My problem with the Indian Railways

Over the last few years, I have always updated posts about the Indian Railways. Some like it, some find it amusing, some find it annoying; I have never really cared.

But I don’t diss the railways for nothing. It is, of course, an unbelievably HUGE organization and the fact that the railways runs so many trains and carries so many passengers in a day is mesmerizing.

But that’s no bloody excuse for the state of affairs. Indian trains aren’t just unpunctual or slow: you could blame those things on the huge cost of infrastructure and an inability to revamp the entire network throughout such a huge country. That is pardonable. But the railways are also shoddy and dirty as hell; what’s the excuse for that?

Every year, a budget is rolled out for the railways. Every year, new amenities are planned for the upper class passengers- wifi, food orders at platforms, resting rooms at stations, online booking for these resting rooms, private caterers who will deliver restaurant food to your seats, e-tickets that can be flashed on your phone or on your laptop, charging points for your tablets and MP3 players and your kids PSPs.

But fuck that! Two coaches away (separated from your air conditioned coach with terminal bogeys so no movement is possible between them) is the other India. That’s where there are no charging points; that’s where there are no reservations; that’s where there are 2-3 passengers for every seat.

That’s where in the killer heat of the Indian summer, five hundred people will sweat in unison: some squeezed against each other on the wooden benches, some standing, others squatting on the floor. In winter, the same number of people will freeze their asses off in unison. Some who are travelling alone will hold their shit in because if they go to the toilets, their seats will be taken when they come back.

This is where the Ticket inspector will find someone travelling with a wrong ticket and charge more money than what’s right; this is where the folks from the pantry car of the train cannot enter while the train is moving, because there is no entry to the ‘general’ coach from the reserved ones.

These are the toilets that are not cleaned at the next important station where a group of uniformed men spray water from the commodes to the doors on the other coaches. These are the toilets which, if you enter, you will no longer fear hell in your afterlife.

Every time I board a train, I see two lines starting from the spot where the general bogeys will come. These line stretch from the center of the platform to its edges. The number of people in that line is always many times higher than the number of seats inside those bogeys. There is a team of policemen with sticks and big bellies guarding the line. There is a team of porters who promise to get you a seat in exchange for 50 rupees or 100.

When the train arrives, there’s mayhem. The able ones jump and hang on to the doors that aren’t even opened. “Coolies” start throwing towels inside. Women with babies in their arms start running and join the mosh pit beside the door. Each one to his own. Or hers. If the chaos gets beyond control- the police swing into action- by randomly beating people- in a routine exercise called a ‘lathicharge‘, a colonial residue leftover from the glorious days of the British when they would swing their batons at anything Brown and moving.

How many get pushed and how many get stamped, and how many get hit by the police, even the plethora of Gods don’t know.

Elsewhere in the world, this happens when food packets are distributed to refugees who have been starving for days, when rescue boats reach the shores of stranded settlements in a flood; in the Indian Railways platforms, it happens every single fucking time.

For an able-bodied young man, a short trip in an unreserved coach is not that bad. Worst comes to worst, I can lean against the wall by the door or just stand for four hours or so. But a long-distance travel is another story all together.

I travelled once by “general” from Mumbai to Hyderabad. It was an enactment of the ship journey of Alex Hailey’s Roots in the 21st century. A coolie took 50 rupees and promised us a seat (Yes, I bribed, I do that a lot. That’s how I get around.) When the train arrived he was nowhere to be found. By the time we broke through the human sea and got inside- another coolie had placed a towel on a seat and said we would have to pay him twenty rupees if we wanted to sit there. We did, after putting up a weak resistance. This twenty hurt more than the fifty outside. That was consensual, this was forced. That was being shrewd, this was being looted. We sat upright on the wooden benches all night. A woman was sitting on the aisle, beside our feet. She had lost a child and was crying. Her husband was drunk- by the looks of it- and was hitting her every few minutes, asking her to stop crying. Like that display of love wasn’t too much to bear already, she had bundled another two children inside two torn blankets and shoved them under the seats, after moving our bags aside. Yes, like that! By morning, I felt so guilty about spending the entire night on the seat even though I had not lost a child nor had a spouse who would hit me at the back of my head, that I got up and stood by the door for the rest of the journey, nested between a dozen raised sweating armpits and their owners in brown holed banyans, slapping tobacco and cracking foul jokes. It was kinda nice, to be honest- now that I think of it.

