Misadventures on Indian Rail

June 19, 2016

Photo from Rajasthan Tourism Buzz website


There's a boy maybe my age walking on the platform, wearing no shirt and the dirtiest pair of pants I've ever seen. There are four long scars across his chest, as if someone had taken a knife to his skin. His hair is matted and he looks like an old sepia-toned film strip, the way he's covered in dust and moving, as if in flickering slow motion, in the cursed heat. It's something like 100 degrees in Agra, but it feels like more on this railway platform. The boy jumps onto the tracks.

"Look," my friend from Berkeley says in shock, "he's eating food off the ground!" She stares at his retreating figure, bending down to pluck scraps dropped by passengers or food sellers balancing baskets of fried foods as they cross the tracks. Food and people share the tracks with waste: rotting shit surrounded by flies. A lean monkey follows in the boy's footsteps and starts foraging.

We are standing on Platform 2 waiting for a train that seems it will never come. Departure: 3:45pm, our ticket said. 3:40, bhaiyya, train kahaan hai? approaching two men in long dress shirts sitting near the wall. I point at the e-ticket printout, lightly crumpled with the sweat off my palms. 3:41, rivulets of sweat everywhere are drawing lines, turning my skin into a map, territories everywhere being divided up by new borders. 3:41, This train 5pm they say, exchanging glances with each other.

"Let's ask someone else?" I say to my friend as we thank them and walk away, hesitant to believe that our train could be so late--especially since the train name and number haven't shown up on any of the departure boards that are supposed to show delays. We walk toward the "Enquiries" sign and hand our ticket to one of the officials uniformed in khaki; the room is blissfully equipped with a ceiling fan. He looks at it and hands it off to someone else, who starts looking at his phone. We sit quietly. The train will come to Platform 2 at 4pm, he says.

We trudge back up over the footbridge and back to Platform 2. 4:01. 4:02. It is 4:09 and still the train has not come. When we hear its whistle in the distance we look toward the oncoming train with relief. Time to find our car. We get onto the 2AC car (second-tier air-conditioned) and ask multiple people, pointing to our ticket. Everyone tells us different things. By the time the train is moving, we've resolved to just sit down in a random berth and wait for the conductor to come help us sort things.

I ask another passenger if the train is going to Delhi. He nods.

"Oh right," I say to my friend, "I saw it on the train name. The terminus H. Nizamuddin--it's a rail station in Delhi."

Then I look back to our e-ticket and realize that the train we're on is a train from Mysore to H. Nizamuddin, while our ticket was supposed to be Visakhapatnam to New Delhi Railway Station. Different terminus. Different train.

4:15, we're on the wrong train. I know it with a growling certainty in my stomach, but we wait for the conductor to come anyway. He tells us to go forward, pointing us further and further into the train. We go through 2AC, enter 3AC. Forward, he says again. Into sleeper class? we ask, incredulous. The train stops at a small station, somewhere in Agra still (maybe, we don't really know where we are) and he says, "Get off here. Next train. Or sleeper class." It's clear: either we can get off at this station to try to get on another train, or because our ticket wasn't for this train he'll send us to the significantly more crowded (and non-air conditioned) cars to attempt to find somewhere to sit.

We step off. Standing on the platform as the train leaves, we realize that we have no idea where we are or whether the next train that comes to this sleepy railway station will even go to Delhi. At this point we care less about rosy visions of luxuriously air-conditioned berths and more about managing to make it out of Agra. There are hardly any people milling around, so we find a small building with Hindi text painted all over the walls and peer inside. There, we ask the station manager for help. He scrutinizes our ticket, makes several calls, and gives us the bad news: the train we were supposed to get on has already left Agra Cantonment, and it doesn't stop at this station. He pulls out a plastic chair and invites us to sit. We demur; he insists. The guest is God, a line we heard uttered by a tour guide in Jaipur, comes to mind. I sit.

5:05. We watch, forlorn, as the VSKP NDLS AP Express (the train we were supposed to get on) whizzes by. Two security guards in khaki bring in polished black assault rifles. They discuss the guns with the station manager while I Google the Agra Cantonment departure board on my phone. We have to get back to the Agra Cantonment station, we tell the station manager; we're going to try to get tickets for the Gatimaan Express, a fast train between Agra Cantonment and New Delhi.

