My train is scheduled at the unearthly hour of 11.30 p.m. Stubborn officials who quote absurd rules of reimbursement demand that I travel to another city in this heat instead of getting on a train from a station closer home. Anticipating delays due to dug up roads because of upcoming four lane highway and metro projects, I start early. I reach the station by 10.30 pm and find the platforms crowded and noisy.
I peep into the ladies’ waiting room. The board seems redundant. There are equal number of males peeping in at the television screen as there are women. The room however is definitely cooler than the sweltering platform.
I push my way in and find an old lady who is occupying a whole sofa. She has placed four of her bags on the sofa. “May I sit here?”, I ask. “Someone is coming back”, she says. “This sofa has place for four. Please place your bags on the floor”- I am polite, but firm. Grudgingly she moves one bag and I plonk myself at the edge before she changes her mind. Her daughter returns two minutes later, analyses the scene and immediately heaves her sweaty body very close to me, till I’m cringing at the uncomfortable proximity. I notice that three of their bags still occupy the sofa. So that clinging strategy is just a ploy to make me vacate the seat quickly so that the sofa can be usurped to stretch their legs during the night. There is no point getting into a hot argument with the sweaty lady. Luckily for me another train is announced and several chairs behind me are vacated in quick succession. I switch my seat to a single chair where no more sweaty clinging people need to be dealt with.
At 11.15 pm my platform is announced. I trudge to platform 4 using the overbridge. It has begun to drizzle.The rain stops even before you can register its presence. Instead of feeling cooler, the weather turns more humid.
The platform is choc-a-bloc with passengers in bermudas and flip flops. They can’t help it. This is a zone where maximum temperatures are reaching 47 degrees C at this time of the year. I notice a gap between two people and find a place to sit. Hardly any place on the platform. Passengers who have big suitcases sit on them. But this is the age of lightweight luggage so there aren’t too many of those. The platform isn’t even clean enough to sit on the floor. The pungent smell of urine from the nearby toilets assail your nostrils till you can no longer breathe.
The red LED lights say that my train will arrive at the right time. I turn my attention to the big rats scurrying around the rail tracks. As time ticks away, my disgust for the furry monsters turns into curiosity. Are they moving randomly or are they chasing each other? The clock strikes twelve but the writing on the board doesn’t change. Still right time. I notice an old rag picker descend on the tracks and collect plastic bottles. He’s gathered a whole gunny bag of them. So much for Swachh Bharat.
I’ve finished my bottle of water. It is hot and I’m thirsty. But getting up will mean losing my valuable place. I hear a group of teenagers complain that the vendors on this platform have run out of water bottles and are shutting down for the night. No point in going on a water bottle hunt then.
It is now half past twelve. The writing on the board disappears. It is as if the train has disappeared from the face of the earth. No announcements. No apologies. If this was another country one would have got a 50% refund for delays over 30 minutes. But here no one protests. Even if this tardiness disrupts entire schedules. We are all used to IST- Indian Stretchable Time- indeed.
At last I hear the first sounds of protest. From kids who are cranky and sleepy. When will the train be here- they repeat ad nauseam till their irritated mothers snap back asking them to keep quiet. There is another tribe of kids- the toddlers who acquire new energy after the midnight hour. They begin running around the platform dangerously close to the edge, much to the chagrin of their exhausted parents. They look away for a minute and this little chap is raiding another passenger’s jhola where a packet of Haldiram’s namkeen has caught his attention.
It is now 1 a.m. No announcement. No board changes. My eyelids feel heavy. No one at home is awake to respond to my WhatsApp messages. Suddenly I hear a voice. A coolie is telling the woman next to me that the train will arrive at another platform. What? How are we supposed to know? I thank my stars for overhearing that conversation and scramble with my bags to the other platform.
At 1.15 a.m. the train with a God’s name saunters in languidly. Not even God can predict Indian Railways’ timings or antics. People climb up in relief and grab whatever bedding they can find, close their eyes and begin snoring instantly. I’m too tired to wait for the train to start.
Half an hour later I open my eyes. The train still hasn’t started from the platform. I open the NTES app. No delay- it says. And the fine print says that the train still hasn’t started from its destination.