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An estimated 5-minute read


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For a moment I didn't believe a word when the agent(s) said people queue up at Rajaji Bhavan as early as 2am for Tatkal train bookings. I immediately cursed my stars as I had received a call from my old colleague of mine in Kolkota to attend a business meet. The meet was to discuss investing in 'Film Restoration' business.

My wife and I have never travelled since our marriage a year ago so we thought the call was a ‘blessing in disguise’. “A honeymoon (at last) away from home and a business prospect in store”.

WOW! Sounded so sweet, but at what cost?

When I asked the agent to help us booking a ticket in train, he wryly smiled and said 'time nowadays doesn't travel by rails, it ONLY flies'. He offered hope only in skies and not on rails. Rather disappointed we looked at other options.

How about using Tatkal, a last minute booking procedure for train journeying in India?, my wife suggested. The agent wasn't too happy and wished us good luck straightaway.

We awoke at 2am and headed straight to Rajaji Bhavan in Besant Nagar, a 15-minute drive from home. The Chennai city was deep asleep at that ghost hours except for a few stray dogs that stood bravely in the middle of the road. Some chased the odd vehicles, bared their souls and called their mates. Nauseating!

We sort of slept through all the way to Rajaji bhavan and were shocked to see a few already queuing up at the gates. A head popped up from inside the blanket and told us: "Welcome, you're number 11 and 12 at the queue". (What a reception!)

A Tata Indica pulled up near where I and my wife were sitting and left without saying a word. My wife really was worried. The night watchman at the ATM center nearby turned the radio full and went to sleep. A man from the queue got up half-asleep, walked to a tree in the dark, relieved himself and quickly got back to his seat. (He looked too scared to lose his position at the queue).

A police patrol vehicle stopped and the man (in civil clothes) asked me what we were doing at that hour. When explained,  the police officer began to wonder as if he knew nothing about Tatkal bookings in India. As an Aavin van (a milk carrying vehicle) sped past us, my wife rested her head on my shoulders waiting for the time to fly. Poor soul! How long she had been waiting for this trip? A trip together to as far away to Kolkota.

By about 5am, the queue got thicker and longer. Many old retired public service men started filling in at the tails and all of them spoke politics. They squarely blamed the politicians of the country for the condition of the road. One amongst them frequently got up and took pains doing the head-count.

By half six, many people were seen on the road walking. Driving school instructors taught the trainees how to navigate bends.

There erupted almost a commotion when a man got up and offered his seat (number 6) in the queue for sale. He was selling it for as few as Rs.100. He was promptly stopped and warned of dire consequences. (Team Anna in India wasn't just four-member strong, I thought.)

All sprang to action when the security opened the gates at 7.30am. My wife prayed to god. The staff began to arrive. No one smiled when they got to their seats. A serene calm at the railway counters as if Sachin was at 99 and on way to score another landmark.

Our turn came and the clerk called. We found much to our disappointment that we ran short of cash. Would they deny us a ticket for we carried Rs.100 less, my wife asked worriedly?

“Never mind, I shall accept part cash and part payment by card if you carry one”, the clerk assured. We quickly bought tickets as we could not afford another day of waiting in the queue. My wife was too happy seeing us allotted seats/berths close to each other (Seat/berth numbers 9 and 12). But we were disappointed when the clerk suggested us to stand in the queue at Kolkota for the journey back home. (Tatkal bookings in India could only be done 24-hour prior to the journey, what an irony!)

I could hear the clerks thundering, 'Next....next….next” as we made our exit home.

All was not well at the boarding point in Chennai Central on 13 Dec., the day of travelling. My wife's name wasn't there on the list of passengers stuck on coach number B3. (Oh, my god!) I ran the whole length of the train to find if there was any ticket examiner around so that I could find a quick remedy. But no one was around. My wife swelled up in her eyes.

That was when I spotted a uniformed man walking towards us. I approached him for help. He looked at our tickets and said that my wife indeed was allotted a seat. But not at the coach I was travelling but another two coaches away in A2, which was an automatic upgrade. (But, god! I didn't ask for it, did I?)

He suggested my wife to go and sit at A2 and ask for help from another TTE who was assigned duty at that coach. I could not believe him as he smelt alcohol in his breath. My wife anyway left (half-heartedly) for coach A2 as there wasn't much time left to start the journey. The train moved on the dot at 23.45.

My wife called me on my phone and asked if I was comfortable in my seat in B3. I looked at the ceiling and wondered why we were reduced to speaking on phone on a journey we were supposed to enjoy travelling together.

I sprang to pick up when my wife called again. (She must be carrying good news, I thought). She said she met the TTE and asked for help. I couldn’t wait for an answer and egged her to go on.

I was shocked to hear what she got to say. She repeated the exact words uttered by the TTE: "Acha! Aapko idhar hi sona hai. Aur apke pathi ko udhar B3 mein hi sona hai". (if roughly translated: "Good, you should sleep here and your husband has to sleep only in B3")

We couldn't help but laugh at the system how railway bookings work in India. We never spoke afterwards.

We were back together only at Howrah station in Kolkota, after an excruciating journey time of about 28 hours on the train.

Our honeymoon wasn't finished yet as we had to stand in another similar queue at Kolkota for our journey back home. And this time, the queue was longer than what we saw in Chennai.

But we had a lot to laugh when my wife said: "Thank god! We stand together at least in the queue leading to Tatkal booking counters”

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