96, Brindavan Express - Fiction

Glory Sasikala
Glory Sasikala

1982 May, standing on the platform at Central Station, Chennai, with my mom, waiting for a train to Tirupati, I wondered at the well-dressed people across, at the other platform. Brindavan Express, leaving for Bangalore, the Garden City, early morning, was well-known for its elite crowd. And now, more than three decades later, I had no cause for complain on Friday when I left for Bangalore, travelling in the famed train for the first time. My ticket for a seater for the six-hour journey was confirmed and I had no cause for worry. Happily, there were less people and I could stretch my legs and enjoy the ride, talking to my neighbour and looking out of the window. I settled down at my window seat with my book, which actually lay untouched as I was engrossed in the lovely panorama outside.

The train reached well in time, and Mona was there at the station to receive me. This was a short two-day visit to spend some quality time with my daughter. The two days just flew by. I had booked a hotel room on Make My Trip, nearer the station. It turned out to be a lovely hotel in a rather quiet street. Our room was on the third floor, and outside our window was a huge tamarind tree with monkeys swinging on its branches. Later in the evening, bats came home to the tree and hung upside down, a rather bizarre sight. We happily settled down to some quiet time on our own, intending to make the most of the two days. We did intend going out too, of course. We dined with my cousin, and then, of course, we had to visit Lal Bagh. I had to be there every time I visited Bangalore. Time seemed to stand still as we gazed up at the old trees and wondered at the lily ponds and exclaimed in delight at the rose gardens. It brought a sense of peace, and somehow showed life in its right perspective.

It was soon time to leave. Brindavan Express again, and it was only natural for me to expect the same peaceful journey I had while coming. Mona dropped me off at the station and saw me to my seat at the KSR City Station at Bangalore. I occupied the middle seat, 95, next to a man who feigned to be asleep. The compartment was full, but everyone was seated and things seemed okay. The train started and I waved Mona goodbye. And then, Cantonment Station happened…

I wondered at the huge crowd of people at the station, wondering what they were doing there. Some of them could be accommodated in the Unreserved Section I reckoned, but the rest of this horde? I had my answer only too soon. They entered the compartment pell-mell, a stampede from both ends that clashed somewhere in the middle. The noise! The luggage! And the horror on my face!

A fat man with curly hair made his way determinedly through the crowd and shouted “96!” to the Sleeping Man in the corner seat next to me: Seat Number 96. He threw a bag at the man, and the man pretended to wake up. “No need to shout. I am getting up.” And he got up and disappeared in the crowd. The fat man threw his backpack up and pushed a lot of luggage to the side and settled his suitcase, and sat down. He then turned to me and studied my face. “What Ma’am? Why are you looking horrified?”

“This is a reserved compartment.”


“So who are all these people?”

“You don’t know? It’s been five years now since the law was passed allowing this. I travel this way regularly. Luckily I got a ticket today. My job is in Bangalore, and my family is in Chennai. What do you expect me to do?”

“Yes, but…”

“See, it’s pretty simple. People have to travel to Chennai ever so often. They can’t always afford to buy a ticket.”

“You mean they’re going all the way to Chennai?”

He seemed to delight in my horror as he answered, “Yes.”

“Not really,” said a gentle Old Man on the other side, “Most of them will get down at Katpadi Junction. It’s Muhurtam (marriage day or auspicious day) tomorrow.”

“Some more will get in at Ambur,” assured 96, with unholy glee.

The Old Man said, “India will never change. I can give that in writing.”

That was the beginning of the bellowing in my ears for a while, back and forth.
96 was quite knowledgeable, or rather, opinionated, and he had a loud voice.
“Brindavan Express was designed in 1972. The engineer who designed it died only recently. We still have the same engine, same engine power. It can only carry this much load. You cannot add any more carriages to it. It has not been renovated.”

The old man said, “People must not accept it.”

96 said, “What can people do?”

“We must not vote for these people.”

“Who votes? I don’t. I pretend to. I go in and press “NOTA” and come out. These people vote themselves into power. When we asked if something could be done, the reply we got was, “What do I care how dogs travel?” Can you imagine that was what was said? I took a picture of the toilet and sent it to them. No reply. I wasn’t expecting one.”

Meanwhile, a whole family of Muslim women in black burkha had pushed their way down the aisle. Not surprising that, considering that the Old Mother had all the qualities of a Commander-in-Chief. “Bait jao! Bait jao!” (“Sit down! Sit down!”) she kept shouting at her whole family. And they obediently complied by sitting somewhere, sometimes just sinking to the floor, or next to some innocent, kind person. She looked severely at me, sitting sinfully comfortably, according to her, and said, “Mumtaz, tu udhar bait jao!” (“Mumtaz, you sit there!”)

I gave her a blank look. Where was Mumtaz going to sit? I shook my head and firmly said, “No.”

Then Mumtaz obligingly sank to the floor and sat on my feet. I pushed her aside and freed my feet. Meanwhile, a gale of laughter rang through the crowd. A scapegoat of a guy in train uniform was pathetically holding the hot can over his head and saying “Chai! Chai!” (“Tea! Tea!”). He moved for a while, and then got stuck and stayed there, the hot can over his head and a bag of paper cups hanging from his shoulder.

