We were still in that awkward phase, where we weighed our words before we spoke to each other. You never knew what the reaction to them might be, and you tread gently, still discovering each other. Arranged marriages do that to you.
We had been married in April that year. It didn’t help that we had jobs in two different towns, and were able to meet only on the weekends, where the travel and the tight schedules with no rest, made us irritable with each other. And soon, it was time for my ‘pehli Diwali’, which was a huge thing. The first Diwali at your in-laws’ place, your new home.
Subodh was in Sevagram, and as always, promised that he would take care of the tickets to go to Patna. I told him I knew a travel agent, but he insisted that he would do it all by himself. I was facing a terrible time at work, with a heartless Head of the Department, who lost no opportunity to humiliate me for no reason. I was warned that any leave I take will be without pay, as it was my first job. But I had no alternative. I had to go. Pehli Diwali jo thi.
As I suspected all along, one week before Diwali, Subodh gave up. I received a frantic call saying that he was not able to book any tickets to Patna from Sevagram, and going home was mandatory. Remember, these were pre-IRCTC days where online bookings were non-existent, and you were completely dependent on travel agents if you wanted to avoid long queues at the railway station ticketing counters. That evening I rushed to my agent, and got an earful from him asking why I couldn’t have told him earlier, so that he could have booked comfortable tickets. I pleaded and offered him my pehli Diwali argument, and he melted. He called me back the next day, and gave me tickets for two trains, shaking his head. Sleeper class. “You should have booked earlier. I have never booked anyone on this route before,” he said ominously.
He hadn’t been able to get a direct ticket in that Diwali rush. So we were to first travel from Nagpur to Kanpur, wait for a few hours, and then board the next train to Patna. We would be able to reach on the morning of Diwali. Railway travel to Patna was something I never looked forward to. It scared me, it disgusted me.
The trip didn’t start well. As we packed gifts to take home, I heard the first dictat. The new husband wanted me to travel to his hometown in a saree. A train journey more than 24 hours in sleeper class in a saree– because a new bahu on her pehli Diwali, was expected to wear a saree. Aghast, I threw a fit. He couldn’t understand why his wife couldn’t wear what his mother, sisters and sister in law did everyday all their life. He wasn’t counting in my discomfort, or the fact that I did not know how to drape a saree in the first place. After some ugly arguments, we reached a compromise. I could travel to Kanpur in a salwar kameez, but from there on, I had to wear a saree. I agreed grudgingly, but showed my displeasure by remaining incommunicado throughout the journey.
We boarded our first train from Nagpur and reached Kanpur the next morning after a 15 hour journey. We were able to find a retiring room on the station and grab a few hours of sleep. The next train was in the evening. A few hours before that journey, my tension built up again. Try as I might, I couldn’t drape the saree properly. Hot and angry tears dripped down my cheeks, as Subodh tried to help me. Had he uttered one word, I would have exploded. I regretted the day I agreed to get married to him, and told him so in many words. Several attempts and a dozen safety pins later, I ended up looking like a curious badly draped mannequin in a glittery green saree. We waited at the platform to board with our suitcases and a shopping bag which carried our food. Kanpur station was impossibly crowded.
I should have read the name of the train properly. It seemed straight out of a Bollywood film. Too strange to be true. Toofan Express. I wondered who ever travelled by a train with that name.
The train ambled in on time. We had tickets on seats 4 and 5, which meant just next to the door. But there was no way we were able to get on to the train. Hordes of people were just pushing past and getting in. There were hundreds of men, women and children of all ages with bags of all kinds. We managed to get in somehow and I ended up squeezed between the door and the first seats, with a gunny bag full of utensils held precariously over my head. The train started moving and we still couldn’t make it to our berths in the first seats from the door. We had boarded the train almost 20 minutes ago.
What we hadn’t bothered to check was that Toofan Express starts from Rajasthan, travels across to Punjab, Delhi and then almost everywhere in Uttar Pradesh and then reaches Patna. And all the daily wage labourers from the small towns across North India were making their way to their hometowns to be with their loved ones on Diwali day. Without reservations.
When we reached our seats, I found a man sprawled across it. “These are my seats, please get up. ” I said. “Show me your ticket, ” he said. I showed him, and he refused to budge. “Show me your ticket, ” I now said. He pulled out a unreserved ticket, the size of a platform ticket, which could be booked on the day of the journey, and thrust it under my nose aggressively saying, “Aap padhi likhi nahi na hai. Aap nahin samjhengi (You are illiterate, I know. You won’t understand my ticket)”. By now I was seething, more at the silence of my husband, than at the arrogance of this traveller. I asked the man loudly to get up. He got up from his sprawled position, and shifted near the window, giving me space to sit. “Ticket hai, is liye jagah de de rahein hai (You have a ticket, so I am obliging you by giving you some space to sit),” he drawled.
I sat crouched in that space, holding the shopping bag close to my bosom, trying to cope with my uncomfortable saree. Keep the bag down, insisted Subodh again and again. I glared at him. The bag was the only defence I had to avoid getting groped in that crazy crowd, but he didn’t understand. This was going to be one hell of an overnight journey.
I have to give you a description of what that cramped space in that train looked like. Having nothing better to do, I counted. In that space meant for eight travellers, were 82 passengers of all forms and shapes. They were squeezed into every nook and corner. Crouched on the upper berth, between the berths, in the aisles– everywhere. Children were peeing and crying. Little girls were vomiting in that same space. You were now literally experiencing the expression, “packed like sardines”. You couldn’t shift an inch. The ticket examiner came in a few hours later, looked at two or three tickets. “Adjust kijiye (Try and adjust),” he murmured, and walked off. He would have been bashed up by the crowd, had he tried to explain the rules.
Somewhere around midnight, a Bengali passenger who was on seat 1, got aggressive. He made all the unreserved passengers who were sitting on his seat, get up. He raised the middle berth. His wife lay down on the lower berth, while he got up on the middle berth. Encouraged by this, Subodh also yelled at the passengers on our seats, and they grudgingly vacated them. I had to lie down on the lower berth (still in my saree, remember!). He got up on the middle berth. The people who vacated, now sat down at the edge of our seats, tickling our toes for the rest of the journey. Needless to add, we didn’t sleep a wink that night. Who knows who would depart with our luggage if we batted an eyelid. It was a relief to reach Patna the next morning, and finally stretch our limbs and use the washroom.
The memories of this trip are still a nightmare, which woke me up at 2 am this morning and made me write this post. And yes, dare anyone ever tell me to wear a saree when I don’t want to. I will rip them apart with my dirty glares.