It’s of course, easy for me to say that, because I obviously don’t travel general out of compulsion.

Apart from the fares, there is little difference between the unreserved class and the pampered travellers. The general class bogeys smell of sweat and their toilets, of urine and shit. The aisles in the AC give you a range of sock smells as you walk past a bogey. Migrant workers will be playing songs from the 90s aloud on Chinese phones in the general bogeys; a family will be playing aloud a pirated hall print of the latest film on their laptop in the AC coach. And honestly, the number of stares a woman travelling alone in either class would be the same.

The Indian railways is THE CHEAPEST mode of transport in the world. The general class fares are HEAVILY subsidised. But so are the sleeper class fares and the Air conditioned classes. And yet, the upper class passengers behave like they own the train.

Giving cheap transport is one thing. Making people travel 48 hours or more in extreme weather conditions, piled up like cattle and poultry is inhuman.

7 decades after the colonial powers left, Indians are dividing their passengers into five different classes. Five! Even the English don’t do that anymore.

So when you and I brag about wifi on trains, or complain about its speed; when we feel pampered on the Rajdhanis, or when we complain the dal doesn’t taste good; When we thank God for chancing upon a charging point in a sleeper compartment, or when we complain about the AC being turned up too high in the night- just remember- we are not just the customers of, but also a reason behind the continuation of, a malignant, classist system that has a different modus operandi for the haves and have-nots.

The railway budget of 2015 apparently included suggestions made by online users- on Facebook , on Twitter, How many of these suggestions suggested increasing the number of general bogeys even by 1 (that’s 20% less misery), of making conditions in these coaches more humane, of actually getting the system to work for those who can’t pay for air conditioning and Dettol soap in toilets?

A century ago, when a upper-caste Indian, educated in England and working in South Africa, was asked to leave a reserved coach, the indignation and humiliation he felt led him to start a revolution that fought against discrimination in two countries, inspired anti-colonial movements throughout the world, and secured the independence of the world’s most populated colony.

\A hundred years later, in the same country, the same apartheid rears its ugly head every day, every moment, on every train.

