Asia

The Train Ride from Hell (Travels in India, Chapter 5)

I have a fascination with useless statistics. If you share this interest, you will be pleased to learn that India Rail offers a veritable smorgasbord of “biggests” and “longests” to choose from.

The first train journey in India commenced at 3:35pm on April 16, 1853, between Bombay and Thane – a distance of 34 kilometres, only 27 years after the first train services started running in the UK. India Rail is the world’s single largest employer, with something like 1.6 million staff. It has a total network of over 63,000 kilometres, putting it second only to China. It is also one of the busiest rail networks in the world, carrying over 7.5 billion passengers each year, or 20 million each and every day of the year.

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[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].

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And, perhaps the most useless statistic of them all: the world’s longest railway platform, at 833 meters (!) is located at the otherwise eminently forgettable town of Kharagpur, in the province of West Bengal. Imagine my joy when a train we were on stopped at this platform for three minutes. For the rest of my life I can now boast of having stood momentarily on the world’s longest railway platform. No small achievement, if you ask me.

The Indian railway system was built mainly by the British in the first half of the century, and is like an octopus, its many tentacles reaching into almost every corner of the country. It is part and-parcel of the Indian landscape and culture, and for the vast majority of Indians, travelling by train is how they get from Point A to Point B. It is virtually impossible to visit India as a backpacker without encountering the railway system in one form or another. Consequently, most travellers in India have a railway horror story to tell.

So, for the record, here is my Train Ride from Hell.

The story in fact begins a long time prior to the train journey itself. We had discovered that booking a train ticket in India is, to say the least, an extremely uninviting proposition, involving hours of queuing, much filling in of forms, and endless frustrations. In addition, Indian trains are almost always overbooked, counterbalanced from a tourist’s point of view by a plethora of bizarre “special” allotments, including such gems as the women’s allotment, the foreign tourist’s allotment, the emergency allotment, the stationmaster’s allotment, and the “discretionary” allotment, each of which may, on a purely random basis, yield tickets to the tenacious and persistent.

Nevertheless, the only sure-fire way of guaranteeing a seat on any specific Indian train is to book as far ahead as possible. Recent advances in India Rail’s computer technology have meant that it is, at least in theory, possible to book several tickets at once, up to six months in advance.

In an effort to save time and precious sanity, sitting in a cafe one sunny morning we had planned our route for the next few weeks of our trip in India, which was to take us from Darjeeling to Madras via Calcutta. I cross-checked the India Rail timetable booklet to make sure that all the trains would connect. I also was careful to leave a few hours between trains to allow for the inevitable delays. Camilla dutifully filled in the relevant reservation forms, and we arrived at the New Jaipalguri Central Ticket Reservations Office at 8:45am on the morning before our departure for Darjeeling, thereby ensuring that we were first in line when the ticket office opened for business at 9:30am. We had covered our bases, and so I was feeling confident when I handed over the carefully pre-completed booking forms.

No, sir, I cannot make this reservation. I can reserve the train to Calcutta, but the train from Calcutta to Madras is not on the computer system. You must make a manual booking“.

Thus spoke the ticketing clerk behind Counter Number 1.

And where do we do that?” I asked.

Upstairs, at Counter Number 6“, was the reply.

So we tramped upstairs, only to find that our unsuccessful attempt at Counter Number 1 had condemned us to the back of an already lengthy queue at Counter Number 6, and it was over an hour before we were served. I handed over our booking slip. The clerk studied it, and then passed it back to me.

I am sorry sir, but I cannot make this reservation“.

But the man downstairs said I needed Counter Number 6“.

No, you need Counter Number 5. You have asked for a reservation in first class. I handle the second class ticket allotment. Counter Number 5 is for first class tickets“.

Now, as the labels “5” and “6” might imply, the two counters in question were side by side, and separated by no more than a few feet. The clerk behind Counter Number 6 could have reached out and tweaked the ear of the clerk at Counter Number 5, had he so desired.

