I mean, flights get delayed, diverted, crash, or sometimes simply disappear. Trains? Well, they’re usually at least half an hour late, and very occasionally disastrous things also do happen… but they are generally a safe, comfortable, slow and almost boring means of covering large distances, aren’t they?
That’s what I thought. But I’m not so sure any more.
We actually had four train trips on this holiday: two long-distance, from Bangalore to Delhi and back; and two short ones, from Delhi to Chandigarh and back. We traveled all along in the lap of luxury – theoretically, at least – AC First on the long distance legs, and Executive Class on the short trips. It was the AC First Class journeys that were quite “interesting” both ways.
AC First Class berths come in two flavours: two-person cabins and four-person cabins. Theoretically, they come equipped with running water in a tiny sink, long, broad, comfortable bunk beds, a mirror, electrical sockets, a tiny cupboard, hooks, shelves, reading lights, and – best of all – an indicator showing whether the two bathrooms are occupied or vacant at any given moment.
AC two-tier comes with much fewer frills. There might be electrical sockets, but none of the other amenities. Worse, all the berths in the coach are separated into cubicles of four each, with nothing but curtains in between. Since the curtains are quite flimsy, they don’t provide much privacy at night; and since they are generally left open all day, it means the kids can run the length of the coach all day. This is not a good thing. In AC First, the cabin is their kingdom, and, though it means they are a little cooped up, it is much easier for us hapless parents to manage.
On the way out, we got a four-person cabin, and one of our cabin-mates was an old woman who conversed fluently, albeit with a strangely anglicized accent, in English, Hindi, and Bengali. She was deposited on the train by her son, a young and polite person, two minutes after the scheduled time of departure. Her tardiness was apparently due to traffic jams of epic proportion caused by the usual rush-hour conditions and greatly exacerbated by the heavy downpour and water logging that had also greeted us on our way to the station. We, of course, being experienced and paranoid travellers, left home a good two hours before ETD, and were probably amongst the first to board the train. We had settled in, changed Mrini out of her wet clothes (the rest of us having remained mostly dry thanks to the small, old, and defective umbrella I always carry in my handbag), given the kids dinner and demolished a packet of ‘nibblies’ by this time. So we smugly sympathised with the old lady’s wet, bedraggled, and mildly stressed state.
Apart from being rather talkative, the old lady was in no way an inconvenience to us… Until, late at night, she kept the light on and rummaged endlessly in her various bundles, searching, I surmised, for some particularly elusive pill or potion.
The kids stayed awake till well after ten. When I went to the bathroom, preparatory to going to sleep myself, I came back to find Amit and both kids fast asleep. This was inconvenient because both girls were in my bunk, the top bunk. I clambered up and squeezed in along with them, hoping Amit would awaken and take one of them on to his bunk. But he didn’t, so I spent the whole night squashed up and expecting to fall off at any moment. Naturally, it was not conducive for a good night’s sleep.
It was warm at night, which was unusual. Usually at night with the AC on, it gets so cold that you curl up under the blanket and still turn into kulfi (frozen dessert) by morning. In the morning, it continued to be warm and got warmer still. Apparently the AC wasn’t working. “We forgot to fill gas in Bangalore,” we were told. “We will do so now at Ballarshah.”
Ballarshah would come around 1.00 p.m. By then, temperature in our little airless iron oven would be soaring and we’d have the unique pleasure of being simultaneously slowly roasted and suffocated in our luxurious ‘AC’ First Class cabin.
By 11, we, along with several other smart passengers, had requested the attendants to downgrade us temporarily to AC two-tier. Just until the problem was fixed, of course. Smart, but a bad idea. With only about 20-odd passengers in the coach to start with, relocating several and with some others disembarking along the way, there were only a handful of passengers left in the entire coach by lunchtime. In India, it’s a numbers game, always. If you don’t have the numbers, nobody is going to do anything for you.
So the problem didn’t get fixed. It turned out there was a leak in the AC gas container. Perhaps they knew about it all along; someone even said that the coach was to have been changed before starting, but, for reasons unknown, it wasn’t. By evening, we had been formally relocated to AC two-tier, and given a letter that would entitle us to a refund. With the grant of a refund letter, we had no further basis for argument, so we all settled down to the downgrade in various degrees of disgruntlement.
Our new lodgings were crowded and messy, so around 5.30, we took the kids back to the deserted AC First coach, and there, in an empty coupe, the twins played sweetly with their toys in the heat, while the staff sprawled in the other empty cabins. That was the happy, blissful part of the journey, unbroken by interruptions of any kind.
Back in AC two-tier, we had been given two berths, upper and lower, right at the end of the coach. The door opened inwards – and frequently – disturbing us with a blast of warm air and, after we were asleep, a bright glare from the corridor lights as our curtains were rudely nudged aside in passing. So, what with all that, none of us got much sleep that night either. Maybe that was why, when we got off the train early the next morning, we left one of our many bags behind. What’s more, we didn’t even realise it until we alighted from the taxi at Amit’s father’s house, about an hour after we got off the train.
The bag had all of Amit’s clothes in it, and a precious and expensive set of Bose headphones. The latter was too valuable to let go of, the former too difficult: Amit, thanks to his extreme height, cannot get readymade clothes, so all his clothes have to be tailormade. Replacing this set, far from being a fun outing, would be a chore of monumental proportions, quite apart from the financial implication.
So Amit went racing back to the station where, after a couple of hours spent looking, asking, running to the yard and returning empty-handed, and trudging despondently to the platform where we had gotten off the train, he finally found it safely in the hands of one of the train attendants, who handed it over with a smile. And so that journey at last came to a happy end.
The two journeys to Chandigarh and back were, by comparison, uneventful. AC worked, food and drink was plentiful, and even the toilets were amazingly clean. I managed to lock Tara and me into the bathroom once for several worrying and embarrassing moments, while I visualised shouting to the staff for help. However, I took heart from the many visible scars of prior battles and, after a few minutes, I managed to extricate us with brute force but without breaking anything. (I seem to have ‘gets locked in the bathroom’ written in my destiny; if you missed my previous experience, go read it now.)
Ok, now we only had one more train ride to undergo and then we’d be back home. The end was, finally, in sight. And after such an eventful journey out, the way back was – by the law of probabilities – bound to be easy. We might even get a two-person cabin all to ourselves. And the AC would work the whole way, no doubt. Surely there’d be nothing to write about there. That’s what I thought.
(To Be Continued)