How many of us have traveled on a train in India before? I believe all of us, have.. Now, how many of us have traveled without reservation? If you haven’t, then do yourself a favor and get on a train this moment. Actually, do it after reading the rest of this post. It’s a different ball game altogether. You see disparate compartments in the same train, stories that run in each is different. But the most you can learn is through a general compartment.
To commute, I more than often take trains, an advantage of being close to the station, one can say. General compartments are saviors, a 30 buck ticket for a 140 km, that’s wholesale to another level. We can say it’s a boon for the community but looking at India’s population and the number of people that travel in those compartments is like fitting a rat in an ant hole. Now, you can have perspectives about the situation, consider it a problem but there sure are bigger issues India is facing. There is no doubt about the connectivity ease within the country. What goes beyond the whole scenario of complex problems is something you can only experience during the travel.
Unreserved compartments are rarely empty, mostly during odd timings. I’ve been taking the train every week in the last 5 months, western railway excessively. The plans and visits have been spontaneous with no time for reserving a seat. General tickets have been my go to every time, a dime a dozen. The idea of sitting next to the window, looking out at the sky and those trees that run along the train, holding a book only for the sake of it, just sounds perfect. I only wish it was this sweet.
A mob waiting to jump in before the train stops, arguments, eye contacts of disagreement, no space to even fit a pen and uncomfortable situations picture a general compartment just about right. This is the situation more often than not.
There are certain qualities that are must to survive the journey, and patience tops the list. It is exciting to me when I compare these qualities required to board a train with life and feel it should be a life survival skill. There have been multiple experiences during my journeys where I lost control and behaved in ways I shouldn’t have and at times where I handled situations unbelievably well. Later reflecting upon it I realized a few things, learned a lot from my mistakes and had some good laughs remembering a few incidents.
To find a seat in a filled compartment you need to be an opportunist with some tactical shrewdness. A learning, after multiple failures and travel time, spent standing, which made sense and could fit for various life problems. Initial days as a passenger used to only be about continuous questions to co-passengers and looking at each station pass by. Navigating through maps on the phone, multiple reloads, mental calculations, from wearing shoes to being one of the first to get down. Trial and error; aren’t that how we settle everything we do and get it in place.
One incident I will always remember, it was on a train coming from Surat. Humidity and heat were scorching, I usually don’t buy packaged drinks – but I was extremely thirsty. During the exchange with the beverage seller, I gulped the juice and gave him the carton. He threw it out of the window with a flick, completely normal as everyone does that on the train. I shouted instinctively to his reaction when he littered. It didn’t go well seeing everyone surprised by the reaction, not knowing my reason for the response. To press the play button and ignore everyone with the music in my ears, seemed to be the only option I had.
There have been times when silly arguments have led to awkward travel because the person wants to go to the same station as you and there is no escape now. He is sitting next to you throughout the journey, you can look at each other and only think about what is going through their mind. A smile is all it takes to change the whole scenario as experienced and tried, after all why the ego?
When I get on a train now, I’m much more confident which is obvious as I am more experienced. I hardly ask questions or have doubts regarding the journey, rather, I’m the one answering or suggesting to people. It’s a really simple and normal thing to feel good about it but the best part is seeing your past self in people who inquire and realizing how you seem to others. When I began using the train I inquired a lot with silly doubts that must have seemed silly to others, questions that I find silly now, but all of them were worth it. That’s just how you grow, from a silly curious noob to a still silly, curious pro. From a noob to a pro, I’d like to call it.
This one time I entered a running train only to catch a seat which wouldn’t have been possible if I waited until the train stopped. So again, this is an unreserved compartment. Finding a seat in an empty compartment is just like finding a seat in an empty hall, your mind plays games and you have a short time to pick the best option. Mostly we aren’t satisfied with the spot we pick because that’s just how it works, there is always something better. Gradually, I came upon a decision to pick the window seat, away from the toilet because the olfactory nerve just might burst. It’s a serious tip. On the pro tip seat, I see a couple of handkerchiefs placed nicely apart from each other and I put them aside thinking someone might have dropped it. Eventually, the train stopped and the crowd started filling in. Everything’s normal, people have settled but out of nowhere this person pops and demands money to the seats he’d reserved with his hanky. He doesn’t want to sit as he’s not traveling but he just wants to take the money and leave. The piece of cloth is being used as a token of ownership and threats are thrown at people. After his fail attempts to recover few bucks he bailed out before bringing trouble. These are pastime mugs wandering at the stations.
I was impressed with his confidence and at the same time amused by his concept of making money. Thinking about it, if it happened to me then I’d never know how to react to this, I might just laugh until they went away.
Despite the fact that the journeys have been messy and uncomfortable, I don’t think I’d get better opportunities to explore so many lives so closely at once in such short periods. To be honest, I’ve met the most helpful strangers on trains and maybe people attain that character when they travel.
So, maybe, I’ll take the train…