I have been a regular rail traveller from Chennai to Kerala for 35 years now, visiting folks at least twice every year, from the time I was a child. Train journeys were always eagerly looked forward to. One felt quite cosy in the Sleeper Class and the 13-hour journey provided ample opportunity for peaceful reading, light conversation with co-passengers, and, of course, plenty of window-gazing. I would wake up excitedly at dawn to catch my first view of distant mountains, trees, rivers, paddyfields and a glorious sunrise. These journeys were the perfect way to unwind. My love of travelling was thus nurtured, thanks to the Southern Railway that provided a comfortable and affordable means.

Sadly, over the last four or five years, the journeys have become less and less comfortable, and posed several problems, thus provoking me to consider other means of travelling, much against my wish. Take this recent journey, for instance.

On a Friday evening, my family and I boarded the Trivandrum Mail, with tickets we booked three months ahead on account of a long weekend. We entered our compartment, only to realise that the train was more crowded than usual. Passengers simply stood on the aisle like in a crowded bus, making no space for those entering. We squeezed our way in, with our luggage and child, and finally reached our berths, only to find eight people already seated there and a few the upper berths. Two of them got up, making a little space for us.

As the train, packed to capacity, slowly pulled out of Chennai Central that sultry evening, I waited for the ticket examiner to arrive and imagined that he would deal with the overcrowding. Of the two college students seated near me, one didn't have a confirmed ticket. Why was she not in the unreserved compartment, I wondered. The TTE came and slapped a fine (amounting to a little less than Rs.500) and explained its breakup. Looking relieved, the girl promptly took out the money from her handbag and paid it. The TTE looked at her friend. “Are you sure you can adjust?” he asked. “Yes, sir, we'll share the berth,” came the reply. What about us, I thought. Nobody was concerned.

The TTE looked at the travellers on the upper berth, whose legs stretched out forming an overhead bridge, effectively blocking the breeze from the fans. These were regular commuters to Arakkonam and Katpadi, who shared the seats of long distance passengers in reserved compartments. He nodded his head, and moved on with all the authority that his black coat gave him. Several passengers followed him, pleading in hushed tones, to have their berths confirmed.

There were people everywhere, occupying all available space. Cellphones blared from pockets and handbags. Luggage was squeezed in between legs or left in the way. A visit to the restroom was like an obstacle race, stepping over bags, jostling with those standing on the aisle, and inching away from those seated near the entrance.

Soon, it was time for dinner. Carefully balancing tiffin boxes on our laps and seat corners, we made haste to finish our food. Suddenly, my husband waved his hand at something on the seat near me. I turned quite casually, half-expecting to see a cockroach or a fly. But alas! A pair of tiny eyes looked at me before scampering into the crevice between the seat and the wall. A rat! I was horrified. What if the little brat had nibbled at my chappatis when I wasn't looking? That was the end of my dinner.

When it was time to go to sleep, we requested the co-passengers to let us use our rightful berths. As we switched off the lights, we found two youngsters seated on the upper berth, sharing a berth that was meant for one. The two college girls huddled together on another berth. Soon the lights were switched on. Two men were making themselves comfortable in our coupe. One spread a newspaper on the floor and lay down between the berths, while the other sat on the edge of a berth, close to the legs of a passenger who was fast asleep. The lights were turned off again and the motley crowd made another attempt to sleep. Aided by exhaustion, I drifted off to sleep after a while, but my husband had no such luck as he thought of the men who were sitting up in the coupe.

Daybreak brought with it the suburban commuters of Kerala, who squeezed the long-distance travellers a little more as they vied for space on the seats that were now spilling over. How true the tale of the camel and the tent!

The train entered the Ernakulam station half hour behind schedule and we prepared to disembark. After a struggle penetrating the thick wall of passengers in the aisle, we managed to extricate ourselves. Thank God for a ‘safe' journey, I thought with a sigh. As I walked down the platform, I couldn't help thinking of the way train travel had degenerated over the last few years. I plead with Southern Railway to check overcrowding, ticketless travel, and the menace of pests on trains, because countless Indians are dependent on it for a ‘shubh yatra'!

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