These days, I am a regular commuter aboard the Shatabdi Express, as I travel frequently from Delhi to Jalandhar or Chandigarh. For the twin destinations, it is the evening Shatabdis that suit me. Both trains start from Platform 1 of New Delhi railway station. As I plan my travel well in advance, I manage generally to get a seat in the executive class.
The Jalandhar-bound Shatabdi departs at 4.30 pm. By four, the platform is humming with activity. Most of the passengers in the train’s executive class are either NRIs or holidaymakers, besides a handful of devotees headed for Amritsar or Beas. As the train lines up on the platform, there is a sudden clamour for the compartment, everyone vying for prime space on the overhead luggage racks. There is hectic activity to swap seats, as families and friends want to sit together. Travelling by myself mostly, it is I who get displaced from my designated seat invariably at least once, sometimes even twice.
By the time the train starts, everyone is settled and refreshments have arrived. Children convert the passage into a mini amusement park quickly and make merry to the delight of their parents. Mobilephone ringtones and conversations add to the vibrant atmosphere. Usually, my co-passenger is an NRI. We break the ice over a cup of tea. By soup time, we are on the first-name basis. Being footloose and now professor of international relations, I can have interesting chat with anyone even from Dakar or Reykjavik. Punjabi hospitality is at its best by the time dinner is served, and I have a standing invite from my co-passenger to his “Newfoundland”.
As Jalandhar approaches, come loud goodbyes and bear hugs. The platform wears a festive look, as restless crowds armed with bouquets are eager to welcome their near and dear ones from distant lands.
The Chandigarh Shatabdi departs at 5.15pm. To board it, I avoid the ordeal of entering from Paharganj, instead going via the always-open VIP gate. The platform where the executive coaches are parked appears barren, as if the train has been cancelled. The VIPs escorted by their entourage appear barely a few minutes before the departure time.
Everyone makes to the designated seat without any commotion. Their security personnel, after ushering the dignitary, hang around the alley to keep a tight vigil. The atmosphere in the coach is rather officious. The service staff makes a welcome gesture by handing each passenger a rose bud. Most of the top officials enjoy the luxury of having an unoccupied adjacent seat. My co-passenger generally is a mid-rung official. Benign gestures draw a cold response. Sensing impersonal body language, I open my laptop to punch in an article. Many of the mid-section pieces are courtesy the Kalka Shatabdi.
As the train chugs into the outskirts of Chandigarh, the personal staffs of the VIPs go hyperactive to lead their bosses out. On the platform, a large entourage is waiting to receive the dignitaries. Outside, in the VIP car park, there are fleets of red- and blue-beacon vehicles with loud sirens. The scene resembles a disaster-relief operation.
I make my way out slowly, a little amused, pondering why totally different experiences aboard the two trains with a common name?