On the Ujjaini Express to Dehradun

“Kya lagta hai aapko? Kiski sarkaar banegi?” (What do you think? Who’s going to form the government?)

“Bas Baburam ki kheti. Aur kya?”

A round of laughter went about but I didn’t get the joke. So, like a little boy who had overheard someone saying a bad word and goes on to ask his mother what the word meant, I asked the people sitting around me what “Baburam ki Kheti” meant. Another round of laughter, louder than the one before, went around. After it subsided, a woman said, “Unka kehne ka matlab hai ki Kaangress ki sarkar waapas aayegi aur desh ki haalat aur kharaab hogi.” (He meant to say that the Congress party will form the government again and the country will be ruined even more.) The 2009 Assembly Elections were due to begin in 3 weeks and everyone in the country I was traveling through seemed to have an idea of where that was headed.

The man who made the sarcastic remark was a Forest Department official (let’s call him FD) on a holiday with his family of a wife and two rowdy children. The man who posed the question was HS, an old gentleman from Ujjain and the woman who answered my clueless query was his wife, PS, both retired bank managers on a pilgrimage to Haridwar. FD, HS, the wives, family and I were sitting in the 2nd class sleeper coach of the Ujjaini Express on its way to Dehradun and having spent over 20 hours with each other doing the obligatory socializing attempts on Indian Railways like exchanging food, playing cards, buying rounds of chai etc, we were at ease in each other’s company. Even the kids, who had taken over the entire coach with their shouting, screaming and running around, had become somewhat tolerable.

The other people were two ticketless men who were allowed to tag along by FD on account of his governmental clout. They were on a short hop from Meerut to Saharanpur and had been repaying the free ride with some sycophantic conversation with FD, agreeing with every political insight he had to offer and laughing at every joke he made. If he said the country was going to hell because both the national parties were being led by people pushing 80, he had nailed it. Did they know that corrupt babus are the reason the country is in dumps? No, they didn’t and they were grateful for his cutting political commentary. It was selfless people like him that made the country work, they said.

I had enjoyed the train ride till these two idiots came in and their fawning was getting on my nerves. So I excused myself and went to spend some time sitting by the door. I thought, now that I was away from people, I would put in a call to my parents to tell them where I was going. The phone wasn’t in my pant pockets, so I went back to my seat to get it out of my daypack.

I couldn’t find it in my daypack either. I began to panic and looked under the seats, the bedsheets, the pillows, turned over other people’s luggage, searched the next row of berths thinking it might have fallen down and slid away in the direction the train was moving. No luck. I came back to my seat and put my hands on my head as if I was about to weep.

Then FD, who watching my entire activity with muted enthusiasm, asked me which phone I was carrying. The Nokia 1100, I said. “Ah”, he said dismissively, “No one would steal that. You must have lost it somewhere. You’re very irresponsible.”

His two sycophantic buddies nodded their heads in agreement and said,” Yes, yes, very irresponsible.”

My head was fuming with rage and I said, “Shut up, the two of you! Or I’ll complain to the TC that you’re traveling ticketlessly. Haven’t you people ever lost a phone?”

One of the men laughed, pointed at his friend and said, “Haha, he has. But it was a very expensive phone.”

FD, who seemed considerably amused at my anger then cut in saying, “Yes, I can understand people stealing expensive phones. But if they’re stealing a cheap phone like yours then they may have something else in mind.”

I was highly perturbed by this observation and said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Maybe they’re after your sim and not your phone. It can be used for any number of criminal activities.”

This sent me into a tizzy and I ran to row after row of people in the compartment asking if they had seen a cheap Nokia phone. No one had but since they were all bored of sitting in the train for so long, some of them were happy to have something to do and began searching for the phone with me. They pulled out luggages, crouched below the seats, rudely interrogated the pantry and cleaning staff, consoled me by making bad jokes, offered me comfort food etc. I hadn’t attracted such a lot of attention ever in my life.

In a couple of hours, when all our attempts to find the phone were in vain, an elderly bihari gentleman came up with an idea that I hadn’t thought of in my excitement. His cunning plan was to use his phone to call my phone to detect it. This idea made me feel really stupid and the people around me just gaped at me in astonishment and began scolding me for having wasted their time. They thought I had already done the first obvious thing anybody would do after losing a phone. Any sympathy I had earned disappeared in a wave of derision.

