08 December 2010 – Wednesday – aboard the Rajdhani Express to Bombay
Today we caught the 4:30pm Rajdhani Express to Bombay.
H and R ran out in the morning to pick up the tickets in, of all places, the Jama Masjid Market area where everything is fucking nuts, whilst I spent the morning with The Little One at R’s place.
Now you can call me a big dope for thinking it, but I was under the impression that the trip was all booked and paid for, seats assigned, and the whole deal signed, sealed and delivered, and that all H and R had to do was pick up the pre-booked tickets at the travel agent and we were on our way.
But that’s just not the way things were, I’m afraid.
It soon became apparent, once we were all settled on board the train in our assigned births that something wasn’t quite right. For all intents and purposes, everything looked just the way it always looks when we take the Rajdhani - the crowded isles, everyone bustling back and forth looking for their seats, the red shirted porters dragging huge suitcases everywhere – I could detect no change from all the other times we’ve ridden the trains in India.
I remember looking up at the red-circled numbers on either side of the window and wondering why there were three numbers stacked one on top of the other. I was pretty sure there were normally two. It must include the seats on the other side of the isle, I thought to myself, confident that I had broken the code.
Then H began saying that as soon as the others arrive, we will speak to them and get them to change seats.
What the fu….?????
For some reason, every time I asked her if we were in the right seats, she avoided the question and told me that when the TC (Ticket Collector) comes by she will speak with him and get him to exchange the seats with the others.
“Wait a second, wait a second!” I said. “Are these not our proper seats?”
“Well… um… No.” she finally confessed. “But when the others arrive, we will just get them to change seats with us. I do this all the time.”
I was suddenly jolted out of the relaxed and comfortable slumber I had gently fallen into since we secured our seats on the train and sat down. Now I looked back up at the three numbers and then up at the top bunk. For the first time I noticed the chains with the L-shaped clip at the end attached to the metal railing on the very top bunk which I had never seen on our 2 tiered trains. I noticed that the cushioned backrest we were leaning against also had hinges on it.
Holy shit! I thought to myself, we aren’t in a 2nd Class A/C 2 tiered sleeper car like we usually are! No! We are in a 3rd Class A/C 3 tiered sleeper car! Which means that instead of sharing the berth with R and H and perhaps one other person, it meant that we were going to be squeezed in with another 3 fucking people we don’t even know!!! What kind of bloody trip was this going to be???
As I sat there looking around in stunned silence, H whispered to me that our seats were actually by the window and not in the actual berth part at all. She mentioned again that once she speaks with the TC, everything will be fine and that I have nothing to worry about.
I think she could see that I was beginning to panic.
That was around the exact same moment these six burly Indian gents stopped in the aisle right beside us and dropped their suitcases on the floor. For about seven seconds they stared at the four of us sitting there with enormous owl eyes, obviously waiting for us to do something. The slow, painful moment was finally broken when one of the men, clutching his ticket in his hand, stepped into the birth and, moving my coat hanging on a hook above the window to the side, confirmed that they were, in fact, in the right berth.
We had to move.
I was completely and utterly shocked.
It wasn’t so much that we were being unceremoniously tossed out of the comfort of the berth I believed rightfully belonged to us! It was that I simply could not believe that the travel arrangements were not absolutely secured and booked weeks ago. We knew we were going to be travelling that particular day, why the hell were the tickets left to the last possible moment – that very morning we were leaving, of all bloody time??
But this, believe it or not, was only the beginning.
Things were about to take a turn for the worse.
By the time we dragged all of our stuff out of the berth – including our giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase, the train was jam-packed! It was almost like being in a busy shopping mall with the number of people constantly coming and going.
H checked the tickets and said that the two side berths were ours. H and I on the first one and R in the one next to it.
I couldn’t help noticing that our berth was right by the door. I’ve slept in that position a couple of times in the past and it is, by far, the worst place on the train. Every time someone comes in or out of the bogie, the opening door smashes against the bunk, which, invariably is always about 3 inches from my head. And every single time it happens, I wake up.
Oh crap, I thought. It looks like I’m not going to get any sleep tonight. Just my luck.
That’s fine, I thought more, perhaps I’ll read or do something else to wile away the hours.
