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February 12, 1997


The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Indian Railways

... and the profile of your fellow traveller

Nader Parakh

Such is life, and such is the human race. Wise words these, specially since they don't mean anything. But they come to mind, so they must be written.

Having written them, an effort must be made to give them meaning. So life, in this case, is a train journey. It's a four hour journey, between two cities. Life is also, essentially, a box. In this case the box is a second class, non-AC compartment, secretly coded on the outside as "SC2".

Why are these details necessary? They are not.

What does the human race have to do with this life? Read on if you must.

Single Mother

Enters with children, in various stages of hysteria. Hyperventilates if she can't find her seats within the first 10 seconds of boarding. Bleats out commands, often senselessly. On sitting, proceeds to kiss one child, slap another, remove her chappals, put her legs up and stroke the soles of her feet. Loves buying film magazines, though she can't read them because the kids want Gems which she won't buy for them, resulting in mass chaos.

Initial tension about seat arrangements turns to irritation with the kids, smoothing out into a period of calm (as children sleep, having out-screamed themselves) and finally climaxing in utter confusion. As the destination approaches, all the kids want to answer various calls of nature separately, water is spilt, a bag is dropped and there is no coolie in sight.

Proud Papa Accompanies Single Mother

No problem for Proud Papa. In this scenario he must, on sitting, immediately impart education insights to his pack, showing his knowledge of the world, the ways of people, life. Soon the children are fed up with this unwanted patronage, and may choose to spit, kick or urinate on him. At which point, he suddenly realises that Single Mother is not suffering as much as usual, and throws all the children back onto her.

His work done, he needs a cigarette.

Single Papa

But the alternative scenario is quite different. Proud Papa looks terrorised: alone with children, what to do? Maybe incessant babble will help, so Papa launches off into a detailed explanation on the railways: train timings, signals, the nitty-gritty of railway life all pour out to him in a desperation to stall the rising flood. But the inevitable must occur, the dam must break.

Slowly his world must collapse, as the kids bore of the railways, their father, life, and crawl all over him, or mistake his gently protruding paunch for a punching bag. His time is running out, his stock of railway information is almost over. Desperation, a prayer, thoughts of Single Mother come to mind.

But the battle is lost, mayhem reigns. He begs, he cajoles, he buys cart loads of Gems, Cokes, candy, everything. Ensures that the end result of this journey is continuous dental treatment for his brood, their lives marred by root canals, their mouths forever scarred by cavities, as dentists further flourish.


Enters, pen in hand. One thought on his mind -- What fantasy will he draw on the toilet walls today? Will it be the one where he.... well, never mind. That's for later. For now, checks out the compartment. Slithers to his seat very carefully, making sure to rub himself against every object of interest. Takes his seat, opens a crossword, proceeds not to look at it. Alternates between direct, hungry-eyed letching and indirect, downcast-eyelid-but-roving-eyeball letching. Visits toilet often.

End of the journey: depression strikes. There's this woman in the third row, he's drawn her so well in the toilet but he can't summon up the courage to talk to her. And one more thing, mid-journey he must eat a huge amount of batata wadas.

Lovers: The New Generation

The Bold and the Beautiful has forever altered for this generation their Indian Values of Decency. Enter together, sweaty palms entwined. Search for their seats with disgust (that they cannot be alone in this compartment, why can't the other 102 passengers have travelled on other trains?) and with a look of intrepid adventurers (Yes, we love each other. Yes, we would die for each other, come to think of it we're dying to eat chikki).

As the journey progresses, lover-boy makes his railway moves. Pushing his Madhuri Dixit against the window, his arm gradually strangling her in a serpentine grip, he coos into her ears, words of a song he once knew, but now, in this moment of ardour, can't clearly recall, "Tell me how I am supposed to live without you". Their mood, at the end of the journey, depends on which equation they will be following on disembarking: Home Alone, or Your Place or Mine.

Railway Regular

Enters briskly, takes out handkerchief, wipes seat, throws himself into seat, flings out newspaper, orders tea, unbuttons collar, this man is in charge. His look now changes to one of brevity, as he realises that the time has come to make one of the Multiple Choices of Life. Either he has to open out his shoelaces, lean back and scratch his underarm with a "Ssss.... Kya garmi hai boss", or he must find a waiter whose back he can slap, with a, "Arre Samant, train time pe hai kya?"

Having made and implemented his Choice, he has completed the mandatory requirements of a daily traveller, and passes the rest of the journey in virtual somnolence, or joins a raucous card-playing group. His big moments, however, are when something goes wrong mid-journey and the train suddenly stops. At such times he knows his responsibilities to this beast in which he spends eight hours a day. He is the captain, the master. Instructions fly, contacts are established, the passengers want an explanation and only he can get it.

He returns to his seat, under the hopeful gaze of the entire compartment. The Hour of Judgment is here, and our Railway Regular God will deliver it with dignity. "Shee..." he spits out, his voice cutting through the expectant hush like a knife. "Derailment ahead. Now full night we will be on the train only." At which point the "arre baap re" combined sigh of resignation of his loyal dependents dies down only because the train instantly jerks back into motion.

Such is life.

If you'd like some information on travelling on Indian trains, why don't you click here.