It was a summer in the mid-eighties. A 17 year old climbed into a train to undertake one of the longer rail journeys of the world – the 2 nights & 2.5 days needed to get from Thiruvanthapuram Central station to the New Delhi station. Sitting in the 2nd class, sleeper compartment was the usual motley crew of Indian travellers. But before the long journey was over, the 17 year old could see many of them as distinct human beings, who in one amazing moment, came together to save his life. It was a crazy journey on the 2625 UP, and the 17 year old was me. (sorry for the drama, but this is the 60th year of our independence and all that. Also, it is almost true.)
Sitting at the side window – the ‘side-upper’ in the immortal parlance of IR – I shared the tiny space with a middle-aged man, whose name I have now forgotten. All I remember is that he was some kind of a minor functionary – “in the Accountant General’s office in Jaipur”. In the main compartment was this keralite muslim family with two daughters, the older of whom was a lovely, fair & serene girl whose name too, alas, I have now forgotten & to whom during the course of our trip I most definitely gave my heart away – which of course, is another story (although I used to do this regularly in those days, she was something else).
The third day & we got into Madhya Pradesh. It is these old KK Express journeys that have burned in me a total fascination with Madhya Pradesh. Itarsi, Morena, Jhansi, Bina, Bhopal.. the names resonating the romance of a wild & untamed land, of long-gone dynasties, valorous women & cruel dacoits.
The train snaked through the ravines of the river Chambal & into Gwalior, the princely land in Madhya Pradesh. My neighbour from the AG’s office went down to the platform to get water. While he was away, a very fat woman walked in along with a hefty safari-suit clad man. He had a red tilak on his forehead. She sat on the seat opposite mine, the ‘reserved’ seat where for the last 50 odd hours had sat the man from Jaipur. I mumbled a protest and requested the lady to find a vacant seat. There were a few empty seats further down inside the coach, so it seemed a reasonable thing to say. The lady ignored me; when I persisted a bit, she got pretty irritated. Soon a couple of other passengers joined me in requesting her to find another seat. It was at this juncture that the ’tilak-man’ returned. The fat lady turned to him with much vigour and complained about the whole situation. The ’tilak-man’ could’nt believe his ears. Here was a chokra ordering this lady around! He turned bright red and before I knew what was happening had pulled out a very real snub-nosed revolver pointed pretty straight at me. I dont know how many of you have had the opportunity (if that is the word) of facing a revolver. I can tell you this. When a gun is pointed at you at close quarters, you freeze deep.
By then, the Accountant from Jaipur was back and taking in the scene before him. So was the patriarch of the muslim family in the next compartment. Slowly, I heard loud voices from far away. And suddenly the ’tilak-man’ seemed to stumble. The tableau turned. A number of men, led by the partiarch & the accountant started pushing & shoving ole ’tilak’. They pushed him out of the train and I saw him fall down the crack, between the coach & the rails. He was bleeding profusely & did not have his gun anymore. Whistles sounded, cops came and ’tilak’ was taken away. The fat lady disappeared in the commotion.
It turned the ’tilak-man’ was an inspector with the Railway Protection Force with a history of violence and the fat lady was his mother-in-law. I learned a few things that day:
- Dont mess with mothers-in-law
- Dont mess with men in safari suits
- Try to avoid looking into the wrong side of a gun
- Madhya Pradesh is dangerous
- Make friends with your co-passengers in the train; you might need them
Exigencies of work having made me defect to the skies, I haven’t done any of these epic voyages on Indian Railways for a very long time. But I suspect, some of them can still be as interesting.
Here is an interesting Indian Railway moment from Youtube..