Refugee Train: A 'Travailogue'
Refugee Train: A 'Travailogue'13 mins 177 13 mins 177
You may wonder why this story is called the “Refugee Train.” Bear with me for a while, I hope to make this story interesting enough and towards halfway, you would understand why I have titled it so.
I can’t even remember how long since it has been, I have traveled in a sleeper class train for a journey over 36 plus hours. When my young friend informed about his marriage at Kolkatta I decided to attend the wedding and the question was which class to travel. It is said that a sleeper class is good when you can look out of the window and view the landscape as well as meet a variety of people and being a new writer, I decided to book my journey in the sleeper class hoping to discover new India or Bharat.
There I was at the platform at the Krishnarajapuram station, eager to begin my journey in M-2 era to discover the New India. As a new writer, I was armed with a black pocket notebook and a pen pencil to jot down notes. I was taken aback by the crowd at the platform. IRCTC in order to de-congest main stations has been starting trains from other stations and making provision for new stops without building commensurate infrastructure and this results in congestion at smaller stations. At the appointed time 20:00 hours the digital display announced the train 12510 and also the coach position. I was relieved to see the display. The superfast train chugged in about 30 minutes late and this was only the second station from the origin.
The coach I boarded was brand new with shining berths and sliding windows that neatly clicked upon closing. The toilet was gleaming steel with air pressurized flush that said only 1.5 l of water used per flush. The coach was built by ICF using green energy whatever it meant. But some old habits die hard. I found reservation-less passengers in the compartment but I ensured I got my berth and perched upon it immediately. TTE came and checked the reservation cursorily and he didn’t do anything about the overcrowding in the compartment. I heard mostly Bangla spoken and I thought the train was still in Karnataka. One family of three with the couple being in the 50s with their college-going son perhaps took their place in between the berths on the floor of the compartment. The women looked distraught and I thought perhaps she was not well.
Next day morning when I woke up the train was already at Andhra Pradesh. It was a cool cloudy morning. We passed by the flowing river, Krishna. I noticed the sandy soils with the cashew and Casuarina trees, later the aquafarms dotted the landscape, heaps of hay stacked on the field, signs of open defecation and a waste zone of about 30-40 feet in breadth following along the track littered with plastic bags.
Swachh Bharat was not only about toilets to stop open defecation but soon it has to cover waste disposal as well. Soon the sandy soil gave way to sandy loam with tractors ploughing the field and the white herons following the tractor to pick up some fresh worms. Inside the compartment it was business as usual with vendors selling tea and samosas, someone came selling toys, beggars came asking for alms. I recall a news paper report suggesting that railway officers were advised to travel by train themselves. I was wishing our PM would also likewise advise the lawmakers to make trips by train preferably by the sleeper class to see how India/Bharat travels.
Suddenly I heard a wailing sound from the women I noticed last night wailing into the smartphone. I took a sneak peek and saw a body of an elderly woman and guessed it to be the mother of this woman who must have passed away necessitating this sudden journey without reservation. Both the father and son were consoling her.
“Who goes when? Is not by one’s design or an arithmetic progression
However, what is life, it is for one to decide”
Another woman at the same time cooing in her smartphone video at a child perhaps her young nephew. As I got down at a station to stretch my legs, I saw a lot of men and women with their head shaved, an offering to Tirupathi Lord. The flying squad officer who expressed his inability to do anything about the overcrowding in the compartment was arguing with a defence personnel about how rules are rules and it applies uniformly (perhaps at his own discretion). As I slid into my berth for the night, the train was more or less keeping time.
The second morning as the train passed a station called Jaleswar I still saw signages in Oriya language and realised that the train was late.
When I googled the map informed, we were still 4-5 hours from Howrah and there would be a delay of 4-5 hrs. But being a new writer, I decided to take all experiences in stride and looked out of the window. It was a delight to see ‘pukurs’ (farm ponds) dotting the landscape. A typical rural Bengal setting. The rain has been benevolent in these parts and the water looked fresh. The paddy fields were inundated and a green carpet was welcoming the passers-by. Here and there a few ducks in the pond and on the border lined with banana plants. Blooming lotus in the ponds foretold the tell-tale signs of things to come in Bengal.