When I called my number from the old man’s phone, I could hear the ring tone but couldn’t hear it ringing. Some of the other people who were helping me find it looked under the seats to see if they could hear something or see a screen flashing but to no avail. It was all very puzzling. Surely if someone had stolen my phone, they would have switched it off to make it more difficult for the owners to find it? FD put on his detective hat and surmised that this was proof that the people who had stolen my phone were already using my sim for their nefarious activities. In his opinion, I should immediately get my sim cancelled and generously offered his phone for the purpose.

But none of us knew what the Vodafone helpline number was and I hadn’t committed the phone numbers of my friends and family to memory. FD shook his head to indicate that I was nothing but a hopeless failure.

Everybody got off the train at Haridwar, leaving me to agonize over my lost phone in solitude for the rest of the journey. I understand that railway tracks through wildlife areas aren’t a good thing for wild animals but in those moments of mental agony, the thickly forested stretch between Haridwar and Dehradun, cheered me up. I could spot kingfishers, drongos, peacocks, spotted deer and wild boar in the evening light from the window of the train and the empty compartment made me feel like I was getting exclusive access to these scenes.

After reaching Dehradun, I checked in to Hotel Meedo close to the train station. The receptionist needed my mobile no. to give me a room and I gave him my number and that should have been the end of the story but no, in an act of immense stupidity, just as he was about to hand me the keys to my room, I had to narrate the entire sordid saga of losing my phone on the Ujjaini Express in an attempt to socialize. The receptionist crinkled his brows in suspicion and asked me why I had given him a number that wouldn’t work and why he shouldn’t take me to a police station for blatantly lying and not reporting a lost sim card? I had to plead forgiveness innumerable times to convince him not to take any drastic steps. He asked me to hand over my PAN Card and pay a 1000 rupee deposit as surety to prove that I wasn’t a criminal on the run or something nefarious like that.

Next up was a long ordeal in search of a cyber café to alert my parents of my lost phone and to get them to cancel my sim card as soon as they could. It wasn’t easy to find a cyber café in Dehradun and when I did find a couple of them, they refused to let me use a computer without an ID Proof and a working mobile number. Finally, after over an hour of walking, I found one on Rajpur Road that allowed me to use a machine for 10 minutes for double the hourly rate.

After sending a quick email to my parents telling them to get my sim card cancelled as soon as possible, I came back to my room to relax after the stress of the long, hectic train journey and the exertions thereafter. A hot shower was in order. So I opened up my rucksack and rummaged through the layers of dirty clothes to get to some of the cleaner ones deep within. While taking out the clothes, I heard the deep thud of metal hitting the floor. It was the phone I thought I had lost and it was lodged in a pocket of the short pants I had been wearing before boarding the train. In all the panic and excitement, I forgot the fact that I hadn’t used my phone for over two days and the reason I couldn’t hear it ring was because of a habit (that I have to this day) of keeping it on silent mode.

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The Night Train to Bhuj

life-goes-on-in-an-earthquake-ravaged-city_8732119904_oI 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?)

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Gorakhpur

Having spent two weeks in Lucknow, I was itching to leave and I had many options in front of me – Mathura and Vrindavan for Holi to the West, Orchha and Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh to the South, Bangladesh to the East and Nepal to the North. Since I had been traveling without a pause in India for more than a year, it made sense to go to another country and between the cool Himalayan weather of Nepal and the encroaching summer and the resultant humidity of Bangladesh, the choice was easy to make.

So I booked myself a ridiculously cheap “Deluxe” room at the Gorakhpur station along with tickets to the Intercity to Gorakhpur on the irctc website, hauled myself across the mayhem of the twin railway stations of Lucknow Junction and Charbagh and hopped into the bustling cacophony of the AC Chair Car of the Intercity. I had been assigned Seat No. 68 by the Indian Railways, the very seat I was staring at in horror as a little boy wearing a bright yellow T-shirt embroidered with teddy bears was having a wonderful time drooling all over it while playing with a mobile phone. His father soon arrived on the scene. He had no tickets, he said, but was confident enough of bribing the TC to get a seat or two for his family of 3, so could I let the boy occupy my seat while he cracks a deal? Absolutely not, I said, and demanded that the boy be removed from my seat immediately. The two girls occupying the seats next to mine supported my demand which caused the father to lose his temper and hurl fiery misogynistic invectives at them. This enraged everyone from Seat 72 to Seat 48 and the little boy, protesting violently with deafening screams, was forcibly evicted from my seat.

