If you want to test your physical fitness and agility, board a general compartment of a long-distance train. Getting into the coach itself will be your very first test in basic survival tactics.
If you are an experienced general class traveller, you would have already 'booked' your seat with a porter and arrived well before the train on the platform.
If you haven't had the occasion to travel by a general compartment as yet, let me reveal a state secret - by an unwritten memorandum of understanding (MoU), the railway ministry has outsourced the space in the general compartments to a cartel of porters and touts. The cartel, in turn, auctions the seats and berths.Being an integral part of the market economy, the price of a seat and a berth is determined by the rule of demand and supply. During rush season, like Dasara holidays, a seat in the general compartment could go for as high as Rs 100 and could be had for as low as Rs 10 during the off season.
Personally, I shudder at the thought of travelling unreserved. A quick-finger artiste operating from the Ahmedabad railway station was responsible for making me travel in the unreserved coach up to Warangal recently.
My friend and I had reserved seats in the AC chaircar to go to Mumbai en route Hyderabad. While I was entraining, someone picked my wallet from the back pocket.Left with little over Rs. 50 and no tickets, we had no choice but to board the next day's Navjeevan Express at 6.25 in the morning.
Having worked as a crime reporter with an influential daily, I instinctively contacted a top police officer with the suggestion to return me a favour by helping me get into the train.
He readily obliged and instructed the inspector of the railway police station to make the necessary arrangements.
The inspector, a burly six-footer with an uncanny resemblance to a grisly bear, was humility personified when we met him."We are trying our best to nab the pickpocket. Though I can't promise getting back the money you have lost, there is every chance of recovering your press card," the inspector reassured, his voice dipped in the sugary syrup that goes into making jalebis.
"Unfortunately, the VIP quota has already been released and therefore I won't be able to get you berths in the sleeper class. If you insist traveling by the train tomorrow, I can get you into the general compartment," he said.
"Come by 5.30 to the police station and have the morning cup of tea. They say the tea served at the police station is very very special. The hawaldar will be here to receive you," the inspector said introducing us to the head constable standing in attention.
The train had already inned by the time we arrived at the railway station. "Come on, Sir, there is no time for tea now," said the hawaldar and led us across the platform, making his way through the crowd using his metre-long danda. It was only by his danda that the hawaldar was being recognized by the public as the 'strong arm' of the law, for our man was not in his uniform.
The general compartment was jam packed, with no room even on the floor. While a couple of tough-looking guys were trying to muscle their way into the coach at the main gate, the hawaldar shoved them to a side and led us to two window seats 'reserved' for us by the porters.
Having established our legal right over the two prized seats, courtesy the sircar maibaap, the two of us became the object of awe before the other co-passengers.
Most of the passengers were mill workers and migrant labourers returning home to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
"Can't you shift a little and make room for the women?" shouted one of the two Telugu-speaking men at a Keralite youth whose proximity to the former's wife was the cause of great concern to him.
The Telugu biddas had purchased two seats from the touts at Rs 20 each. While the women occupied the seats, their husbands squatted on the floor, resting their back on each of our seats, their shoulders and heads having a peculiar tenency of falling on our laps now and again.
The day journey was spent nudging our fellow-travelers into an upright position and requesting anyone that got down at the various stations to fill our water flask.Having emerged one-up in the pecking order, we had no difficulty in spreading our legs to the utmost comfort when the sleep got over us.
Tip from a veteran traveler: The most comfortable way of traveling by an unreserved coach is to sleep under a bunk by spreading a newspaper on the floor.