I pointed this rather obvious fact out, and suggested that surely, given their proximity, Counter Number 5 could break with protocol and liaise with Counter Number 6 and sort this whole matter out now, saving us the hassle of having to queue for another few hours. Call me naive or optimistic if you like, but I had expected a response of “yes Sir, of course, how silly of me, Counter Number 5 is just here next to me, let me speak to my colleague and we will fix this up for you right away“.

Instead, I was informed, rather curtly: “Sir, we have a system here. I handle second class tickets, and Number 5 handles first class tickets. You will have to see him. I cannot help you“.

The British brought a fondness for bureaucracy with them to India, and when they left, the Indians transformed a causal fondness into a passionate love affair. Red tape in India has been elevated to an art form. Indians simply adore paperwork, they go all gooey at the thought of double-entry ledgers and filling in forms in triplicate, and everybody in an Indian office, from the most senior of managers down to the most junior of paper-boys, has a specific, clearly defined role. Under no circumstances will a person deviate in the slightest from their defined role – they will perform no more or no less than that which the job description demands, and expecting otherwise is akin to asking a pig to fly.

The first time we had experienced the Indian fetish for bureaucracy was in a bank in Varanasi, where we visited one morning to cash a traveller’s cheque. Anywhere else in the world this would have taken under three minutes, but in Varanasi it became a two-hour endurance test, involving a lengthy queue, three separate forms, two people checking my passport, a different person entering the transaction into a ledger, a boy carrying the paperwork to the cashier, a secretary handing me a gold disc with a number on it, and the cashier eventually giving me some rupees in exchange for the gold disc.

Now, in the New Jaipalguri Central Ticket Reservations Office, we were experiencing a different strain of the same virus. We had been presumptuous enough to expect the person in charge of second class ticket allotments to also, God-forbid, deal with first class allotments. But as we had discovered, it is just not done. Period.

By now I was getting edgy. Camilla resigned herself to the back of the queue for Counter Number 5, and I reluctantly joined her. Our relatively simple plan to reserve three train tickets in advance had now occupied most of the morning.

Thirty minutes later we were still in the queue for Counter Number 5, when a man standing behind us overheard me complaining to Camilla about how ridiculous and inefficient the system was.

Why don’t you go to the train station?” he asked. “They have a special tourist office there, and can serve you immediately, instead of your having to stand in this queue“.

This was indeed a promising new development. We sized up the situation, and estimated that we were still at least an hour away from being served, not counting the possibility that the ticket office would close for an hour during the lunch break. So we decided to take this fellow’s advice, abandoned the Central Ticket Reservations Office, hopped in a rickshaw, and fifteen minutes later presented ourselves at the ticket reservations office in the main hall of the New Jaipalguri train station.

There was no queue at all, and I immediately became suspicious. A counter without a queue is the Indian equivalent of Moses parting the waters – something that only the faithful believe is possible, but which all rational people should treat with a deep level of mistrust.

Nevertheless, I handed in the booking forms. The bored looking clerk behind the counter studied it, simply shook his head, and raised his eyes upwards. I followed them, until my line of sight came to rest on a small printed sign above the window, which said:

For all ticket bookings, please attend at the Central Ticket Reservations Office.
No ticket bookings can be made at this office
.

The immediate question that may spring to mind is why on earth would India Rail maintain a rail ticket booking office from which, in fact, no rail tickets can be booked? But I was in no mood to ask this question, and instead I flew into a blind rage. Having been shunted around all morning, I was thoroughly pissed-off and needed to let off some steam. I threw my books, wallet, pens and papers onto the floor, and screamed at the reservations clerk: “For fuck’s sake! This is fucking ridiculous! You people are morons, and the system is s-t-u-p-i-d. That spells stupid, stupid.”

Camilla, partially in response to my temper tantrum and partially from frustration, started to cry. So there we were, Camilla crying, me screaming and swearing, while a crowd of bemused looking Indians gathering around us in a circle. They, by contrast, were laughing and smiling – this was obviously very entertaining – whatever will these whacky foreigners do next?

