“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man
You take away all he’s got
And all he’ll ever have”
⁃ Clint Eastwood (as William Munny), in “Unforgiven”
If you have traveled in Eastern India, you might have had the chance to drive through a sal forest. The sal is a green leafy tree found in great abundance in the Bengal, Bihar, Orissa region of India. It’s the Indian version of Canada’s maple tree, England’s oak. And boy, does it grow fast. If you cut a path through a sal forest, come back after two weeks and you’ll have difficulty finding that path.
Back in those days if you were taking the train, the Jamshedpur-Rourkela four hour run would take you through some of the densest sal woods of the Chattisgarh countryside. So dense were the forests that the train would swat aside overhanging sal branches at breakneck speed. If you had a window open and an elbow out, it could get a painful thwak. If that branch was a thick one, you might even have had to plan on a life without a lower arm. Then whom would you sue? The Indian Railways? Hah!
My seat was in a tiny two-berth compartment that was generally known as a ‘phast class coupay’ and I was the lone occupant. Till now at least. Maybe someone would get on at Seraikela or Chakradharpur or any of the other wayside stops. I was on my way to Rourkela. I had work at the huge steel mill there.
I sighed. There was zero chance of a single young lady travelling alone, getting on. Women didn’t travel alone on overnight Indian trains. You’ll have to excuse me for imagining a broad as the other passenger. I was 27. At a conservative estimate, 85% of me was just one single hormone – testosterone. Like dark matter, it was everywhere within me. But this is not about my sex life so don’t get me started on it.
Stowing my overnighter on the rack above, I settled down by the window. The express heaved, there was a hiss of air rushing through the master cylinders. The cast iron brake pads disengaged and the wheels started rolling, letting out a cacophony of squeals as the train clattered its way through multiple track changes and began picking up speed, first stop – Seraikela.
The sun was dipping over the sal forests when the train pulled out of Seraikela and plunged into a sal forest and suddenly day turned to night. I switched on the reading lights above my head. This time I hadn’t hurriedly purchased a Perry Mason or Hadley Chase from the A.H.Wheeler on the platform. I had brought Cosmos by Carl Sagan, to keep me company.
It was 1982. Cosmos had just been published. A veritable page turner, Cosmos is a vivid account of what a voyage to the stars could look like. I was at the page where the two suitcase-sized Voyager spacecrafts, launched within a month of each other in 1977, were now on opposite sides of the orbital plane of the solar system, speeding outward on vastly different trajectories. They would skim away from the Kuiper belt, a flat circumstellar belt of asteroids 20Au wide that lay just beyond the orbit of Neptune. In case you aren’t as enlightened as I obviously am, 1Au(Astronomical Unit) is the average distance of the Earth from the Sun. There, doesn’t reading my blog enrich you?
At Seraikela, Voyager-1 had swung by Jupitar. It wouldn’t be paying a visit to the other planets. It would instead dart out of the Solar System without further ado. Voyager-2 on the other hand had just begun the Jupiter swing-by and would be saying hello to Saturn and Neptune before bidding us all goodbye forever.
That’s when there was a discreet knock on the door. It was the TT (Travelling Ticket Checker). I smiled when I saw it was Hanuman Singh. Yeah, I knew all the TTs by name. Hanuman was an amiable, thoroughly corrupt hulk with seven mouths to feed back home, whom he met once a month. He had this ingratiating smile TTs have. If you have an ingratiating smile and aren’t a TT, chances are that someone among your ancestors was, no question about it.
Half of a TT’s monthly earnings came from tips from passengers like me who didn’t have reservation. I was a short-notice, frequent traveler and TTs on this line had me down as a better than average tipper. It was a huge deal and win-win situation. The TT, I enriched at double the going rate and in return, I never had to reserve my seat in advance.
I would simply get my ass to the station before the train arrived. As the train approached and the first class compartment sighed to a crawl and the TT appeared in the doorway, there would usually be a huge gaggle of passengers clamoring for his attention. I’d position myself a few yards back, away from the bunch, so that the TT could catch sight of me clearly, from his elevated standpoint on the gradually slowing coach. Having sighted me, he’d give me an imperceptible nod of recognition.
While the others stood on the platform and clamored for the TT’s attention, I’d get in through another door and make my way to him from the inside. I’d barely pause when he hissed through the corner of his mouth,” Phour Dee may jake baitho, Sahab. Mai ata, in chutiyo ko sambhal ke….” (Go sit in 4D, Sir, I’ll come as soon as I’m done with these assholes).
Getting yourself a seat was that simple those days. I might write a book on how to always travel first class on an Indian train, without prior reservation or even a ticket, but I won’t get into the details here. You might be on the vigilance squad.
Oh, I forgot to tell you about the get-on-without-even-a-ticket bit. There were some sales and service regulars like me who had it down pat. It was so simple and the MO was as follows…..
