Last week I watched the movie ‘Ijaazat’ (permission) from my movie collection; one of the things in my ‘bucket list’ is to watch the best movies at leisure and write about them. Produced during the end of Golden Era of parallel cinema (period defined by me – from mid seventies to late eighties) the movie had sterling performances from Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha. Ijaazat was shot in a Railway Station waiting room somewhere in North India (as per the story) with flsahbacks woven around unobtrusively thanks to great editing. What strikes you the most about the movie is the almost subdued acting from everyone. You are spared of bucket full of glycerine induced tears and hour long dialogues the bane of Indian movies.
Naseeruddin Shah is perhaps the finest actor of Hindi Cinema and my personal favourite. He could portray effortlessly, an angry young man, a Goan Christian in Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai or an eccentric Parsi in Pestonjee or a middle class Maharashtrian in Katha or a more serious role like the one in Paar. He is our Dustin Hoffman; had ‘Kramer Vs Kramer‘ been made in Hindi in the eighties, he could have portrayed Hoffman’s role of an advertising executive who one day was deserted by his wife leaving their young son with him. Also he could have acted as splendidly as Hoffman portrayed an ‘Autistic Savant’ in ‘Rain Man.’
If I ever get a chance to make a movie, I will probably produce Scent of a Woman asking Shah to perform Al Pacino’s blind colonel’s role which won Pacino his first Oscar award.
The end for parallel cinema happened when chocolate filled romances shot in Switzerland became the formula for Hindi films.
Let’s get back to our story.
Ijaazat movie and more importantly the waiting room reminded me of my travels in Indian Railway and even more so the long periods spent in railway station waiting rooms to catch a train and the nights spent in retiring rooms.
April 16th marked 165th Anniversary of the first train in India. In all these years, the trains, the stations and the passengers have gone through a huge metamorphosis. The first long distance trains did not even have a toilet. A man from Bihar wrote a complaint to the railways after missing the train when he got down to attend nature’s call which paved the way for building toilets in the train. The letter is displayed in the rail museum in New Delhi.
As the railway lines spread across the length and breath of the country, the railways built huge stations and accommodations for passengers to wait, rest and catch the connecting trains. I am not sure if it’s built in our psyche or we inherited it from the British, we don’t make anything simple. Paul Theroux narrates how he counted the different categories of the waiting rooms in ‘The Great Railway Bazaar.’ Sample this – ‘Upper Class Waiting Rooms’, General Waiting Rooms’, ‘Waiting Rooms for Ladies’, ‘AC waiting room for reserved passengers’ the list goes on. In the movie Ijaazat, the hero and heroine are waiting in the First Class waiting room.
To write this blog, I wanted to check what is the tariff now for retiring rooms but could not make head or tail from the information provided. The list is so huge with hundred different type of fares.
Till 1960s, in small towns where there were no hotels, and where the stations did not have retiring rooms, the railways used to let out, old and disused bogies to passengers where they could take a shower and rest for the day before catching a train to their next destination. My mentor Mr. Raman, who was a photography equipment salesman in those days, had spent weeks in those bogies in small towns like Hassan and Arsikare and used to narrate stories of railway hospitality and companions he found in those bogies from rats to bandicoots to snakes. When I passed those towns recently on my bike trip, I was amazed to see the transformation; now all of them are bustling with commercial activities and adorn some fine hotels.
Between 1988 and 1993, before the bike craze caught me and I started flying on official business, I rode the trains across the country for days on end. Mahatma Gandhi said India lives in its villages. He could have added trains to that. India lives in its villages and its trains. On a 3 days journey (if the train runs on time that is) from north to south end of the country you would pass through at least 12 states with every state having in its own language, culture, customs and food. On a long journey you would get to meet and talk to a person from each one of these states.
And there were so many types of people. The young one going home from the national capital where they were employed, the soldiers going home from their border posts to their villages, the pilgrimage kind, the stiff upper lip bureaucrats, the railway employees who have a free pass to travel anywhere, families travelling to attend a marriage, the thieves, the pickpockets and the local politicians who threw their weight around. Except the SUP bureaucrats or majority of whom felt that they well well above everyone else in the pecking order, others would be eager to talk and ready to share a story and a meal. You bumped into the government servants and railway employees only in First Class or AC compartments.
My favourites are the Gujarati families travelling from Mumbai to Tirupati on pilgrimage. They used to pack their luggage with excellent vegetarian food and snacks and would be eager and happy to share it with the fellow passengers. They won’t take a polite ‘no’ for an answer and would insist on serving everyone before they started eating. For bachelors like me who used to board the train without even a water bottle, it used to be god sent offer and it was also chance to escape the bland railway canteen food. I used to joke that these Gujaratis unpack the food baskets at Kalyan (a suburb of Mumbai) and close shop only at Renigunta where they had to get down for their dharshan of Lord Balaji.
The other instance I vividly remember is my journey through Akola a town in Maharashtra. It was past dinner time when the train halted there and suddenly there was a huge commotion inside the AC compartment. Few sardars (people of Sikh Religion) entered the compartment with huge packets of food and handed it over to the passengers seated next to me (they were sardars as well). After that, they started distributing the food to the entire compartment and asked the passengers (even to those who said they have already had dinner) to eat a little as this was ‘Prasad’ from the Gurdwara. Later I learnt that the Prasad is from Gurudwara Shri Maaltekri Sahib. When the Gurudwara gets information about their fellow community people travelling through Akola, they send food for them and the quantity is so huge the entire compartment gets benefitted by this gesture. The butter soaked Parathas and pickle is perhaps the best dinner I had on a train journey. Sardarji peoples’ overall size is matched only by their large hearts.
