Vista-71: The Website of the Indian Railways


Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Website of the Indian Railways

By Raja Ramanathan
Yesterday I visited the web site of the Indian Railways.  
Given the size of the network, and, the geographical spread of the country, the web site is a technological accomplishment of unparalled proportion. Surfing through the site, I realized that sitting here, a few kilometres behind Toronto’s Lester Pearson International Airport, I could book tickets for travel three months ahead, on the Gummidipundi Passenger that would depart from Madras (sorry, Chennai) Central’s platform number 8.   How things have changed!  
Booking tickets for visiting uncles from Calcutta (before it became Kolkata) was one of the chores of my teenage existence. Uncles would land up for the summer holidays, and, a few days after their arrival, we would have to book their return tickets. Somewhere in 1965 or 1966, Uncle J and his family consisting of his wife and three kids, and, Uncle S and his family, wife and four kids landed up at the same time, in Madras (since this was before Madras became Chennai, I hope the socially correct  will pardon the continued use of the colonial name for the beautiful city on the Marina). Uncle J being the junior of the two was assigned the task of getting eleven second class three-tier tickets for travel between Madras and Howrah. I was appointed chief sidekick to Uncle J. My attempts at trying to wheedle out of the assignment by pleading that I had a test the next week were effectively put down with three arguments:  
-    that, in the first case i never did study for my tests, 
-    that, if necessary i could take my text book to the station, along with, Uncle J, who, in any case was an Economics Honours graduate could coach me and,    
this was the clincher -    the railways issued only six tickets to a single buyer.  
So, the next morning Uncle J and I woke up at 4.30 am. My mother had made coffee, and, Uncle J magnanimously offered to buy me breakfast at the station. Uncle J got on the pillion of my bicycle and we cycled doubles to a friend’s house near the Adyar (again, that was the colonial spelling before it became Adayaru) main bus terminus.  Having successfully avoided early rising cops looking to fill their monthly quota of criminally-minded people riding doubles on bicycles we reached my friend's house, deposited the bicycle there, and, made our way to the bus stop to catch the first 5 number bus to Parrys Corner (again, a colonial name, not the new Paarimunai). That bus started off its perilous journey at 4.55 am, and, with the grace of our ancestors we reached Madras Central around 6am. Off we got from the bus and made our way to the booking counters, which opened at 8.30 am.  
There was already a line of about 10 people ahead of us in front of the Howrah counter. This was not bad. At the peak of the summer travel rush, people slept overnight to be in a vantage position when the counter opened. Uncle J and I positioned ourselves in this line-up of the faithful who wanted to travel to Howrah ten days from then (bookings opened ten days ahead of the travel date and generally were sold out by around 10 am), and, Uncle J told me to go and get the booking application form.  I wandered off, looking sideways at the pretty young girls who stood in the ladies’ line up to the left of the main queue. Indian women’s liberationists had ensured separate queues for women. The girls were clutching their student concession forms, and, I had half a mind to ask them if they had gotten them stamped by the Station Superintendent’s office. If they hadn’t I wished to tell them, they would not be able to buy the tickets and would lose their vantage position. I was even willing to volunteer to take their forms and get them stamped by the almighty Station Superintendent. However, I caught Uncle J’s eye telling me non-verbally to move on and get the reservation application forms. After some sauntering I got the forms, and, as I came back I noticed that some other busybody had approached my pretty friends and was getting their forms stamped by the Station Superintendent.  Oh, if only I had come alone, without Uncle J!  
The forms were duly filled by Uncle J, resting them on my back and, thus began the long two hour long wait for the counter to open. Madras Central, at 7.30 am in the mornings, is a live and bustling place, an epicenter of enterprise that could make an interesting case study for any top business school, what with several thousand people converging purposefully to each realise their lives ambitions. Every two minutes or so, some train or the other would leave or arrive and announcements would be made in Thamizh, English and what was allegedly Hindi about this impending event. After 1965, when Madras decided to say No to Hindi, the Hindi announcements were dropped. So, if not anything else, every few minutes (pre-1965) you would hear of the impending arrival of â '..dilli se aanewali girandu trunk express abhi thodi hi der mein platform number yek par aayegi..' if you listened carefully you could decipher that it was some good Dravidian soul getting even with the Aryans, for centuries of oppression, by writing down the announcement in the Thamizh script and massacring the pronounciation. The Thamizh and English versions did not require the same exercise of collective social vengeance. Though the British had left only recently, they had left the railway system and that merited the English language a kinder disposition. And,  in 1966, Thamizh having just made its head over Sanskritization, was well on its way to supremacy.  
