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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bangalore Express, Seat #71

Chennai, Centrail Railway Station. 12:45 PM on a mid-September afternoon recently.

As I walked towards the platform, I was happy to see the Chennai-Bangalore super-fast train #12609 waiting for me already. I strolled slowly, stopping by some book-seller carts browsing through their shelves. I also stopped for a cool juice. And I walked past compartments one after another after another.

I was heading back to Bangalore on that Thursday noon, after having attended a relative's wedding in north Chennai that forenoon -- just a couple of hours prior to that.

I was tired, and was eager to get in to my AC chair-car for which I was holding a confirmed reservation. Even though it was not the peak summer time in September, Chennai is Chennai, and the day had already taken the toll on me. The platform was not overcrowded, but was not too empty as well. It was an average crowd, but all over the place. Most travelers were making their last minute buys before jumping on to their trains. People who just arrived were rushing off the platforms to get home, or to get on with their businesses, or to get on with whatever their purpose was in the city. I kept walking. Just a few more steps... I was really longing to be inside my air-conditioned coach.

When I came close to my coach, C1, I quickly read through the chart. I saw my name against seat number 71. I was pretty relaxed. I waited till all the passenger clusters to get in and out. And then I slowly stepped on to the compartment.

The AC inside the coach was cooling fine. The instant chillness made me breath easy. I headed towards seat number 71. I was edging to sit and relax. I scrolled over the seat numbers. I only saw up to seat number 70 at one end of the coach. I wondered whether 71 would be on the other end then. Sometimes they place the last 4 or 5 seats alone on the other end of the coach, somewhere near seat number 1, I thought. I trod slowly to the other end of the coach. But I saw only seat number 1 & above there. I came back to my end again. No, seat #71 could not be located. I went back and forth a couple of times. I only saw 1 to 70. I stepped out and went to the passenger chart pasted near the entrance. My name smiled at me very clearly on the chart, it said seat number 71. And the list actually ran up to seat number 75, with names against each one of them! I frowned and was puzzled. Clock ticked to 1:05 PM. Only 30 more minutes were left for the train to chug off. I hustled around.

I then went to the C2 coach, the only other AC chair-car in that train. Its seat numbers inside and on the chart were matching fine. And it did not have my name there, rightly so. I was wondering how I have this problem in C1 alone. And what about the passengers of seat numbers 72 to 75 in C1 who also should be having the same problem as mine. Against those seat numbers, the chart showed -- a child, a mid-age man, a mid-age lady and an elderly lady. As I was scrutinizing the chart one more time, a young man appeared near me and said I have to wait till the train ticket examiner, TTE, arrives, in order to get my 'seat-missing' issue sorted out. I got to know that he was the head of the other affected group of seats 72 to 75. I wondered where his 3 other companions were. He disappeared somewhere within seconds. I guessed he was also running around like me.

I stood still on the platform. I could not understand how a seat could be completely missing in a train while showing the passenger name and seat number, confirmed, on the chart pasted on the very coach itself. Minutes were flying. I kept looking to the front and rear of the platform for the TTE's arrival.

A few coaches away, near the last compartment of non-AC chair-car coaches, luckily I sighted a TTE. I walked, no... I ran to him. A tall man he was, surrounded by a few passengers requesting confirmed seats, permission for carry-on luggage, and so on. I stood by and just watched for a couple of minutes. He kept flipping through his chart-pad to answer queries. He 'raised' his voice high to many passengers, most of the times. There was this group who had brought a 29" CRT television and he caught them unawares saying that they have to go back to the luggage section to buy a load ticket for the TV. They picked-up an argument with the him, but he kept on pronouncing out rules and regulations of the railway department.

As he flipped up and down the charts on his pad I noticed that the chart for C1, my coach, was with him. I was pleased. I approached him and explained my problem. Pat came his reply, that he was no way related to the AC coaches, and, a different TTE was expected to come. I was surprised. I knew he had the chart in his pad under one of those sheets. I politely requested for some help... once again. He instantly raised his voice and said he had no responsibility towards my problem. When I told him I had a confirmed ticket, that too for a AC coach, and sought his guidance, he persisted that I have to wait because a different TTE will be coming for AC coaches. I slowly moved 3 coaches back, to stand on the platform near the entrance of my coach, C1.

I had expected a very courteous approach from that TTE, given that my problem was strictly due to the Railways. I expected him to have patiently looked at options for me and helped me find a suitable solution. His abrupt and rude reactions de-energized me several tads. I gulped a few mouths of water down my throat.

It was already 1:15 PM; only 20 more minutes were left for departure. I started wondering whether I would really be making it to Bangalore by that train that day. I kept looking to the front and rear on the platform for the arrival of my coach's TTE. I spotted that young man of seat number 72 again at a distance on the platform, near C2. The attendant of my coach noticed my state of unrest. He came up to me and gave a hint that I could go to C2 and sit in some vacant seats that are available. I picked up my baggage and ran to the same TTE again quickly. He suggested that I should do that.

I was slightly convinced and went to C2 with some hope. But... the 5 or 6 vacant seats shown in C2's passenger name chart were already occupied. I told some of those occupants that the TTE has sent me there. The instant reply was that the vacant seat was given to them by the same TTE only. I recognized that the TTE had just dodged me around. I was completely confused and helpless. When I ran back to the TTE and said the seats were occupied by some unreserved passengers, and that they were saying they got the seat from him only, he suddenly yelled. He shouted saying he never does such things. I quietly requested him to just help me because I had a confirmed reservation seat for C1 coach. He went back to his old excuse, that AC coaches were none of his business and wanted me to go away because there was some other TTE expected to come soon. He said all that in a loud voice. I was stunned. I looked at him, with a mild smile. He avoided my face. He started addressing other questions coming from people around him. It was strange a nature in a TTE I had seen. I was not sure why he was not courteous in responding to me. Fatigue grew on me.

