Night Train from Old Delhi

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There’s one railway journey that I frequently undertook, that is, from Delhi to Dehradun. Mainly to meet the writers hailing from that region. Sometimes I did it twice.

There were times when the Delhi-Kalka Mail would reach Delhi a couple of hours behind schedule and I had to make a dash for the Mussoorie Express usually scheduled to leave Old Delhi station a little after 10 pm. At other times I would arrive at New Delhi station in the morning, take an auto always at double the existing rate and hire a retiring room at Old Delhi station for 12 hours.

After a couple of rides in this train I realised one had to occupy one’s reserved berth as soon as the train pulled into the platform, for there’s the risk of having to compromise your berth in exchange for the one located in an unkempt coupe or the middle berth which could not accommodate my 6-foot frame.

During one such journey I boarded the train before most others. In a sleeper-class compartment I had a reserved lower berth. I kept my valuables (tape recorder and camera) in a bag that doubled up as a pillow and my suitcase under the berth.

People started pouring in and occupied their berths. Then a good-looking lady with a crutch limped her way to the cubicle I was in. There was a gentleman on the other lower berth. She first approached me: “I got a middle berth in the next bay. I can’t climb there. You take mine and let me have yours.” Had it been the upper one I’d have gladly accepted it. But there was no question of acceding to the request. I said I had problems with my knees and so my movements were restricted. The other gentleman however ceded the lower berth to her, reluctantly though. The lady then lowered herself with some effort, put the crutch beside her and went to sleep, her head towards the window as was mine.

The compartment grew quiet as the train left the station and gathered speed. Although the lights within the carriage were switched off, the darkness was occasionally pierced by bars of light streaking in through the windows. Watching the intermittent play of light and shadow I fell asleep. I had no idea how long I slept. I woke with a start and felt as if all hell had broken loose. The train was standing still. The woman on the other lower berth was crying herself hoarse. She was hollering in Hindi and I gathered that some thief had through the open window snatched away a gold chain worn around her neck.

Hearing her shrieks, some passengers from the neighbouring cubicles came to see if the lady was under any threat. But as soon as they crowded us, shouts from elsewhere rent the air. The sound ‘chor, chor’ could be heard. Each one of them rushed back. I could sense people running helter-skelter, shouting, in hot pursuit of the thief. There was utter chaos.

Then the hooter of the engine was heard. The train moved with a jerk. The passengers who had chased the snatchers out of the carriage scrambled back into it. I sat still throughout, somewhat dazed.

Strangely the lady was no longer screaming. It was as if she had made peace with her loss. Minutes ago she was so agitated but now looked as if it were all a dream. The lights went out once again. We lay back in our berths. I felt my purse in my pocket. I would be hard put if it went missing. I slept fitfully but was fully awake when the train entered the tunnels near Haridwar. In proximity with the sacred Ganges, the fear suddenly lifted. I found the compartment had mostly emptied. But the lady was there, doing up her hair.

Between Rishikesh and Dehradun I always sat upright to view the forest and the hill. As always I got carried away by the misty mountain-scapes and would have remained glued to the window-side if the train had not come to an abrupt halt just before Dehradun station. I found, my mouth agape with disbelief, the lady dismantling her crutch and putting it in her bag. She then stood up, nary a care in the world, and walked out without any limp or hobble and stepped on to the track into the unknown.

From then on, I always travelled by first class on the Mussoorie Express, for we could lock the door from inside during the journey by night!

First Published in The Statesman

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