Boarding The Madras Mail

Part 1

There are some moments, precedented and unprecedented, inescapable in a man’s life notwithstanding the quirkiness of English language that permits the latter and disallows the former. After all it is the precedented;stuff that makes life livable. When the unprecedented socks you in the guts, and it’s usually when you aren’t looking, you just gather your whatever wits and play it as best as you can. Imagine yourself ambling over on seeing green at a pedestrian crossing and this Pinto comes along and lays the poor unsuspecting you horizontal on the road – that would be unprecedented for you? Whereas, the precedented is entirely another thing, and is the subject of this post. The wise majority know to prepare for them well in advance. For the few others, well…I assuredly belong to the former kind. Even so, life is not without its own quirks that turn best laid preparation on its head. You’ll be quite with me on this when I am done. Without more ado, let me get to the point.

One of those precedented moments for me was when the wife publicly announced her customary summer vacation plans for a month-long visit to her parents taking the kid with her. The first thing that hit me was it meant eating out in restaurants for a month – something I don’t exactly relish. Of course it also meant doing the laundry myself, paying all the utility bills that always left me wondering if they were for my flat or the entire complex and, queuing up before the largely unmanned counters at the bank. Or, answering the door to: women pleading with us to add to our burgeoning collection of hand-crafted brooms, couriers delivering company notices seeking hefty salary hikes for their loss-making directors, well-dressed kids trained to make me squirm about not earning for causes in life other than my wife and kid, visitors to neighboring flats who think their hosts live with us, the watchman of our complex choosing us for some unknown reason to unburden on his living conditions and ask for a loan essentially non-refundable, and many other sections of the society, not accounted here, beating to our door.

Looking at the brighter side, now I could actually read novels in bed using a table-lamp, hitherto accused of being too bright for my bed-mate’s sleep. Not just that, I could even set the ceiling fan to whir at its best, another of those forbidden pleasures. What else? Mmmm….Well, on the chores of buying vegetables and provisions at the market or chasing the boy to do school home-work, walking him to and from the coaching classes, drawing academy and music teacher’s house – I couldn’t really claim relief for they were anyway never my chores. Yes, I’m also mercifully off from taking some vexing decisions, rather, suggestions like should we go for vegetable kholapuri or paalak paneer, would the drinks be strawberry flavored or vanilla…To be honest – and it took some years to get wise to it – these are no longer vexing as the decisions are already made before suggestions are solicited. So I could, without a thought, be putting my finger on a door-mat in shocking pink and be sure to step on one in dull-grey I had really liked.

Backing to the present, the announcement meant working on a tried-and-tested things-to-do that left nothing to imagination or chance including for me to get off the coach minutes before the train’s departure. Starting at the beginning as we must, the panchangam (the calendar) was consulted and three alternative dates of travel and return, declared propitious by stars (of the astronomical kind) of the day and the lunar phases (thithi’s), were picked. There were injunctions to the choice of 2nd class 3-tier sleeper tickets: (a) Specify lower berths. It’s unsafe to park the kids in the middle or upper berths in the night (b) Check if the seats are not allotted near the toilets on either ends (c) And they must be in the direction of travel to get the wind on the face; else it can get very stuffy in the summer (d) There must be families or at least ladies in the seats around; else the danger of being in the midst of boisterous college-going boys on a study tour or something (e) No screaming babies within ten feet (f) No one eating smelly or non-veg food within six feet and (g) The berths must be cushioned.

Since the old-fashioned computerized booking-system was not quite tooled to process a few qualifiers that did not run any farther than (g), it meant I had to spend a few hours at the railway station and negotiate with the booking clerk with as much charm as I could muster, undisturbed by the commotion created by those unreasonable souls behind me in the queue who seemed to be in a tearing hurry as though to catch whichever train – perhaps they were. Even so precedent told me I could expect to be satisfied on not more than a couple of counts. And a lecture would inevitably ensue from you-know-who on board the train on how I did not sufficiently impress the clerk on the remaining points. No point on losing sleep over something that was still six weeks away.

This time I was lucky on the availability – I got the tickets of the first choice itself – 2nd class 3-tier sleeper berths on the 9Dn Madras Mail of 18th night of the following month to board from Kalyan (for those of you not familiar, Kalyan is a railway junction an hour’s run away from VT, Victoria Terminus). The Madras Mail rolled out from VT late every night and reached Madras early on the second morning. What more – the friendly clerk even assured me of complete satisfaction on (a) to (c). On (d) to (g) he couldn’t. There was no telling what would happen until the boarding time. I saw his point and left it at that.

Not one to abuse your indulgence, I’m not anymore going to drag you painfully over what else was ordained by the tried-and-tested things-to-do and what was accomplished during the six-weeks of run-up to the day of departure. Suffice to say the instructions were followed to a T.

Now fast-forward to the time we reached Kalyan station wheeling in the bags and carrying a sleepy kid, with half an hour to go for the Madras Mail to arrive. Just enough time for the final round of checks before the take-off: Do you have the tickets in your clutch bag ready to show? Have you stowed away safely the tickets for the return journey? Have you kept some loose change in the purse for buying things on the way? Are water bottles standing upright and not leaking? Buy more bottles if you need them on the way after checking if the seals are intact. Are there enough biscuits and chivda to keep the boy busy? Have you carried magazines to read on the following day and story-books for the kid? And a few more, ending with: Are you waiting at a spot where your coach would come to stop? Check with the porters.

It was quarter past mid-night when the train dutifully pulled in, easing slowly to a halt.

(To be contd.)


One Response to Boarding The Madras Mail

  1. S Basu says:

    these short span of separation from a loved one works wonder on the bond. 🙂


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