Ghaziabad station. Too filthy. Too many people. We find a place for the two of us to stand out of the way of sundry passengers and vendors and it takes some effort. Platform numbers 1 and 2. Every five minutes a train comes and leaves. Ours is still sometime away.
A filthy man in his mid forties ambles awkwardly behind her . He is above average tall and stoutly build, only his walk is slightly deformed and clothes a tad too dirty. There is something creepy about him. I am code red alert. I have heard about these weirdos in crowded places. They look miserable and harmless but are always looking to brush against a woman or touch her and run away.
You are getting it from me dude if you try anything smart. All muscles tensed, I am ready to launch a solid kick to his head if he does anything funny.
Just then, he bends down, picks up a half eaten piece of bread pakora from near the dustbin and walks off.
Something falls inside me – too dumbfounded to react!!!
Just then the PA system announces the arrival of our train. We pick up our bags and walk towards the other platform. Too many people standing on the platform. We pick a spot where we expect coach number S6 to arrive. Yes, S-6, we booked late so couldn’t get anything else. We had to book a sleeper class ticket.
I see a tough looking guy standing close to me. I am sure this bastard is going to squat on my seat and I will either have to scare him away or share my seat with him. I rest the bags on the floor. The train is not yet in sight but the rush on both sides is already giving me heebie jeebies.
The fuckers are even standing on the other side of the track in between platforms. I am sure these are the daily passengers who travel without tickets and throw those reserved ticket holders off the train who resist being bullied into surrendering their seats.
I secretly pray S-6 doesn’t stop here and just to get rid of my nerves walk further down the platform secretly hoping my coach to stop where there are no toughies. Bad luck, they are everywhere.
I know the train won’t stop here for long so it is important to not be too far away from where S-6 would stop.
Luckily, as the train stops, S-6 is right in front of us.
We get in.
None of the toughies get in the train. They are waiting for the Saharanpur Express coming after this!
We reach our seats. 50 and 56.
A hard looking guy in his mid thirties, stocky build and an old man sitting on 55 and 56.
As soon as we reach the seat, the hard man gets up and sits on another seat close by. Turns out he is a cop, a UP Police constable travelling to Moradabad who in all probability doesn’t have a sleeper class ticket and is travelling in a reserved coach partly to avoid the rush of the general class and partly out of the faint sense of entitlement his khaki uniform bestows on him.
I softly ask the old man, “Chacha, what is your seat number?”
Chacha too gets up, indicates his seat is in another coupe and walks off.
I didn’t have to use any of my brown belt third step karate badassery to save my wife from molestation or to secure my seat.
And then it struck me.
Too much travelling in my car is making a neurotic coward out of me. I have begun fearing public transport and sleeper class and this when I have traveled in meter gauge trains for the half of my life which didn’t even have any reserved coaches. Sleeper class and long route trains came during college and AC coaches and air travel came post MBA.
I remember being pleasantly surprised when I saw our Organization Behavior professor at IIMA travelling in the same sleeper class coach as us some 10 years back on Ahmedabad to Delhi Ashram Express. I wondered then as to why someone who could easily afford more comfortable travel options would travel Sleeper Class.
The professor had smiled and said something about liking to travel Sleeper Class. I had found it weird then.
But now, I am beginning to understand the value of Sleeper Class. The fear of Sleeper Class signifies the fear in me of the “others” and doubt in my ability to tackle a situation if it should arise.
Not the way I want to live my life.
Mind you, the professor’s reasons for travelling Sleeper Class might have been entirely her own but now, I too have begun to find my reasons to at least occasionally travel Sleeper Class.
Come to think of it, Sleeper Class is probably the most interesting way to travel in Indian Railways. Open windows, incessant chatter, a wide variety of people, on and off beggars and an occasional eunuch invoking your likeness to Salman Khan or Ajay Devgan to extract some money. Even the people there talk as against those in AC coaches so basking in self glory that they exchange only icy glances.
Not going all seventies Amitabh, “Sachcha pyar gareebon ka baki hai khel nassebon ka” extolling the virtues of ‘Sleeper Class’ as against the ‘evils’ of AC coaches. Not to suggest that I’d only travel Sleeper Class. Far from it.
I’d still travel air, AC and Volvos but would not stop travelling Sleeper Class or UP Roadways.
That’s where the stories are and that’s where the edge is which I don’t want to lose. The edge that’s too damn precious for a Hindi heartland Bhaiyya born in a farmer family.
Never stop travelling Sleeper Class.