All the while the bored looking reservations clerk had not so much as raised one of his bushy eyebrows. This scenario was perhaps not as unusual to him as one may otherwise imagine.

Eventually I calmed down, gathered up my stuff from the floor, and wiped away Camilla’s tears. We trooped outside, hopped on another rickshaw, and fifteen minutes later we were back in the queue for Counter Number 5 at Central Reservations. By now it was 1:30pm, so Camilla went to buy us some lunch. We munched on pakhoras and sipped Cokes while we waited in the queue. At about 2:30pm it was, once more, our turn to be served.

I handed in the form. The clerk scrutinised it, and shook his head.

I am sorry sir, but I cannot make this reservation. There is no first class allotment on this train“.

Excuse me?” I felt like I might explode.

There is no first class allotment on this train“.

There is no first class on this train?” I repeated slowly, trying to keep myself calm. Once again, the Indian habit of not volunteering information had reared its ugly head. I had not asked the man at Counter Number 6 if there was a first class carriage on the specific train I was trying to book seats on, so he had not bothered to tell me, but had merely directed me to the appropriate queue.

No sir, there is first class. There is no first class allotment“.

Huh?”

You are unable to reserve a first class ticket on this train, but there is a first class carriage“, the clerk explained to me, talking in a slow voice and rolling his eyes. He clearly considered me to be mentally defective. At this stage, I probably was.

So how do I get a first class ticket?” I asked.

You reserve a second class ticket, and then you speak to the conductor on the train, and pay a supplement, and you will be moved to first class“.

OK. So if we take second class tickets, we can upgrade them to first class tickets on the train?”

Yes“.

And we will then get into first class“.

Maybe“.

What do you mean, maybe?

All the first class tickets may be reserved“.

But you just said I cannot reserve a first class ticket“.

Yes“.

Well, sunshine, you explain to me how all the first class tickets can be reserved if it is not possible to reserve first class tickets for this train“.

The ticket clerk stared at me blankly. Obviously, no-one had ever posed this challenging conundrum to him before. Anyway, I was way past the point of caring.

Fine, fine, just give me two second class tickets“.

You guessed it.

We were sent back to Counter Number 6, to the guy who handled second class ticket allotments. The queue was long, it was now 2:45pm, and the only thing preventing me from bursting into another fit of rage was Camilla squeezing my arm so hard that the circulation was cut off.

Nothing was worth this torment – I would rather have crawled to Calcutta. So we retired to the back of the room, pulled out the train timetable, and planned a different route to Madras via Calcutta, using other trains which on paper would take three hours longer, but given the time we had already wasted in queues up to that point, would probably wind up being quicker in the long run.

We filled in the relevant forms, and marched downstairs to join the queue for Counter Number 1. In effect, we were starting our whole day again, only six hours later.

And then, after standing in the queue for about five minutes, a bona-fide miracle happened. A well dressed Indian man standing at the front of the queue turned around, saw us and called out: “You are guests in my country. You should not have to stand in this ridiculous queue“, and indicated with a wave that we should come forward to where he was standing. We gratefully shuffled forward. I felt a touch guilty pushing my way to the front of the line, but the other folks in the queue did not seem to mind, and I reminded myself that we had, after all, been at Central Reservations since 8:45am, so we had earned our privileges, so to speak.

For the fifth time that day I handed a reservation form to a clerk behind a ticket window. It was not the same clerk I had seen earlier, at 9:30am, at the very same Counter Number 1.

The new clerk began tapping away on his computer keyboard, but after a few moments he stopped, a puzzled look on his face.

Excuse me sir. Where exactly do you want to go?

I explained how we wanted to go from Darjeeling to Calcutta, stay there a few days, and then continue on to Madras.

Yes Sir, but there is a better way“.

