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The gravy train

columns Updated: May 26, 2010 21:50 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times
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‘Don’t get on this train. There is no chance your ticket will be confirmed.’

This was fair warning.

The man pasting the final reservation chart on H1, the first-class airconditioned coach on the August Kranti Rajdhani Express bound for Delhi from Mumbai Central, checked twice to see if I had moved from second position on the waitlist. I had not, and with a Member of Parliament and other people of influence wriggling their way in, getting a berth on train number 2953 seemed impossible.

The railways have always enthralled me. I can, still, distinguish a WAP-5 locomotive from a WAG-5. Like billions of Indians, the Halarnkars were great rail voyagers. I’ve perched precariously from the open door of unreserved coaches; shared smelly second-class upper berths in the middle of a torrid summer; and been stranded after a cyclone ‘terminated’ my train. But I have only once experienced a first-class A/C journey isolated from the India beyond.

Last week, I was in Spain aboard a high-speed train that swallowed 1,100 km — roughly the same distance as Mumbai-Delhi — in a little over five hours. Though the Rajdhani promised a stately 17 hours, I was reasonably excited at the prospect of my second trip on a first A/C coach, never mind the huge rats frolicking on the garbage-strewn tracks, and the chaos of people and material on the platform. One unfortunate Japanese traveller, in tie and jacket, watched petrified as India swirled around him. I wondered: did someone tell him the Rajdhani would be like the Shinkansen?

I noticed three Indians escorting him. As I scanned the chart again, I heard them assure their Japanese comrade that this was indeed India’s best train. Somewhat reluctantly, he clambered aboard. I, of course, didn’t make it past the waitlist. Not given to last-minute phone calls to people in power, I wheeled my luggage around and slowly left the teeming, Victorian concourse — or tried to.

A bunch of shifty looking unshaven men quickly besieged me. “Kaunsa train, Rajdhani na?” (Which train? The Rajdhani?) I frowned and silently walked on. “Ho jayega saab,” one said, “Guarantee.” (It will be done.)

On Monday, I heard the prime minister repeatedly admit during a rare press conference that corruption was indeed a problem. Corruption lives because those who run India thrive off it, at worst, or, at best, ignore it because it doesn’t affect them.

I have always struggled mightily with the Indian penchant to subvert the system. In 1997, my father, in a weak moment, agreed to hand over the family’s Maruti van. This involved a transfer of registration from Bangalore to Delhi. It took six months, during which I had to take 10 days off and stand in innumerable lines in the great Indian human sweat sandwich. But I did it without touts, bribes and, to use that great Indian euphemism, ‘influence’. I was proud of my resilience.

I have become somewhat less resilient over the years. Last month, after a fruitless visit to the local police station to get a certificate saying there were no criminal cases pending against me, I ashamedly accepted a colleague’s offer to help. Still, it took multiple phone calls from her before the prized signature — that was all it was — was granted. There were no illegal payments involved.

Back at Mumbai Central, I had to cough up the second bribe of my life (the first was last month when I had to pay Rs 3,000 to have my phone bill accepted as proof of address to register my motorcycle — did you know that an MTNL phone bill is okay, an Airtel is not, unless of course you pay up?). The chief tout offered to get me aboard the Rajdhani Express for Rs 4,000. For a Rs 3,368 ticket? How could he possibly infiltrate one of the world’s most complicated, computerised railway reservation systems and get me on the single first-class air-conditioned coach with 10 minutes to go?

“First A/C is more difficult,” said the 30-something, swarthy man. “But everything is possible boss. You have to climb aboard the train, and then you’ll get your berth.”

I was not interested. And no, I did not want a confirmed first A/C ticket on the Golden Temple Mail or any other train on offer. Okay, the man said, forget the Rs 4,000 extra; I’ll get you on the train for a total of Rs 4,000.

How deep was the reach of these men? Why was it so easy? Here, outside India’s most prestigious train, in obvious view of the police and the railways, the touts had infiltrated the system because its administrators clearly didn’t care. I know 20 million Indians ride the railways every day, but that cannot be an excuse.

Unlike the average rail traveller, elbowed aside by ‘emergency’ and ‘VIP’ quotas — the fount of Mumbai Central’s corruption — I could move to plan B: the airport. First, there was the small matter of a refund. Trailed by the touts, who could not understand why I rebuffed them, I walked over to the main reservation hall. The lines seemed to stretch into tomorrow. Either I stood there for a couple of hours and missed my chances of getting a late flight, or I gave in.

I gave in.

Within five minutes, one of the touts whipped out Rs 3,000 in cash and kept the rest as his commission. A taxi ride, a Rs-5,000 plane ticket and six hours later, I was home.