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Dominic Xavier's sketch
65 Hours to Bombay
... the joys of travelling second class

A Ganesh Nadar

Kurumbur station is about 80 miles from Kanyakumari, the southern tip of mainland India. Itís normally deserted, though eight trains do pass through this station every day.

Today, being Saraswati puja, the station was decorated colourfully and there were plenty of kids waiting for the prasadam. This consisted of chana or chick peas) and payasam or pudding. We were half way through the puja when the train gave a shrill yell.

I charged out of the station masterís office and gathered my baggage. The station master came out more leisurely and gave me a disappointed look. "The train cannot leave without my signal. You didnít have to run out without completing your prayers." I told him that god would understand and boarded the train.

There were two ladies travelling with me with a small baby. The train made a lot of noise as it started on its way. It was 1 pm and very hot. The train stopped every 10 minutes and one or two passengers got in or out. We reached Tirunelveli junction in an hour-and-a-half. A bus takes only an hour. I went to the Ďhotelí in the station for lunch. I had curd rice, which was very filling, for just Rs 5.

Dominic Xavier's sketchThe Nellai Express to Madras arrived half -an-hour later. It took another 30 minutes for an engine to shunt and couple our coach to the Nellai Express.

The train started at 3 pm and it would reach Madras after 18 hours. We had to go all the way to Tenkasi in the west to turn to Madras in the north. This is because there is no metre gauge track straight to Madras. They are being converted to broad gauge for the last three years. It was a tedious journey. The rains have played truant for the past two years and the terrain was dry and lifeless. In an hour-and-a-half the train reached Tenkasi. Tenkasi means South Kasi and there is a huge Shiva temple here. Itís also famous because eight kilometres away is the famous Courtallam falls where tourists flock by the thousands in the months of July-August every year.

We passed through Sankarankoil, famous for its Shiva temple, Rajapalayam famous for its dogs, Sivakasi famous for its crackers and presses. Sivakasi is also infamous for the fact that counterfeit American dollars were apparently printed here once. The forgers got away unscathed by arguing that there was no law in the land that prevented them from printing dollars. It was only after this case that a new law banning forgery came up.

Five minutes before Virudhunagar, the canteen man turned up. He promised chapatis, rice and curds for Rs 13. I placed my order. Virudhunagar arrived and, 15 minutes later, there was no sign of the canteen man so I bought curd rice and got into the train. Just before we left, the canteen man delivered my meal. I ate that meal too. The baby started crying. The mother mixed some baby food and picked up the flask to pour hot water. The train lurched. The flask crashed. The poor baby had to wait for an hour for her supper.

At Aruppukottai, I had a difficult time getting hot water for the child. I closed all the doors at night, since there were very few passengers in the compartment.

The night was uneventful, and when I woke up, the train was running an hour late. The ladies were very hungry but we had to wait till we reached Chengalpattu at 9 am. We had some idlis and vada for Rs 9. The ladies were shocked. In my village, idlis cost 50 paise and a vada, Rs 1.

We reached Madras Egmore at 10 am. The rickshaw drivers outside the station must be the biggest crooks this side of the Suez. They were demanding astronomical amounts to go short distances. I walked half a mile before I found a rickshaw who would take me without an argument.

Madras Central station was crowded. A contrast to Egmore. The electronic board which provided departure and track information was not working. I stopped at the enquiry window which, strangely enough, was manned by cops. "Which is the right track for the Bombay Mail?" I asked. He pointed upwards. I looked up at the sky . But I could only see the very high roof of the station.

I looked at the cop. He again gestured upwards. I looked heavenwards but God wasnít obliging . I looked irritated. The cop screamed, "Look at the board." There was a small board just above his head that announced that the train was on platform number 9.

I found my seat, deposited my luggage and got off for a cup of coffee. Nescafe had installed a coffee machine and the coffee was drinkable. The train started 10 minutes late. I had a middle berth. I requested the ticket conductor for a lower berth. He ignored me. Two passengers who did not have a reservation gave him Rs 100 and he immediately allotted them two berths.

