I like the company of people during long train journeys. But what I like even more is the sight of empty seats in my compartment. The freshly plastered reservation chart glued outside the S9 bogie informed me that apart from the two boys playing with their phones in the seats opposite to mine, there wouldn’t be anyone else to keep me company on the overnight journey to Bhuj. As the train left Bandra station, I started fantasizing about how this 16 hour journey was going to go – a polite chat with the boys, finishing 100 pages of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, some music on my mp3 player and hopefully, chai, food and lots of sleep.
Like many idyllic fantasies, this was short-lived as well. When the train stopped at Dahanu Road, a deluge of passengers attacked the compartment with the ferocity of an angry mob. Their eyes darted to and fro looking for an unoccupied space and after many vociferous territorial quarrels, there wasn’t an inch of space left. On my berth, usually reserved for seating 3 people, four sturdy men other than myself had squeezed themselves in. People were sitting everywhere, on the top berths, in the corridor, on the ground and they looked completely at home. The 8 people packed in our compartment formed a makeshift table with their office bags and began playing a game of cards.
Soon, the ticket collector entered the stage and with a flourish, asked the two boys and myself, the three legal occupants of the compartment, to prove our right to occupy the space. He diligently examined my ID Card and while he was doing so, it infuriated me greatly to see him casually chatting with the other men with a degree of familiarity that people reserve for their immediate family and friends. I protested as loudly as I could which evinced a good-natured laugh from the men, one of whom mockingly said, “Saab ke liye thoda chai lao. Inka dimaag bahut garam ho raha hai.” (Get some tea for this gentleman here. His tempers are flaring.”) The ticket collector laughed heartily and asked them, “Aap bhi peeyenge? Thoda laa deta hoon.” (“Would you also have some? I’ll order it right away.”) Then the cheerful Parsi gentleman sitting next to me patted me strongly on my thigh and said with abundant pride, “We’re traveling on this route for more than 10 years. Nobody has the guts to kick us out.”
It seemed that the people sitting on the floors and the upper berths weren’t as distinguished as the ones sitting next to me because a rudimentary fine was demanded of some of them which they reluctantly parted with after some gentle haggling. While I felt as if strangers had invaded my house to have a party in which I myself wasn’t invited, the two boys appeared to have seen this one too many times to let it bother them. Soon, chai arrived and the Parsi gentleman, possibly sensing my discomfiture, invited me to drink his cup of tea as well. Energized by the sugary cups of tea, the game of cards took on a new dimension with people putting their monies on the line and fighting ruthlessly for every rupee. For the 3 hours from Dahanu to Surat, seats 21-26 of the S9 bogie resembled an underground gambling den where even the ticket collector entered the fray every now and then to throw his hat in the ring. Songs from “Aashiqui” and “Saajan” crooned out of tinny mobile phone speakers and the men sang these aged lyrics with delight whenever they had an upper hand.
At Surat, the coach was practically empty of people and an awkward silence descended upon our compartment with me trying to read my book and the boys going back to playing games on their mobile phones. Things got a little tricky at dinnertime when the two boys offered to share their tiffin with me. I’d never been poisoned because of eating food offered by strangers before but it’s an area where I preferred to tread carefully. But the boys were so insistent and the biryani that I had ordered so inedible that I succumbed to their generous pleas. Soon I was gorging on bhakris, puran polis, kadi, handvo, khaman dhokla and many more sweet and fattening Gujju side dishes.
In our post-dinner chat, the boys got animated when they learnt of my tertiary connections with the film industry. Did I watch this serial called Taarak Mehta ka Oolta Chashma? Well, guess what, they were going to the same town that Jethalal Gada, one of the show’s principal characters hailed from. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I found what little I’d seen of that show execrable in every way imaginable. They worked at a jewellery store in Mumbai and were on their way to Bhachau to attend a friend’s wedding. They too hailed from Bhachau originally but their families had drifted away to Mumbai long ago and now had only an ancestral property or two in the area which had been severely damaged during the devastating earthquake of 2001.
By the time I woke up the next morning, the train had gone past Bhachau and the boys had left. Having fed myself glorious images of chalk white salt flats, pink flamingos, glittering textiles, ruins of the most ancient civilizations and a colourfully tribal countryside before leaving, it was somewhat disappointing to get off at the railway station at Bhuj, the capital city of Kutch, and walk through its bland, charmless, plasticky edifice. I took a rickshaw and got off at the decrepit and crumbling colonial structure that housed the old vegetable market.
Here, there were two cheap hotels that came highly recommended by the guidebooks. I walked past the derelict walls of the fort to arrive at the the first place. It was a 5-storey building with ornately framed glass paneled doors that would have led to a reception kiosk had they not been locked from the inside. There were clothes hanging off washing lines on the first floor and I could hear people conversing in European dialects inside. So I knocked on the door and soon enough, an old watchman with a handlebar moustache stared threateningly into my face. He asked me what I wanted and slammed the door in my face after I told him I was looking for a room.
I could hear the jingling of anklets rushing down the stairs inside.
“Kaun hai?”, (Who is it?) screamed the woman at the top of her voice.
“Koi aadmi aaya hai” (Some man has arrived), said the watchman.
“Gora hai?” (Is he white?)
“Pata nahi. Lagta toh Indian hai.” (I don’t know. He looks like an Indian.)
The woman came over to the balcony on the first floor from where she could get a clear view of my Dravidian features. Then she went back inside the house and screamed again at the watchman saying, “Usse kehdo kamra nahin hai.” (Tell him we don’t have a room.)
By the time the watchman had opened the door to deliver the message, I was on my way to the other guest house which was down an alley littered with dilapidated structures. Here, I was welcomed by a stern old man wearing a scruffy beard and a skull cap. His cheerful assistant was ordered to take me around the property and on the way, he delightfully informed me of the nationalities of the tenants occupying the rooms. There was a table at the center of the small courtyard where scraggly backpackers were having a breakfast of banana pancakes and “masala tea” while discussing snap judgments of the country they were traveling through. It felt like a homecoming.
My room was as bare as it could be. There was a rock hard cot in the corner, peeling paint on the mouldy walls, a barely functional bathroom and a common balcony overlooking the alley. It was a decade since the earthquake had struck the region but the battered walls and the ruined houses I could see from here still bore signs of the disaster. The assistant waited patiently for me to finish my inspections and then whispered conspiratorially, “Akele ghoomne aaye hai kya? Kuch setting karaade?” (Are you traveling alone? Want me to set someone up for you?)