Since childhood I was fascinated for some unknown reasons by a train. It was the Vaishali Express. This train running between Delhi and Barauni everyday, has been known for clockwork precision time-table and for full throttle speeds. The train used to stop on very few stations en route and the passengers waiting on stations where it did not stop, used to see it with awe and desire to travel some day. The train though has lost some glory in present day era of Rajdhanis and Durantos and is stopping at more stations than before, it still remains a preferred train for travelling between those stations.
I rode on this train one fine evening in summers of 1993. The visit was unscheduled. I had an interview at Delhi and got free a day before than was scheduled to. I thought of travelling back to Lucknow in this my favorite train to make good of one day saved. I was young and did not think twice before deciding to board the train in second class unreserved compartment in the sweltering summers of June 93. I was very confidant of my agility and flexibility. However, It proved to be one of my toughest rail journeys ever. It still is, though the experience I got was very valuable to understand the dynamics and physics and even chemistry of Indian train and its travelers.
The train started from New Delhi railway station in the evening and I reached the station with my only suitcase. It was peak summer and as I looked for the unreserved compartment, I had to walk to the last of the train. Usually the unreserved coaches in railways are either at the back most, just before the guard’s coach or at the front most, just before the engine. You get maximum impact of movement at both the ends and that helps to settle the things (passengers) in an overcrowded coach almost as you move a jute sack up and down to load more of sugar or flour. Therefore this advantages of strategic locations of unreserved and overcrowded coaches in a rail, got to my head fully on that day only.
The sufficient weight of my suitcase plus a good distance covered by me in that summer of June meant that I was sweating by the time I reached any near to the unreserved coach of train. I had a two liters bottle of water with me, filled with cold water from a chiller plant at station to help me sail through almost 8+ hours of my journey up to Lucknow.
Soon, I realized that there were almost 100 more passengers besides me who were trying to enter the same coach from the same gate and that despite being young and fit, I was unable to squeeze in the entrance with a suit case. I was non plussed really. Despite having a valid ticket, I was unable to enter the coach and the departure of train was hardly 10 minutes away. I stepped aside for few moments and peeped in through the iron bar window of the coach. The scene inside the coach was no less disheartening and everybody inside the coach was sweating profusely due to the stationary train. The seats were already occupied and the galleries were jam packed. Now, I had a feel of panic. The train was about to start and I was still not inside the coach.
I took a deep breath and holding my suitcase and bottle in each hand decided to give a final push to enter the coach. I just lunged forward and tried to force myself in. I made some in road but that was no way sufficient to get me in. In fact now I was sandwiched by the crowd. The crowd behind me was pushing me towards the gate and there was no space inside the coach to let me in. My hands stretched in both the directions were almost crushed and I was feeling as if I will collapse right there. I was feeling thirsty again, but could not afford to get the bottle close to my mouth. I kept on pushing the crowd and somehow got my left foot on the footstep of the coach. I got some confidence, despite still precariously pressed between layers amid layers of fellow passengers. I pushed even more and then suddenly due to a big push from the back got almost thrown inside the coach. My suitcase in the process got entangled with some human bodies and was left behind after getting in the coach. I moved my neck to pick up the suitcase but I could not get enough space to pick that. I was pushed even further due to the pressure of the crowd which too wanted to come in. There was so much pressure around me that I was feeling the pressure of 2G (Force of Gravity) or even 3G. I realised that if passenger coaches were not made from the best quality steel, it could have burst at its seam literally. I was sweating very badly and my shirt was almost soaked in. Still I was feeling elated that I was in and not hanging precariously from the footsteps of the train. Though I had no seat to place my bottom and was standing in the gallery close to toilet only, I was feeling victorious.
The train started to move finally and I could see from the side of the window that there were still many more who were trying to squeeze in. I am not sure how many could finally make it, but I am sure that there were almost 400 passengers inside the coach, which was almost four times of the capacity. I looked at every seat I could see, but on all seats there were already twice as many persons sitting. The upper seats of the unreserved coaches are normally for placing your luggage, but here all of those were occupied or you can say stuffed with sweaty passengers. Mostly they were hardworking laborers who were returning to their homes in Bihar after toiling had for months in Delhi.
I was worried about my suitcase too as it was left behind me, but at first, I decide to quench my thirst with the cold water. I drank almost half of the bottle. It gave me lot of relief but I was also aware that the train had not even cleared the Delhi city and more than half of my bottle was finished. I was worried as Lucknow was still 500 km and 8 hours away. I then tried to look around for my suitcase. It was nowhere in sight and when I tried to move little back, I could not, as the pressure of the crowd which had squeezed in the last minute was too much towards the gallery. A young boy advised me to relax and said that the suitcase would go nowhere and I might find it after the pressure gets reduced due to movement of the train. Though the suitcase was having no valuable, I was worried for my clothes and documents.
I tried to focus on the possibility of being seated, but there was no scope. This train was really unique in being overloaded and seemed to give a very tough competition to local trains of Mumbai. I decided to keep standing and got support from the inside of a closed gate just opposite to the entry gate. It was a summer evening and train by now was moving at a frenetic pace towards next stop, Aligarh.
