Looking Back (December 1997)
It was on a chilly winter morning that I was woke up to a shriek of the telephone ring. I had just returned to Delhi earlier in the morning from Chandigarh where I had gone the day before to sign up for a new assignment. Just one day at work in the new office and I knew it had been a mistake (only one among many others that I would make, in the next 24 hours).
“Well, at least I saw Chandigarh”, I had tried to reason with myself when I reached home bleary eyed at 3.00 a.m. Barely had I gone to sleep, when the phone rang. It was my father. He had called my hotel in Chandigarh, only to be told that I had already left and he was anxious to know what had happened. I told him.
“So come over!” he said, “Come to Jaipur for Christmas,” I suddenly remembered it was Christmas Eve. Promising him to come by the night train (something I hadn’t tried before) and not the bus that I usually took, I went back to sleep.It was a windy, grey afternoon, as had been the case for the last several days-it had been perhaps the longest stretch without the Sun for Delhi in many years-I went to the Cantonment Railway Station, not very far from where I lived, and bought a ticket for the night train. I was to board the train from the same place at 10.00 p.m.
That evening, I started from home in time to reach the station at around 9.40 p.m. It was bitterly cold and I stood at the platform with only two other people around, one, the owner of a tea stall and the other a gentleman wearing army fatigues who was chatting with the stall owner. I went over and ordered a cup of tea. They were making some inconsequential chit-chat. I offered the man in uniform to join me for a cup and we got talking- the man, a C.R.P.F jawan was headed back home to Sikar, Rajasthan to join his family over the weekend.
For some inexplicable reason, I have found myself strongly drawn to Rajasthan time and again and I listened intently as he told me about life back home, about his fields, about the arid but beautiful terrain of his village. I absorbed the information and wanted to learn more…
When I looked at my watch again, it was almost 10 o’ clock. Unfamiliar with railway timings, I asked my companion if he knew anything about the train I was supposed to catch, and just as I was asking him, one chugged into the platform.
“Well, this is the one I need to be on,” he said picking up his bag. We shook hands and said goodbye. He was aboard in a minute. “I’ll see you in Sikar someday,” I called out as he waved at me. “Could this possibly be the train I am supposed to take too? ” I thought- a moment of doubt, I tried to shrug if off, but nevertheless walked towards the station master’s cabin.
A welcome change from outside the cabin was bustling with activity and I asked one of the assistants when the train was supposed to arrive. “Arrive?”, he looked up in disbelief. “This is the train. Run, It’s leaving now.”, he nervously offered.
I sprung into action. The train had gained speed. The C.R.P.F gentleman saw me running and waved at me yet again, obviously ignorant of my desperation to board the same train! Another person, already aboard in another compartment saw me running too, offered a helping hand and pulled me in… I was aboard and on my way-or so I thought.
I found myself inside a ‘goods’ compartment. Another man was asleep on one of the metal bunkers meant to keep luggage. “Rest awhile.”, the friendly hand advised, pushing the big metal sliding door close, before taking the other bunker. I was still trying to get used to the surroundings-it was, after all, my first time traveling in a ‘goods’ cabin.
I thanked him and dumped my bag on the floor and sat atop. “When do we reach the next stop?”, I asked him. “The next stop is Gurgaon, but it would be futile to try and get down there. It stops for just a moment,”, he informed me. “You won’t be able to board another compartment, there isn’t enough time. Rewari, is where you should get down to shift to your compartment.”, he was a nice guy.
Some time went by and I found myself hungry and looked inside my bag for something to eat. I found peanuts. Both my co-passengers were already asleep so I started to munch. “What a way to spend a Christmas Eve.”, I thought. This was merely the beginning, as I was to soon learn.
We reached Rewari and I alighted, rushed to locate my cabin but before I could, the train started to move again. Swearing under my breath, I boarded the nearest compartment. Passengers in this one were sitting, chatting among themselves,some were smoking, there was no indication that it was past midnight. I asked one of them “When do we reach Jaipur”. He looked amused and offered “Jaipur? This compartment does not go to Jaipur, it goes to Bikaner”.
My heart sank “So this was not the train after all, I was right. What do I do now?” But, I had spoken…no, thought too soon. It was indeed the right train, he explained, only it segregates to become ‘two separate trains’ at another station further ahead- Loharu. One headed towards Bikaner and the remaining towards Jaipur. As ‘luck’ (?) would have it, this compartment was destined for Bikaner.
I patiently sat, my knees drawn to my chest to brace myself against the cold. After what seemed until eternity, we finally reached Loharu and I alighted once again, ran and even managed to locate my compartment. Only, it was already early morning and despite my knocking on each door (did I say ‘knocking’? I meant ‘banging’) nobody opened it for me).
Another army man, another helping hand, and I found myself in another compartment. Not mine, but a compartment. I was getting smarter, I did ask this time if this one was going to Jaipur. It was. Thanks so much!
Well, we were at the famous station where the train would be shunted, I was in a compartment that would go to Jaipur, what could go wrong now? I decided to just crash on any bench available. I did, nice cold breeze was blowing and I was shiverrring. I drifted into a fitful sleep but soon woke up again, to a sudden movement of the train, “Nothing, they are removing the compartments that would go to Bikaner.”, a voice informed me. “Good.” I thought, still half asleep.
I sensed some movement again, the train was finally moving, the process of removing the compartment had lasted long, but I thanked God, we were gaining momentum. Happiness was short lived, we came to a grinding halt again after 20 odd minutes. “Now where are we?”. We were back to where we had started. I could not believe it!! They had got us back after dismantling the Bikaner part and NOW we were ready to leave for Jaipur (Sigh!).
I woke-up hearing a steady hum of “Chai-Garam Chai”, we were at Jhunjhunu, a sleepy town in Rajasthan. It was 7.00 a.m. I finally shifted my baggage to my ticketed compartment and settled down…it had already been 9 hours since we started.
It was a bright sunny morning. I had not seen sunshine for more than twenty days and just soaking that warmth, that energy, made me feel good and I was already beginning to forget all that I had gone through not too long ago.
A while later, my eyes were shining even brighter, we were passing Sikar- I had kept my promise, albeit sooner than even I had thought myself possible- small hutments, fields on dune like land, farmers at work, flocks of cattle, peacocks, camel, deer, neelgais- a new day- my day was made!
The train made several stops, more people boarded and alighted at each, marching towards their respective places of work- traders, milkmen, policemen. Some chatted with me. They wanted to hear what was happening at ‘Dilli- the Capital. Seat of the Government’. I obliged most. I was feeling good…
We finally reached Jaipur around noon, after almost 14 hours of journey, where it used to take 6 hours by bus then (it barely takes 3 and a half hours now, by car.)It was a long journey, I could have reached sooner. But would I have this tale to tell?
Looking back, I had more fun than any other train journey or any other Christmas for that matter!
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