I was shocked . But I put in my request again. He gave me a dirty look and I returned it with a pleading look. He gave me the lower berth and I gave him Rs 20. He looked at it with total distaste. I was hoping he would return it. But he put it into his pocket very reluctantly.

I fell asleep. At 2 am, I heard a loud noise and woke up. About 10 fellows, all bald, boarded the train. I wondered whether I was dreaming. Then I realised that we were in Renigunta. This is the station on the main line nearest to Tirupathi. Most of the pilgrims who visit the Venkatachalapathy temple at Tirupathi shave their heads as an offering to the lord.

A man got in with his wife. Then, he jumped off and started screaming at another guy on the platform." Just because I am leaving, you think you can threaten me ". He weighed about 90 kilos. And the other man was easily 110 kilos. It seemed as if they were about to come to blows. I charged out of the train and coaxed the traveller inside. I got a smile from the wife. The train started and I fell asleep again.

At 6 am, there was a man standing next to my left ear, screaming, "Hot tea." Needless to say, I woke up. I bought the cup. But it tasted like hot drain water. I threw it away and looked for the seller but he had gone away. The horrible taste hung around my mouth for two hours till I found another tea vendor. But breakfast was four slices of bread and two eggs. Luckily, they still havenít found a way to spoil the taste of fried eggs.

My neighbour was telling everybody who was willing to listen that he was a close relative of Haji Mastaan, the famous smuggler of yesteryears. I was feeling lazy, so I didnít ask him why a relative of the great man was travelling by second class. I started thinking about lunch. I tried out the sandwiches. My fellow passenger had ordered poori bhaji. He got the poori bhaji along with a plate of rice and egg curry. He was startled. He told me that he was a strict vegetarian from Rajasthan and he couldnít eat eggs. I protested a moment and then ate the rice and eggs. One mustnít waste good food.

After lunch we all decided to sleep and, while we were sweating and trying to doze, a hoard of people entered at some station or the other and squeezed themselves onto our seats. There were two men, three women and six children. All our pleas about the slight shortage of space fell on deaf ears. They just refused to budge. I couldnít find the conductor. And nobody was ready to physically throw them out. We bore the situation in silence for a few hundred kilometres or so.

Fortunately, at 6.30 pm, the train reached Sholapur, Maharashtra. I hopped off and found the office of the head ticket collector. He explained that there were only two conductors for the entire train and they would come in due course.

I spied one of them later on the platform and ran huffing and puffing towards him. "Are you working on this train?" I asked. He glared at me. Then he puffed out his chest and growled, "I am the ticket collector for the air-conditioned coach." I was suitably chastised. I donít know why the ticket collectors of the AC and first class coaches consider themselves above others. But I gave up and retreated in resignation.

Dinner at Kurduwadi an hour later was good. I tried to sleep. It was a bit difficult. I was scared that I would get robbed. At midnight, the train reached Pune. The elusive ticket conductor entered with about 50 guys in tow. They made a lot of noise. The passengers looked alarmed. But nobody dared protest.

The conductor checked our fellow travellers who had been plaguing us the whole day. Among five adults and six children, there were precisely two tickets only. And they did not have any money to boot. The conductor ordered them off the train. They scurried off to the general coach where reservations are not required. Perhaps tickets are not required either.

Dominic Xavier's sketchThe ticket conductor collected Rs 500 from each of the gang of fifty and left the coach. Now, instead of five adults and six children cramping up the coach, we had 50 new illegal squatters.

The newcomers made themselves at home on the vacant berths, in the corridor, in the aisles between the seats and even under the seats. The three-tier coach become a four-tier coach. We remained mute. The trains traversed the ghats and it became cold. I awoke as the train passed through Kalyan. And we reached our destination Ė Dadar, Bombay -- at 5 a.m.

I had left home on Friday at 12 noon and reached Bombay on Monday morning after seven lunches, four dinners and three breakfasts. It had been a tiring journey. Next time, I promised myself that I would take the direct train from Tirunelveli. At least it had a pantry car!

Sketches by Dominic Xavier

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