Killing time on the tracks

November 3rd, 2009

Never mind the smelly loos, the unhygienic food and the never-on-time schedules. If you were to ask me to choose between air and track, I’d go for the Indian Railways any day, and not just for romancing the countryside, or the fact that I can stretch my legs out even in AC-III, although I admit it was much more spacious a few years ago.

One thing that lends superiority to rail is the ease with which you can strike up conversations — and possibly friendships that won’t last beyond the journey, but who cares — with complete strangers (read fellow passengers–what were you thinking?). So unlike the stiff upper-lip environment in a plane.

Over the past few years, I’ve had a mix of quirky ones, budding geniuses and die-hard fans. I’m not going to be  Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes and say I enjoyed them all and they taught me life-changing lessons (as if!).. but yes, some of them make for fun memories.

Just last year, I shared space with a saffron-robed Iskcon devotee on a Delhi-bound train I was taking after college vacations. The first few topics of our conversation ranged from clothes to Gita, from German conferences he had attended to the life in JNU. So far, so good. It was at dinner time that I was exposed to a completely different facet of his personality. All that finesse vanished the minute I ordered chicken, and what I got for the cardinal sin of being a non-vegetarian was a high-decibel oral treatise on the theory of karma and the knowledge that I would be reborn as a miserable little worm, waiting to be eaten up by the very bird I was about to consume, in order to pay for my sin. Lecture over, the man just went off to sleep peacefully, while it took me more than several minutes to shut my own eyes.

On another journey, there was this human supercomputer, all of seven years old, who could rattle off the names of all the stations from Kolkata to Mumbai — and then some — before you could complete the English alphabet. His dad explained parts of the Holy Quran and compared the similarities with Bible and Gita. I’ll bet if this kid and his dad were on some reality show, they would have walked away with top honours.

I’ve had my fare share of wannabe politicians and politically inclined as well. Take this energetic, prim-and-propah lady on a short-distance train for instance, who boasted she was travelling ticketless. Had she forgotten to buy one? Not enough money? Could she outfox the TC? None of the above. Hers wasn’t an excuse by any stretch of imagination, but a style statement, if there ever was one–”I don’t ever buy tickets…I belong to the ruling party!”

Would the response have gotten her off the hook had the TTE come her way? I can’t say. But it certainly would have warmed my heart to see such arrogance nipped in the bud. Not the kind of feeling I and other co-passengers had for this man who was travelling to Bangalore (a two-night journey from home), and who was booked for enjoying senior citizen’s reduced fare. We all felt bad since he was going to turn 60 on the third day of his journey, but the TTE obviously came in on day one itself. Luck is never on the side of these people.

And, oh yes, what is rail travel without a discussion on Lalu Prasad? On one occasion there were these die-hard fans of the former Railway Minister who waxed eloquent for a good three hours and more about the things the man had done to make our lives more, er, liveable. And others who complained every time the train halted in an unscheduled stop. This is a train, dearie, not a bus where the driver can hear you and act accordingly!

One of the funniest experiences I’ve had was with this 60-something man who kept complaining about me to his family over his cellphone. He was speaking in Bengali, not knowing it was my mother tongue as well, but smiled everytime I looked at him. After an hour of being scrutinised and criticised, I calmly wished him “Shubho Bijoya”. The look on his face at that point, needless to say, was worth a million dollars. And no, he didn’t speak to me after that, thank goodness.

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