These oracle-like pronouncements served as a backdrop for the myriad other sights and sounds.   The jasmine flower vendor, herself a heavenly sight for the hormone raced eyes of a sixteen year old;  the rushing red clad porters (I think they have a more socially correct title now) , and, the sounds of murukku, masala vadai, vadai, vadai and soda, tea, colour, biskit, biskit, biskit all words jammed together into a monosyllabic sound..   Once in a while, Uncle J would decide to wander off, letting me hold the place in the line which would have by now grown to fifty or so, the last ten or so having no chance of getting a ticket. Then, he would be back, and, would let me meander away. One time I took a little longer having had to stand in the early morning line up to perform early morning obligatories at the Madras Central public washroom. On my return to the queue, Uncle J looked at me somewhat quizzically and apropos my somewhat long absence said, “if you want to smoke, you can do so in front of me, where were you this long ? 
Uncle J’s comment opened up a new world of adventure for me. At sixteen I had been well taken in by the tobacco industry’s attempts to win my mind. Ads of damsels falling for the guy who lit his cigarette and blew curls of smoke in the air held tremendous promises of the flesh. However till then I had never smoked. It had been too risky a venture with several family well wishers in the Adyar area only too willing to report back home on such “immoral activities”.   Uncle J’s comments were my trigger to try out this new experiment.   So, when I got my turn to wander off from the booking line queue next, I made a bee-line for the cigarette stall, and, asked for a Wills Filter, the cigarette then cost 8 paise for one and 15 paise if you bought two. I bought one, and, as every smoker of standing in Madras does, I lit the first weed of my life on the small rope with the burning tip which serves as the lighter.  I coughed a little, and, inhaled (unlike the former president of the US of A who did not. Maybe life would have taken a different course if I hadn’t.   A trice of a second later, I felt giddy and almost fell down. The nicotine was going to my head, and, making me reel. As the sensation of giddiness came on, so did the image of the macho guy in the Marlboro ads and I was hooked for the next twenty years.  I staggered back and took my place in the queue, Uncle J saying, “thats better you don’t have to do these things on the sly”  
Sitting here, looking at the Indian Railways web site, I wonder how life would have been, if back in 1966, we could have booked our tickets with the click of a mouse, instead of the eventful and life-filled journeys to Madras Central to book tickets..  
Afterword: My wife read this, and, let me in on this long guarded secret. She used to study at the Stella Maris College, Madras, and, lived in the college hostel (residence). Stella Maris College, Madras, is best known for the determined efforts of the nuns who run the college to ensure that their wards’ moral fibre remains of a high order, and, the equally determined efforts of their wards to negate the nuns’ efforts. Accordingly, the inmates of the college residence could go out only during specified hours, and, with appropriate chaperones. One exception was when they had to go to Madras Central to book their tickets, for the end of term journey home. Invariably the girls would remain out the entire morning, on the pretext that they were at the station, booking their train tickets to go home. The nuns did not realize that there was a separate Ladies queue and that it took all of ten minutes for a lady to book her ticket. My wife is thankful that she did not have the facility of on-line booking, and, could have unsupervised fun, on the pretext that she was going to be out the whole morning (having breakfast at Woodlands!), after booking her return ticket.  
I continued my surfing of the Indian Railways website.  
I saw that I could access railway time tables for all trains, on line. Reading time tables of the Indian Railways was a pre-requisite for any railway journey that I undertook, between the ages of 12 and 18. Prior to the journey, I would have established a hierarchy of the stations en route based on the amount of time the train stopped at the station. By the time I was 17, I had mastered all the codes on the time table and knew the difference between VNR and VNNR (Vegetarian Refreshment room and Non Vegetarian Refreshment Room). I also knew the different station codes, and, the mysteries of why Dadar was DRJ and Olavakkot was OJJ. So, I could not resist this ability now offered to me to surf the net and find out how long the Madras Mail stopped at Tadpatri station which came after Cuddapah junction.  
The world of high tech time tables is different. First you need to know the Train Number. That you get by entering the first three letters of the start and destination city. My struggles to find the time tables for travel from Bombay to Madras were all in vain for the first twenty minutes. Reason ? I was entering the socially inappropriate names of Bombay and Madras. When this epiphany struck everything fell into place, and, soon I had the time tables of all the trains that ran between Mumbai and Chennai.  
