Trains have played an important role in my life. First of all the magnificent steam engine which pulled the steel wagons by huffing and puffing through the parallel rails had fascinated me right from my toddler stage. At some point in my younger days I even longed to become an engine driver…..! Later on whenever I travelled with elder members of my family, I did enjoy the journey by rain. The sound the bogies created, have given birth to a lot of rhyming songs in many languages which I learnt right from childhood.
Once I got an employment away from my home, the railways became an integral part of life. In a place like Bombay, the local trains are nothing but life lines. People stayed on either side of the track similar to the age-old famous civilizations which flourished on the banks of rivers. Since the railway lines ran in the North South direction, almost all the suburbs were divided as East and West like the communist party of India which split as right and left. The nuances of banking was much easier to learn and practice than gaining expertise and confidence in travelling by local trains in Bombay. The stories on that topic may warrant a separate blog.
Travelling on duty or otherwise to distant places was possible only by train. That was an era with no air-conditioned coaches. While travelling from the North, one had to change to the metre gauge train compulsorily at Ernakulam or Madras to reach Trivandrum central…..! During the soaring forty degrees Celsius (and above) in the summer months while crossing the Rayalaseema area the passengers resorted to pouring water over their body from the bathrooms to cool down! I have once managed to go and have a dip at Bharathapuzha when the so called " through" bogie got " talaqued " at Shornur junction waiting for the train from Mangalore to arrive for a remarriage. Similarly Arakkonam was another station where the passengers resorted to take a shower in the waiting room and squeeze in a small shopping too...Train journeys created a lot of camaraderie between the passengers during those days!
The first thing to do after reaching home on a holiday was to take a long shower to wash away the dirt and fatigue. Even before I could answer the probing questions from my father, I had to rush to the railway station to buy the return ticket after offering prayers at the Ganapathy temple enroute for a hassle free reservation process. And after filling the forms, correcting the numbers of starting train and the connecting train more than once depending upon vacancy and timing, one used to get a partially reserved ticket for the initial leg of the journey. For the rest, the never smiling booking clerk would give a promise of sending a telegram to the station where the connection train started from….! Before the leave of two/ three weeks got over, I made it a point to visit the railway enquiry counter for the onward confirmation which seldom came before the commencement of the return journey. The return journey would invariably start with the offering of at least one coconut at the same Ganapathy Temple and also enough currency notes in the pocket for ( should I elaborate?)
The stock answer of the TTE in the connecting train would be that he was unable to trace any booking with the telegram reference I gave. The green coloured piece of paper which I generally kept in the chest pocket of my slightly transparent terylene shirt many times ( why many times, all times ) did wonders in getting the berth allotted. But the long wait used to be as painful as giving birth after long labour.
In Bombay, once I had to deploy a person to stand in the queue for booking in the southbound train. The queue started forming from the previous night at least ten hours before the time the counters opened at eight in the morning. The cost of overnight vigil was more than the cost of a second class ticket! Later the tickets were booked through the so called authorized agents by paying a price.
Over the years things changed. The broad gauge got extended up to Trivandrum. Later the Konkan line got commissioned. By that time, as the Urdu saying goes " daane daane pe likha hai…." my name was written in the grains in Bihar. Since I was posted there before bifurcation of Bihar, let me call it United States of Bihar. And I was posted in the audit department destined to visit branches spread over the length and breadth of the state for which my bank held the responsibility as a state level banker….! And again my sweet and sour travel experiences in that state can form subject matter for a novelette.
I could not but hark back to my past train journeys, with my laptop in front as I booked a couple of senior citizen tickets to Chennai central from Trivandrum to attend the marriage of my friend's daughter in November, 2019 sitting in Boston, USA. I could choose the train and the lower berth in the two tier air conditioned coach. There was an option for insurance. The payment was through net banking. I received the booking confirmation through e mail and sms. The IRCTC also gives the choice of meals at particular station/s. Last year, when I travelled, there was a call seeking my opinion regarding the services. Let me assert that railways have come a long way in rendering good services in recent years albeit certain minor shortcomings. But the pluses certainly weigh much greater than the minor minuses…..
The Indian rail('s)ways are thus certainly progressive and therefore commendable…