<--Added on 8/22/08 for migration to TPB -->
Railway journeys - II
A train journey being a rarity during most of my school days, I got hooked to it once I started travelling. But this honeymoon phase did not last long. The taste of reality came in the form of the blackened and bulletproof chappatis, half-cooked vegetable curries and watery dhal that the Rs.25 Indian Railways meal provided. Meanwhile the seasoned travellers would treat themselves to a gourmet's spread come lunch or dinner: newspapers spread out, the casseroles would come out with homemade fresh chappatis, rice and varieties of curries. They would enjoy their meals in paper plates and toss them away.To add insult to injury, even as I discovered that my stale Bisleri bottles purchased at jacked-up rates of Rs.15 or so had warmed up in the heat, resulting in water that was barely drinkable in the hot afternoons, some of the Know-alls would come out with their little water-filters and coffee-flasks bearing fresh liquids. The tale isn't over yet, we are all-too-familiar with the Railways' idly-vada breakfast whose offering of chutney would make Saravana Bhavan appear philanthropic in comparison. Not to mention the Rs.8 tea/coffee served in teeny-weeny plastic cups lasting barely a few sips. In short, for a one-day journey, you end up spending upwards of Rs.100 consuming the most atrocious food ever 'prepared'.
After a few journeys, I decided to react and in Satyagrahic fashion: A huge portion of the journey would be encountered on an empty stomach, after an okay-ish breakfast. Occasionally, I might break the fast if the train stopped at a good railway station where decent fruit juice was available. At the end of the journey, I would feel happy to have kept the marauding Railway staff and the even deadlier food at bay.(Although I am no snob, an accidental entry into the pantry compartment gave me a stark idea of the environment in which food is prepared on board!) In any case, food or no food, any passenger would feel completely drained, mentally and physically, at the end of a long journey. Driving my sanyasic instincts to a higher plane, I would reserve train journeys for reading something really hyper-advanced and hardcore techie: multithreading, sockets and the like. I soon dropped the pleasurable stuff like Narayan or biographies or film melodies since they really should be savored on a comfortable couch with some delicacies at hand - definitely not in a train on an empty stomach closely surrounded by 50 people who are forever cursing the heat, haggling with the hawkers, fuming at the delays or throwing fruit peels/groundnut shells* on the floor. My decision, based on extreme sadism and selfishness, gave me immense fulfilment - I was reaching my destination smug and satisfied having learnt stuff that typically tormented students and those in the IT world, whereas my tired co-passengers were lumbering out completely drained in mind and body. Like my school deskmate who would start writing sree rama jayam in panic whenever the material taught in class frightened him out of his wits, it was an alternate form of Transcendental Meditation that was oblivious to the hostility of the surrounding environment!
The other big hassle was the packing. It was bad enough when you are packing alone, the worst is to pack with your family doing a random inspection. Just when you have tucked in the fresh pack of toothpaste/soap thoughtfully purchased the previous evening, along comes a family member and runs an unsolicited audit - did you forget the toothpaste? have you taken soap? Ticket**, ticket! WHAT ABOUT THE TICKET??? - the voice would rise to a crescendo, especially if you leave the initial questions unanswered. I would shake a finger and mutter between my teeth, "Nowww...you're interrupting my train of thought and might make me forget something; just leave me in peace for 15 min and I will be done, run your checklist later." They would look at me as if I were hell-bent on committing suicide! In due course, I learnt the art of packing within an hour for a long journey - when you arrive on vacation, just keep the 'constants' among your travelling kit locked in the bag and you don't have to deal with them when you pack for the return trip. Of course there will be those inexperienced travellers who believe in driving every non-travelling family member to an extreme and advanced state of frenzy - the hankies are still wet...did anyone see my purse??...Fetch me the water bottles!!!...Oh my God, run outside and call me an auto, quick! - when they finally leave, the family are on the threshold of collapsing in suspense/relief and fatigue. One of life's small pleasures is to pack in advance, reach the station early with family members, buy them coffee/Milo and then engage in leisurely chat even as you ask them to pick some magazines for you. Few things will beat that :)
To offset the harrowing experience of a journey made in summer, Appa once booked me in A/C. It turned out to be an equally tedious one - there were just a few pan-chewing and pot-bellied Marwadi businessmen in the entire bogey! The a/c ran all day and I huddled under a blanket in solitary confinement. But for the caterers, not a soul entered the bogey the whole day. You couldn't even open the window to get some fresh air. I promptly reverted back to sleeper class from then on.
Things took a happy turn after a while. Annapoorana chappati packs arrived. Soon along with Ruchi pickles and 777 puliyodharai paste, they became an essential part of every journey. I would elaborately prepare my food packets, wrap them in aluminium foil and later, say an emphatic and triumphant no to the Railway caterer who took orders on the train. Oft-times, one of my packets would be consumed by a grateful fellow bachelor in the compartment. Second-class travel truly became my cup of tea from then on.
* Railway travel has its own unwritten protocol when it comes to dealing with the poor beggar kids who pass right through the bogey sweeping trash and pausing to ask for alms: you are expected to keep a few coins with yourself and take turns with your co-passengers in giving alms, which are essentially a means of sending the needy away from your seats. It is not appropriate to have one passenger give out alms all the time!
**First it used to be hall ticket, then railway ticket and later flight ticket. Thanks to VCDs, cinema tickets were spared.