I was a speciality chemical salesman who used to call on paper mills and these mills were built as far away as possible from civilisation. Pudumjee Paper Mills in Pune was one exception where you could fly in and out, all the others took some effort and time to reach. And the big mills were spread across the county from North Eastern Corners to Southern coal belts. So railway stations and train became a part of salesman’s life.
And long distance trains generally do not start from the stations close to these mills but only passed through them. They just had two or four seat quota which was for advance reservation which either got exhausted when you try to book a ticket or the reservation office would have been closed by the time you reached there. The trick was to buy a second class unreserved ticket and convince the conductor of the train to allot you a berth in First Class or AC compartment. My long conversations with TTE (Train Ticket Examiner) deserves a separate blog, so I will skip that portion here.
The shortcoming of these unreserve ticket is, you are not allowed to enter the Upper Class Waiting Rooms and the General Waiting Rooms were generally not fit for entering, forget waiting inside them. When the platform benches were also occupied, I used to sit on my VIP suitcase (as shown in the Ijaazat movie) and wait for the train to come. Sitting on a suitcase, I used to read for hours popular fiction to pass time and followed Jason Bourne from Mediterranean coast, to Interlaken, to Frankfurt and Paris. While Bourne was speeding across the autobahn, I was sitting in Bilaspur or Balasore platform to meet my express train to take me back to Pune or Chennai. My longes wait on my VIP suitcase was 8 hours 45 minutes in Kalyan station when the train I was to board got delayed and there was no space in the station to sit down.
On the rare occasions, I had the chance to wait in the First Class Waiting Rooms, I enjoyed every single moment of it. Till the early nineties when the massive modernisation drive changed everything in India to artificial plastic, we could enjoy the vestiges of the British Era. The waiting rooms had huge ease-chairs made of solid wood. If you were lucky you could sit on a leather sofa as well. Siting in one of those chairs under the undulating century old ceiling fans which provided comfort even in summer, with a Ludlum or Hailey in hand and endless supply of chai and samosa one could spend hours there forgetting all the worries and pressures of life. If you are not the reading kind, you can watch people coming in going out all the times. From the itinerant salesman like me to Government babus to women in their beautiful sarees entered the room to freshen up and take a nap before getting on to their trains.
Like the waiting rooms, the retiring rooms played a huge role during my journeys those days. Most of the stations had good retiring rooms and the railways allowed you a maximum of 48 hours stay after completion of the journey. In those days, in places like Bilaspur, the railway waiting room provided better accommodation than scruffy hotels nearby. For 54 Rs (less than a dollar in today’s exchange rates), you could spend a night in an air-conditioned room. The rooms and the toilets were generally clean and once you chained your suitcase to the leg of the cot, you were guaranteed of security as well.
And the life in the retiring room was comfortable. You could get food from the railway canteen or any of the small eateries opposite to the station. You can watch the crowd milling on the platforms from your upper deck and savour the noise and commotion. You need not worry about the missing train as caretaker will remind you of the arrival about your train just in time for you to pack your bag and leave. No commute from hotel only to find out on reaching the station that your train is delayed. You just got down from your room and caught your train.
Other thing which I was attracted to was the announcements of train arrivals. This was before the advent of computer generated machine voices. Real people announced train arrivals. Once while staying in Bilaspur, I fell in love with a lady’s voice who announced train departures and arrivals. It was so sweet, I wished more trains would arrive in the next few hours so that I could enjoy the melody of her voice. Unlike Tamil and English, the first two languages I learnt, which did not specify genders for inanimate objects, Hindi has genders for them and thus train is feminine (I still don’t understand how they determine why table is masculine but train is feminine). Her announcement, “Calcutta se Bombai jaanewali Gitanjali Express platform number do par aachukki hai” (Gijanjali Express from Calcutta to Bombay has arrived on Platform Number Two) sounded almost romantic, she with the trains and I with her voice and the station.
It was also in Bilaspur once I spent 4 nights instead of the permissible two nights stay. My work in the nearby paper mill town was getting delayed and after two days I went to the station head and requested him an extension. He somehow took pity on me and allowed me to stay using my passenger ticket to paper mill town as an express journey.
These train travels and the places they took me to remained a part of me. But for those journeys I would not have seen the villages in North Eastern part of the country. I could not not have walked with the receding sea in the evening and walked to the shore again with it in the morning in Gopalpur at sea in Orissa. I got to meet some great people and enjoyed their hospitality.
The romance with the waiting rooms is probably gone as well. Recently I happened to enter a waiting room in Begumpet, Hyderabad and was disappointed to see the rows of plastic chairs laid out in a series. Waiting passengers were watching a poplar Telugu duet from a TV hung on a wall. Those plush chairs and high ceiling fans have all gone.
And the conversation with fellow passengers is also gone. Now everyone is busy talking into his/her cell phone or immersed in watching something no one gives a look at you forget getting into a conversation.
I recollected my travelling days and the journeys from Sealdah (Calcutta) to far flung suburbs of West Bengal. Those local trains took passengers to a distance of 150 kilometres and more. To me Calcutta or Kolkata now is the most accepting city in the world. There is a shear joy, watching Calcutta receding past you while you are sitting in a long haul local train. ‘Oh Calcutta’ is for another blog, another day.