When the train finally arrived at Howrah it was already 5 hours late. But these days like everyone else IRCTC has thrown in ‘extra’ travel time for ‘free.’ As I stepped into the platform 23 got lost into a sea of milling crowds and about 36 hours later, I was back at the Howrah station for my return journey. I googled train running status and found that the train was on time and arriving at platform 9.
When I reached the platform the train too was entering and the platform was quite deserted and the time was 0030 hrs. I thought perhaps it would be a pleasant journey back and the compartment would be relatively empty. I was in for a shock as I boarded the compartment as the aisle was strewn with bodies of sleeping people and hardly any space for putting one’s foot down. The title of my ‘travailogue’ flashed in my brain “the refugee train.” I tiptoed like a ballet dancer and reached my berth to find it occupied by two sleeping youths whom I woke up. Luckily, they vacated the berth and I crawled into the middle berth. Being that late in the night I decided to catch up with a few winks and worry about things when I wake up. I wondered how the pantry vendors would step into the coach to sell teas and breakfast. The morning call of the vendors selling tea woke me up from my slumber and the one youth sitting under my berth with the neck bent forward called out to me ‘Dada, why don’t you freshen up’ while we put the berth down. I nodded to him and snaked my way to the toilet where I found a big queue standing. I came back to my seat and thought about what would be the state of the loo if and when I get to use it.
No tea nothing until for about one hour when I again ventured out. Luckily, I was able to use a western toilet and found to my surprise the toilet seat bone dry. Now that I was relieved some cheer came back as I sipped my tea and contemplated how do I begin my conversation. They were all in their youth, 16 people occupying 8 berths, I noticed a family of four perched on the side upper berth, the man sitting beside me was a reservation holder and he just informed me he had heart surgery. There was a man who was taking his 3 daughters to Berhampur to put them in some college. The youth who called me out in the morning was Govind. We started chatting and he informed me he was a 10th pass and working at Hosur in a granite factory as a machine operator. He has been given room to stay and he earns about fifteen thousand a month. He said he was from a village called Dudhny from Golpara district in Assam about 120 km away from Guwahati.
Besides him, there were several others traveling on the same train and work at Hosur. He had gone back to complete his NRC formalities. His presence was required to do the biometric authentication. Now all his family members have completed the NRC and were citizens of India. He told me that there were several lakhs who had a problem in their documentation; besides several other lakhs who may not have any documentation at all. The government would provide them with some alternative. He pointed out to a couple who were Bodos and in some of their area locals have lost out land to outsiders and there is tension. Govind was quite happy as he said that in Guwahati nobody pays above 6-7k for his kind of workers. I was in a for a jolt when he told me when he boarded the train from Kerala for his onward journey the crowd in the train was far more. I estimated that we were about 150 odd people in the compartment meant for 72. Toilets were already in a mess by this time and still the train had another 28 hours to go. Govind said with a wise air that AC coaches have no such crowd problem. Indeed, they were the ‘gated community’ of the rail passengers.
The pantry contractor was making a killing in overpricing goods. Water was being sold at Rs 20 instead of Rs 15, breakfast at Rs 40 instead of Rs 35. I ordered an omelette and bread and it came with no sign of butter. In my onward journey, there were traces of butter and the price was Rs 35.00. TTE came and cursorily rounded my name in his chart and went away. I tried downloading “Rail Madad” so that I can register a complaint about the toilet condition with no water supply but could not due to a repeated error in the process. At the Visakhapatnam station, the RO water kiosk sold fake water at Rs 10.00 as I was faked into buying the water. What about the double egg biriyani as the taste of India I don’t know it was the hottest selling item be it from the pantry or at the stations and I picked myself one for Rs 48.00 while the pantry contractor was selling the same at Rs 70.00. His veg meal was priced at a princely sum of Rs 120.00.
