Growing up in the Eastern Uttar Pradesh’s plains and having never ever visited a hill station until first 20 years of my life, I was always fascinated by the backpackers and foreign tourists who I came across at Varanasi railway station during my childhood. Perhaps it was also those cheap scenery wallpapers which hung on the walls in 90s which fueled my second wildest fantasy i.e. traveling to the mountains and having a house up there. The wildest fantasy for me was that of Mallika Sherawat those days (Murder the movie, remember?) but that is a story for another day.
So whenever an older cousin or a relative offered to take me to some place he was going to visit, I would always be ready like a street dog following you for Parle-G biscuits, expected that I was going to visit a beautiful place. And that’s when traveling started for me and so did the harsh realities of my travel-dreams.
Those early journeys were hardly over 200 Km long and were to places located between Allahabad and Patna— a landscape without hills or beaches. In those days (1999-2000)—and even now, roads in UP-Bihar (my town is in U.P. near Bihar border) were like nightmares. They were bumpy, full of potholes and mostly dirt roads in the country side; crowded, narrow and again full of potholes on the urban side. Thanks to our talented (at corruption) politicians of UP and Bihar and the road contractors, when a repair work started from one end of a, say 45 Km long road, by the time the project reached the other end in 5-6 years, the initial point would already be in bad condition. Moreover, some roads were not even this lucky; they turned worse even than the dirt roads and became like a typical ruin of Harappan Civilization.
One can still endure these roads if given a means of comfortable transportation system. But no, even this expectation was a fool’s paradise. In a jeep with a capacity to seat 11 people at max, no driver-conductor will move their vehicle until at least 16 people were seated and that was not counting the poor kids like me who were to stand and were not considered for being allotted a seat despite being charging for a half-ticket. I had to seen rains of vomits because of these roads and suffocation. Every bus had puke-marks on the outside its windows, without exceptions.
These experiences were a big blow on my idea of travelling and exploring. But optimistically, I thought maybe the journeys beyond this so-called rather backward part of the country would be better and pleasant and maybe I should try other means such as trains, I thought.
As a young boy, I read a lot about how Gandhiji used to travel only in 3rd class compartments in trains, despite being offered for first class ones. I considered him a man of high inner values, which he was in reality, I assume. But then I did not know why even the best of the activists of our generation like Anna Hazare do not even dare practice these values of Gandhiji, despite being his horny followers. And the reason I understand this was the fact that I was yet to go through my most painful train journey in a third class compartment.
I had just cleared my 12th exams and was to go to Agra from Varanasi— a 12 hours journey by train. I did not have a confirmed rail ticket. So the last option was to travel in the 3rd class because the next day was my entrance exam in a university. When this train came to the platform, I started looking for the third class coach and when I found, entering it was the last thing I wanted to do on this earth. But anyhow, I had to enter that bogie because that was the train to my last career-option, to a quality education.
The train was more crowded than the one you would have seen in the movie The Schindler’s List. And this is not an overstatement. One could not even stand straight. If entering the bogie was a war then getting out it at one’s station was a world war of a sort. And in these conditions, I was to travel for the next 10 hours.
I stood in a single position, fixed like a statue. After 2 hours, when I was able to climb up one of the upper berths where I spotted some space to sit, it was like that precise moment of happiness from the movie The Pursuit of Happiness. This berth was already broken in a way that only a couple of iron bars was left which made a space only 2 inches in width to sit. It seemed enough for my tiny skinny ass. But the moments of happiness were short-lived because, in less than an hour, the iron bar started hurting my bony ass. Somehow, I endured.
Once climbed, one prayed to God for not having to climb down, not having to urinate or to shit because it was almost impossible to reach the toilets only to find them already occupied as seats by other passengers.
And boy, finally, I finished that journey by sitting in only one position for 10 hours, without using a toilet. And this I consider as one of my biggest achievements in life.
Also that day, my respect for Gandhiji was multiplied… Not by 69, of course!
While urinating after that journey, I pledged not to travel in 3rd class ever again. And luckily I never had to do it again after that.
Jokes apart, the problem is severe than it appears because it has become a reality for most people of our country; a reality that they cannot escape. People who can either not arrange a confirmed rail ticket or cannot afford have to travel in inhuman conditions. It’s sad and ironical that we aspire to surpass China as an economy in terms of business and production but not in terms of quality life. Maybe, latter is the by-product of the former but surely, it does not receive the attention it deserves .
I don’t feel qualified enough to point out the root causes or suggest any solutions. But as a citizen of an Independent country striving hard to develop, I feel very bad to see people traveling like this.
In between all this, when I hear about backpackers and travelers who just start their unplanned journeys, without a confirmed ticket, in cheap and affordable ways, enduring all odds, I feel jealous, hopeful, fascinated at the same time.
Hats off to such travelers and backpackers… And to Gandhiji, of course!
Someday, I will grow long hair and long beard and travel all around India or may be all around the world, without an itinerary, without a confirmed ticket, without caring for a fucking sarkari naukari.
Wish me luck!