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Country Comforts

Part 1

With timing that was far more impeccable than their usual service, the MSRTC went on strike 2 days before Diwali over a pay dispute. I've traveled on their buses for close to 9 years and know full well just how popular they can be just before a major holiday. The chaotic crowd at Dadar is so dense, one would only need to introduce a few Naga sadhus into the mix and hey presto! we've got ourselves a brand new Kumbh Mela. Albeit one where getting out of Bombay ASAP is the only kind of salvation devotees seek. 

News and newspapers being what they are at present, I was unaware of the jolly bus crisis until Wednesday morning when a well-wisher asked how I proposed to go home for the holidays, flourishing the paper in my face with the reluctant panache of a small-town magician. Realising the gravity of the situation, I looked up train schedules and was stunned to find General category seats available on an outstation train departing later that afternoon. As far as I could see, there were two drawbacks - firstly, this alleged 'express' train was scheduled to stop at every station built along the route and secondly, but of course not at the one station that was close to home; the latter admittedly a small, selfish quibble. With no other recourse and anxious to get the hell out of the city before others cottoned on to the same idea, the early evening saw me in a 3AC compartment, still dazed about my luck.

What is it about trains that makes a journey so charming and hopelessly romantic? Nothing, I reckon... at least, not anymore. Outstation trains today are dirty, noisy and heaving to the rafters with those who can't afford flights. And this was 3AC. Heaven only knows what pestilential horrors were being unleashed on those luckless enough to travel in the Sleeper compartment. Perhaps this was always so. When traveling, I'm not picky; I'll take what I can get and be grateful, besides. Yet, it grieves me to report that our trains are unarguably filthy, their grubbiness now an innate part of the nature of things. 

During my school days, the family did our fair share of holidays by train. Those were the glory days of the railways; flights were an uber-expensive privilege and Indian Airlines ruled the domestic skies with the feeble authority of a half-witted court jester while buses were notoriously unreliable. So, my poor father would book train tickets months in advance and we'd still end up with that peculiar status called RAC, allowing us to look forward to frantic bribing of the TC and the eventual sharing of a sitting berth with some oily stranger. Egads!

If I were as smart as some authors happily selling books today based on their dodgy recollections and vivid descriptions of quaint rail journeys and evocative landscapes, I'd have sat glued to the windows and taken copious notes. Sadly, my hazy memories of train travel usually involve bolting for the upper berth, opening a book and blissfully tuning the world out except during meal times and that magical hour of night when the main lights are turned off, leaving only the dull blue or yellow ones on to illuminate the ONE mofo whose snores and farts sounded like a herd of hippos in heat, and by a happy coincidence, also happened to share your section of the compartment. 

My latest adventure mercifully did not include any bio-gas plants masquerading as humans. But, there were some kids in the vicinity practicing to become banshees later in life. My hands itched to yank them by the collars and toss them off the train but who was I to deny their parents the chance to repent not using a condom or opting for a vasectomy? Things got much better at Dadar when a number of people hopped in, one of whom coolly asked me and the 2 other gents in my row to kindly adjust. Now, don't get me wrong. When called for, I can be the milk of human kindness. However, something about the brazen nonchalance with which he 'requestold' us called for some milk of magnesia to be slipped into his water-bottle.

Still, this is a common issue on outstation trains (much worse in other parts of the country, I'm told) and at least the lad was no stranger to deodorant. Mercifully, he and the rest of the rabble exited en masse at Kalyan, having treated the train as a local. And when you see the crowds on an actual local train, pray who am I to question them? That left us, the original occupants, to try and get comfortable again. One of the other passengers took this to heart and proceeded to give the journey more flavour by switching on his smartphone and playing the speeches of a particularly enthusiastic community preacher, at full volume. From what I could gather, the dude was indignantly yodeling on about god and women, which is all very well if you're so inclined but honestly doesn't have the natural popularity of a Binaca Geetmala. I put on my own headphones, hoping the hint would be taken but was unable to compete with the Sultan of Shriek's lessons.

To be continued.

Song for the moment: Trade Winds - Rod Stewart  

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