Third Class Unreserved!!
Who would have thought it?
Me on that living nightmare!
Don’t get me wrong.
I liked Indian trains. Didn’t need First Class or Tourist Class or anything like that.
Second Class was fine.
I mean, Second Class Reserved.
But not Third Class Un – Reserved.
Here’s the deal for Third Class Unreserved: an unlimited number of tickets are sold. Once you have a ticket, you get on the train anyway you can. Your options are: being crammed inside a carriage like sardines in a tin or sitting on top of the roof or hanging off the side of the train along with hundreds of others.
Third Class Unreserved is for poor Indians (ie, the great majority of India’s billion people).
I got on that train because I didn’t have any choice. Like, none.
How did I end up on it?
It was like this:
I was staying in Daman, a former Portuguese colony on the east coast of India. From here, I had to get to Mumbai to catch a flight to Adelaide, South Australia. Mumbai was 200 kilometres south of Daman. To get there, I’d planned to take a bus. It seemed easy enough. There was a new four lane highway between Daman and Mumbai. But I was misinformed about the buses.
Yeah, it can happen in India. Some people, like the manager of the hotel where I was staying, think that it is better to proffer incorrect information than none at all.
I was assured that there were regular buses plying that highway.
There weren’t: there was only one and when I got to the central bus station and discovered that I’d missed it, I was completely bamboozled.
It was early afternoon.
My flight departed at midnight.
How the hell was I going to get to Mumbai?
There was only one option.
First off, I had to find the train station. I had no idea where it was. I wandered around a strange city, bursting with people and traffic, trying to get reliable information about where the train station was.
When I finally got there, after getting lost a few times, my heart sank.
The platforms were teeming with people and at the ticket office, there were two very long queues.
Give up! I was going to miss my flight. Nothing to be done about it.
But I couldn’t give up.
I had to try.
I joined a long snaking cue and after a hour, managed to get a ticket.
Then came the really daunting part: getting on the train.
I stood on a platform in amongst a huge crowd of poor Indians with their bags and their children and their grandparents. I was surrounded by a teeming mass of people dressed in all the colours of a rainbow and it was hot and even after 3 months in India I was struggling to adjust to my surreal situation.
The hours passed.
As it slowly moved up to the platform, I saw that there were no one sitting on the roof, not yet, and no one clinging on to the sides. There were an awful lot of people inside but by Indian standards, this was an uncrowded train.
One small mercy!
The seething mass of people raced towards the train, yelling and pushing and shoving. I was quick off the mark. I barged my way to the front of the jostling yelling crowd like a wild animal. This was survival of the fittest. I felt bodies squeezing against me, men pushing hard; I pushed back hard. The rucksack was handy for leveraging people out of the way.
I fought to the front.
The surge of people behind me was like a wave; once you were in front of it, it propelled you forwards.
Before I knew it, I was inside the carriage. It happened so suddenly.
Inside it was a dark and cram packed with people. On the left, there were bays, each one having two lots of bench seats facing each other with an upper and lower berth. When I looked into the first bay, I saw women dressed in bright coloured saris and their children, seated on the benches like roosting hens in a coop.
Then something incredible happened.
The women made room for me. There was yelling and the children got up and sat on their mothers’ laps. I was happy just to be on the train and I was perfectly prepared to have to stand the whole way to Mumbai. If necessary, I would have got up on the roof with the others who I could hear above me walking around and jostling for a place.
The women motioned to me to sit.
I didn’t know what to do. I was embarrassed.
Why should those poor, low caste people care about an over-privileged westerner?
Yet they did.
I felt guilty. Guilty about my bestial behaviour to get on that train. Guilty for my wealth and their poverty. Guilty for taking up space that someone else more needful than me might have occupied.
The train crawled along, following the coast.
Out the window, with its horizontal bars, whole worlds passed by. There were deserts and dry yellow hills followed by mangroves and swamps. In the swamps, I saw lots of birds. When the train stopped at a station, the blur of wide expanses was suddenly replaced by the intensity of many people and many ways of life packed into confined spaces. My eyes focused on solitary scenes, distilled little dramas out of the epic, the Mahabharata which unfolded every single day in this immense country.
The afternoon passed. I gazed out of the window at countless remarkable scenes, as if I was in a movie by Fellini.
Night encroached as the train entered the outskirts of Mumbai. The rural poor had departed and their places occupied by office workers and labourers. My end destination seemed like a mirage. At a poorly lit and impossibly crowded station, I made my way into a seething crowd of people and emerging outside into the night and got a taxi to the airport. The traffic was bumper to bumper and we crawled along, passed hut colonies and temples under gigantic illuminated signboards advertising an opulent middle class way of life.
At around 10.30 I arrived at the airport. It was very crowded. There were long queues outside.
There´d been a terrorist attack somewhere in Mumbai and the airport was occupied by the army. Everyone’s passport was being checked along with their baggage.
I couldn´t believe it. Would the journey never end?
Shortly before midnight, after running a gamut of Indian army soldiers checking my passport and rucksack and flight allocation, with 20 minutes to go before the flight was due to leave, I ran down the gangway on to the plane.
I was the last one to board.
The flight was full.
I prepared myself for a fight to get a seat.
Then a great wonder occurred.
The seats had numbers!
Arriving at Adelaide International Airport early on a Saturday morning, I caught the bus into the city centre. It was a fine autumn day, sunny with a light breeze. The temperature was around 20 degrees; freezing after India. The sky seemed limitless, another great emptiness above a big empty land. The air was so clear, so clean.
In the city, I got on a train from Adelaide central station to Seaford, a suburb on the coast 35 kilometres south of the city. It was a little different to Second Class Unreserved.
The train was new, high tech. The entire rail system had been recently rebuilt and electrified. Inside the train, everything was so clean, so modern. It was as if I was back in the plane only now it was on rails. There were only a few people in my carriage. I was so tired I felt dizzy, detached from the external world. It was as if I was consciously sleep-walking. And I was wrestling with culture shock. The intense visual overload of India, which after a while had become almost normal, was suddenly gone.
Outside the window there were streets lined with modern houses. Where were the people? The whole place seemed as it been abandoned. Suburbs, streets and houses passed by. I saw no one. There was a great silence. On the roads there were very few cars and none of them were maniacally blowing their horns.
At the end of the line, I got out and waited for the bus. There were four people on the bus including me.
The driver was an Indian. I wondered what went through his mind driving a bus with no passengers and no traffic. At a pedestrian crossing the lights changed and the bus stopped.
There were rules and people obeyed them!
There were more miracles awaiting me in my little house, an extremely modest dwelling by contemporary Australian standards. You could drink water from the tap. At the local supermarket, there was a range of fresh fruit and vegetables which Indians, even middle class Indians, could only dream about. The simplest everyday things here were so far removed from India and not just India, but the places, the countries, the lands, where most of the world’s human beings lived.
Sometimes I wondered whether at some point I would lose the desire to be somewhere else, put the restlessness behind me….
One morning I woke up with a strange feeling of nostalgia: I wanted to be back on that train, the one which at the time I had regarded as a terrible disaster: Third Class Unreserved.
What was wrong with me?