FF29: Planes, trains and auto-rickshaws

Second-class train carriage. [Buy a print]

It was the end of a wonderful couple of weeks meandering the desert, lakes, fortresses and palaces of Rajasthan. Yes, a monkey had attacked us, but what are a few cuts and bruises against the bigger picture of two whole weeks of trauma-free travel? Trifles, I say.

The last leg of the trip involved an easy hop from Jaisalmer’s dunes to the metropolis of Delhi. One simple night train and our family would part ways, returning to England, China and Kolkata.

When we were planning this trip, we always knew that this could be the riskiest section of our travel. If all went to schedule, we’d have a couple of hours to get Sarah’s family to the airport. If the train was late, well, that could be a problem.

We boarded in good time and settled down for a journey that was scheduled to take 18 hours, traversing some 920 kilometres. Just before Jodhpur, we tucked into our evening meal served in slippery plastic pouches lightly filmed in oil. After slurping up the spicy liquids and rinsing off our curried fingers we laid our heads down on the thin leatherette bunks of the Jaisalmer-Delhi Express and rocked into a railway sort of sleep.

I woke early, having slept fairly well in two-hour bursts. Looking at my watch to check our progress, I could see we were doing okay. Perhaps an hour or so behind schedule, we would still arrive in good time to catch our flights. Things were looking good.

Before Rewari station, some 100 kilometres from Delhi, the train slowed to a stop. We waited without worrying too much — short stops like this are not unusual. But the short stop began to grow into half an hour, then forty minutes of anxiety.

The data on our phones had stopped working, so we headed out of our compartment and asked if anyone knew what was happening. Information came in shreds and scraps, the words ‘reservation’ and ‘Jats’ kept coming up. And then we heard that the line ahead was blocked by protesters.

My thoughts went immediately to the complex reservation system involved with booking train tickets. But staging a human blockade on a train line because it’s hard to book tickets? This seemed a bit strong.

Unknown to us at the time, ahead of us hundreds of trains had been affected by the protests. Buildings were being burnt down, violence had injured hundreds and a few people had even been shot dead. Around 100 km away, the army were being airdropped in and mobile data services had been shut down to hinder the protesters’ communication. And no — it had nothing to do with reserving tickets, but the inclusion of the Jat caste within the ‘Other Backward Classes’ category, entitling this caste to the privilege of reservations of land and other benefits allocated to these ‘OBC’ caste groups.

Back on the train, people had begun to take action. Like mobile villages, the trains can carry between 800–2000 passengers, and from the window we could see that many of them had decided to abandon the rails.

‘The train could be here until tomorrow’ someone told me.

By now it was clear that my parents-in-law were going to miss their flight home, but if what we heard was true, we’d miss the flights to China and Kolkata if we waited it out here. In the fog of confusion it seemed that our options were limited. We were some way from the nearest town, there weren’t any buses or taxis nearby and a tour operator trying to get his British tourists back to Delhi wasn’t willing to consider taking on any extras.

We jumped off the train and scrambled down the embankment to reach the small road where a few auto-rickshaws had gathered by the stopped train. In India, there are always options.

Speaking to the rickshaw driver it became immediately clear that we couldn’t understand each other. I explained that we wanted to be taken to the nearest taxi stand, where I hoped we could hire a car to get back to Delhi to make our flights home. A negotiation of sorts ensued and we struck a deal.

Just as we were about to climb on, a couple of worried-looking Chinese girls approached us and asked where we were going. We were already a group of six, plus the driver, but somehow we all squeezed in, my father and brother-in-law and me perched on a bench at the back facing outwards.

Throttle engaged, we sped along quiet country backroads past fields and camels and the confused gaze of local farmers, who I assume don’t see many rickshaws bursting with tourists in these parts.

For some reason, I imagined that the journey would take about ten minutes. After about twenty minutes, there was still no sign of a settlement. Then the driver slowed and finally stopped in the middle of the road, peering ahead nervously. Roadblock. We had to find another way.

After half an hour we joined a line of vehicles queued up in front of the barrier crossing the train line. I wondered why the barrier was down — was this part of the protesters’ disruption tactics too? The ground rumbled, and a train suddenly flew past. Our train.

At this point, my heart sank to a small corner of my chest cavity where things go to lose hope. Finally, around 45 minutes after having set off, we inexplicably arrived at Rewari train station, not a taxi stand in site. Caked in dust, spines still humming with the vibrations of the rickshaw and road, we tried not to think about the fact that our train had probably arrived before us.

Another five trains were backed up in the station and the whole area was swarming with people trying to figure out what to do. Someone told me that we could get another auto-rickshaw to a bus stand. Another said that all the roads were blocked. I went into the station and saw that there was no way I’d be getting close to the ticket counter. Listlessly, I began to ask people around me if there were any trains leaving for Delhi.

‘Oh yes, a train is leaving in half an hour’

Sitting down in the empty carriage 10 minutes later, I began to wonder whether this train was in fact going anywhere. Where were the masses of people also trying to get to Delhi? Should I get off the train and ask again? A whistle blew, and within five minutes of sitting down, the train moved out of the station.

Arriving in Kolkata, many hours later, the night air was thick with heat. The city had heated up several degrees in the two weeks we’d been away.

Climbing out of the large yellow Ambassador Classic, our taxi driver bid us farewell with a cheery ‘good day and good night’ as we arrived at NSC Bose Road. Which seemed somewhat ominous, given the day we’d just had.

When we’d left a few weeks ago, Mr Das waved us goodbye wearing a warm shirt and a scarf wrapped around his head. Tonight he was just wearing a vest. Though it was late, he was keen to show us how they’d cleaned our flat, washed our sheets and refilled the bucket of cooking water ready for our return.

The taxi driver had been right. With a welcome as warm as this, I felt better disposed to see today’s adventure as a series of remarkable solutions rather than a difficult journey. A scenic detour offered up in penance of a missed flight, the great Indian Railways had triumphed again.

Fifty Frames Trains: part 2 of 3

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