Being Gratuitous

The Travelling Ticket Checker in the Indian Railways (I snatched the photo from  )


Tip too much and they think you’re a schmuck. Too little, they might pee into your take-out chicken curry. It has got to be just a wee bit above the going rate. If the service is below expectations, don’t leave even a dime and don’t revisit the joint ever again.  – Pearl of wisdom I once got from a friend


The Voyager-1 was now stepping around and dancing its way through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, at 47800 miles per hour, the earth now a disc the size of a quarter. I was reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and had the Sony Walkman clamped on with Gordon Lightfoot’s 14 Carat Gold playing on it, when there was a discreet knock on the door.

It was the TT (Travelling Ticket Checker). Today it was Hanuman Singh. Oh yes, I knew all the TTs by name. Hanuman had this ingratiating smile that all TTs have. If you have an ingratiating smile, chances are that someone in your ancestors was a TT, no question about it.

I was a short-notice, frequent business traveler in 1980s India, hustling a high-pressure sales job. Unlike in the west, demand far outstripped supply, as far as berths were concerned. The TTs on the Kolkata-Mumbai line knew me well as a jocular, better than average tipper. It was a win-win situation. The TT, I enriched at slightly above the going rate. And me, I never had to reserve my berth. There was always a place for me in the ‘phast class koopay’.

Here’s how it worked – I would simply get my ass to the rail station before the train arrived. As the train barrelled into the station, I kept an eye on the first class compartment. Depending upon the train, it usually came to a halt at the same spot every time. The Bombay Express 1st Class coach stopped bang in front of the AH Wheeler bookstall and the Bombay Mail 1st Class coach, between the drinking water fountain and the stairs.

As the train eased in, the sleep-deprived TT was already at the open doorway, his hands gripping the two bars on either side. The moment the train came to a halt, he was besieged by a gaggle of passengers, all clamoring for his attention, some with bonafide reservations and most others, hustlers like me, without that slip of paper.

The TTs had to take care of the passengers with reservations first and whenever a guy with a confirmed booking came up to him, the TT would proceed to allocate him a berth with a petulant demeanor that seemed to say,” Craps, I can’t get anything outa this m—er f—er.”

If I recognized the TT as someone I knew (and I knew them all), I would position myself a few yards back, away from the gaggle, so that the TT could catch sight of me clearly, from his slightly elevated standpoint on the gradually slowing coach. Having sighted me, he usually gave me an imperceptible nod. I would get in through another door while he hissed through the corner of his mouth,” Phour Dee may jake baitho, Shab, mai ata, in chutiyo ko sambhal ke….” (Go sit in 4D, Sir, I’ll come as soon as I’m done with these ar—-les).

Getting yourself a seat was that simple those days. I think I’ll write a book on how to always travel in style by rail in India without a reservation.

Hanuman Singh was a particularly pliable TT. He and I devised a way for me to travel by A/C coach, while paying just second class fare. Travelling A/C was a priceless luxury in that mind numbing tropical heat. Here is how our little arrangement worked –

The Indian Railways allows you to board an A/C coach (any coach for that matter) with any lower class ticket, provided you upgrade it when the TT arrives, at any time during the journey. I would breeze into the A/C coach with a second class ticket and make myself comfortable at a window seat. Hanuman would tool in after a while as the express was hurtling through the countryside.

“Kya Hanumanji, sab thik thak hai, na? Bhabhiji aur bachche sab?” (How are you and your family) I would behave like I had known him for ages.

Here’s the thing. Passengers rarely realize how thankless and how tiring a TT’s shit-kicking job really is. I have sat by their side, 2am in the morning and strained to hear their stories over the khitak.. khatak.. khitak..khatak of the wheels going over the fishplates. The one-room hovel in the Santragachi employees’ quarters and the family they hardly ever see.  A truant wife, a son who has opted to join the gangs, old parents uncared for, old dreams unrealized, I would listen while they sat hunched up and stared at the countryside whizzing past hundreds of miles away from home. I made it a point to always have some sweets or samosas or a pint bottle of Hercules Rum to share with them. Over the years there have been so many moments when I have felt so fortunate, so chosen.

I was telling you about the scheme that Hanuman and I devised. Soon as I settled my tush in, I handed over my 2nd class ticket to Hanuman along with cash covering the difference between the 2nd class and the A/C fare. He held it all for the rest of the trip, to show any Vigilance Department guy who might saunter in, to show that he was about to write me an upgrade but he had been busy and hadn’t had the time yet.

At the destination, Hanuman Singh simply pocketed 50% of the extra cash and returned the rest along with the 2nd class ticket to me. I sauntered off toward the cab stand. A win-win arrangement that entailed breaking the law of course, but heck, everyone was breaking the law.

I cheated. I am one of the multitudes due to whom India is in the sorry state that it is in today. I fed corruption, no question about it. But somehow I always managed to even the score, get my comeuppance, like.

We had no credit cards those days and we usually had to carry wads of cash around when we went on business trips. I lost my wallet and my luggage a couple of times. Set me back by ten grand in total. Ten grand, even in Indian Rupees, used to be a lot of money those days to lose.

Then there was one time when there was this woman and a little boy who didn’t have valid tickets and no cash to pay for them. They had gotten inside the platform with platform tickets. Yeah, those days, you needed a Rs1.00 platform ticket to get in. When the train came in, I noted it was Mustafa Miya who was the 1st Class TT. I got the woman and her kid berths in the 1st Class coach.

It was heartening to see the woman’s eyes bug out at her good fortune. Guess she had never seen the inside of a 1st Class rail coach. Costed me one and a half grand that time. I was on my way back and the cash was extra, unspent, so I didn’t really need it. Poetic justice but one that I don’t mind living with.

The practice of tipping exists everywhere, though there are certain norms at least in the west. You cannot tip a public sector employee like a TT anywhere in the west. You’ll do serious jail time or pay a massive fine if you try to bribe a TT over here in Canada, man. He won’t accept it and even if he did, there would be no need. Trains here run empty most of the time. You could travel 500kms in a coach all by yourself. In most trains there is just one class and therefore the question of an upgrade does not arise. More importantly, you cannot enter the platform without a valid ticket.

In the Canadian services sector, like restaurant waiters, the tips scene is organized. 10% is the norm and the tips go into a central kitty and are distributed evenly among all employees, including dishwashers, at the end of the day.

At least that is how it worked in the Lebanese restaurant that I worked in when we were still new around these parts, my cash having run out and I still hadn’t found a regular job. Honest to God, I never peed into anyone’s Shish Tauk, even if the customer turned out to be an ars—le.