Indian Railways – The Joys of travelling without a reservation; Part 1

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India’s largest employer and the 9th largest employer in the world with 1.4 million employee, Indian railways employers more than our armed forces (1.3 million) but has fewer employees than McDonalds, Walmart & the Chinese army and railway corporations (!). Still, from an Indian context the impact is huge. It is amazing to know that at any point of time more than 5 million people are on the move using Railways and more than 25 million people use the railways everyday to reach their destinations. Roughly 10-11% of the passengers (by my calculations) travel by what is called as the General or Unreserved class. This blog is dedicated to the hapless souls (such as myself) who have experienced a journey in the General compartments. Filled with inconveniences and learning, these travel experiences certainly mould one’s character and ensure significant servings of hope, patience and will-power enhancement.

It started with a last minute plan to visit my sister in Birsinghpur for Diwali this year. Birsinghpur is  a township and hosts a Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board power plant. To reach the place it takes a minimum of 2 connections. I had my ticket booked for the ‘Garib Rath’ (tr: poor man’s chariot) a train that belies its name and is comprised entirely of 3rd AC coaches. The definition of poor is a little shaky here given that its from the lower middle class that the fare becomes affordable. Booked at a waiting list of 774, prayers and addition of coaches brought it down to a teasing 50 on the day of departure! Wanting to make it at any cost, i decided to go for the unreserved travel option. Confident from an experience gained in my first year at college 14 years ago, when as a result of ragging we had to forego confirmed tickets and take the train for the next day to our home towns from Durgapur (WB).

The first alternative train was supposed to leave at 12:40 PM. I went to the station and verified the time and they said it will leave at 12:10 – i was pleasantly surprised that the train was running before time when the clerk added – 12 hours running late….ouch!

Found out the next alternative – this time a triple connection via Itarsi & Katni. confident and keeping my focus fixed on a great diwali ahead, i bought the general ticket. Knowing that i had better forget a good meal for the next 18 hours, had a good(!) lunch at the railway canteen. Attempting caution even in such a scenario, i bought a sanitiser and a couple of tablets for cold and fever and a few old newspapers (never know if you are going to be ‘floored’ for the journey!!). Thus armed and prepared (once a scout, always a scout), i began my journey.

Went to the platform an hour early and found that people had already started forming a queue for the general class. About 75 members deep, they sat in a line reminiscent of the colourful plastic pots that queue up for the corporation water in Chennai. You start at the 75th position and yet find yourself at around the 130th as a rest of people calling their kith and kin over to join them in the middle, braving the protests from the people at the back! A couple of minor squabbles over the size of a family (8-9 members) that a person was trying to insert claiming to be his immediate family had the railway police drawn to us. The family suffered a partition as 5 sullen souls made their way to the end of the line, now at least 150 deep. People in our country wield power, no matter the situation! There was this guy who was late with his family of 4 and was still making a phone call to the station in charge so as to be placed in front of the line! Howls and physical signs of protest, however, showed him rightful place at the end of the line! You know, the mob is like best thing to set things right – unless you are on the receiving end!

One thing that i have firmly come to believe in is that no matter how ugly the situation or the experience, you are never alone. There are always other who have gone through similar, if not worse situations. When i started chatting up with my neighbours in the line, i found that a couple of them wanted to reach Agra and had absolutely no idea. A few wanted to get to Jhansi and were clueless as well! Reminds me of Lao Tzu’s quote:

 “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving” 

Next part: The 18 hour Journey and camaraderie in the coaches! 🙂

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One thought on “Indian Railways – The Joys of travelling without a reservation; Part 1

  1. Hey Bharath, good one. Still vividly remember those moments when we (you & I) went to cancel the confirmed tickets 14 years ago and fighting for seats in the general class coach. [Drums roll] “Sing in the rain”.

    Btw, great that you’ve started blogging, look forward to your poetry & photolog too..

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