It was six in the evening when I got on the Bombay Express at Jamshedpur, for a business trip to Rourkela. This was March, 1982. The four hour run would take me through densely wooded Chattisgarh countryside. So dense were the woods on this 200km stretch that trains on this line regularly brushed past overhanging tree branches at breakneck speed. If you had an appendage out, it could get a painful swat and you might even have had to plan on a life without it. In fact when the train exited Saraikela and entered this forested belt, day turned to night, literally. You had to switch on the reading lights in your compartment if you were thinking of pulling out the Perry Mason or James Hadley Chase paperback that you bought at the A.H.Wheeler stall at the Jamshedpur railway station. (This time I had ‘Cosmos’ by Carl Sagan, to keep me company).
My berth was in a tiny two-berth compartment that was generally known as a ‘phast class coupay’ and I was relieved to find I was the lone occupant. Till now at least. Maybe someone would get on at Seraikela, Chakradharpur or any of the other wayside stops. And God help you if the guy had gas. I sighed. There was zero chance of a single young lady travelling alone, being the other occupant. Women didn’t travel alone in India, unless it was the Deccan Queen or some other commuter train in the well-developed Western provinces. You’ll have to excuse me for imagining a single broad as the other passenger. I was 27. At a conservative estimate, 85% of me was hormones, hormones and more hormones. Like dark matter in the universe, they were everywhere. I have however promised myself not to bring sex into this account, so please, don’t get me started.
Stowing my overnighter on the empty rack above, I settled down by the window. The express heaved once. There was a hiss of the master cylinders as air rushed out, the cast iron brake pads disengaged and the wheels started rolling at the same time, letting out a cacophony of screeches. The train first clattered its way through multiple track changes, Jamshedpur being a big freight transportation hub. Rail station yards fascinated me. We passed hundreds of freight container cars, cigar shaped LPG tankers and box cars on either side, before the train finally cleared the city and plunged into the darkening countryside. The sun was dipping over the Shal forests outside as I pulled out the Carl Sagan paperback, lit a Wills Navy Cut and settled myself down by the window to read.
Voyager-1 was dodging asteroids through the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter at 47800 miles per hour and steadily gaining speed, the earth now a disc the size of a quarter, 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 TTs have. If you have an ingratiating smile, chances are that someone among your ancestors was a TT, no question about it.
I was a short-notice, frequent traveler and TTs on this line knew me very well as a better than average tipper. It was a win-win situation. The TT, I enriched, at double the going rate. And me, I never had to reserve. There was always a seat in a ‘phast class coupay’ for me. 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 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. I’d 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. Think I’ll write a book on how to always travel first class on an Indian train, without prior reservation (and sometimes, with only a second class ticket, but I won’t get into that. You might be in the vigilance squad).
As we rode lickety split, the coach swayed and a searing hot wind blew in through the barred window, leaving the rods burning hot. Not all Indian train coaches were air-conditioned those days and they still aren’t, to the best of my knowledge. And you’ve no doubt noticed I’m a knowledgeable guy, all in all. Air-conditioning in any form was expensive, in India. A luxury only a few could afford. I couldn’t and that’s why I was in the first class.
The Bombay Express was a low-priority express train with a lone A/C First Class coach at the back. Today it was empty, it’s attendant, the only passenger. Not unusual. People shunned the first class and the A/C coaches on this route, on overnight trains. That’s because this was dangerous dacoit country and dacoits targeted the upper class coaches first. Had the train a steam engine and there were sage brush tumbling along outside, you could mistake this for a Louis L’Amour setting.
A couple of hours went by, the train hurtling through pitch darkness now. Carl Sagan was in the midst of telling me about Tycho Brahe, that 16th century Danish astronomer, cartographer for the heavens. I felt just great and retained that feeling till we pulled into Chakradharpur, a small wayside stop approximately half-way to my destination. A group of four young men, who looked like hooligans, got on and immediately filled the compartment I was in. We were soon on our way, with me back to ‘Cosmos’ and the Voyager, now on its flyby around Jupiter, flying 35000 kms above the swirling clouds of the Great Red Spot, a storm that is clearly visible from the earth and has been raging for the past four hundred years, with 500kmph winds.
The tranquility around me however was soon shattered. Raucous laughter, bottles, fisticuffs, swearing. These were very drunk four men I had, traveling with me. As the train bumped and ground, I staggered to my feet and went off to lodge a complaint with the TT and at the next stop the hoodlums were made to leave, howling their protest at being thrown out.
I settled down once again with Carl. Voyager was going to use Neptune as a sling-shot to propel itself, a sort of last heave, that would fling it out of the solar system and into inter-stellar space. Neptune, the blue planet seventeen times bigger than our earth, a gas giant made up of hydrogen and helium. Astronomy bores you? Hope not. Here I am, busting my ass, telling you a story. You have no right ta be bored.
Darkness blanketed the countryside. The incessant khatak-khatak, khatak-khatak of the wheels had long receded from the active sounds, as they do normally, after you’ve been on a running train for a while. I decided it was time to take a break and stretch my legs a bit. I walked out into the vestibule and then on to the toilet, which was right next to the exit doorway and I threw some water on my face. Freshened up, I came out and stood by the open doorway and gazed out at the countryside rushing by, my hands gripping the handrails on both sides of the door.
As I stood and gazed out, the 120kmph slipstream buffeting and deafening me, I thought I sensed movement just behind. By reflex, my right hand left the handrail and I turned, just in time to catch the flash of something moving at me in a rush. It was one those four creeps and he was charging toward me, arms outstretched. But he hadn’t counted on my turning so suddenly. Poor fellow just charged past and as he hurtled by, he tried desperately to grab at my throat but was unable to check his momentum. I brought my right hand up to the other hand rail that I was still holding on to with my left hand and hung on for dear life to this single handle rail, hoping it wouldn’t give, while he slipped and sailed out into the black void. Although everything must have happened in a split second, it all seemed to me to be unfolding in slow motion. Me, sensing movement behind, letting go of one handrail, turning, a flash of dirty ruffled black hair and dark sweater, hands outstretched trying to get a hold, an instantaneous spark of recognition as he hurtled by, the rush of the wind and the suddenly amplified khatak-khatak as the wheels hit the fish plates.
He was gone.
Holding on to the hand rails tightly, I leaned out and peered into the darkness but couldn’t spot see anything. It was as if the fellow had never existed.
Shaking violently with the sudden release of adrenalin, I staggered back to my compartment and collapsed on my seat. My chest still heaving, I groped around inside my over-nighter for the bottle of Blue Riband gin 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.
Voyager never made it to Pluto that night.