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Between trains wrong and right

A mixed-up train journey and an insightful slice of life that came with it. All’s well that ends well.

Twelve years ago, before I bought my first mobile phone, I was in the railway station in Thrissur, Kerala, waiting for the overnight Alappuzha (formerly Alleppey) Express to travel to Chennai. The train was expected at 6.30 p.m. I congratulated myself on having arrived on time, and found a porter who did not either say something cheeky or suggest I jump down from Platform 1 and clamber up on to Platform 2 on the opposite side of the rails in order to avoid going up and down the staircase to achieve the right spot. I bought a bottle of water and arranged myself and my luggage to await the announcement of the position of my bogie, the second-class air-conditioned sleeper, in which I was booked. I still remember the berth number: A-34.

To my pleasant surprise, about ten minutes before the scheduled time, the train, heart ablaze, pounded into the station. I looked around desperately for my porter but there was no sight of him. With a deep sense of grievance I dragged my luggage to the compartment and boarded.

I usually make friends with my fellow-passengers as soon as I settle my luggage, but this time I stood at the door looking for my porter. Though he hadn’t quite completed his assignment, I wanted to pay him. The train moved and I returned to my seat, feeling guilty.

My fellow-passengers comprised a gentleman in the aisle seat who avoided eye-contact, and a mother and her two grown-up sons on the berth opposite me who were reading the Bible. I got no chance to start a friendly conversation till I reached Palakkad. Suddenly, and probably because it was the ‘meals’ station, the mood in the compartment lightened.

“I have to make a phone call,” I said to no one in particular, and stepped out. As I made enquiries to locate a phone booth on the platform, a masterful looking ticket collector boomed at me: “Please get back in, madam; there isn’t time for you to make a call and return before the train leaves.”

I rushed back to my seat and my companions suddenly looked up with friendly faces. But my conversation died on my lips as the man in the aisle seat said: “So, going to Delhi?”

I jumped out of my skin. “Delhi? No! I’m going to Chennai”... whereupon the gentleman laughed and said, “Well, you’re on the wrong train, and it happens quite often because there are just ten minutes between this Nizamuddin Express and the Alappuzha Express. Anyway, don’t worry. Get down at the next stop and the Alappuzha will follow this train. If someone hasn’t occupied your berth you can catch the right train and get a night’s rest!”

To my consternation, the ticket collector who had ordered me on to the train arrived, and I blurted out that I had a very special problem, having boarded the wrong train by mistake. He took an instant dislike to me and said: “You saw me on the platform and didn’t say a word.” The prayerful trio broke their silence and argued in my favour: “She didn’t know till a moment ago.” And the gent in the aisle seat said, “You know this happens frequently. Let her sit here till Tirupur and get off and catch the Alappuzha. She is all alone.”

“Nothing doing,” said the ticket collector, applying the rules sternly. He turned to me, fully enjoying his sense of power. “Get down now, go and sit in the unreserved compartment till Tirupur and wait for the Alappuzha there.”

With the united efforts of my co-passengers I was taken down and put into the unreserved compartment, with numerous sympathetic murmurs and veiled abuses directed against the inflexible employee of the Southern Railway. (“Is he human?” “This is what I don’t like. Why can’t he …”, and so on.)

For two hours I sat with the wind roaring in my face, pushed as I was against the window by two women who casually crowded on to and across me and conducted their conversation at top volume. Some people returning from Sabarimala broke into a bhajan, and children ran about screaming joyfully or after bringing up their tea-time snacks. Quite different from the air-conditioned compartment I had been ejected from, but… still entertaining!

Tirupur arrived and I alighted nervously. There wasn’t a soul in sight. It was a little past 9 p.m. A while later someone strolled up and greeted me. He peered at me in the half-light of the poorly lit platform. “Alappuzha?” he asked in the short-hand we are so comfortable with in India. “Yes,” I replied. “I’m going for an interview in Chennai.” We hung about in companionable silence till the Alappuzha Express thundered in. I looked for my bogie (which my poor abandoned porter must have investigated in Thrissur looking for his fare) and located A-34. It was still unoccupied. I slid my suitcase beneath the berth, pulled down the sleeper ‘bed’ and sank into sleep.

I considered not telling anyone about what had happened, but it is too good a story to suppress.

minioup@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 11:16:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/between-trains-wrong-and-right/article17083385.ece1

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