May 8th – India’s train system

This morning we made haste along the railway line to Bangalore, India’s IT powerhouse and perhaps the most modern, clean city we had encountered so far in this country. Of course, no matter how pleasant and temperamental the city seemed, we remained in India and within the network of confusing, unintelligible and bureaucratic mess of the Indian train system. At the station we were greeted with the same chaotic scrum of passengers that seemed to loiter in and around the train station, both using and fuelling the micro economy that seems to cling to such hubs as these. Street hawkers sat outside the station peddling all manner of street snacks and bottles of water produced from rusting cool-boxes, while beggars with all manner of physical disabilities and deformities shuffled from group to group with outstretched hands.

Just as is often seen in the west, homelessness and begging seems to gravitate towards these large transitional hubs, both on the platform and on the trains themselves. Chai and samosa peddlers paced up and down the train platforms babbling their repetitive call to potential customers (“samosa-samosa-samosaaaa”) and disabled beggars perform the same shuffle along their backside up each carriage or waiting lounge, scrubbing the mucky floor around them with a black rag before extending a palm to the seated commuters above them.

Alec and I wound our way through this morass outside the station and made our way into the booking hall to secure our onward overnight journey to Hampi that evening. It was a busy day and several queues stretched out in front of us and towards various booths on the far wall. What queue to choose? The Indians particularly enjoy dividing their queue systems across various categories of how passengers can divide themselves; as people that were not old or war veterans or disabled or government workers or any other division of Indian society, we opted for the largest queue, from which all manner of people were gravitating towards by the minute. We flipped a coin. I won the toss. We agreed to meet at the far wall of the hall, over by the two western guys we had just spotted. As I pushed through the crowd towards them, Alec made his way to the back of the long queue. Good luck to you, I thought.

As I approached the two guys, they sported an air bafflement that I was feeling myself. The two Americans had only recently stepped off the plane from Indonesia and had spent the past month in the rainforest. How was it, I asked? Real nice, they said, with an air of absent nostalgia, before tailing off into a shell-shocked silence as they stared at the chaos of the thronging hall. Before the reminiscence had too long to sink in, the other guy piped up:

“Dude, do you know how to these ticket systems work?”

“No I don’t. I was just about to ask you the same question. Have you got one?”

“Yeah, we spent an hour queuing for a ticket to Mumbai, but all we got was this…thing.”

He produced from his pocket what looked like a large lottery ticket. On it, a baffling collection of letters and numbers was arrayed across a template of printed categories. The identifiable features were limited to ‘Third Class reservation’, printed along the top and a large number ‘46’ printed along the bottom. My friend explained that the clerk behind the desk had sold this to them for a few hundred rupees, but – from what they had understood – this did not guarantee them a seat at all, but simply allowed them onto the train, from which there was no further elaboration on how their three-day journey would work out beyond that. Having heard it explained back to me, the previously nostalgic American roused himself, as if resurrecting an argument with his friend:

“Dude, I’ve told you, I am not standing for a three day train journey! Have you felt my bag?!”

Whilst comparing notes with the Americans, I periodically peered over the sea of heads to see where Alec had reached. In time, he progressed to the head of the queue and begun conversing with the attendant. The conversation continued longer and longer. I saw the attendant gesture and point. I saw Alec press his ear to the small talking hole in the Perspex booth against the throng of the noisy sweaty, hall. The attendant continued to gesture. Soon enough, he made his way back across the sea of people and towards us, looking hot, bothered and confused. He brandished two small pieces of paper and thrust one towards me:

“I think I might have bought a lottery ticket instead of a train ticket!”

He regaled a similar story as our American counterparts had just done. Apparently the Indian train system is so over-used that train seats are over-sold as standard. Delays, strikes, unclaimed tickets and other unexpected problems means that potential missed passenger connections are incorporated into the existing system, so that almost everyone is sold a seat or a berth on any given train, even if such a seat or berth is not, at that point, available. Instead, a waiting list system is used, so that any no-show passengers do not waste their seat and it is dispensed on to the next recipient on the list, all of whom have submitted addresses, phone numbers and everything else into the bureaucracy system. It didn’t sound like an idea system, especially when we found a large ‘94’ and ‘95’ on the bottom of each of our tickets. Did that mean that there were ninety people ahead of us in the queue for a sleeper berth that night?

Our train was not for another seven hours. Soon enough, we would find out.

