There is a sea of pilgrims at Jammu’s small railway station. I am travelling with my aunt and grandparents and the only way to travel is the 32-hours train ride to Calcutta. We wait among the Victorian wooden pillars and arches. Wafting aromas of cinnamon and tea leaves fill the air from the little tea stalls behind.
The hooting whistle and chugging engine announces the train’s arrival and we are ready to jump in the general bogey (where there are no reserved seats but you can board the train with an unconfirmed ticket). At the first screech of the wheels, I find myself jostling along with hundreds of other passengers to grab a seat in the carriage. A thick eye-browed man to my right tugs at my backpack, trying to get past me. I glare at him, strengthen my grip and finding my footing on the stair, pull myself up on the landing.
Pushing past others, in the fast filling carriage, I spot a rear compartment with three empty seats. I jump over several crouched passengers to reach it and throw my bag on the window seat and my jacket on the upper berth to block them. Now, I look around and wave to my kin, who are making their way into the narrow alleyway, with a buzz of human voices and a near stampede for seats.
Suddenly, a burly middle-aged man, comes from behind and removes my jacket from the upper berth. “Hi, excuse me, that’s mine,” I tell him.
“But you are sitting there, this is empty,” he responds aggressively and I start to feel flustered.
“Yes, but I blocked it for my grandparents, they are old,” I tell him, gathering a little courage and pointing towards them.
He looks towards them and turns to me saying, “This is general bogey, no reservations here. Who grabs the seat, gets it.”
“But she kept her jacket there, so it’s hers,” a young man with narrow eyes, sitting next to my bag, intercepts our conversation. The older man stares at him with disgust, mumbles something and walks away. I thank the young man as I help my grandparents reach for the upper berth.
My aunt and I sit down – a luxury – amongst others crouching on the floors and standing near the door of this urine smelling carriage. By the time we stow our luggage and settle, the sun is set. The night is spent in bouts of short naps. My aunt and I are taking turns to shut our eyes and keep a constant vigil on the luggage. The dim flickering of the lone light bulb provides some visibility. Washroom breaks are carefully planned too, as leaving the seat for even one moment means someone else taking it. So, with ninja-like stealth, we take turns to visit the washroom after midnight, when everyone else is asleep. Quietly, we first help my grandparents down to the filthy washroom and back into their seats. Next, my aunt and I take our turns, all the while keeping an eye on our places.
With no room to change the seating posture, by morning my back is stiff. Occasionally, we stand in our spots to stretch. The nausea from the combined smell of urine, sweat and rotting food, littered on the floor, have by now forced my grandmother to pull a sock off her foot and press it up to her nose like a gas mask.
My grandparents, although in better seats, are still struggling with the beating cold wind, no legroom and pressed up bodies against the luggage. The entire day is spent honing the guerrilla skills at every station, where more passengers keep boarding. The seats, that have a capacity of four, are squeezing in close to ten and there is not an inch of place to even stand. There is tiredness looming in everyone’s faces. As another night sets in, we buy some food, from a hawker with very questionable hygiene, through the dirt-laden window.
Next morning, the train chugs into Howrah Station and with a sense of relief, we first head for the washrooms to freshen up. As we hail a taxi, I can’t help but be amazed at the sheer adaptability of my family and my own ability to finally shrug off the crowd-phobia. This journey made me realise how different journeying solo is compared to travelling with family and will always serve as a reminder to make alternate arrangements for commute.
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