Damodar was standing at platform number two of Gwalior City station. He was patiently, or partly impatiently, waiting for a Delhi-bound train known as Punjab Mail. The platform was full of people – a mix of waiting passengers and beggars on job.
Damodar arrived in Gwalior last week on account of his transfer from Delhi, where he continuously served for a span of 10 years. Subsequent to his transfer, he chose to stay at Gwalior and continued to live there alone, with weekly visits to his family in Delhi.
The train arrived about 35 minutes late, though it was repeatedly announced that it would arrive at its scheduled time. Damodar planned to board in “general” coach for the sake of his wallet and since he had minimum luggage with him.
He knew from experience that most trains had two general coach sections – one in the front, just behind the engine, and the other at the end. He chose to board the front coach. When the train stopped, he happily noted there was no crowd near the general coach. He comfortably entered the first coach, only to come face-to-face with a group of Army men sitting inside. One of them quickly inquired of him, “Are you an Army personnel?” Damodar quickly replied, “No, but I am a government servant, ” taking out his identity card and showing them hopefully. His reply created a buzz amongst the Army men until the same guy finally replied, “No, no…no government servant is allowed – only Army men are allowed in this coach. You have to get out. ”
He was helpless before them, attempting to argue his point at first to keep a spot on the first coach. Still, they insisted the coach was reserved strictly for Army personnel and weren’t interested in arguing, finally throwing him out of the coach. He sustained the fall with as much dignity as he could muster, then got up and gained momentum to reach the last coach. He regretted even trying to enter the front coach now.
He worried as he took up a marathon run to reach the other coach, situated after a gap of 15 bogies. There was little time left before departure as he took the myriad hurdles ahead, such as carts, porters, vendors and other passengers.
He reached the last coach in time, but this one was not as easy to embark. Both doors bulged with a multitude of passengers – most of them rural people with huge bales on top of their heads consisting of their entire household belongings, as well as small children dangling from their arms. Those children squirmed and wiggled, endeavoring to slip out of their parents’ grips. Meanwhile, the crowd pushed forward into the already overcrowded coach, disappointing him at the thought of such crowded quarters. Damodar finally managed to squeeze into the coach, purely because he had such little luggage.
The train soon left the station, leaving behind many general coach passengers who didn’t have room to board. Damodar considered them lucky, as the state of the last coach inside was horrible. About 10 people occupied each bench usually meant for only four, and standing passengers insisted on moving and pushing themselves them to make more space. Small fights were erupting periodically from the packed conditions.
One Army man slept stretched out on the upper berth. This irritated many people, but they were apprehensive to approach him to complain. Damodar, already fueled with anger, took initiative and shook the Army man, waking him up. He said to him hurriedly, “You can sit up instead of stretching, making some space for other people, too. ” The Army man did not listen to him and remained stretched. The other passengers, now encouraged, joined in, collectively asking, “How can you sleep? This is not night time, this is day time”
The Army man said impatiently, “I am an Army man and I’ve come from a long distance. I wish for you all not to disturb me. ” With equal irritation, Damodar shot back, “If you are an Army man, there is a separate coach for the Army men at the front of this train where civilians are thrown out. ”
The Army man could not argue further and unwillingly settled into a sitting position. Damodar quickly occupied the place. A young lady also followed him quickly, nobody else claiming the place as they apparently thought she was his wife. Still, in the other place left from the soldier’s moving, other standing passengers opted to fix their children.
The young lady gratefully looked at Damodar as if she were thanking him for the creation of the vacancy. In the other sections of the coach, some fights were still continuing but seemed to be receding a bit. People were hopeful to occupy a sitting place once the train reached Agra station, where many people would get off. Many came into an agreement for replacing the passengers who would get down at Agra station.
Damodar, on the other hand, was considering himself lucky to have gotten a place to sit and a beautiful companion squeezed in next to him. He thought it rude should he not speak to the beautiful lady, so he struck up a conversation. He found out that the lady, too, was heading for Delhi. They exchanged the names of the areas they lived, and she told him that her husband, too, was also a government servant. However, talk of her husband didn’t phase Damodar, as whenever the train shifted and they were squeezed together closer, his thoughts turned dirty.
A popcorn vendor appeared after some time, leaping like a monkey because of the lack of walking space. Initially, no one was buying. The vendor became slightly desperate, as if he were calculating the losses in his mind. Damodar was, in fact, looking for something to buy solely to offer to the lady. Since this was the first vendor to appear in the coach, he ordered two bags of popcorn promptly. The vendor happily took out the two bags from the bulky haversack he had and politely handed them to Damodar. A buying atmosphere was triggered and soon many more orders were being made. The vendor’s politeness quickly disappeared, responding to incessant requests with harshness and orders to wait one’s turn. He was now the chief of a monopolistic commodity.
Damodar offered one pouch of popcorn to the lady. Shyness appeared on her face as she refused at first, but Damodar knew how to offer. He repeated his endeavor and succeeded, finally handing her over the bag.
The popcorn vendor jumped to the next compartment of the coach, openly thanking Damodar. The rest of the passengers realized that they were fools. Those who did not buy the popcorn were proud enough to not give into the peer pressure.
Damodar was uncomfortable for some time. He wanted to go to the toilet, but dared not venture such a Herculean task in the crowd coach car. After some time, he gathered the courage and stood up to take the challenge. He used some cues he’d watched the vendors navigate, but still people did not like his movement. They angrily allowed him to proceed, though he was carefully jumping. He saw no sign of the toilet at first – only people and luggage and more people. It was more difficult to intrude now as luggage was piled up further down the coach’s aisle. Finally, someone – he did not know who – gave him a shove and he landed in front of the toilet door.
Outside the toilet lay a huge heap of household bales. People crouched on top of the heap, eyeing him suspiciously. Damodar heard the boisterous sound of a pump stove and wondered to himself. When he peeped inside the toilet’s door, he saw two ladies cooking rice. Tea, already prepared, sat nearby, ready to serve their kin mounted on the heap of luggage. Another toilet was jammed with luggage. At this point, he lost all courage to go back to his seat. He swore to himself never to enter the general coach for the rest of his life.
I am a geologist and love to write my experiences.