“Hey, Chai!” called 96. “Pour it on our heads.”

“I made a mistake Sar,” said poor Chai.

Then again a ripple of excitement went through the crowd, and everyone looked towards the door to my back. I turned to check, and saw them all looking interestedly at a young man in what looked like foreign clothes and accessories, with an American Tourister bag sitting firmly on his head. His glasses hung limply from his neck, and he looked completely out of place. And was that a laptop he was carrying?

“What’s happening?” I asked 96.

“He has a ticket,” 96 laughed. “He can’t go to his seat on the other end. Someone is sitting there.”

Apparently, this was a Just Crowd. If someone had a ticket, they must sit. So people moved sideways and let the poor bloke make his painful way through. He got stumped when he came to Old Mother sitting on the floor, and she refused to budge. But people protested, and she got up and let him pass.

The lady sitting in front of me had two small daughters, and she was desperately making the perpetually wriggling girls sit in their seats, knowing it won’t be long before it dawned on the logical Without-Ticket Indian mind that children ought not to have seats of their own.

96 turned to me, “What Madam, you’re from Japan? You need comfort?”

“This shouldn’t happen. People should not travel like this even if it’s allowed.”
I think I turned villain at that point, and people glared at me.

“You can thank your lucky stars, Ma’am. If you were in Pakistan, they would shoot you, and if you were in China, they would shoot you and sell your kidneys,” He looked at me speculatively, “And maybe all your other organs too. They excel in selling spare parts.”

I wasn’t particularly interested in having my kidneys discussed in public, so I disappeared behind my book. But 96 continued to the Old Man, “You know Sir, there is a stretch in Madhya Pradesh where the TC will simply lock you in your compartment for five hours! So that bandits don’t kill you.”

And he looked at me severely, “Even if you were travelling first class.”

I continued to read. But the blast continued in my ears… or maybe I was interested because I could have got out my earphones, and I didn’t do that.

“You know, two of my friends went to Kargil. They were talking, laughing, sharing wine in the morning, and then the orders came. By afternoon, one of them had lost his leg, the other was dead.”

The Old Man shook his head, “We mustn’t allow them to command.”

At that, my eyes went round, but that seemed to be the popular opinion, as everyone agreed. The Commander should not have Commanded.

“Never mess with an army guy,” said 96, wisely. “They don’t ask questions. They just shoot.”

“Most of them are Tamilians,” said the Old Man, sadly.

“Who else will go? Keralites have messed up their own state by being completely literate.”

Again my eyes went round.

“Bengal and Kerala. Two completely literate states. Both Communists, both messed up. Literacy messes up things.”

The crowd agreed. Said that way, I suppose, the deductive logic appealed to them.

The Old Man was getting a bit restless. All his opinions were being counter-argued. He was a kind man who was not only kind but expected everyone around him to be kind too. He had seated a small boy on his lap and he had continuously apologized to the lady standing by his side that if wasn’t for the child, he would have given her his place. She smiled and said, “Not many people like you Sir,” and the world was a beautiful place, till the lady moved in front of him and her breast was in line with his face. She had to lean forward to hold the bar, and the Old Man closed his eyes firmly and his lips moved, possibly in some religious chant that would prevent him from lecherous thoughts. Not so, 96. The lady moved further inside, then bent to look out of the window, her back now in line with ole 96’s face.

“Hey lady!” he bellowed, “Stand up straight, or sit down.”

At which, she sank to the floor in one baggy lump. “Hey! What are you doing? Watch out for my feet.”

“You told me to sit down.”

The Kind Old Man was suddenly angry. “You talk so much! Don’t you know to get up and give a lady a seat? I would do it if it wasn’t for this child.”

The crowd now glared at poor 96. He was properly cornered, so he got up. “I’m going out for a while. I want my seat when I come back,” he warned the lady. He came back after a while and she got up, and he sat down. The train rushed on. I looked out of the window at the beautiful scenery. Green hills drew so close you could make out the trees and shrubs; these then gave way to paddy fields and coconut groves. Little children from small hamlets waved a smiling goodbye.

The train finally reached Katpadi Junction, and the compartments slowly emptied out. Even the Old Man got down.

There were now just a couple of women, one of whom sat next to me, and the other one stood, which fact caused the sitting lady a lot of distress. “Sit down somewhere,” she kept coaxing the other lady. But no one moved and the lady stood. Realizing that the Old Man was gone and I would be the next target of 96’s bellowing, I got out my earphones and disappeared once again into my book.

One of the little girls sitting in front said, “Ma, bathroom.” And the Mother helplessly got up to take the child to the loo. The fat standing lady immediately sat down. “I’ll get up when you come back,” she said. But when they came back, she had seated the other child on her lap, now pulled the second one too, with a loving “Come baby, sit on Aunty’s lap.” And the Mother resigned herself to it all and went to sleep.

We were now past Arakkonam and nearing Perambur. No TC (ticket checker) had checked our tickets. The train was slowing down just before reaching the station. 96 had taken down his bag and suitcase and was at the door. He had not looked at me, not bid me goodbye. He got down and disappeared in the darkness even before the station came.

And I was left wondering if he had indeed bought a ticket?