Mosquitoes and my toes

So last night I went to bed early because I wasn’t feeling well. I fell asleep and dreamt of a drone engine coming towards me… it got closer and closer and the humming grew louder and yet it would not land. It then went silent and I woke up to a mosquito bite.
I abused, I cursed, I let my hostility be known. I went back to sleep. That “tyaaaaaaaaaaaaan” increased again, came closer. I slapped in the dark. My ear suffered a bit of collateral damage, but the enemy wasn’t hurt.
I woke up and searched around my room for a mosquito repellent. I vividly remembered having seen one somewhere at some point of time. My brain (whose conversation with me you have read before and who you know is not an ally) cooked up images of that Good Knight in every corner of the room. But I couldn’t find one. I didn’t want to rack my brain- one enemy is enough.
I went back to bed, and then I heard the engine roar back to life.
Just a note here on the mosquito. A mosquito is a very important species. It’s every atheist’s trump card. In a room full of religious people each arguing over whose theory of creation is right, an atheist will walk in, look around at every one’s faces and ask which God in the right frame of mind would create a mosquito. Refusing to even touch the blunt that’s being passed around, he can get up and walk out, leaving everyone scratching their heads. And while a few of the believers inside may snigger and say “what a silly question”, none of them will have an answer.
In spite of its relevance to human discourse, nobody likes a mosquito. Nobody. Not even the atheist who used its existence as a trump card to mystify an already mystified debate.
I had to get rid of this mosquito.
The tyaaaaaaaaaan continued. I turned on the light. I followed the sound, from right beside my ear to around 180º to my right. I saw a thin form, hovering in the air. Unafraid, undeterred. I reached out for my glasses. Because for me to spot a mosquito in my room without glasses is as difficult as it is for an Indian cricket fan to spot the fallacies of the BCCI.
I wore my glasses, and then I saw her. This mosquito- slim, dark and with legs that had a sinister, perfect curve. She was from that race- the one whose hind legs are curved at the bottom- like a pair of Jodhpuri shoes worn back to front. We’ll call her Anophela, because I don’t know her actual name. I clapped in thin air- my palms came together in perfect unison, creating a reverberating clap when they hit each other. And yet, like in the last scene of a Nicolas Cage movie, Anophela had flown right out when she had sensed the two huge walls closing in on her. I had failed, she had escaped. She sniggered, and flew away to the other corner of my room. The corner that is so full of stuff that I can’t find the corner in that corner.
I needed to sleep. I couldn’t spend an entire night chasing a mosquito.
It then struck me. And I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. There are mosquito repellent apps, right? I checked on play store. In spite of the bad reviews, I downloaded an app. The app claimed to produce supersonic sounds. It had options ranging from 14kHz to 22kHz. I turned it on at 22kHz, laid it on the table beside my pillow and went to sleep.
Supersonic my foot! The short bursts of noise that it was emitting was halfway between a Banshee sobbing and noise you would get when your old Nokia phone vibrated inside the pockets of an unidentifiable pair of pants in your laundry heap.
I turned on the light and saw the mosquito sitting right ON the mobile phone. It flew away. My tubelight’s a better repellent than that app.
I had to kill her. There was no other way. I was losing my sleep and besides, a mosquito can, according to Nana Patekar, turn a man into a transgender.
I threw away the blanket and waited, hoping that the heat of my body (literally, not metaphorically) would attract this tiny but potent enemy into the lair. In the meanwhile, i thought of jokes- bad one, as usual. I even logged on to Facebook and put up a poor joke as my status, Some read it, some laughed, others sniggered. A thousand kilometers away, an ex went “ufff, hawrey” and pretended to ignore. Some would read it later; The rest of the world didn’t care. I felt a sting. I looked down, and there she was- gently sitting on my knee. Poised, proboscis inside my skin, attempting to draw out blood in a maneuvre that would have given a lot of male mosquitoes a lot of ideas.
I had read somewhere that if you clench your muscle while a mosquito is sitting on it, it’ll get stuck there. I tightened all the muscles in my leg and slapped the spot she was sitting on.
It turned out to be an internet myth. I had killed nothing but the moment. She had won round two. I sat there, ready to face the ridicule of a creature more than a thousand times smaller. She was doing a small victory dance, mocking me. She flew past my face. Instinctively, I slapped the air with both my hands.
My hands didn’t even touch each other properly. There was no resounding clap. Just a slight brush of palms. And yet, when my palms separated, there she was. Still, lifeless.
What an unpleasant way to die. How quietly, after raging a fierce battle of tactics for more than two hours. I looked at my hand. The smear on my palm had stripes of dark grey and brown- as though the natural designs of her body while she was alive were imprinted on her grave.
I felt a little sad; but then I remembered the number of artificially manufactured broiler chicken that get killed and pass through the fires of hell to travel down my digestive tracks and turn into shit, I realised how small this crime was. I lay her cadaver on the table- in its entirety. I realised not a drop of blood had splashed from her corpse while being hit. She had died hungry- lying still in death, like a miniature black peacock.
I turned to the wall and saw another mosquito. This one was not as grand as the first one. She seemed disinterested- just stuck to the wall like that, posing no threat. But I knew once the lights went out and she smelled me, she would turn into an enemy. I slapped the wall. She died at once, without warning. I was not so gentle with this one- her head was separated from her body- much like Ned Stark at the end of season one. I laid her to rest beside the compañera; let her be there until a tiny current of air made by the lifting of book would blow her corpse away.
I went to sleep. All that is left now is an ugly smear on my wall, reminding me of the less important death.
In the morning, the mosquito repellent app asked me if I want an update.

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