I have never been a happy traveler. It is not that I do not enjoy the journey or look forward to the destinations. I do. But there is something about starting a journey that makes me sick. The deep down in the gut kind of sick if you know what I mean. Many years of travelling has reinforced my belief in the concept of travelers luck. Most of us do not think about it. Then again there are those of us who are designated to be living proofs of Murphy’s Law that states “If something CAN go wrong, it WILL go wrong!!” Have you have ever missed a flight because of a flat-tyre en-route to the airport or been the guy in the check-in line who has been told the flights full or the guy after the guy who got bumped up to first class? Get the drift?
They say it sometimes takes the exception to prove the rule. What I am about to narrate is precisely that, the one exception to my travel woes!
It had all the makings of another painful travel. An exigent situation at one of our sites had warranted unplanned travel. I needed to reach Hoshiarpur from Delhi the next morning. Train was the most recommended mode and no amount of “quota” hunting had been able to secure a reservation. The best available was a wait-listed ticket whose current status was “RAC” (Reservation Against Cancellation). A silver lining considering there were still over 4 hours for “Chart preparation” or so the travel-desk had said washing its hands from any consequence.
Finished work rushed home, took a shower, threw in a change of clothes into my overnighter and I was at platform number 3 of the Old Delhi Railway Station well in time for the charts to be put up. For those of you who find all the terms I am using un-familiar you have missed real drama in your life.
The charts did not have delight to throw my way. My ticket status was still RAC. Entitled to travel but not with the pleasure of a full berth. An overnight journey on a 6ft by 21/2ft plank that too shared with a stranger. The prospects of the night ahead weren’t bright.
The train rolled in on schedule and I settled (as much as one can) on my side of the shared berth. It was seat number 7. A side berth, the kind where the facing backrests fold down to form the “berth”. My overnighter tucked neatly under the seat, I waited. The S2 coach of the Delhi-Hoshiarpur Express was filling up fast yet there was no sign of my co-passenger.
I started reading my Jeffery Archer and plonked my feet on the seat facing mine to allow movement in the aisle. I felt the train starting to move. Aha! I thought to myself, was there a possibility?? I didn’t dare build on it lest my castle got “poof”ed away. I went back to my book.
You know a good thing when you see it. Even better if it’s coming straight at you. Especially so, if it’s an insanely beautiful girl. She had make up on and was wearing a kurti over a sharara, not really the stuff one would wear when they were travelling by second class!
“Ath number tuhada ai?”
I was too dumbstruck to respond. Even if I had not been I still couldn’t have responded since I had no idea what she had said. It was Punjabi yes, it strangely sounded very different from the kind I was used to in Delhi.
She figured I was lost and switched over to English.
“Are you on seat number 8? The TTE just assigned it to me,” she said holding the ticket literally on my face! The tone had “Look, I am no push-over” embedded in it.
“No. This is seven. Eight is the one above,” I said equally curtly pointing to the berth above. I was also disappointed that she wasn’t the one I was going to be sharing the berth with. Extremely so since nothing further was said. The girl put her bags on the berth above, placed her juttis atop the fan and settled in.
There still was no sign of my mysterious co-passenger. The TTE came to check the tickets. With him was a swarm of passengers holding out tickets rolled with currency notes inside. I didn’t even ask regarding my chances. I intended to enjoy the sole possession of the berth till it lasted.
It lasted till about mid-night. Side berths aren’t really conducive to sleeping. I had folded down the backrests. I was lazily stretched across reading my book and didn’t realise when I dozed off. I still had my book on my chest when a felt a slight nudge. The book fell over.
It was an army jawan in his fatigues. He was placing his sack underneath.
“I have been given seat 7 too,” he said. He went into the restroom and returned having changed into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
“You sleep aaram se sir,” he said “I will adjust.”
He was atleast six feet tall and had a stocky build. He was dark and had a moustache with a flourish, almost menacing. Adjustment was something I was actually dreading.
He told me about how he was travelling on a warrant. They were moving to some location. There were other jawans from his battalion who were on the train. That’s where he had been all this while. The rest had turned in. He kept on obviously having forgotten that it was he who had asked me to sleep “aaram se”.
I too was a little tentative. I wasn’t sure whether to take him up on his invitation and sleep or to be courteous. Sharing a berth in the train is akin to a dance. There are protocols to be adhered to, the question of personal space and yes the wait for a comfortable state being achieved. But the jawan did not seem to be the kind who could be rushed. One thing I would concede, he was delightfully gentler than his appearance suggested.
