"FIFTY KILOMETRES?" I exclaimed.
"This is Bombay, my friend. The big city. Fifty kiliometres by road. But if you take the train, you'll reach the place in forty-five minutes flat!" Bachha (not his real name) waxed eloquent about shortest routes in the city after a year of hopping from train to train, travelling to work and back, going for dinner, going to a movie, going to the loo, and so on. How people lead a life in this city has always been a source of amazement for me. True, I had lived in Bombay as a kid, too, but I had never had to catch a local, my school being a few kilometres' walk from my apartment, and yours truly never being the columbussy type who wonders what lies yonder the great oceans. Nope. School, back, a stack of books, and some coffee was all I had in life, and was quite happy with the pace.
When my dad got transferred from Bombay to Tirunelveli, I had a bit of a problem adjusting to the new lifestyle... to not sitting next to girls in the school, to have the teacher address me as "Baaai!" (boy), to Chemistry and Sanskrit, to speaking in Tamil in school, and so on and so forth. The only thing I liked was the slow life. This continued in college, and out on my first job, I was delighted to find that Pune, too, had the laid-back life of a small town.
But there were small shocks to be faced in life, and this one was when I had to stay in Bombay for a few days on work. Thus, at the beginning of this post, you found me asking Bachha about the most optimized means of commuting from the guest house to the workplace.
"Bachhe, I am NOT going by train. Wild horses won't drag me to those horrible things."
But our man, apparently, had thought this out as well.
"Chill. I've just asked a friend of mine who travels along the same route, and he has a plan for you." Leaning over the kebabs and the biryani, he said conspirationally, "Take a first-class ticket. It costs a bit, but at least it's better in there. Now the train you will take will go from..."
... and he outlined a plan that, briefly explained, goes like this. I needed to go from A to B. But the train was bound to be crowded at A. So, I catch a train going in the opposite direction, to C, C being close to A. The advantage was that since C was the last stop, people would get off, the train would reverse direction and start travelling towards B, and I would get a place to sit.
Now, the idea was a bit sneaky, and wold probably be frowned upon in Pune, but Bombay was Nature, red in Fang and Claw, and these were survival tactics. As the old saying went, "All is fair in love, war, and Bombay", and I found myself warming to the idea.
The next morning, after figuring out where the ticket counter was - each atation here is unique, they have ticket counters hidden away behind false paan shops, and you have to twist a turnstile and punch the fake paanseller in the nose for the secret door to open and reveal the ticket counter - I went over to the platform, astutely figured out where the first-class bogie (not bogey, you gross people - I meant the carriages) would stop, and waited in the manner of a calm commuter with nerves of steel. I looked around at the edgy, jumpy crowd milling around and chuckled to myself. Little did they know how easily one could travel, if one had the right brains for the job.
The train arrived.
I remember once, when we were holidaying in Goa and body-surfing waves, I had just stood up, shaking water from my eyes and ears, trying to collect my breath, when the mother of all waves hit me amidships and knocked me end over end, sprawling onto the coarse sand. I remember a brief feeling of disorientation, and the next thing I knew, I was on the sand, listening to hyenas. Upon shaking more water from the ears, the hyenas took on the more recognizable notes of the chaps who called themselves my friends. Curiously, Bachha was one of them.
What happened on the platform next was quite similar to that experience. I had the feeling of being lifted by a monstrous wave, and was deposited with minimum dignity somewhere in the bogie's bowels, with other bodies piled on top. The train then gave several lurches - one would almost suspect it of laughing - and moved on.
All right, so maybe first class isn't all that classy, but wait till the terminus, and then it's all nice and cosy for you, I told myself, giving the old pep-talk.
The terminus came.
The train stopped.
The train reversed.
We headed towards point B.
The astute reader may observe that there is a crucial event missing in the chronology presented above. That of the passengers disembarking. Not being very obtuse myself, I noticed this right away. This puzzled me for a bit, but it all became clear when the chap who had his elbow planted somewhere between my tenth and eleventh rib told the chap who was using the both of us to rest about 40% of his ample weight, "See? I told you. We should've caught a train headed the other way, got off at point D (a station between points A and B), caught a train coming back, come back here to C, and then we'd be sitting by now, on our way back. Now we have to stand all the way."
If I had had enough space to stagger, I would've staggered. What sneakiness! The snakes in the grass! My God! I exclaimed silently. Everybody in the blasted train was taking a U-turn so they could get a place to sit.
"Ha ha ha ha Hee hee hee!" went Bachha, when I told him about how his plan had turned out and instructed him in detail on what he could do with his plans. "You caught that train at eight! I told you to catch trains before 7:43! No wonder - rush hour, my friend! Ha ha ha!"
I took a taxi back to the guest house that evening. A bit on the horribly expensive side, no doubt, but one would not want to repeat the performace of the morning, while lugging around a laptop that had the tonnage of a small neutron star. Also, I could stretch out and relax in the back seat with a paperback.
I may have found The Poseidon Adventure more exciting a day earlier, but now it seemed a bit tame in comparison. To my own.