Those days it was perfectly legal to board a train with just a fifty-paisa platform ticket as long as you went up to the TT and got him to issue you a regular ticket within a reasonably short period of time from the moment you boarded. Assuming you had developed a ‘rapport’ with the TT, you gave him the full first class fare in hard cash and he kept the cash in his breast pocket. If the vigilance squad guys made a sudden visit, you could show them the platform ticket and say you had just boarded and the TT would produce the cash from his breast pocket to corroborate your story that he was about to issue the ticket. He would even have the ticket slip ready, your name and the date scrawled so illegibly that you could have been anybody.
When you were about to get off at the destination, the TT magically reappeared and handed you your cash back, keeping a twenty for himself. That still left you with the challenge of getting through the ticket checker at the exit gate of the disembarking station. Simple, you slipped him a fiver, the going rate being just a tooney.
So, for Rs300 ticket, you paid just Rs25.50, less than a tenth. Brilliant, wasn’t it? I hasten to add that I never attempted to travel without a ticket myself. I restricted my corrupting to generous tips.
The Bombay Express was a low-priority express train with a lone A/C First Class coach at the back. Tonight it was empty, it’s attendant the only passenger. Not unusual. On this route passengers shunned the first class and the A/C coaches on overnight trains. This was dangerous dacoit country and dacoit gangs on horseback targeted the upper class coaches first. If the train had a steam engine and there was sage brush tumbling along the side of the tracks, you might as well have been on the 3-10 to Yuma. Believe me, those Sholay scenes were real.
A couple of hours went by, the train hurtling through pitch darkness now. Carl Sagan had taken a break from the Voyagers and was in the midst of telling me all about Tycho Brahe, the 16th century Danish astronomer, cartographer for the heavens. The last of the naked-eye astronomers, Brahe had painstakingly charted thousands of stars in his time. I felt just great, the way I felt when I was reading something very interesting but I retained that feeling only till we pulled into Chakradharpur, a small wayside stop approximately half-way to my destination. A group of four youths, who looked like hooligans, got on and immediately filled the compartment I was in.
It is difficult to read anything when drunk low-lifes are sitting around you and raucously laughing and swearing, mouthing slanted oblique comments on you and generally trying to be intimidating. It was a matter of time before one of them brought out a half bottle that had a cloudy colorless liquid sloshing inside. He raised it to his lips and took a long swig and then held it out to me,” Lo sahab zara hamara arak bhi to pee ke dekho, maja aa jayega.” (Here, have some arak, you’ll feel real good”. I shook my head and mumbled “no thanks” in Hindi and it just got worse from there. Ugh! There I was an hour back dreaming of having a single lovely lady in the coach with me.
A seasoned traveler like me quickly recognized the ploy – get the fellow passenger drunk, rob him off his valuables, slip the TT a few bucks and split. I had to do something about it right away. As the train bumped and ground, I staggered to my feet and went off to find Hanuman Singh. He was dozing by an open window but came with me immediately. The youths had legitimate tickets and therefore the right to be on the train, but they were ordinary class tickets.
Hanuman was a hulking guy who bore a striking resemblance to Luca Brassi. He had the look of someone you didn’t want to fuck with. He herded the hoodlums out at the next stop. I assume they got into an ordinary class compartment a few cars down. The last I saw of them, they were on the platform howling their protest at being thrown out. One of them was trying to shove a few bills into Hanuman’s shirt pocket but he swatted the hand away, placed his huge fingers on the guy’s chest and gave him a shove, sending him reeling back. Wow! The big one, the guy with the vermillion on his forehead and the huge ear ring, the one who had offered me the hooch, he scowled at me.
Hanuman was back in a jiffy. “Salon ko gand pe lath mar ke nikal diya, Sahab. Ab aap aram karein.” (Threw the mother fuckers out, Sir, now you can relax). I made a mental note to double my usual tip when I was leaving.
I settled down once again with Carl Sagan. Voyager-2 was now going to use the gravitational field of Neptune as a sling-shot to propel itself, which in space travel parlance, is known as ‘gravity assist’. It would fling the tiny spacecraft out of the solar system and into inter-stellar space.
Space travel bores you? Hope not. I am busting my ass telling you a story and therefore you have no right to be bored.
Outside my window, darkness blanketed the countryside. There was that constant grating and thumping sound of branches hitting the car on both sides when the train lurched and swayed too far, so thick was the forest we were cutting through. The incessant clickety clack of the wheels had long receded from the active sounds, as they normally do after you’ve been on a running train for a while.
I decided it was time to take a break from Carl Sagan and stretch my legs a bit. I walked out into the vestibule and then on to the toilet where I threw some water on my face. Freshened up, I came out and stood by the open doorway and leaned out a bit, letting the slipstream hit me. The air had cooled by then and when it hit my wet face it felt exhilarating. I stood this way, gazing out at the darkness rushing by, my hands gripping the vertical handrails on both sides of the doorway.
Yeah, that’s one of the things you can do in India – simply turn a latch and open the door of a speeding train and lean out, even jump off if you so desire. Trust me, you won’t even make page-10 of the local daily.
