Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cattle Class to Comfort Class

Cattle class
I am one of those who enjoys a train journey; for both short and long trips, especially since the introduction of A/C coaches. In the pre-mobile days it was the best way to get cut off from your regular, stressful world with enough time to relax, ruminate, read and sleep a lot!!

It is a far cry from the kind of train journeys my family used to undertake when I was young and living in Bombay, visiting relatives in Madras, every alternate year. Unlike the instant-reservation facility on the net that you have today, I remember the trouble my dad had to undergo to get reserved train tickets. He would reach VT station in Bombay the night before (with a flask of coffee and some snacks that my mother would pack for him), so that he could be first in the queue.Only to find that many others thought like him, and he was invariably at the end of the queue, facing a “tickets-sold” board, by the time he reached the counter! He would have to invade the station several times to get reservations for some train or the other going to Madras. If getting reservations was an ordeal, the actual journey was much worse!

In spite of having reserved seats (no sleeping berths then), the journey was nightmarish. All kinds of people would get into the reserved compartment, in mid-stations and occupy every inch of space in the passage, making it difficult for anyone to even reach the toilet without walking over people.

If anyone questioned such “unreserved” passengers, the instant retort would be “You have only reserved the seat and not the passage, so shut up!” The T.C., whose palms must have been adequately greased, would be conspicuous by his absence.

The compartment would be noisy, filthy and with an unbearable stench emanating from the toilet. As there was no A/C, the compartment would be hot, humid and dusty and when you reached your destination you would be like a “fried ladies finger!”And there was no question of hawkers entering the compartment. You had to carry your own food for the entire train journey. The Minister who referred to travel by Economy class in Airlines as “Cattle Class” had obviously not traveled by such trains in his lifetime!
It was worse than cattle class!!


We surely have come a long way since those days; with Railways making every effort to make train journeys comfortable. Providing you value for money. The more you are willing to pay, better the facilities. Three-Tier, Two-Tier or First Class A/C, and if it is a day train you have the A/C Chair Car!

Traveling by Brindavan in the A/C chair car between Chennai and Bangalore, has always been a special experience for me! I sleep, read and occasionally also write articles. Like this article.

One enduring memory I have of the train as a foodaholic, is the parade of vendors from the pantry car, selling a variety of mouth watering snacks, which I find hard to resist! While in the Shatabdi,, where the caterers mechanically serve you fixed items at appointed times with clockwork efficiency; the vendors in Brindavan are more human, friendly and very hard working. Imagine having to walk up and down the aisles of the coaches hundreds of times in a day, holding the tray of snacks on one hand and balancing themselves, by holding on to seat tops with the other hand. That too in an undulating train, running at high speed .And doing this day after day, for a living. Great guys! Hats Off to them.

Now coming to the food items …If you are catching the morning Brindavan from Chennai to Bangalore, the first items to appear would surely be the traditional breakfast menu: Idli or Pongal with Vadai (invariably cold and hard because the items must have been prepared the previous night), served with insufficient, watery and sometimes stale coconut chutney.

If you are an impatient man, like me, who is always hungry at any time of the day (that explains my extra girth in the middle!), you would grab a packet anyway, knowing very well that the quality will not be good!

If you have the patience to wait for the next round of snacks, which could well be “Hot Masala Dosa” or “Hot Bread Omelet”, then you are assured of a better fare. But the chap would insist on serving a minimum of two dosas at-a-time, with a generous serving of fresh chutney. My favorite is Omelet and Bread with a packet of tomato ketchup; my second breakfast in two hours. (I already told you, I am always hungry!). Since I am not permitted to have eggs at home, I eat them with a vengeance when I travel.

Obviously there are many more hungry people like me on the train, who are not satisfied with one breakfast. So from about 9.30 am there is a parade of vendors selling Vazhakai (raw banana) Bajjis, Chilly Bajjis, Cutlets, Masala Vadas, Garam Bondas or Samosas and not to forget ready snacks, like biscuits, Lay’s chips etc.

They keep coming back until you are tempted to try just one Bajji or one Cutlet, just for tasting them you know?! But they insist that a plate comes with a minimum of three Bajjis or three Cutlets (they actually have an incentive waiting for them if they are able to liquidate the stocks during the journey!). Needless to say, I invariably fall into this trap and have my third breakfast, or shall we say starters for the lunch to follow at 12 .30pm!!

I always admire the guys who go around selling tea or coffee in the train. The way they balance the hot steel containers between their legs, leaning on the side of the seat, adding a spoon of Nescafe and sugar into the cup and then filling it up with the watery milk from the container to give you a hot cup of a concoction called Coffee!

If you insist on a stronger cuppa, he would reluctantly add another tea spoon of Nescafe to your cup to make the brew stronger, leaving you even more dissatisfied. No wonder the term “train coffee” or “train tea” has become synonymous with bad coffee or tea!

There are other memorable experiences that I have had, related to trains, that are worth recording. I am one of those “tension-parties” who believe in reaching the station much before the arrival of the coaches, in order to occupy my reserved seat before the rest of the janatha does.

Once, I was well settled in my reserved seat, happily reading the morning newspaper, when another passenger came near my seat and after verifying the number of the seat with the ticket he was holding in his hand, confidently declared that I was occupying his seat. I was predictably upset and told him with equal confidence that the seat I was occupying was the correct seat, as per my ticket, and that he should take up the matter with the TC to sort out the confusion. He insisted on seeing my ticket and when I saw a smile on his face after going through my ticket I realized I was in trouble.

“Sorry sir, this reservation is for yesterday’s Brindavan”.

I felt so foolish and humiliated that words failed me. I had to quickly retrieve my luggage and perform the vanishing act.

Yes, train journeys are far more interesting than any other mode of travel for the variety of experiences you can have. Though every Ram, Laxman and his cousin travels by other trains between Chennai and Bangalore, my favourite is always the Brindavan Express.

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