With that, he resumed his typing, and five minutes later we were issued tickets on the very train we had asked for at 9:30am that morning. I swear this is true. Camilla and I stared numbly at the tickets – for a train which was allegedly not on the system, and for which no first class allotment was available, and for which first class reservations could not be made, and for which we had now wasted an entire day. We were booked in a second class carriage, but only because the ticket clerk informed us that the first class carriage was full. A choking lump formed in my throat, and if there hadn’t been a glass barrier between us and the ticket clerk, I would have jumped over the counter and kissed him.

Having endured all this just to get tickets, we had expected, somewhat foolishly I suppose, that at least the train ride itself would go smoothly.

Now, India Rail is certainly not what one could call a speedy operator – even an “express” train averages only around 40 kilometres per hour. Consequently, the approximately 1,000 kilometre ride from Calcutta to Madras, which in Europe or Japan might take as little as four hours, balloons in India into a horrifying, 27 hour endurance marathon.

Aware that the journey would be a long one, and mindful of our recent gastric problems in Darjeeling, we stocked up beforehand on bread, cheese, tomatoes, Nestle baby food (the best train breakfast – just add water, and guaranteed not to give you diarrhoea) and gallons of mineral water.

We boarded the train at 5:00pm, claimed our seats, and settled back. We found ourselves sharing a compartment with an Indian family, comprising a well-rounded Calcutta textile merchant who had a hawkish face, a prominent nose and an equally prominent gold pinkie ring, his diminutive wife, and their rotund son, an acne-faced replica of the father. The family was heading to a town near Madras on some sort of religious pilgrimage.

As the train pulled out of the station, the merchant explained to me: “This is one of the best trains in India. It is always on time. I have caught it many times“. With these encouraging words ringing in our ears, we read for a few hours, had some dinner, played backgammon, and went to sleep.

Indian trains have the annoying habit of halting frequently and inexplicably. Some people we met told us that when locals from a village without a railway station are close to home, they pull the emergency cord, and hop off the train when it stops. But others we met told us that this was the Indian equivalent of an urban myth and that the frequent random stops are because of a dubious maintenance program and hopelessly outdated signalling system.

Whatever the true reason, we were thus quite used to such delays, and when the train stopped unexpectedly at 10:00am the following morning, we didn’t think twice. It was only after we had been stationary for about three quarters of an hour that we began to think that something was not quite right.

Other passengers had begun to ask questions as well, and the merchant informed us that an accident a few kilometres ahead was delaying our progress. I went for a stroll up and down the platform, and spoke to a man selling Pepsi, who told me that track repairs was the cause of the delay. I asked the assistant stationmaster, and he told me that although he was unsure of the exact reason for the delay, it had something to do with a broken signal-light, but “relax, Sir, an announcement will be made soon“.

Clearly, no-one had the faintest idea as to what was going on.

At 1:00pm we ate lunch. With a Swiss army knife I cut up some bread, cheese and tomatoes, and using a plastic bag as a tray, fashioned two quite passable sandwiches, if I may say so myself. This sandwich assembly process was hugely amusing to the other occupants of our compartment, who had been thoroughly amused by our outlandish eating habits. In particular, when Camilla has whipped up some Nestle baby food for breakfast they had literally burst out laughing at us.

By contrast, the merchant’s wife prepared lunch for her family by extracting a set of metal containers from her enormous travel bag, and in a matter of minutes she had laid out a banquet of two curries, rice, dahl, samosas, papadums and bread. Her husband and son tucked in heartily, cool and relaxed and oh-so-suave in their matching sets of loose white travelling pyjamas. And when they had eaten their fill, the woman took some food for herself.

This performance was repeated at each meal during the journey, and the merchant’s wife never ran out of supplies – she seemed to possess the magical bottomless travel bag. By the end of the long journey, when our meagre rations had been exhausted, she was even feeding us as well: “You must try these samosas, my wife makes them herself, they are wonderful“, the merchant would say as his wife proceeded to extract yet another metal container from the depths of her bag, or “this curry is very good; try some, but be careful, maybe it is too hot for your delicate taste, ha ha!“.

