The following is a true account. I know because I was there.
The Indian Railways is a web of life. I have travelled by train in other countries. I have loved most of the journeys. They transported me to another world. When you step into a train in India, you enter another world. It is a parallel universe, a journey within a journey. This is an account of one such journey.
I don’t remember if this is true, but the first time he entered my office I must have said to myself– Trouble. I more or less instantly warmed up to him. For a laid back person like me who can never be blamed of being a go-getter, life can tend to be pretty boring. However that has been far from the case. As I acknowledged his languid salute and asked him to take a seat, I must have got a vague feeling that my boring moments were numbered. Not very often, but every now and then you meet a person who is like minded. You enjoy the moment and say life is good. This was not such a moment. Once in a few billion human interactions, two people meet and realise that they have a nearly identical track record of creating mess ups. At this moment you pause and say to yourself –trouble! This was such a moment. This is an account of one such journey with one such person.
It was a journey of small miracles. The first miracle was that we reached Pune railway station to catch the train. Let me tell you how the journey was hatched. For me, it was the year of living irresponsibly, which I took too seriously and so it had stretched to now being almost two years. I was having the time of my life. And for a change it involved me staying right where I was. No wanderlust. I really didn’t want to go to Delhi. Trouble was I still had Trouble in my life. Over copious amounts of Old Monk we discussed ideas and got excited. New ventures that would lead us to a new life. I loved it. But he wanted to make it work. You know that part where you actually get off your ass and start doing the million mundane things that so completely ruin the joys of a great idea. The trip to Delhi was supposed to be a business trip. How boring.
Reluctantly I started for the train station; leaving home just in time. Not accounting for the delays that can be caused by traffic snarls, accidents, break downs, marriage processions, funerals, strikes, political rallies etc for which every Indian naturally accounts for and leaves home hours in advance. I made it.
Trouble was visibly glad to see me. He was there with another friend who was travelling to Delhi too. We didn’t have confirmed seats for a journey that was to last more than twenty four hours. I wasn’t really looking forward to the prospect, but he assured me that he had it under control. He patted the bottle of Old Monk that made a familiar bulge in his bag. I relaxed a bit.
We got in the train and were happy to see that we had one seat between the three of us. Not bad. In Indian Railways that’s all you need. He was already pouring the drinks when the train pulled out of the station. “Not for me,” the other guy said, “I don’t drink Rum.” The two of us gave him the look that is reserved for people who drink alcohol but don’t drink Old Monk. We shrugged and sipped our drinks. It was a pity though, because it was that guy’s bottle. “Why didn’t you just get some alcohol that you drink?” “I know how much you both like Old Monk,” our friend smiled. He was a nice bloke. I felt the nice warmth that comes from a combination of rum and good friends.
Ahmadnagar is a nondescript town a couple of hours from Pune. The only reason that I acknowledge the town was because a good friend had recently moved there. In fact I had driven him down from Pune when he had moved. As usual I had failed to stay in touch soon after that. As our train approached Nagar, I was thinking a lot of him. Because just a few minutes back I had given him a frantic call. He is a doctor and I presumed that he would be used to frantic calls at odd hours. Apparently not. My call had seemed to unsettle him a bit. To his credit, only a bit. He had recovered and had swung into action. I had called him precisely twenty five minutes before the scheduled arrival of my train in Nagar. I had asked him to rush to the station with a bottle of whiskey. Two reasons for that. First, our friend didn’t drink rum. Second, the rum was getting over. The doctor, who was in a party when he took my call, grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the bar and then mounted his 1991 vintage Kinetic Honda scooter and raced to the station that was at least twenty minutes away. When we pulled into the sleepy Nagar train station there was still no sign of the doc. It was a five minute halt. Desperate moments require desperate measures. A desperate plan was hatched. I was to wait outside the station for the Doc. Trouble sent me off with a reassuring pat, “Don’t worry – I won’t let the train leave without you!” As I stepped outside I saw the train beginning to pull out. At the same moment I saw a visibly flustered Doc running towards me. I rushed to him, grabbed the bottle and rushed away. No time for small talk. The doc understood. The train which had reached the end of the platform suddenly came to a halt. I ran to my coach and got in. I walked to my seat, trying unsuccessfully to conceal the whiskey.
There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence as a railway police patrol walked through our coach, slowly looking around. I could feel the eyes of the other passengers on us. The patrol passed on to the next coach and we let out our breath. And poured out the whiskey! By now we were becoming popular and a few others feeling up to a drink had joined us.
The trouble with Indian rail journeys is that they invariably outlast the booze available. We hadn’t yet reached Manmad, a mere 300 odd kilometres away and we were running dry for the second time that evening. Another desperate plan was hatched. Trouble and I were to jump out at Manmad Station with our knapsacks and venture out to look for alcohol. It is not too improbable to find some shady place that sells, even at that time of the night, around most Indian train stations. If we missed the train we would catch a later train and our friend could travel comfortably on the only berth we had. A noble plan, we congratulated ourselves. We were foot-boarding, when the train stopped in the pitch darkness, a little outside Manmad Station. This can happen only in India – but out of nowhere there appeared an urchin, selling bottled ‘mineral’ water. Trouble got chatting with him and he proudly confessed that he bottled the water himself from the railway tap! One thing lead to other and suddenly a deal was struck. The urchin disappeared for a while and was back soon with four chilled bottles of some strong vile local beer! Just what we needed!
Bhopal. Distance covered 895km. Alcohol consumed – Rum, Whiskey and vile Beer in varying amounts. My eyes refused to open. But Trouble was excited about something. It was a bag with a lot of food and a dozen bottles of frozen kingfisher beer! I groaned inwardly and tried to go back to sleep. Vague memories of last night played havoc in my head. The bejewelled gay cut-surd hotel owner from Switzerland was saying something in his funny accent. The ex assistant Adjutant of the Indian Military Academy was there too. I was doing bottoms up with that vile beer. Gosh! My head was throbbing. I decided that I could not possibly go back to sleep now. So I joined the guys who were already tucking into the food with a gusto that I could only envy. I ate and felt marginally better. It was only after we popped open a perfectly chilled Kingfisher a couple of hours later that I came back to life.
Mathura. Distance covered 1455km. Alcohol consumed – Rum, Whiskey, four bottles of vile local beer, and dozen bottles of Kingfishers. Gloom was descending fast on my now large group of friends. Trouble and I exchanged glances, even we seemed to be out of ideas. Two dignified looking Sikh gentlemen were sitting across us and solemnly playing cards. They seemed to sense our gloom. They had been observing our antics for a long time now. One of them turned to us and said, “I have some Colonel’s Special. Would you like to share?!”
We had the last sip of the Colonel’s Special as the train pulled into Hazrat Nizamuddin. We had done it. The journey could not out last the booze this time. We bid adieu to our friends and stepped out. We grabbed a taxi and went straight to a nightclub. Such journeys need to be celebrated!