***

Bangalore provided a revealing insight into the new India that world is becoming more and more acquainted with. It is at the forefront of India’s IT revolution, being full of offices, technology firms and universities. As India continues to grow as a global economy, Bangalore will continue to exist as a strong player in the Indian IT maturity. Where the call-centre has become a stereotypical feature of India’s modern role in the world economy, India’s IT sector has become of world standard thanks to the expertise and English-speaking abilities of the sector here.

As such, it also served as a great pit stop for us. The city, rich and fascinating as it was, liberated us from the prerogative of soaking up the cultural sites to be seen in any given city – Bangalore had none. Instead, we went to the cinema to watch Iron Man and then lazily made our way back across town towards the train station. It certainly did feel rather strange trudging back across Bangalore’s busy central district with our heavy bags. As we passed clubs and open-fronted bars, it was hard to shake the element of role reversal of the situation: For once, I felt poor, excluded and shabby as I stood in road watching well-dressed, attractive Indians eat, drink and dance to last year’s western chart hits and enjoy disposing of their disposable income in expensive bars and restaurants. This was a vivid moment. For once, the shoe was on the other foot.

Outside the train station, the chaos had largely subsided. Instead, groups of tourists slept in neat rows on the train station forecourt in the cool evening, many with shawls and sarees wrapped around their faces against the flies and mosquitoes, which provided the unshakeable impression of us tip-toeing our way through an open-air morgue.

The platform, however, was as busy as it had been. The train was being loaded up by hundreds of pairs of hands passing packages of food and kisses through the open-barred windows of the train to their families within. Porters dashed up and down the platform with packing boxes and hastily-bound suitcases tottering from their heads as they wound through the crowds. Ticket collectors strolled officiously along the platform, sternly umpiring the proceedings with ticket clippers and various other implements hanging from their belts. We showed our tickets to one of them, who – with an expression of irritation that he had been interrupted from his strolling – pointed down the platform.

“Coach six.”

Coach six was as busy as the others. However, taped to the side of the coach was a printed list of small names, several feet long, reaching halfway to the floor. Sure enough, our names did appear next to one another halfway down.

Closer inspection revealed, however, that we were less than ten names from the top of the waiting list for berth allocations, meaning that we, along with the hundreds of names below us, had failed to secure sleeper berths or any kind of seat on this train. To the credit of the system, the eighty or so people before us on the list had actually managed to secure berths within this apparently chaotic and jumbled bureaucracy. There was, it seemed, method in the madness.

However, this did not aid our situation. As the train began to slowly pull away from the platform, carriage six was a throng of bustling families settling themselves into their seats, pushing bags into overheads racks, passing small children to one another and unpacking silver pots of food and chapattis wrapped in plastic bags. It seemed that the entire train had been divided into sets of seats which each family unit was now occupying. Feet, sarees and sacks dangled from various hooks and seats while small children peeped from around luggage and shoulders at us. We picked our way through the noisy, dimly lit throng.

Eventually we found a space large enough for ourselves and our oversized bags to sit. But as we sat, the family that had occupied these berths exchanged glances, as if this was not in the script. We both knew that this unscheduled incursion onto their space was not to end well. After all, it was about bed time.

As if on queue, the father of the family jumps into action as he busied himself and his family to unfold the beds that are racked up side-long against each wall of the cubicles. He practically clapped his hands to shoo us away to some other family’s berth. In time, we found another free space to squeeze ourselves, hoping that this new family weren’t so into their early nights. This family also promptly began to unpack their berths, sending us away. One by one, this pattern was repeated as we moved from berth to berth, until the whole carriage appeared to be unpacking their beds and turning in as we arrived in their vicinity.

Just as we were stood in the corridor wondering where else we were going to be ejected from, a train conductor as stern as the previous one we had encountered told us to move along. Fortunately, he was not advising that we exit the train, but rather that we upgrade our seats. Of course we would upgrade our seats! Why on earth hadn’t we done that earlier, I found myself wondering.

After the guard’s quick re-scribbling of our tickets, we were led through from the sticky, hot second class carriages and into a cool, quiet, dimly lit AC sleeper carriage for a small fee. We had beds, linen and a towel to send us on our way, too. The contrast was all the more pleasant after having psyched myself up for a night sat asleep outside the stinking toiled just a few meters away, beyond the sealed carriage door that kept the cool air in and the toilet stench out. It was a great night’s sleep indeed.

***

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