Once the train got moving, I was happy that, for once, I had two pretty girls for company instead of a fat old man in a business suit snoring away. BM and HM were sisters who lived in Lucknow and were on their way to a wedding in Gorakhpur. Contrary to most people I’d spoken to in Lucknow, they disagreed when I suggested that the city had been decaying for a long time. They felt that the people who said such things were elitist snobs who had the luxury to escape and lost touch with the reality of the city. They were particularly impressed with the new malls in Gomti Nagar and places to hang out in the city which were difficult to find earlier. Once they finished their studies – BM wanted to be a lawyer and HM a doctor – they aimed to leave the country. BM had a hopeless crush on a presumably handsome boy from her college and HM kept teasing her about her vain attempts to flirt with him and to distract him away from his current girlfriends. HM was of the opinion that BM would never leave the country until the boy made a marriage proposal to her. BM, in turn, sniped back at HM threatening to reveal some of her cherished secrets. And then, they needled me to open some scandalizing cans of worms of my own. It was incredible fun to travel with the girls and I felt that familiar pang of sadness and regret when the time came to say inevitable goodbyes to people who had become the best of friends for the shortest of whiles.

Because the AC Chair Car was locked out from the unreserved compartments, it had no vendors coming in to serve food or tea. So I had a massive headache on arrival at Gorakhpur Station having had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast. It was now almost 10 in the night, not the time one would ideally want to wrestle with Indian Railway bureaucracy. But I had a booking and the rest of the hotels in Gorakhpur looked decidedly dreary and overpriced, so I went to the retiring room counter to find a long queue in front of the window. If I hadn’t been so tired I would have found the vain attempts of old men grappling with computer technology highly amusing. But every punch of the key, shake of the head and machine reboot was only amplifying my hunger pangs and the resultant headaches tenfold. It took the man behind the counter 30 minutes to process the first person in queue and I was just about ready to give up my booking and head to the common waiting room like ordinary people when the man dismissively waved off ten people in front me. He was about to leave, presumably for a paan or chai break and I frantically shoved my booking printouts in his face. He looked at them sullenly giving me a caustic look or two, a few scratches of the chin, a heave and a sigh. Much punching of keys, shaking of heads and checking of IDs followed and after an hour of standing in queue, I felt victorious at having secured a room for myself in the hallowed walls of the Gorakhpur Railway Station.

The next level in this game of rooms was to locate the caretaker with the keys to my room. This consumed another half an hour and I finally found her, an old, haggard-looking woman, sitting in a dark corner finishing her meal. She was understandably reluctant to pause her meal for a random guest but gave me a bundle of keys and asked me to locate the room and the keys to that room all by myself. This took a considerable amount of time and eventually, I had to wait for the old lady to plod down to the end of the long corridor where my room was. By now, this game had turned from Heroes of Might and Magic III to Dark Souls 2, from an easy game you play for fun to a game you know you have no chance of cracking without cheat codes. It took less than two seconds for the lady to find the key that corresponded to my room and open it up for me.

The keys were “railway property”, so I couldn’t take them outside. I was so hungry and so tired that I put my bags in the room, closed the doors without locking them and walked out to eat something. It was midnight but one of the perks of staying in a big railway station was that dhabas were open all night long. While I was sitting in Hotel Adarsh Palace, trying to finish a roti or two with the greasy, oily, borderline inedible dal and vegetables, I got anxious for the things I left unguarded in my room. I stuffed myself as quickly as I could and ran upstairs to check if my belongings were intact. The old lady was waiting for me in the corridor to give me a dressing down for leaving my room open. She was caretaker and watchwoman rolled into one terribly underpaid profile and Gorakhpur was notorious for being unsafe, she said. Was it too much to ask for guests to get a padlock of their own if they had plans to venture out in the middle of the night? She had taken the liberty to lock my room herself and despite the fact that it was way past her bedtime, stayed awake for me to return.

