I boarded the train from Bangalore with two bags and a smile, only to find that my ticket was for the previous day. Although I’ve been late for trains before, at twenty-four hours, this was comfortably a new record...
And so, after two weeks of living in four and five star accommodation, I found myself standing in a train compartment unlike any other I had seen up to that point. I was going to travel unreserved.
I placed my bags behind the door and surveyed the area half-heartedly for a place to sit. Surprisingly, many of the berths were vacant and for a few fleeting moments I had visions of myself sleeping comfortably till we reached Pune, while others jostled for space to rest at least half their backsides on the custom made wooden seats.
However, the minute I got within a few meters of one of these empty berths, huge hairy men began to leap from nowhere at me, their eyes conveying what I already feared- these berths were taken. Like lions defending their territory, the men were prowling the compartment, making sure other skinnier, impertinent males wouldn’t dare take over the places they had either reserved for themselves, or were planning to sell for money. I slinked back to my corner with my tail tucked in firmly between my legs, and the law of the jungle prevailed. This was clearly the survival of the fittest.
It had now become adequately clear that I would have to spend the next twenty hours crouched in the space between the main door and the sink. As I attempted to come to terms with the thought, I realized that there was another more pressing problem. One of the toilet doors was jammed. Lucky me. I now had a room with a view. And a smell.
I sat down and glanced at my watch. The time was 2:30 pm. There were exactly eighteen hours to go. I watched the trees and fields whiz past and took strange comfort from the fact that with each passing moment I was a little bit closer to home.
I soon noticed that the sink above my head was blocked and had now become a little pond, the water stained red with paan that people were spitting into it at regular intervals. I also noticed the looks of pleasure on their faces when the contents of their mouths made a splashing sound as it hit the water. Cheap thrills. Empty cigarette packs floated on the surface like dead fish. Pretty soon someone was going to have to put their hands in and unblock it, or the floor, which was already dirty, would soon be dirty and wet. I couldn’t believe things could get any worse.
Meanwhile the train kept moving, thankfully, at a decent speed and we had no lengthy hold-ups on the way, as is often the norm on these long journeys. About every hour or so we arrived at a station and I jumped out of my cramped space, eager to move my already aching muscles and to allow the blood to flow again.
But soon even this periodic exercise would prove futile as my body refused to make the change from five-star-bed to minus-ten-star-floor. By 6:00 pm I was starting to feel dizzy and I felt as if I had lost sensation in my left leg. A wave of panic rose inside me. I was twenty-four years old with no history of medical conditions. But for the first time that day, I wondered whether I would survive.
It was then that I noticed the little boy. It is strange how someone else’s suffering makes you realize how insignificant your own minor discomfort is. He must have been about twelve, but his eyes were those of an old man’s. I stared at them, those windows to his soul, and wondered at what they had seen. I glimpsed sadness in the one eye and defiance in the other as he pulled his tattered shirt off his back and began to sweep the floor. People shifted first their feet, then their faces, as he slowly swept the rubbish from under each seat, before stopping for the briefest moment beside each passenger to beg for some change. A few dropped coins into his grubby hands while others, as if on cue, began to tie and untie their shoelaces. The boy shuffled on, bent over by hunger and a deepening sense of resignation. His shirt was not the most effective broom, but when it is your only possession, what else can you use?
Watching the boy renewed my strength and resolve. I was going to make it after all, what was I complaining about? I looked out of the train, and felt the wind in my hair. It was then that we pulled into Raichur.
Now I’m not sure exactly what the population of this sleepy little town is, but it seemed to me as if every single resident was waiting to board the general compartment. They appeared to be fleeing, en masse, like rats fleeing a sinking ship. The train hadn’t even come to a halt before two of the more enterprising fugitives climbed over my head and got in. Minutes later, it was chaos.
Men, women, and children of all ages began to pour in, all yelling and screaming in a language that I probably would have understood if someone wasn’t standing on my ears. I just about managed to get out of the way as the crowds continued to appear out of thin air. I was sitting right under the sink now, and it was threatening to overflow any minute. The feeling of panic came back to me; after the briefest of interludes, my nightmare had resumed.
The most remarkable thing about those five minutes of madness was that while an entire city seemed to board our compartment, not one person got off. Not even one.
Just a thought: Do people know that you are allowed to get off the train at these stations? Did they think it was illegal to (shudder) disembark? Perhaps, I thought, if notices assuring them it was ok were put up in our compartments, the days of crowded trains would be behind us once and for all. I smiled at my own warped logic; I was losing my mind.
Meanwhile, I continued to sit under the sink, with my heart sinking down into my shoes. I realized that I had never seen the underside of a sink before. But the thought did nothing to improve my mood. In fact, for the first time, I contemplated getting off at the next station (to show people that it can be done) and walking the rest of the way. It can’t be that far, I would reach in a week. As soon as I managed to get rid of that crazy idea, the visions started up again. This time it was of me being carried away in an ambulance at Pune station, frozen stiff in the position I was sitting in now. They would strap on an oxygen mask onto my mouth and try to massage the life back into my lifeless limbs...
All my steely resolve was gone; I was going to die, in a general compartment of all places, sitting beside a drunken old man, and underneath an overflowing sink.
When I woke up, the sun was up, the old man was gone and the sink was empty. The train pulled in to Pune station at exactly eight am. The dirty platforms of the station had never looked as good as they did that morning. Wiping the grime from my face, I blinked in the sun. I was home.
I had slept for about twenty-five minutes through the entire journey and just the thought of my warm bed and soft pillow sent an intense rush of pleasure (or was it pain?) through my body. After twenty hours of wishing I were dead, it felt great to be alive. I got to my feet, half expecting to fall. I didn’t. I laughed out loud, mindful of the stares that the other passengers were directing at me. I didn’t care. The nightmare was over.
As I walked out into a waiting auto rickshaw it occurred to me that unless the fates conspire again, I would never have to endure such an ordeal again. Soon this will be just a slowly fading memory; another story to tell friends about, with more details added each time I told it.
But what of those for whom the ordeal never ends? Those countless millions for whom everyday is a recurring nightmare, from which they will never wake. For whom the entire world is a general compartment. And the end of one journey is merely the beginning of another.
I closed my eyes and went to sleep...I was too tired to think.