Time raced to 1:20 PM. There appeared to be no more vacant seats left in both the AC coaches and I regretfully felt I should have reached the railway station probably 1.5 hours earlier in order to have grabbed one of those vacant seats that are normally given off on first-come first-served basis. But, the pity was, I never had to bother, because I had a perfectly confirmed, air-conditioned coach seat that was beyond any doubts, and so I was a peaceful traveler while heading from the marriage hall to there.

I waited once again at my root-spot that was near my C1 coach's entrance on the platform with my luggage. Time moved to 1:25 PM. The coach attendant saw my stalemate and came up to me again. He said that the compartment type had got swapped by mistake and hence the capacity mismatch. It sounded like have been happening once in a while, and that was my bad day. The attendant went on to say that the TTE for the 2 AC coaches... has... actually... not come! That was shocking stupid to me! He also shared that he knew the TTE had actually missed to board the train at Tiruvallur during its onward journey a few hours ago. So he seemed to have stayed back and would then board the train during its return journey, at Tiruvallur!

I had not expected so much more  complexities to add on to my problem that was already on hand. I could not believe such a thing could even happen. I clearly realized the super compound problem I have got stuck with. A simple travel from Chennai to Bangalore on a week-day's day-time train, in an AC chair-car compartment, with a confirmed ticket on hand. Should have been a breeze actually. But never to be. I started pondering more deeply. Seconds, and minutes, were flying.

Tiruvallur is about 30-40 minutes from Central Station and I had to decide whether to firmly stay on to C1 compartment till the actual TTE boarded. I started visualizing a few combinations of risks and mitigation... of doing, or not-doing, different actions from that second to the time I meet, or not meet, the TTE at Tiruvallur. I checked how much cash I had on me. I checked my mobile phone's charge level. I thought of all alternatives possible. I was keen to put this problem behind a.s.a.p. The train had 5 minutes to depart.

I ran back to the same TTE who was still standing 3 coaches away near the non-AC coach. The TV luggage issue seemed to have been settled amicably by then, and I saw that group having a casual laughing chat with that grumpy TTE. I was not sure whether they had really walked all the way to the luggage counter to purchase a load ticket, or, whether the TTE himself solved the issue by other means.

It was 1:30 PM. I asked the TTE what I should do if the other TTE did not come before the train departed. I also told him that there were no vacant seats left that I could occupy. And that I was holding a genuine reservation ticket on hand, and only the railway coach was lacking that seat. I kept a completely calm, polite and respectful tone while talking to him. He appeared not listening to me and was answering other enquiries to others. I waited by patiently. Couple of minutes later, he turned towards me and instructed me to go to C1 coach and occupy seat number 1 that is meant for the TTE. I did not move. I wanted to know what I should do if that was also occupied by someone already. He instantly raised his voice... to say that it was expected to be free since it was meant for the TTE. He insisted that I can sit there and then talk to the actual TTE whenever he arrived.

I strolled back in to C1 three coaches away... without any hope. Clock showed 1:35 PM -- time for departure. When I saw that the seat number 1 near the entrance was in fact free... I got jubilant. I shoved my luggage and fell in to that seat, and lied my head back. The train moved slowly. I was exhausted.

As the train came out of Central station heading the 362 KM distance ahead, and I started seeing through my window, series of side walls, fences and buildings moving backwards... very fast... the previous 50 minutes of un-ended tension till that moment... started recapping in my mind...

I still wondered how such a mistake could happen. Does it only happen in India? Indian Railways? Having a confirmed ticket, planned well in advance, for a planned journey without any tussles... is not good enough for a travel? You also need luck to be in your favor for your seat to exist in the train in the first place? And then the right TTE to be available on-time as well?

While I still held my worry about what was going to happen when the TTE boards at Tiruvallur, all the tiredness caught over me, and my eyes involuntarily went into a power nap.

2:30 PM. Tiruvallur. Train stopped. And started. The TTE did not board the train there. It was more puzzling, and disappointing. More worries grew in me. I was wondering what was really going on and going to happen.

I could only keep on looking far outside through my window... staring at a distant nothing.

Minutes later, the train was nearing Arakkonam. I was puzzled again... As the TTE entered the cabin through the door that was just in front of me... It was the same TTE... He came with the same pad on hand, to examine... passenger tickets! I was comprehensively dazzled! Because, I had known that he did possess my compartment's chart on his hand earlier when we were on the platform itself. And I had sincerely wanted him to help me on my problem. I had been pleading him for help. But he had trickily parried me around, churning. He walked up to me... I was wondering what he had to say... He asked for my ticket. I looked like a rock, and handed my ticket to him. He recognized me and quickly started off talking in a completely different tone, with a wide grin on his face. He said sorry. He apologized for having reacted to me the way he did. He said he had a lot of problems. That the other TTE never came on board and that the department had just called him to take care of the AC coaches as well. He was resenting that there was shortage of staffs and that the department had overloaded him at the last minute with a lot more coaches to handle than normal. I kept quiet, leaving with him all his credits. I dissolved all the heat within myself, showing him just a mild smile. He felt really bad. He finally checked with me whether I was comfortable in that seat number 1, or if I would like a different seat. I told him I was fine. He requested me to contact him if there was any problem. He moved away with a courteous smile for me.

My journey ended well in the end. Though... I was overwhelmed by that incident during the rest of that travel, and even for many days after that.

Tip: If you are taking a train, when you go to the train station and board the train... watch-out... your seat or berth itself may be missing!

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