If I die tomorrow, I can safely say I've done it all. I've traveled in the 'Unreserved' cabin of an Indian train.
The Indian railway system is, in a manner that is not dissimilar to Indian society, fraught with various classes. And the lowest rung in that ladder belongs to the 'Unreserved' or 'Third' class. And that is exactly where Salil and I found ourselves late in the night of December 26th.
We were traveling to Bombay. 'Why' isn't really important right now (for those of you who frolic in insignificant details, we were going for Mood Indigo), but all that matters is that we had to get there pronto. Our safest bet, and first plan of action, was to take a bus. However, when we reached the bus station at about 12.30 am, we found a long line of people standing in front of the ticket counter, but the person manning the counter was nowhere to be seen. We gathered, from the whispers and mumbles that we heard around us, that there weren't going to be any more buses for the night. We were in for a long wait.
Patience has never featured among my strongest virtues, and I suggested that we hop over to the neighboring train station and try our luck there. "Surely," said I, "There must be some train passing through at this unearthly hour, that we can hop onto."
And sure enough, we found out that there was a train coming from Hyderabad and going to Bombay, that would arrive at 1.05 am. The only problem was that it would be impossible to get tickets for any class other than the dreaded 'Unreserved'. We rushed to the ticket counter to purchase the necessary fare, only to be met with a rather churlish individual who certainly didn't enjoy working the night-shift. Ten minutes later, tickets in hand (or in waist-pouch, to be precise) we climbed the overhead bridge and ran to the platform at which our train was standing.
An 'Unreserved' ticket gives you the right to be on the train in any one of the general carriages. Nothing more, nothing less. Sorry, make that nothing more, a lot less! And we found that out the hard way.
As we walked down the length of the platform, searching for our 'general' cabins, we harbored thoughts of slipping into one of the higher class cars. But the legion of railway officials prowling around, ensured that those thoughts evanesced rapidly into the cold, nighttime air. We finally reached the general section.
The stories I had heard in the past about such Unreserved cabins had done plenty to scare me, but they had hardly prepared me for the abomination that greeted me when I entered. The general cabin is composed of several smaller cubicles, each with four rows of wooden slats, two for people to sit on, and the other two, at about shoulder height, for people to sleep on at night. The was another row of slats that ran along the wall and served as a luggage rack.
But the unfurnished environ didn't trouble me too much. It was easy to see that with the crowd that was already present in the cabin, there would be scant little room for either Salil or me on any of the seats. All the seats were occupied, mostly with sleeping travelers. All the sleeping berths were occupied with sleeping people. All the luggage racks were occupied with sleeping people. All the space in between rows of seats was occupied with sleeping people. Don't ask me where these travelers stored their luggage, I don't know. I am inclined to believe they may not even have had any. Their footwear was placed on top of the fans!
These people were from the lower strata of society, comprising mainly of poor village folk and the like. There were families and farmers, grandparents and grandchildren, and I even spied a couple of sadhus (ascetic monks).
Salil and I resigned ourselves to a few hours in the passageway near the door. This space was crowded too, but at least it offered us enough space to place our backpacks on the floor and stand beside them. The milieu wasn't the most pleasant I've ever been in. The wash-basin in front of me was clogged with trash of all sorts - fruit peels, plastic, paper, saliva and of course paan (a reddish tobacco concoction of sorts). There was a mashed up banana lying in the corner. The washrooms were about five feet away. (For a while I thought that perhaps the washrooms might be cleaner and I should stay there for a while, but those hopes were rudely dashed when someone opened the door to reveal an evil-looking, brown mass slathered all over the floor.
I decided the wisest thing for me to do would be to keep the door open and stand there facing outside. This would provide me with a bit of fresh (albeit frighteningly cold) air, and also relieve me of the stench emanating from inside the car. There was another guy standing beside the door, obviously with similar intentions in his mind. As the train started to slowly move out of the station, we reached a tacit agreement whereby, we would both share the door as best as we could.
I have in the past spoken about the pleasures of traveling at the door of an Indian train. The circumstances on this occasion were quite different though - my doorway companion not quite as charming or loquacious as the American lasses, the nighttime scenery outside wasn't much to speak about and the smell certainly much less fragrant. It's safe to say that I didn't enjoy it as much.
About half an hour into the journey, the man, whose name I gathered was Laxman, left me, and went to stand in front of Salil. I enjoyed the peace and space that that afforded. However, after a little while I realized that Laxman and the other people standing in the passageway were shivering with cold due to my open door. I, for that matter, was already as cold as a Popsicle, by virtue of standing right at the door, half outside. So I closed the door, and sat myself on my backpack, next to Salil who was sitting on his. Laxman, promptly came and sat himself in between me and the now closed door.
For a while, Salil and I read Freakonomics, the book he was carrying with him. Soon, he was too sleepy to continue, so I read on alone while he nodded off. Laxman was by now fast asleep, and had apparently decided the side of my arm made for an excellent pillow. Repeated attempts at pushing him away were futile, and so I threw in the towel and turned my nose away.
At about 4 am, the train halted at Kalyan, the only stop before ours. We knew that quite a few people would alight here, and that we might perhaps find ourselves some seats. As the train drew to a stop, people started pouring out of the car - at least 40 of them from our door itself. Salil and I grinned at each other. Finally, a proper place to sit! But we were in for a surprise. For when we peered into the cabin, there was still no vacant seat! It was like the magic jar of oil that refused to empty - you could take out as much as you wanted, but it would still be full! We returned to our original places. At least the passageway was now empty!
In about another hour, we reached Dadar, the place we were scheduled to alight. Salil had a desperate urge to go to the washroom, but couldn't muster up the courage after what we had seen inside. I told him that perhaps the other washroom might be better, and so he went to look. As it turned out, it was indeed much cleaner.
Our adventure didn't end even after we alighted the train. We were rudely questioned on the platform by an inebriated policeman, my shaggy look obviously not helping things much.
I am certain that all Unreserved compartments aren't as bad as the one we traveled in. The train had come from Hyderabad and was at the end of a long journey. Perhaps, the shorter distance trains (say Poona-Bombay) have better Unreserved cars. I can stand crowds. I don't like them, but I can stand them. But it was the sheer filth that lay all around that made it unbearable. And to think that the car next to ours was an air-conditioned First-class cabin! We were 10 feet away from luxury!
I've mostly followed a "try-everything-at-least-once" mantra in life, so I didn't mind it so much. But I think I can confidently say that in this case, it's not "at least once" but "only once"!
In case you want to read another account of the same (though I don't know why that may be), here's the rather tardigrade Salil.