more inconvenience

Calicut to Delhi, 28 Feb – 3 Mar15
This train journey has turned into an epic of the expected and the unexpected.  Thank heaven for my upper berth, from which I can consider the ebb and flow of other passengers in an overlooked luxury of space and headroom.  When I boarded yesterday evening in Calicut, an excess of school group passengers were engrossed in an animated card game in my compartment, but they recognized I was the aisle seat holder.  That should have made me an automatic ring-side player, and by the time they asked me I almost had the game figured out.  All cards are dealt out and players take tricks following suits.  If the lead suit goes around, the cards are discarded, but if a player throws off another suit, the winner of the trick adds the cards to his hand.  The object of the game is to get rid of your cards, and the hand goes on until the last player is left holding.  They were all debarking at Goa for four days of “enjoyment” chaperoned by three teachers, identifiable by their wearing shoes and permanent bemused expressions, so in the middle of the night it was “all change” around me, including a couple with a good-natured infant boy, replaced by another with a persistently crying baby girl.  Two days later, nobody around me here would have to ask why I don’t regret ever having children…
Next day, after surfacing in the early morning stir for samosas and tea, I took advantage of my upper-berth space to sleep the day away.  I was far from the window, but the route in spite of its attractive glimpses is too interrupted by many long transits through tunnels.  I expected we would fall behind, sidelined waiting for priority trains passing in the other direction, but it seemed the whole afternoon passed waiting and not advancing long enough for me to complete a pee before we again drifted to a halt.  Late in the afternoon at another interminable pause, more than the usual proportion of passengers seemed to be taking the air outside, milling around and consulting their mobiles. I made up my mind to venture out and have a cigarette, to find hundreds of passengers lounging in the rail yard, waiting for the delay to resolve.  A big part of the problems, the relatively new west coast rail line with all its engineering difficulties is probably mostly single-track.  The latter part of the route, on an older, more developed, electrtified part of the network between Mumbai and Delhi, is less subject to bottlenecks and the loss of priority a train suffers when it falls behind – it just has to find an opening in the traffic going the same direction.
Whatever the cause, there has been an influx of extra passengers and their train of baggage in our carriage.  Whenever the train is stopped, food service plying the aisles seems to disappear, in favour of servers addressing windowside passengers from the roomier platform outside.  And, a confirmation of the upset in routine, though we seem to be under way again, not much other than chai is on offer this suppertime.  The conclusion of this trial is yet to be told, but I have just scored a packet of samosas, my reliable snack-food choice, providing they are really “garam”…
Next day (and we are supposed to be arriving at lunchtime), the pace has finally picked up, but last evening we languished at a station until I drifted off to sleep, then awoke in the night to the reassuring sensation of being under way.  In keeping with my preference for any kind of news over not knowing, there seems nothing more pointless and frustrating than sitting expectantly in a train that’s not moving.
I have come round to less excuse of exception and more civilized routines – toothbrushing, facewash, and thankfully I have enough rum to maintain the very civilized and forgiving sundowner.  It seems to have become a matter of resignation and endurance for everyone.  Early this morning there was a general reveille and a lot of chatter as people took stock of how far behind-schedule we are.  Some passengers filed off at the next station of any size, and the rest have tidied up for the long haul.  The regular food service seems to have disappeared – maybe the pantry car was part of the train left behind – leaving passengers lean and withdrawn, and the aisles less adrift with litter than usual.  At 10:30 this morning, less than 3 hours from our scheduled arrival, we were at a station we should have reached at 5:30 last evening, suggesting that our revised arrival will be early tomorrow morning.  Since then, someone has come round to pre-arrange vegetarian thali for lunch, so we will see how the day proceeds…
An atmosphere of austerity and forbearance – lunch was modest and plain but wholesome, and the afternoon passed in subdued distraction.  Still a dearth of snack options in the aisles – it’s as if our train, no longer conforming to anything like its expected schedule, is sneaking through under the snack-vendors’ radar.  Nothing but unseasoned popcorn available as a bar snack at happy hour.  At Itarsi, 8:30 in the evening, and later at Jhansi, large portions of the crowd of passengers began to debark, it’s to be hoped approximating to their original travel plans.  Someone speculated for me that we might reach Delhi around 1 a.m.  Night, and the few – I mean less-than-capacity – passengers subsided into sleep shrouded against the cold, lights out, the tangle of mobile-rechargers dismantled, and there seemed something eerily wrong, like a death ship gliding toward oblivion, the MH370 with passengers asphyxiated by lack of oxygen, about to disappear into the depths.  A brief rain shower beat against the roof, and I hoped we weren’t just about to arrive and be forced into it.  I alternated awake and asleep, as I had for days with little idea of the time of day, in my nest in the canopy.  Now I sat up in one of the empty side lower seats, watching the moon, the wash of standing rainwater, the late-night truck traffic travelling in tandem on a parallel highway, all glide by.  Now I returned to my berth and a well-timed dream, like an in-flight movie, that ended just as we ground into Nizamuddin station, at about 4:30.  I headed out shakily into the night and the stream of dazed passengers on the platform.

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~ by Peter Harris on 03/03/2015.

3 Responses to “more inconvenience”

  1. Wonderful story Peter, but I do not think I want to travel by train now.

  2. Hi Peter: Probably will be in India middle of Jan 2016. May see you there?

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