Since H had The Little One, it meant that she would, of course, get the lower bunk, and I would take the upper. I could live with that. So I grabbed my bag and was prepared to lug it up onto the top bunk when I noticed someone had left a backpack up there already. I turned to the crowded berth behind me and asked, “Is someone sitting here already?” One of the boys in the birth looked up and said, yes me. “Oh, OK, so sorry.” And I left my bag on the floor. I sat down next to H on the lower bunk and said, in a calm and collected voice, “What the hell is going on?”
She checked the printout from the travel agent and then checked the berth numbers again. “This is weird,” she said. “According to the printout, our seats are facing each other and R’s is the next one over – all of them lower bunk seats.”
I asked here what the hell she meant by that, and then R grabbed the printout and started reading through it.
“Oh. My. God.” She finally said after 30 seconds. Her hands dropped to her side and her face had gong completely white. “That bastard! Do you know what that chutya has done? He’s booked us single seats – not bunks at all! We don’t even get to lie down this trip!”
NO FUCKING WAY!!!!!
What the hell were we going to do if we couldn’t even lie down? How were we going to make it through the night? And with a small baby and all? We were doomed!
All of our heads were spinning – the prospect of a long and sleepless night sitting bolt upright was too gruesome a thought to even consider. What began as an exciting adventure trip to Bombay was quickly turning into the worst nightmare imaginable.
R was obviously in shock, as well. She kept rocking back and forth beside me, repeating over and over again how she was going to strangle her stupid travel agent when she gets back to Delhi. He apparently charged her the regular price for 3 berths, but somehow ended up only giving us seats. Who in the hell books seats in a sleeper car?
We all sat on the same lower bunk that was, undisputedly, ours, scrunched together, like three monkeys on a very small branch, miserable and hot and dejected, wondering what the hell we were going to do.
Finally I suggested that the two of them should run up to the 2nd class cars and see if there were any seats there. Go up to First Class, too, I said. We will pay whatever they ask. We can’t spend the night in this car with no place to stretch out.
I sat there with The Little One, trying to keep her cheerful at least, pretty confident that there would be something in 2nd or 1st class and that we wouldn’t have to spend the night in this shit-hole place.
About 30 min later, H and R came back with the worst possible news. The train is completely booked, they said. There are no seats available anywhere.
I was shocked.
I could live with the side bunks. And I could live with the end bunk near the door. And although I wouldn’t like it, I suppose I could even live with all the constant crashing of the metal door against my bunk, 3 inches from head, the whole night long. But god dammit, there is no bloody way I could live with sitting up all night long in a cramped, hot and airless, straight-backed seat. Just the thought of it made my skin crawl!
It was then that I noticed R had disappeared somewhere.
When she finally returned, she was dragging another TC with her. She had gone, once again, to really see if there were any empty berths anywhere aboard the train – even a single one for H and The Little One - and this time she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She had that look in her eye – that Super Power Woman look – and I think the TC saw it too. He looked a little afraid in front of her. And that was before both H and R laid into him – they wanted something and they wanted something fast. It was unbearable here with a young baby they said. So the TC guy, wanting to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, said he would check.
Funnily enough, a few moments after he left, another TC passed by our bunk. And this guy seemed to know what the hell he was doing. Once again both H and R assailed him, pleading for another seat. He told them to hang on and he disappeared. In about 20 min, he came back with the best news possible – he had 3 bunks in a berth in one of the cars up ahead!
We all shrieked and then grabbed our carry-on bags and headed up the 3 cars to our new seats. The TC even got one of the many train boys in red-striped shirts to come and move the giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase – which, incidentally, should have been left at home and another, much smaller and lighter case should have been brought along for all of the travelling we would be doing over the next 2 weeks, as hardly any of the stuff that was packed in that monstrosity of a suitcase was ever taken out.
The new berth was fantastic. It seemed a much newer and bigger and airier car than the previous one, and not half as crowded, either. The berth was occupied by an elderly Sardar and his wife and another Indian chap, who must have been an important guy as he kept getting phone calls about every two minutes for most of the night. And, just to show you the hospitable nature of Indians, they welcomed us with open arms into their quite little space aboard the train – not even complaining when the giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase took up all the room on the floor!
So we settled in quite nicely in our new lodgings – just like all the other times I’ve travelled the Rajdhani. We talked and laughed and ate our faces off. And to top it off, I had the best sleep I’ve ever had on a train in India.