The Great Indian Railway Bazaar

This article first appeared on Saturday’s (11 July 2009) Kathmandu Post

By Dinesh Wagle

The moment of shock came soon after I was awakened. At the time of leaving Kanya Kumari, the southern tip of India where land ends and water begins, on a cloudy day last week, the train was virtually empty as it originated from there. So my travel mates and I thought the whole thing belonged to us. We started wandering around, one compartment after another, looking for the best seat available. The man who issued the ticket at the Kanyakumari counter had told us that we could seat ourselves anywhere in the Sleeper Class as we had unnumbered seats reserved for us.

After three hours of journey (six more to go) and eating biryani in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, I climbed up to the upper berth to be awakened midway. The travel ticket inspector (popularly called TT) was checking the tickets and we realized that we were not in the ‘right’ seat. Other passengers had by then come to claim their reserved seats. One of my travel mates was already trapped between the passengers who were claiming the seat with valid tickets.

We quickly moved away only to be told by the TT that we could go and take any seats in compartment numbers 10, 11 or 12. There, we were like new refugees with no seat to sit, not even a proper place to stand. Finally we managed to jump up to three upper berths of a compartment. Phew!

Indian trains are a diverse society on the move that speaks several languages that are not understood by all people traveling in the same compartment of a train which might appear as a crawling, huge reptile if seen from a hot air balloon. This society eats food that is vastly different from that available in one station to the next. On my first journey on the Indian railways last October that lasted for three straight days and two nights I found myself interpreting on the third day to an Indian yatri what the railway staff, another Indian, was saying. The Tamil passenger who spoke his mother tongue Tamil and English but didn’t understand Hindi wanted to order some food and the Hindi-speaking Railway attendant from north India didn’t understand English or Tamil. The service of a Nepali came handy and the Tamil heartily thanked me for breaking the language barrier.

Writers had aptly described, I felt after traveling on Indian trains, Indian Railways as the lifeline of India that is like a traveling theater festival that stages contrasting dramas every hour or so with even more and diverse characters who have their own unique story to tell via their different body languages and other forms of communication. A friend of mine from Jharkhand didn’t believe me when I recently told her that there are no trains in Nepal (apart from a relic that runs between Janakpur-Jayanagar (India)) covering only a few kilometers on the Nepali side. She replied: “I can’t imagine a life without trains. How do you live without them yar?”

Unlike America or Europe, India will cease to exist if its railway system that carries a sea of humanity everyday becomes dysfunctional. My feeling is that effectively disrupting and completely damaging the Indian railway network will have the same impact that the fall of a nuclear bomb in Delhi or Madras might create.

I experienced a “wow” moment last week when I entered a crowded general compartment of a train that was going to Madhurai, Tamilnadu via Alleppey, Kerala. That 11-hour journey turned out to be partly adventurous, partly torturous. The train arrived on time in Alleppey, famous for backwater boating, but with all general dibbas filled to their capacity and far beyond. It was impossible to board the train from the last compartment (general dibbas are either at the front or the rear end of the train and one need not reserve a seat to travel in those). Then we ran towards the front one. We reached the door only to see a massive crowd inside. It was a do or die situation because missing the train meant you would be stranded for the whole night there. I jumped over a man’s leg and forced myself inside like a hammer. It worked. I paved a small but crucial way for my travel mates. Once inside the dibba, the struggle to find place for our legs began.

There were all sorts of people. A couple with their infant child quietly sleeping in the seat. Migrant workers heading to Trivandrum. Families getting back home apparently after not getting a sleeper class ticket. It was a collage of people of many colors, backgrounds, purposes and destinations. Most of them got off at Trivandrum from where we got seats to sit. It was indeed a huge relief to our knees as we were badly feeling them.

Even though I lived so near to India and grew up hearing so many things about its cultural, social and political aspects, it was a kind of shock to me when I saw an Indian railway platform last October in Gorakhpur. Thousands of people were simply lying down, just like that, on the concrete floor inside the platform and outside, below the open sky. I had never seen such a scene before. They were waiting for the next train to come. Apart from the sea the only thing I missed about India after returning to Nepal were the trains. Railways are, I feel, the best thing to have happened to India under the British raj. From the toy train of Darjeeling to the faster one like Rajdhani Express, the trains awed me.

The way people travel in them, the chaotic, pathetic, and at the same time entertaining and lively atmosphere inside a general dibba, the manner in which the passengers eat food inside, fill in their bottles from drinking water from public taps at the platforms so hurriedly fearing that the train might leave them behind, the way they talk with each other and with fellow (and strangers) passengers, behave, even sleep and freshen themselves, and the way sellers literally somersault to penetrate the crowd inside the dibba to sell eatables to the passengers. It’s all amazing! A real cultural shock that is not comparable even to the one that I got in a Washington DC strip bar a few years ago.

Then there is Delhi Metro, another form of rail transportation in the city of Delhi, the multi-billion dollar project that is still in the making which is arguably better than what they have in DC and New York. Traveling in the Metro makes me believe, even though the Delhi metro is not a piece of Indian innovation, what Thomas Friedman argues in his book The World Is Flat in the context of competitive advantage that India has in engineering and technical education thanks to the famed IITs: that the days of America in terms of innovation are going to be over soon. Of course, it will be a long time before we see that happen in real life.

This article first appeared on Saturday’s (11 July 2009) Kathmandu Post