"Very costly," the station manager warns us. "1400 rupee." We don't care. He says that he will send one of his men to help us get an autorickshaw. We thank him profusely and one of the security guards escorts us outside and hails an auto, starts bargaining for us in Hindi and tells the driver that we have to make the Gatimaan Express train, which leaves at 5:50pm.

The autorickshaw whizzes through alleys and traffic and one-way streets, once almost colliding with a cow ambling into the street. It's 5:22, 5:30. 5:26: we reach Agra Cantonment. I start running to the booking counter, heat be damned. I stand behind a large group of men and somehow get up to the counter. "Gatimaan Express?" I say breathlessly. I have to go to the Reservations counter, the Booking Counter man says. I scan the station for the Reservations counter.

"Gatimaan? You need to go that way," says a man in a dark red shirt, pointing forward. He looks breathless too. He takes off running ahead of me and I follow him, throwing myself into the Reservations room right behind him. I can understand a little bit of his discussion in Hindi with the Reservations man; at 5:35, it's too late to get tickets for a 5:50 train.

"Can we just get on and pay on the train?" I ask desperately.

"You can get on...there will be a penalty," the Reservations man says.

"How much?"

"Around 1200 rupees."

I ask a guard where the Gatimaan is, sounding more pitiful than usual, and we run to the platform to board. It feels like an Amtrak train. No long berths, just normal seats. The only problem is that each time we sit down somewhere, someone comes--it's their reserved seat. We walk and walk until we end up in a sparsely-occupied coach in Executive Class and sit down, relieved.

The conductor, holding out the long reservation chart, asks for our names. We explain the situation and he tells us that we will have to pay 3000 rupees. Each? we wonder, but we don't have the time to ask, because he says that he will come and get it later. He proceeds to check everyone else off. I don't have 3000 rupees; in fact, I don't even have 1000. I underestimated the amount of money I'd need for Jaipur and Agra (note to anyone planning to visit the Taj Mahal: it's quite expensive for foreigners); I'm down to just about 400 rupees in my purse and some tens, stashed in a book in my backpack. I know my friend would be able to cover me if it was closer to 3000 total; I'm not sure about 3000 each.

The conductor doesn't come back for a while, but every time the coach's doors open for someone I get a little twinge of fear, wondering if it's our time to pay up. I decide to fall asleep just to avoid the fright and sleep until one of the onboard food servers asks if I want a Minute Maid Nimbu, a boxed lemon juice drink probably more sugar water than lemon. I say yes and then quickly ask, "Er--is it free?" She laughs and says slightly reproachfully, "Yes, ma'am." I haven't had boxed juice in ages. I drink it quickly and convince myself that the sugar is good for me because maybe, just maybe, I sweated sugar out earlier and need to replenish my body's stores or something.

It's almost 7:30pm and we're pulling into New Delhi. I feel a slow relief start to wash over me, but I'm still aware of the specter of 3000 (or, potentially, 6000) rupees hanging over us, so I close my eyes again to drift into blissfully anesthetizing sleep.

There's a tap on my shoulder. Conductor, looking at me with kindly eyes through his glasses.

"Ma'am?" he says. It's time to pay up. He says it's 3000 each. We plead, showing him our original ticket--surely that should be taken into account? The man at the reservations counter at Agra Cantonment said that the penalty would maybe be 1200. Certainly not 3000. But we're sitting in Executive Class, the conductor counters. We don't have that much money, we say. He sighs and asks for a passport. I hand him mine. He takes it, and the e-ticket printout, and walks rapidly to the next car. "You will get your passport here," he says. I'm confused--where is my passport going? I follow him. We meet him in the next car, which is empty.

"1500," he says quietly. It's quite the discount from the original 3000. My friend hands him the money instantaneously--it seems to be only 1500 for the both of us--and we get off the train. It feels unreal, stepping onto the platform in Delhi. There's that feeling of relief, a relief I usually associate with familiar places--but it's interwoven with the cacophony of strangers, glaring lights and honking horns. NDLS, 7:35pm. A funhouse-mirror version of coming home. 

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