November 16, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Roaming on the Rajdhani

4:15pm, Bombay Central. The platform is already crowded. Families with loud chips-and-Frooti-demanding kids, athletic-looking athletes carrying duffel bags and other odd-shaped bundles, an older couple arguing over buying a Stardust ("You just want to look at the pictures of those pretty women!" she says), and of course piles upon piles of luggage. It is Diwali season, and if this mob waiting to catch the Rajdhani is any indication, people are streaming out of Bombay for the holiday.

As are we.

About 4:30, the train backs slowly in. Everybody gathers their belongings and girds their loins. I remember the time we stood waiting similarly for a train at Khurda station in Orissa. As it rolled in, already overflowing, and as the crowd readied to fling itself at its doors, a man wandered over to us, held up an arm with one finger pointing ominously skyward, and pronounced in loud if sombre tones: "Sangharsh ke liye prastut rahiye! (Get ready for the struggle!)." Then vanished.

Nobody like that here today, but the crowd is certainly getting prastut for the sangharsh. Arguments over Stardust are long forgotten. When our 3-tier air-conditioned coach comes alongside, there is a quivering mass of humanity at its door, dozens of people fighting and shoving to make their way in. The winner is, miraculously, a portly man carrying a 2-year-old in one arm. I am second.

At the compartment where our berths are, I dump our two bags and kneel to push them underneath. I am stopped short in my endeavour by an outraged voice at my shoulder. "That's my seat!" it says. I look up to see a green-eyed young man -- must have been third into the coach -- pointing at his window seat. "You can't put your bag under my seat!" he says. Can this guy be serious, I wonder. After all, there's space for all our bags here, yet he wants me to move my backpack that I've just manoeuvred under where he is to sit. I shrug and move the thing a few feet to the left. Green-eyed man nods in satisfaction, slides a cardboard carton into the space I've just vacated, then sits down above it with an air of triumph. Ostentatiously, he pulls a mobile from his pocket, begins punching buttons with an air of serious and considered urgency. Tells whoever answers: "Aunty, main pahunch gaya train mein! [Aunty, I'm on the train!]."

He's not the only one. Up and down the coach -- up and down the train, I'm sure -- once they're through with the sangharsh and done with finding space for their bags, passengers on the Rajdhani display an odd collective tendency to announce their boarding success to assorted Aunties. The first of several Rajdhani rituals. What did they do before they had mobiles? In families, the phone is passed around for each member to tell Aunty that he or she made it on to the train. The question occurs to me, could it be one catch-all Aunty they're all calling on their mobiles? One fussy, demanding old lady, sitting at home in Goregaon, waiting for the calls to come in from the still stationary Rajdhani?

4:55pm, we're off. Within minutes, the attendants are bringing us Frooti and water bottles, snacks and blankets, coffee and soap-impregnated strips of paper, an endless stream of goodies we're not sure we really want anyway. One man takes our orders for dinner. Green-eyed man is still punching at his mobile.

Meantime, there's a measure of murmuring consternation in our compartment, because there are six berths but seven full adults here. The last man in was a skinny student, who lays claim to the other window seat. Unfortunately, a thickset retiree got there first; he says that seat is allotted to him. "I'll check with my friend in the next coach," says the student, "he has my ticket." As he disappears around the corner, the retiree announces self-righteously, complacently, to the silent lot of us: "Must have got his ticket by bribing someone. These people can do anything." It's not clear just what he means by "these people", but we let it pass.

But then the student is back with his ticket, and he's right, he does have the window seat. The retiree digs into his pockets to retrieve his ticket. Turns out he has indeed been allotted the same seat. But for a month from now. So much for "these people" and their bribes. Somewhat sheepish look on his face, retiree goes off to locate the all-powerful TC (ticket collector), see if he can allocate him a berth somewhere else. When he returns for his bags, I help him carry them to the berth, all the way at the front of the train. All the way there, he is unable to lose the sheepish look.

And when I return, green-eyed dude is still punching at his mobile. Now that we are well outside Bombay, he punches in apparent futility. "My papa would not let me get roaming," he says to nobody in particular. This seems to be a familiar term to mobile phone owners, because he gets a few sympathetic nods. Still, not having "roaming" is no deterrent to the punching.

Sahir takes me on a long walk through the train. Somewhere along the way, we discover what happens to all the trash that the Rajdhani attendants gather so diligently from us -- the Frooti packs, the foil off our dinner trays, the remnants of the snacks they have served us. One attendant opens the door of the coach and nonchalantly flings it all into the blackness that's rushing by.

Thanks, I tell him. Thanks for keeping the train so clean. He looks at me like I'm nuts. I suppose I am.

Sleep-time comes with much good-natured use made of that term that takes on a very particular meaning on trains: "adjust". As in, if you can't climb up to your assigned top berth, or you know your 6'3" frame won't fit in the slightly shorter side berths, no problem. Everyone knows -- assumes -- that you will be able to "adjust" with somebody in your compartment or the neighbouring one. It's the rare grumpy soul who refuses to cooperate, and he is rewarded with black looks and muttered comments.

Nobody like that in our compartment. In fact, green-eyed man redeems his early impression in overflowing measure by volunteering -- before we even ask him -- to give up his lower berth for Vibha and Sahir. Waving off our thanks with a shy smile, he clambers to the top and is soon asleep, though not before a final few despairing punches at his mobile.

Early the next morning, I wait long minutes behind another young man at the sink in the passage. Towel over his shoulder, toothbrush and tongue-cleaner in hand, accompanied by all manner of throaty and loud warbling, he attends to every single tooth that's in his mouth, and probably several that aren't too. Noisily intent on his ritual, he's oblivious of the growing line of bleary yet impatient passengers, all wanting their turns at hawking and spitting and brushing. Will this guy finish before Delhi, scheduled arrival 9:50am? I decide it's unlikely and return to my seat. It means my morning coffee will taste odd, but that's preferable to listening to interminable ablutions at the sink.

The attendants come through after breakfast (omelette, greasy finger-chips and toast, gingerly eaten). "Saunf lijiye, sahib," they say. The plate they hold out has a small pile of saunf (aniseed), but it also has the real reason for this particular Rajdhani ritual. Money. Tips. I remember last night's flinging performance at the door and I'm inclined not to contribute. But I do anyway. Hard to beat ritual.

By 9:15, the passage is clogged with luggage and standing passengers. All waiting to get off at New Delhi. Why stand for over half an hour just for the chance to disembark first? After all, it's not as if they won't allow us off if we don't make it in the first 25 seconds after the train halts. But this is one more of those rituals, and after several Rajdhani trips I know it will happen anyway. Besides, it's hard to ask questions. I'm third in line. The portly guy has beaten me to it again. And once again, we're all prastut for the sangharsh.

Behind me, our green-eyed friend chats with Sahir. Then he breaks off. Nearly yells: "Aunty, main pahunch gaya!" Almost simultaneously, I hear a stuttering chorus ripple through the coach. Many more Rajdhani passengers have established contact with the Aunties. Helll-ooo Delhi! Happy Diwali, all. Aunties too.

Dilip D'Souza

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