Govind had meanwhile disappeared into the top berth to catch up with some winks and that was when I started a conversation with Mustafa. He works as a labourer in Bangalore and six months since he has been working there. He introduced me to his friend Tibrun who works as a fitter and been at Bangalore for 7 years. I was shocked to learn he had never been to school and the reason was his parents had died early. Tibrun looked barely in his twenties but married and his wife was due for delivery. Another youth walked in and he was introduced as don’t worry Mustafa, who is also a seasoned hand in Bangalore. This Mustafa was also married and he had a two- year old child too. He himself barely looked out of school with his lean muscular frame. Both Tibrun and don’t worry Mustafa were teasing the other Mustafa and said he won’t be able to get married as he was seen to be old. This bunch of boys were from Malda district in Bengal and were from neighbouring villages. They too informed me that they get Rs 500 per day of work and accommodation was provided. They showed me pictures of their work. They were doing glass fitting in office buildings and wore a yellow helmet.
I asked Tibrun whether he has picked up any Kannada. He said no. I asked is it fair that he doesn’t know the local language and stay aloof in their own Bengali clique. As I was observing them their comradeship was heart touching. They laughed together, huddled together, they were sharing a tobacco mix which one of them would prepare, turn by turn they found some sleeping place to make up for loss of sleep. They have left behind, their young wives and their children and travelling some 2000 km just to eke out a living, travelling in such condition as refugees. I felt that IRCTC was looting us all. I had paid Rs 750 for a confirmed ticket and they too had paid for a casual ticket Rs468 and an excess fare of Rs 340. We were travelling like refugees. I did notice that cleaning contractors during the journey had cleaned the toilet once and filled up the tanks with water with what avail? IRCTC was deliberately following the policy of overcrowding. I did register a formal complaint in their portal and also in a private consumer portal against this monopoly practice. I wondered what would be reported should a train accident occur? Would anybody admit the trains were overloaded by 100%. Of course, IRCTC was also running a Doronto express and charging double the rate for the same journey and as my friend Mustafa informed that nobody without a reservation can enter Doronto. But why these superfast trains have become free for all? I went on to exchange phone numbers with Mustafa and promised to invite them home for tea as they live nearby to where I live. I wanted to explore their story further.
That night when I went to sleep, I had decided to wake up early and use the toilet which was what I did. But I had to move from seat to seat as there was no ground beneath the feet but only sleeping bodies. Here was a starting line of a poem I had written a few days ago. “Get used to discomfort then any small comfort will seem a luxury.” With this credo, I was braving the journey.
By the morning the toilets had become unusable and to describe any further would become ‘excretagraphy.’ My friend Mustafa without asking me had slid himself into my berth. As I looked around every berth had two people in it including my neighbour who was convalescing from his heart surgery. The family of four had been pushed down by the rightful claimant of the side top berth. A girl who had boarded the train could not use the toilet at all for the rest of the 4 hrs. I too advised her against it. Her escort promptly uploaded a complaint in the IRCTC web portal. At the Katpadi station, I found a bunch of students who had alighted there to join the Vellore Institute of Technology including the boy in front who was doing his second year. He told me that VIT has a separate entrance examination for admission. A boy I knew has now migrated to the US and perhaps would never return to live in India.
I was musing what of the new India? Does it go the VIT way, the cream, which constitutes a minority would eventually fly over the cuckoo’s nest or the Mustafas with whom I traveled, will migrate continually in the refugee trains merely to eke out a living. India, on the verge of a democratic dividend perhaps already losing it: unable to provide quality education, employable degrees and employment itself for her youth.
What of the IRCTC’s daylight looting? Would a complaint help? Is this the way India that wants to get into the club of 5 trillion-dollar economy transport her citizens with the exception of a creamy layer?
As I was walking out of the station the news of building collapse in Bangalore wherein 5 migrant labourers had died caught my attention and I turned towards the train remembering Mustafa and his friends I had met.
My daughter asked me would I undertake another journey of this sort? I have no answer. Would you, my dear reader, dare?