Rumours as to the cause of the delay continued to circulate wildly, and the angry crowd of passengers that was now gathered outside the stationmaster’s office to demand information grew more and more vociferous. But the train steadfastly refused to move. Every half hour an announcement was made to the effect that another announcement would follow shortly. The uncertainty meant that we could not leave the platform, lest the train suddenly depart. It felt like we were stars in a B-grade schlock movie, “Prisoners of India Rail“.

It was not until 3:00pm that a definitive announcement was made. It turns out that in the run up to the Indian national elections, some unhappy cotton farmers had tied themselves to the train tracks.  Apparently, this is a legitimate way of making a political point in India. (I experienced the very same thing again 25 years later – see my previous post The Dead Chicken Restaurant).

On hearing this news, the beleaguered passengers let out a collective sigh, and everyone (besides Camilla and I) seemed to accept the news with a degree of fatalistic resignation.

Well, why don’t they just remove the protesters?” I asked a Kashmiri student I had befriended during the course of the long morning.

The police will not do anything, because the elections are coming up, and by removing the protesters they will create a bad picture“. Obviously, I had much to learn about the subtleties of Indian politics.

When will the protesters leave?” was my next question.

Oh, I am not sure, but most likely when it gets dark, they will get tired and hungry, and go home for dinner“, was the answer.

Fan-bloody-tastic. We had been on the same platform for most of the day, and it was at least another five hours until sunset.

Indians have a remarkable sense of patience, and have a superb ability to cope with delays, perhaps from years of practice. Time is a flexible concept in India, and all around me on the platform people were adjusting their temporal reference point in a way that would have made Einstein proud. Some of the passengers simply tuned out, and placed themselves into a semi-coma, kind of like a short-term cryonic suspension. Random groups of men formed on the platform, drinking tea and chatting. A group of boys started a spontaneous game of cricket. People slept on the floor, sat on benches staring out to space, walked around aimlessly. Camilla was content to sit in the carriage reading a book and writing letters.

In short, no-one, it seemed, had any problem with killing a few hours of forced inactivity. Except me, that is. I hadn’t showered for over 24 hours, I desperately needed to shave, and I was coated in a layer of dust and grime and sweat. I resumed pacing up and down the platform, drank about a dozen Pepsi’s, ranted and raved to my newfound Kashmiri student friend about the inadequacies of the Indian rail system (just in case he had any misgivings on this point), and looked at my watch every two minutes, as if in so doing I could accelerate the course of time.

Reading frustrated me, the resigned attitude of the other passengers infuriated me, and I wanted to scream, to punch someone out, or to jump behind the engine of the train and force the damn thing to move. I stalked the platform, muttering obscenities to myself, casting wild looks at passers-by.  I was literally going mad.

And, as if the situation wasn’t dire enough, things began to get exceedingly smelly. Although the train had been stationary for hours, the toilets had been in constant use (all those curries). The toilets were the old-fashioned type that flushed directly out of the train, and thus piles of shit had now formed on the rails beneath the carriages. The heat intensified the smell, and hundreds of joyous flies buzzed around the smouldering mounds.

Believe me when I tell you that it is just no fun being stuck in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do, for hours on end, whilst the accumulated excrement of a thousand train passengers putrefies around you.

Finally, at 9:00pm, the whistle sounded, and the train slowly creaked into motion. As we set off into the darkness I peered out the window for about half an hour, hoping to see some of the culprit cotton farmers so that I could pelt them with the remains of a rotten tomato. No such luck and I finally drifted off to a restless sleep.

We were woken by the conductor at 7:00am the next morning, as we pulled into the Madras Central railway station. We gathered up our luggage said our good-byes to the Indian family with whom we had shared a tiny compartment, and our lives, for the past forty hours. Forty hours! That meant that over and above the scheduled journey time, the train was an additional thirteen hours late.

In parting, the merchant shook my hand, and said to me: “This is usually such a good train. The best train in India. It always runs on time. I have caught it many times before and this has never happened. I think we were just very unlucky“.

Thank, pal. I’ll remember that for next time.

[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 6: Madras and Tamil Nadu]

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