? When a little children fall before the age of 4, nobody labels them. When little children fall after the age of four they are considered a bad student.

Another thing I noticed was how observant, little children are. The little child fell down and was about to cry. Then the mother picked her baby up and started laughing and making funny faces. When the baby boy saw his mothers face, he forgot about his pain, and started laughing as well. It seemed like he was trying to imitate his mothers face. Was that how kids learned. Through observing people around them and failing repeatedly. Why weren't they allowed to observe for long periods of time and fail repeatedly at school?

 Another highlight of train journeys, are the people you befriend along the way. An elderly man and his wife were sitting next to me. I introduced myself, and found out that he worked in the Gulf before this. Both his children grew up in Muscat and they were now married and settled with their own families. For the next three hours, the old man, told me some fascinating stories about his life upto then. He told me about, his first days as an engineer working in Africa. He spoke about his pakistani and filipino neighbors back in muscat. He was hard of hearing, so I had to speak out loud, when he had an inquiry. But he was filled with so much life. He retired now, and he and his wife decided to settle down in their home town in Goa. Even in this context, he had stories to share. The water supply was irregular, because of some pipe problems near his house. These problems persisted at several homes in the village. He often fought with the village authorities and servicemen to do their work properly. But he had a deep love for Goa and the place he grew up in as well. He got nostalgic and spoke about his childhood in Goa. 

The drinks, the food, the friends, the parties. I think I did not speak a word for the last two hours. It was so nice to shut up and just listen to another person for once. I always had to put forward a point in school. I never listened much. Quite an arrogant young man, I had become. Later in the night another individual, took his seat in our compartment. The old man was reading a gold smuggling article in a magazine he had brought in one of the stations. He started criticizing the bureaucracy and the government structure, saying that they did not do their job well at all. I just listened. At one point, he criticized the detective agencies working on the gold smuggling case. A little while later, the other man sitting in our coach introduces himself. He was part of the bureaucracy. He was from an indian detective agency, that worked for the government. We did not speak too much for the rest of the night.


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