City City Bang Bang, Columns

Aboard the Nostalgia Express

According to newspaper reports, the railway reservation chart is now history. And for generations of Indians, the meaning of rail travel has been altered. Bit by bit, railway travel as we once knew it is being changed.

We get our tea and coffee in thermos flasks. The kullad-chai, is now increasingly a thing of nostalgia and chaiii-chai garam sounds part of a soundtrack of the past. There are no steam engines to ensure that we emerge from journey bearing its imprint. Why, some stations now have escalators, making the trudge up and down overbridges in order to get to one’s platform unnecessary. Bottled water has made unnecessary the life-or-death dash to the one filthy faucet that every station had, and which the entire train gravitated to, while their loved ones waited in white-knuckled suspense as to whether they would return or triumph or get stranded at Bhusaval Jn for the rest of their lives. The Indian Bradshaw, the All-India railway time-table that covered all major train routes, is now more or less out of circulation. Barring the humble (yes, literally so) toilet which lives on in the 19th century with steely determination, and continues to spread its uninhibited mark on railway tracks across the country, it would seem that a lot has changed.

When it comes to railway reservations, change has been slow in coming. In the good old days (not), charts were handwritten. This meant that the combination of illegible scrawls with incorrectly recorded names meant that looking for one’s name was a lucky dip. Given that often, reservation charts were not put up before the arrival of the train, the only option was to run in utter panic from one coach to another, and look for one’s name. When reservation charts discovered the shockingly advanced technology of the typewriter (invented in 1878), things took a quantum leap, although instead of wrong names written in hand became wildly incorrect names set in type. Technology made errors official, making arguments about whose name was really on the chart that much more contentious. Eventually, looking for S Desai M 14, could well mean settling on C Devraj M 44.

The idea of being able to reserve a berth was in itself a bonus. That kind of a guarantee of comfort was not in keeping with the spirit of the times. In buses for instance, a handkerchief dropped through the window was the closest that we came to any form of reservation. The tactic was surprisingly effective; while no rules were followed when people jostled and used elbows martially to enter crowded buses, a handkerchief was accepted by and large as a legitimate sign of occupation.

Otherwise, life was a giant game of chance, and we were meant to struggle till we reached a semblance of an acceptable compromise, which we proceeded to take great joy in. We stood in lines in front of counters that abruptly shut. We pleaded with ticket examiners to conjure up an extra berth. We called all officials, whatever their seniority ‘sir’ in an effort to extract a small favour from their egos. We hunted for obscure connections, names that we could drop when trying to get some work done officially. We cowered, charmed, wheedled and cajoled with varying degrees of obsequiousness so that we could get what we wanted. And we were not picky about taking whatever we ended up getting, for everything was indeed a bonus.

Unlike now, when reservations can be made at the click of a button, the task of booking a reserved seat was a massive project. Having spent one’s adolescence in Delhi, every summer holiday meant that gaggle of relatives, most of them obscure made their way northwards and asked for return tickets to be booked, cancelled and rebooked with a blithe disregard for what it actually entailed. Little red and green discs showed the availability of seats, and for most part, nothing was available for months. Being able to successfully reserve seats was a great achievement, made sweeter by the amount of effort it took.

Of course, having a reserved seat in reality made no guarantees at all. We could occupy the seat we had reserved, but any illusions about the exclusivity of ownership of said seat, were quickly demolished by gate crashers at every station. One had first right of use, and others had every right to ask you to ‘adjust’ and give their backsides some perch-space, which soon, in the socialist spirit of the time, became equal ownership. I think we became closet-capitalists then for as the propertied few with reservations, we lived the fear of loss of property in a visceral way. The anxiety about seats lives on till late in life. I remember a few years ago, while travelling in Europe, feeling the same anxiety, quite ignoring the fact that more people probably lived on Janta Express than in all of Europe.

One of the great innovations that took place was the introduction of the concept of RAC- reservations against cancellations. Here one was guaranteed a seat, which could turn into a berth, in case of cancellations. Every cancellation released one berth and one seat, which felt like magic. It is part of the Indian genius that is able to reframe scarcity as a form of bounty.

The train journey is no longer as central as it once was in the middle-class imagination. But nothing comes close to it as a signature experience of India. It was, and continues to be a showcase for the diversity in language, food, class and culture, the constraints that India presented, its ability to find joy within scarcity, the common threads that were inevitably located amidst differences, the tension between the elite and the everyday regulars. However much it changes in form, the railway journey is a junction in our lives, a place where different kinds of lives intersect and produce something that cannot be captured anywhere else. But, yes, the toilets do need to change.

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