I thanked her profusely for being so considerate and felt sorry for putting her through all that. The first impressions of the room were good. It was palatial by any standards. There was an AC that, though unnecessary for that time of the year, seemed to be functional. It wasn’t musty, the floor had been scrubbed clean and the geyser in the bathroom appeared to work just fine. Not bad, I thought, for 250 Rs. But when I looked closely, the entire edifice of surface cleanliness started falling apart rapidly to reveal the filth and the rot underneath. The bed sheets smelt of vomit and had a little museum of different varieties of stains (blood, sperm, paan, saliva, you name it) possibly left unwashed since independence, there was a thick crust of something filthy on the pillows that I didn’t want to investigate, the plumbing in the bathroom was non-existent and two cockroaches were running around having a jolly good time. Having already tasted the helpless wrath of the old lady, the last thing I wanted to do was to confront her regarding the state of my room. It was already 1 o’clock and dawn wasn’t very far away. There was a little corner of my bed that looked unmolested and I wriggled there all night, waiting for the clock to strike 6 so I could get moving out of this wretched place into another country.

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Nilgiri Journals Part 1 – Getting there

The beginnings
The beginnings

There is a 3 year old kid emptying his bladder in the seat next to mine. His brother is busy jumping from one cabin over to the next, screaming every time he does a hop. Their mother seated diagonally opposite is juggling between taking pictures of her son’s adventurousness on her smartphone, scolding her younger ‘un for soiling his neighbour’s pants and exchanging itinerary notes very loudly with another family. Her bored-looking husband, sitting glumly and despondently opposite to me, has just finished eating a packet of jam roll and drinking a cup of tea he was conned into buying at the chaotic stall at the station by enterprising vendors who told him nothing was available in the jungles beyond where the train was going. He vengefully dumps his plastic wrapper and foam cup outside the window so they could join millions of their cousins littered among the green slopes of the valley we were slumbering through.

In the adjacent cabin, another big family from Chandigarh has a septuagenarian patriarch boasting about the devious means he used to convince the ticket collector to give him a first class ticket for a second class price so he could join his noisy family in the same coach, a remarkable feat where he saved a princely sum of 100 rupees. A group of young college boys and girls have taken over another cabin and their atonal cacophonic screams and wails could have killed many an endangered species in the forests outside.

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This wasn’t an ordinary train. This was the more than 100-year old UNESCO-certified world heritage mountain railway from Mettupalayam to Ooty which offered an opportunity to travel by the old romantic way of getting to a destination, behind a chugging steam engine on a narrow-gauge track. It’s a trip every guide-book tells you to do when you visit South India. When I successfully booked the only seat available on the train a month ago, I felt triumphant and for days dreamed of the quiet valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, of the dense forests with hundreds of endemic bird-calls and of the hooting steam engine that would transport me to a different place and time. The imagination, as always, trumped reality.

Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove
Frenetic picture-taking at Hillgrove

Was it worth enduring all that mayhem to take a supremely hyped up and romanticized mode of travel to reach my destination? In a way, yes. For one, the ticket cost 25 Rupees. And as the train wound up through the forested valleys of the Nilgiri foothills, I whipped out my Sansa Clip Plus mp3 player, started listening to Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, drowned out the ambient noise, began ignoring my cantankerous neighbours and started enjoying the journey. The names of the stations, Hillgrove, Runnymede, Adderley, belonged to another, more oppressive (now faux romantic) time and so did the pace of travel as the train jogged along for 3 hours to traverse the 17 kms to Coonoor. We would get down at every station, drink some tea, dutifully brandish our DSLRs to take pictures and get back in. Some of the scenery was spectacular and different in perspective from the ones you would get from the road that you could see winding down below. There were bridges so high you felt as if you hovered in the air. As the jungles got thicker, the air got cooler and clear streams flowed hundreds of meters below. Thanks to the altitude, there was a nip in the air and every now and then, an expansive landscape would open up where one could see miles and miles into the plains, making me (almost) forgive the kid who peed on my pants.

The view from Adderley
The view from Adderley

So yes, I’m glad I took the train. Will I do it again? I’m not so sure. Maybe once in a lifetime is more than enough.

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