Escaping IndiaPosted: November 29, 2011
I boarded the train and found my seat. I switched my laptop on and settled in for the three and half hour ride back to Mumbai. A dozen or so episodes of Arrested Development later and I started to wonder when we would arrive. A man came past selling meals. People started folding down the bunks. This was concerning; Mumbai was the end of the line and we were supposed to have arrived 15 minutes ago.
“Where are you going?” I asked the moustachioed man sitting next to me in a purple shirt. He had noticed me looking nervously out the window for Mumbai’s skyline.
“Trivandrum. Where you go?”
“Umm, Mumbai…” I replied, realising even as I said it that I was certainly not going to Mumbai.
“Oh no sir, you are going the wrong way.”
No shit. Not only was I going to wrong way but I had been for the last four hours. Fuck.
We pulled up at a stop and without thinking grabbed my pack and jumped off. I had no idea where I was. I was in Solapur. This meant nothing to me. I headed straight to the ticket counter and joined the back of the shortest queue.
“Uhh, hi, I got on the wrong train, I need to go to Mumbai tonight.”
“You go to enquiries desk.”
At the enquiries desk a woman wrote the number of a train on a piece of paper and sent me back to the ticket desk. The train left at 10.30pm. I looked at a clock and saw it was 8.45pm.
At the ticket desk I was told to go to the reservation desk.
At the reservation desk I was told to take a number from counter seven.
Counter seven was closed.
A short man with a moustache and a chequered shirt approached me.
“Where you go?”
“Ahhh. I got on the wrong train. I need to go to Mumbai tonight. I have flight in the morning I have to catch.”
“What time flight?”
“To New Zealand?”
This wasn’t true but I figured this was simpler to explain. There was no harm in emphasising how imperative it was that I reach Mumbai.
“How can I get a ticket?”
“Now you cannot get ticket because the reservations close at 9.30.”
It was 8.45pm. I guessed that they stopped handing out queue tickets an hour before reservations closed.
“But I need a ticket for Mumbai tonight.”
“Ok, you wait here 15 minutes. You come with me with my ticket.”
“Thank you so much. Do you think there are seats on the 10.30pm train?”
“Maybe. But this train no arrive until 8.00am.”
“Ah this is too late. Is there a bus I can take?”
“No. Now is too late for bus.”
Things were not looking good. I felt panicky.
“But there is train at nine. It arrive at five.”
“Yes, this is good. I need a ticket for this train.”
There was no time to queue for his number to come up at the reservation desk. The man paused to think.
“What is your name?” I asked.
This was a good sign. Dilips are fantastic fix-it men in India; at least in my experience.
“Ok, you come with me.”
I followed Dilip as he led me to the station managers office. A conversation ensued between the station manager and Dilip in Hindi of which I only picked up a few English words – “Mumbai”, “flight” “retarded foreigner”. Then we left and went to another office where the same conversation followed. And then again in a third office. Then we went back to the original ticket counter.
“You ask for a ticket to Mumbai and give 100 rupees,” Dilip said.
“Don’t I need to fill out a reservation form with the train name and my details on it?”
Ok. The “queue” was out of control, a scrum in front of the glass window with a dozen hands pushing wads of rupees into the hole.
“You must hurry,” Dilip said.
Dilip took my money and pushed to the front, yelling to the people around him something about his important mission to help a helpless foreigner. Dilip got to the front and handed over my 100 rupees and 10 of his own. He returned and gave me a ticket. It said Mumbai on it but had no train name, no carriage or seat number.
“Quick, we must hurry.”
Dilip took me back to one of the offices we had visited earlier. Another conversation followed.
“Ok I must go now to buy my ticket. You must stay with this fellow.”
Dilip introduced me to a moustachioed fellow in the white pants and blue blazer of a railway conductor.
“Ok but I still owe you 10 rupees Dilip.”
“It is ok. Welcome to India.”
Dilip hurried off before I had a chance to express my gratitude. I smiled at the conductor fellow. He disappeared back into his office and I waited outside.
Half an hour later I was worried about the whereabouts of the train when my fellow and his colleagues appeared and headed to the platform. I trailed after, trotting to keep up.
“Ok you go with this fellow,” my fellow said, passing me off to another fellow.
The train pulled up and a conductor got off and conferred with my new fellow.
“There is no room in AC. You go to sleeper class.”
Sleeper class was rammed. People were even sprawled on the floor. All 10 carriages. After an hour of shoving my way down the aisle looking for somewhere to sit I gave up and sat down at the end of a carriage on the floor by the toilets. The floor was wet and cockroaches scurried over my legs. I didn’t care. I put my head in my arms, my arms on my knees and with my iPod playing Bukka White train songs tried to sleep.
Eight hours later I was still in more or less the same position when the train arrived at Dadar station. The taxi predators spotted wounded prey the second I descended onto the platform and one led me meekly away to the taxi ranks. I didn’t even bother arguing with the outrageous price he named for driving me to the airport. I was leaving and had no use for my remaining rupees.
At the airport I discovered my remaining rupees were missing. I would like to say they had been stolen but in all likelihood I had probably dropped them from my pocket in my fizz to get a ticket back to Mumbai.
I scratched together two thirds of what the taxi driver had asked for and gave it to him.
“No 600. You go ATM.”
It should have cost about 150 but I should have negotiated this earlier.
“Take the 400, it’s all you’re getting and it’s more than you deserve.”
I walked away with him yelling after me. He had been too cheap to drive me to the departures drop off though and couldn’t leave his cab on the side of the road.
Walking to check-in I dropped my wallet on the ground. A woman came rushing after me the hand it back. At the check-in counter I left my passport behind. I got this back too.
Somehow I made it to to gate. Things couldn’t get any worse.
I boarded the plane and looked for my seat. My seat was in business class. I didn’t ask why, just buckled up and slept until Kathmandu.