Intuition? Not sure, but I thought I sensed movement just behind.
At that very moment, two things happened. The first one was by reflex. My right hand left the right handrail and I turned and pressed flat against the wall, just in time to catch the flash of something moving at me in a rush. Even though I caught only a glimpse of him in that second, I recognized the huge right ear ring, the tight stained undershirt and the vermillion on his forehead. He had been the loudest and the most obnoxious of the youths, the one who had held out the bottle of arak. I remembered that terrifying look in his eyes when he stood on the platform and stared back at me with raw hatred. And now he was charging me, arms outstretched.
That’s when the second thing happened. The train had entered a curve, centrifugal force making it suddenly lurch and sway outward violently. The fellow hadn’t counted on my turning so suddenly, nor was he ready for the violence of the lurch. He charged right past me and as he hurtled by, unable to check his momentum, he tried desperately to grab onto anything he could – my throat, my arm, my hair – everything except the handrail. As I brought my right hand up to join my left hand on the other hand rail and hung on for dear life, he sailed past me, arms flailing, out into the black void, his startled scream instantaneously cut off by the brutal slipstream.
The whole thing must have happened in a split second, but to me it unfolded in a Matrix-like slow motion. Me, sensing movement behind – letting go of one handrail – turning – a flash of dirty ruffled black hair and dark T-shirt – the train lurching – the guy’s hands, first outstretched and then flailing, trying to get a hold – my instantaneous spark of recognition as he hurtled by and then, nothing. Just the rush of the wind.
I noted that by now the curve in the tracks had straightened out. The sway had been replaced by the usual bump and grind. I let go of the handrail, stepped back and heaved the door shut. My eardrums gradually began discerning other sounds – passengers milling around the corridor, lighting cigarettes, speaking in low tones, a stray peal of laughter here, a child’s squeal there. That deafening khatak-khatak-khatak-khatak of the wheels hitting the track joints was now muffled. I retreated inside the vestibule and nearly bumped into a caterer from the earlier stop who was knocking on doors and bringing in thalis heaped with supper, his face dead pan. He hadn’t noticed. Nobody had noticed.
Maybe he survived the fall. I remember reading about an airline stewardess falling out of a plane at 15000 ft onto a deep snow bank and surviving. In comparison the fall back there must have been just 15 feet. But this was a head first tumble at 120kmph onto hard uneven ground. The man’s head must have smashed into the prismoids of sharp pebbles that are laid to bolster the tracks. Add to that the shock of the slipstream and that fall could hardly have been survivable. A horrible despair spread over me. For all I knew, he might lie there on the side of the tracks until the vultures picked his bones clean. No one deserved to die that way, unnoticed, unsung. Not even an asshole.
In a daze, I staggered back to my compartment and collapsed on my seat. My chest still heaving, I groped around inside my overnighter for the bottle of Blue Riband I was saving for the trip. Barely able to keep my hands still, I poured myself a stiff one and swigged it with one gulp.
Then again, I could have had it all wrong. He may not have been the guy I thought he was. After all I saw only a brief flash of him. He might have been just another passenger who wanted to go over to the doorway and maybe spit out his betel juice or tobacco wad, a practice quiet common in that region. Perhaps the lurching of the train merely made him stretch out his arms for balance. Vermillion on the forehead, ear ring, dirty undershirt – all those were du jour in this region.
Either way, I should have raised an alarm, summoned Hanuman Singh and reported it. I did none of those. The guy hadn’t looked the type who might have matured into a rocket scientist in later life, but he had been a person, a human being who must have had folks who cared about him. I hadn’t given those folks any closure. That guilt has stayed with me.
What had made me turn? I’ll never know the answer to that one. I am certain I wouldn’t be around today if I hadn’t turned. Even if the guy had been just another paan chewing passenger, he would have taken me with him when he lost his balance, no question about it.
Was it “sixth sense”? The great hunter-naturalist, Jim Corbett, recounted an incident in his “Man-eaters of Kumaon” where he sought refuge behind a large boulder and waited with his .275 Rigby bolt-action rifle for the man eating Champawat tigress to appear.
Corbett was sitting still under that rock, expecting the beast to appear out of the underbrush in front of him, when he sensed a presence and raised his eyes. The tiger was right there, crouched on top of the rock inches above his head, poised to jump. Corbett swiveled and shot the predator but it had already jumped. It landed it’s 300lb weight on him, fortunately already dead from the heavy slug. Do read “Maneaters of Kumaon” if you get the chance.
I picked up Carl Sagan but my heart wasn’t in it. I looked out the window and far in the distance, the string of klieg lights around the huge blast furnace stacks of the Rourkela Steel Plant were now visible in the haze. In another five minutes, I would be in Rourkela and in a further twenty, nursing a whisky and soda at the Delhi Bar, waiting for my naan and boneless butter chicken. I tucked Cosmos back in the side pocket of the overnighter.
I couldn’t remember if Voyager-2 got to take some nice pics of methane-blue Neptune before it stepped out into the void.