The journey to Aligarh takes some 2 hours for super fast trains. During this time I had lost much of body water by sweating. I had not gone to loo and that was not easy either as the approach to the loo was clogged by some heavy duty luggage brought in by someone travelling with us. He might have been an experienced campaigner on this train and therefore placed his biggish and bulkiest luggage near the loo. I kept on swiping sweat with my handkerchief, but it soon got soaked enough to absorb any more of it. I kept on drinking water and realized soon, that I had finished all of the water even before train could reach Aligarh. I thought of refilling my bottle at Aligarh station. The short stay outside the coach could have given me some fresh air too, as the air inside the coach with packed and sweating human bodies was full of obvious body smells.
As soon as the train reached Aligarh station and I decided to get out of the coach on to the platform, but as soon as the train stopped, there was a huge push of passengers from outside, who wanted to board this train from Aligarh. Since there was hardly any passengers inside the coach who were terminating their journey at Aligarh and the passengers pushing to come inside were too many, my efforts to get out were outdone by the incoming passengers. I got squeezed more and could do nothing and before the things could settle down in my favour, the train started to move. I was now very worried as I was left with no drinking water and the next halt of Vaishali was 300 km further at Kanpur. That meant no stoppage for at next 5 hours almost!. It was a very gloomy picture.
I was still sweating in the summer heat and was loosing body fluids and minerals without any replenishment. In fact the rest of the passengers too had depleted their water resources kept in all sorts of bottles and pots. Nobody was in a position to share water with me. There were few infants and children too, who were crying due to heat and lack of water. Their parents had to borrow some water from other passengers to keep them going. I was now feeling the heat even more and with no fan over my head, had to depend only on the air coming through the windows of the coach. My thirst continued to grow, but there was no way out. The other passengers too were feeling the thirst but appeared to me more organised and more battle hardy than me. They were perhaps veteran of this train and for me this was the first experience of a kind.
I was really cursing myself at my decision of choosing the unreserved coach for my journey. I was panicking and started imagining that I might even die due to lack of water. I kept on praying and that point of time had no ambition in life except somehow to get few gulps of water. Water was that precious, I realized only on that day. I have ever since continued to respect the water and also understood the meaning of the saying that if you have fresh water to drink and the food to eat on this planet, you should not complain.
My only hope now was at next stop of the train at Kanpur. Though it was too far, I had no choice. I kept on reminding me that I could survive this. I was also thinking at the same that I would have to devise ways to alight at Kanpur and not fail like at Aligarh. I therefore focused on ways to get out at Kanpur. I was feeling increasingly thirsty. In fact, it was like I was in a desert and had not drunk water during the entire day. I would have even begged God to make me a camel in next birth if my agony would have continued beyond Kanpur.
Almost an hour before the train was scheduled to arrive at Kanpur, I started inching towards the gate millimeter by millimeter. It was tough to navigate through the jam packed coach and in the process I was sweating even more, aggravating my thirst even further. I kept on inching and got my water bottle to hang by my neck so as not to be left behind in any case. I requested the passengers sitting with the support of the closed gate to let me get out of the coach at station to get some water. Incidentally too many thirsty passengers by now were joining me to get out at the platform. The train entered the platform and as soon as it stopped, I virtually jumped out of the coach and ran towards a water stand post. I was happy to find one near my coach. I first drank straight from the tap as much as I could. I think it would have been at least 10 glasses if not more. I heaved a sigh of relief and filled my bottle with a great sense of accomplishment. It got filled to the brim soon and thanking God, rushed back to the coach. I came inside and looked for my suitcase now. I found it dumped besides a big sack of something. I was happy to see that but since I had no place to keep it safer, I continued to let it that way.
The train soon left for Lucknow. With my thirst quenched, I was now relaxed but the sweating was still there. The smell of sweat of different genre and types was in the air of the coach and I felt like throwing my shirt away to get some direct air. There were already many gentleman in the coach who were shirtless and even vest less. I remained however in my clothes only. From Kanpur onward, the compartment had become calmer and one of the fellow passenger offered me some part of already overcrowded berth to place at least my butt, if not all of me. I thanked the gentleman and realized with regret that on many occasions I had been contemptuous of those fellow passengers who had entered the reserved coaches without reservation and now I was placed in a similar reservation. Life is always a full circle really. On that night I had learned few valuable lessons.
It was well past midnight when the train entered into Lucknow. The lights of the platform appeared like bringing light into my life. I was entering my city, Lucknow and that too alive. The train stopped after few minutes and I picked my suitcase and before alighting at railway station looked at the coach. It was still packed. Many passengers had fallen asleep in whatever poses they could strike. They had actually fallen asleep wherever they were, and in whatever corner of the coach they could spread some part of their body. Every other passengers’ body was being touched by some or other part of somebody’s body. I smiled and came out of the coach with my prized bottle and the suitcase and left for home. I had only one more ambition left. I wanted to breath in lots of fresh air and than just take a bath. As I came outside of the station and took an auto to reach to my home, I breathed with all my force to get as much as fresh air as I could. What a journey it was really. I was smelling really and took a well deserved bath. Every time I happen to be any close to this train, I always try to have a look at the unreserved coach. It reminds me of my past and teaches me to respect and love what the Almighty and my parents have bestowed upon me by their guidance and kindness.