He was trying to get something out of his bag. I kept looking my patience running out and sleep getting the better of me. I was also cold. The problem inside a second class coach is that it gets stuffy if you close the windows. Leaving just the shutters down allows for circulation. In my rush I hadn’t packed my blanket! It was the late October while it wasn’t really winter yet the air had a nip in it.
He pulled out a blanket and two stainless-steel tumblers. He searched a little more and pulled out something wrapped inside a hand towel. It was a half-bottle of Old Monk rum! He sat legs crossed on the berth.
“One one lovely sir?” he asked holding out a glass in which he had poured out a very generous peg.
I said no and thanked him for the offer.
“Have sir, one lovely is good. Long cold night sir…” he persisted.
Now, anyone who has spent time in an engineering hostel is bound to succumb to the allure of Old Monk. I was no different. I took the glass and waited while he poured one for himself wondering if he had forgotten to pull out bottle of cola.
Before I snapped out of my thought, he knocked his tumbler against mine and said, “Cheers”. He gulped his drink down and wiped his moustache. I followed suit. I could feel the warmth of the alcohol spread instantly.
“Something to eat sir?” he stood up and disappeared somewhere into the darkness of the other coach. He returned a few minutes later. He had something wrapped in a newspaper. He untied the string and opened the package to reveal onion bhajiya.
“Not hot sir but nice sir,” he said holding them out in front of me.
“Sorry sir but no Campa Cola sir. They finished,” he said apologetically.
I told him that wasn’t necessary and thanked him again for sharing it with me.
“No problem sir. We sharing berth so it’s like house,” he continued “Family means sharing sir. So only.”
He poured out a drink for each of us.
“One more lovely sir,” he said.
We repeated our gulping down act. While we munched on the remaining bhajiya he pulled out his wallet and showed me the picture of his wife and one year old. He told me about his routine. In the couple of hours that we had been together, I began to feel I knew everything there was to know about him.
The alcohol and sleep were kicking in hard now. He seemed to sense it and called it a night.
We stretched our legs out, him on the outside I on the inside. He put the blanket ensuring both our feet were covered. I dozed off.
I woke up to the sound of the tea vendor shouting out, “Chai! Garam chai!”
I was alone on the berth, the jawan nowhere to be seen. I panicked. There had been far too many instances of people having been offered sedative laced food and drink.
Cursing myself I threw aside the blanket and reached under the seat to check for my overnighter. I heaved a sigh when I found it intact in its position the way I had kept it the night before. I felt guilty of having suspected the jawan of wrongdoing.
The train lazily moved into the Hoshiarpur station. I had waited for the jawan to return but he hadn’t.
As I prepared to alight, the girl from berth number eight requested help with her luggage.
“Lucky you,” she said, “Seems as though your co-passenger didn’t turn up.”
“He did,” I said, “It was one of the jawans from the battalion that’s moving on this train. He must have gone back and joined his mates.”
“Really!!” she said sounding surprised.
We got off.
“Gurleen,” she said holding out her hand.
“Sorry I was rude to you last night. I was pulled out of a friend’s engagement ceremony and literally forced onto the train. I have a site inspection this morning,” she said pointing out to the logo of a renowned certification agency on her laptop bag.
I shook hands with her. “Same story here. But I had a chance to shower and change,” I said. “You aren’t going for the Schools Project are you?”
She was indeed! For a change travel hadn’t been all that bad.
I saw a group of jawans gathered near the tea stall. I excused myself and walked upto them.
“I am looking for one of your friends,” I said. I described the jawan who I had spent the night talking to. None of them seemed to place him. I was surprised. I told them about the rum and the bhajiyas he said he borrowed from his friends.
The tea stall owner had in the meanwhile overheard our conversation.
“Daruwala Fauji naa hai ji osda,” he spoke in an accent similar to Gurleen’s. What he told me baffled me further. He told me the legend of Daruwala Fauji. He told me that he was seen on trains that pass through Hoshiarpur. Said to have accidentally fallen off a moving train in a drunken state many years ago. He continues to share his love for a tipple with others. There were others who have seen him he said.
I walked back not believing what I had just been told.
We have been married for fifteen years now. Gurleen still doesn’t believe my story. One thing even she cannot refute though is how the blanket came into my possession!
One one lovely..anyone?!