The Bombay/Madras Mail (9Dn, 10Up in days of yore) is the oldest train to run the route. In 1926, when my father lost his job with the New India newspaper, Dr. Annie Besant paid his fare of Rupees Ten or so for him to travel to Bombay to find another job. The Madras/Bombay Mail had already been running for over twenty five years then. The Mail pulled out of Chennai Central and Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus every day at around 10.00 pm in the night, and, reached the destination station around 5am in the morning, a day after the next. The Mail is like a runner who legs have been shackled. The train is not allowed to go any faster, because it would then reach its destination at much more ungodly hour. In fact, often times the train is held up at the ‘outer’ near Perambur or Perambur Loco Works on the Madras end, because the platform to receive it is not ready at 4.45 am.
Get into the Madras Mail at Bombay. It used to be about the last train of standing to leave VT. After the Mail had left you had only lowly passenger and fast passengers leaving.   The ticket checkers would wait till the train crossed Dadar and do their ticket checking, waking up the gentry who had already pulled down their sleeper berths and gone to sleep. By the time they finished, the train would be drawing into Kalyan where the Central Railway used to attach a second electric locomotive to the train to push it up the steep Bhor Ghat into the Deccan Plateau.
Oftentimes, in the monsoons there would be a sharp rain falling and I would watch the mighty shapes of the hills of Khandala and Lonavla loom up, and, the frequent waterfall that monsoon had just created thunderously. By the time you reached Poona (colonial name again, now Pune) it was past midnight. In the old days, the electric locomotives of the Central Railway would give way at Pune to the loud klaxons of diesel locomotives of the South Central Railway. In the sixties, before the diesel locomotives came, the steam engines would take over.  
One would generally fall asleep after Pune, waking up to the cold air of the morning as one pulled out of Sholapur. It is surprising as to how the early morning air, travelling in a train in India, is always cold, irrespective of the season of the year. From Solapur to the cement town of Wadi. Wadi was the first stop in non-Prohibition land, Karnataka, and, my worst memories of Wadi are drinking some country liquor at age 18 or so and having an awfully upset stomach. Invariably at Wadi, the hawkers would go by offering whisky and beer, which, we swallowed irrespective of its quality or time of the day. Having alcohol in your system was sufficient justification.  
By  mid-day, you were at Raichur, the longest stop on the Bombay/Madras haul. The Mail stopped here for an hour, enough time for food to be served. You could order the South Indian rice meal, or, the North Indian Chappati meal, and, for those of us who fancied the white man’s ways you could order a Western meal in which you were served the world’s greasiest cutlets. No Westerner would have the stomach to digest those cutlets, but, we ate them fully convinced that was how they lived in Cheltenham Green, in the Queen’s own country. In the old days, when the Southern Railway took charge of your life at Raichur, ticket checkers would re-check tickets to ensure that no wily Bombayites were slipping by ticketless.  
Once we pulled out of Raichur, the Madras Mail sleeper coaches would fall into a heavy slumber in the hot afternoon heat of the Deccan Plateau. Whatever you did, you could not escape that mind numbing heat, and, I have spent several afternoons wistfully hoping for air-conditioning or the wherewithal to fly. You would be awoken from your slumber as the train rolled across the mighty Tungabhadra bridge, and, into the peaceful whistle stop station of Mantralayam Road blessed by the presence of Sri Raghavendra Swami and his ashram.
By evening tea time you were at Guntakal. Before the broad gauge train lines were extended south of Miraj, this was where everyone who wished to go to Bangalore changed trains. Guntakal station was always full of langur monkeys who would snatch your food if you were not watching. After Guntakal came Gooty, where the evening meal got served. Then, on to Cuddapah, and, around 2 in the morning, Renigunta, gateway to the temple city of Tirupati. One generally did not notice the next major junction, Arakkonam, because you were asleep then.  
And then, the train raced past Trivellore, Avadi, Korattur, Ambattur, Perambur Carriage Works, Perambur Loco Works, Perambur not realising that going so fast did not help. It would, always, always, have to wait at Basin Bridge at the 'outer' for the platform to clear...Almost like having sex. The rush, the sudden climax and the languorous lull.  
As I sat looking at the electronic time table I realised how much it has all changed. There is now a twenty-four train (Train No. 1062/1063) to and from Mumbai and Chennai. The high and mighty Raichur Junction where life changed from the white sola topees of the Central Railway to the green ties of the Southern Railway now merits only a two minute whistle stop. The longest that the train stops is at Pune, for a measly ten minutes. How do you buy your batata wadas in ten minutes and also fill water ? There is air-conditioning, and, you can check the time table on the net.  
It all still reminds me of an old joke A man went up to the station master at Vaniyambadi (or Katpadi or Guduvancheri) and said, "What is the use of your timetable if all your trains are running late ?" The station master, without batting an eyelid, said, "If there was no time table how would you know that the train was late ?" ____________________________    


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