Trichy train station 29.01.11

Tiruchirapalli Train station or Trichy as the locals say 29.01.11

So I want to go to a place called Hospet right, which is the nearest train connection to Hampi where I really want to see. Trouble is it’s not that simple. In India you have to book and book well in advance. You can’t just turn up and on you get.  I’d been advised yesterday to get up early and go to the train station and ask for an exemption as I’d tried to book a ticket yesterday at Rameshwaram but had been told there was a waiting list of 153 people for the train I wanted and there wasn’t a place available until Thursday  and besides they couldn’t do it then anyway.  

So I was up early, the crack of dawn, early bird gets the worm and all that. Mind you that was after the breakfast that went with the bed i’d booked at the Breeze Residency and ok ok I’d spoiled myself and booked into a really nice place, but it had rave reviews about the food. I could go on and explain  as I did feel a little decadent and guilty and and, and… and the food was delicious, but back to the train station.

It was a 10 minute walk in the wonderful sunshine, through the chaos and dust and slightly wider streets than I’d become accustomed to so far in the Indian south.  But that just meant you could squeeze more traffic in and so of course more bells and horns, so quite a big orchestra here. 

The booking office was a great big room with rows of silver seats 6 counters, and about 6 people in including me, result. So I went to sit in the front in a seat as I’d stood there politely for a minute or two and nobody took any notice. Then I saw a couple of people come in and get served and realized that if I didn’t draw attention to myself I would soon be covered in dust and somebody would throw a sheet over me. So I went to a window and leaned into the woman’s face behind the counter and that seemed to do the trick, I’ve been watching how it’s done here you see, get as close as you can and look needy but casual about it.

I told her I’d like a ticket to Mysore. Apparently I couldn’t go straight to Hospet (Hampi) and I didn’t fancy ‘modern’ Bangalore. Mysore is apparently the city of sandalwood and it just smelled good to me so I’d decided not to wait for the Thursday train and get my ass in gear.

“So you want to go all the way to mysore and then back to Bangalore and then to Hospet” she said knowingly and unnervingly I of course stuck my chin out and ok, my chest too.

Yes please.

“Oh, ok many things to see there eh” She said with what appeared to be a genuine smile.

“I hope so yeah” I said.

“Well this is not the enquiry desk you need to go over there” she said waving her hand to the right. “They will tell you if it is possible, then come back over here and we will see” and that was that, the next guy had already pushed in and I was done.

Damn.

So I figured out that she meant window number one which had enquires painted on a blue board above it. So I went across and stood in line like a good English chap and gave the guy in front a little breathing room and privacy with the window.  But in seconds there was two guys in front of me, so the polite tap on the shoulder and the thumb over my shoulder, I was here first mate, type of thing, and very politely I may add. The guy wobbled a little but then gave up his position and went behind me, but as I got to the counter he couldn’t resist and came and leant in the window snuggling up to me, I did my best to just let it be. Then another guy comes the other side of me and puts his leg in front of mine whilst I’m at the window and I’m starting to steam a little now. I stared him right in the eye, he blinked  but stood his ground.  Incredible and this was while I’m being served. I explained to the guy at the window the journey I wanted to do and why etc, but to tell the truth dates are already beginning to blur and though do I love that feeling it is fatal here. You can’t just wander up and say can I have a train ticket for tomorrow please. Booking a train had to be done 3 days in advance. So he was going

“You’re travelling tomorrow Friday 30th and you want to go to Hospet on Sunday 1st?

Yes … yes… I said to everything he said.  I wanted a day in Mysore at least just to have a look around. I did have the sense to get my pad out and write it all down though, I’m not that lost, just yet. 

If one legacy the British have left here, it’s the bureaucracy and India has fallen in love with it and fine tuned it. I have puzzled how the British managed to install themselves here and apparently conquer the country. But today I realized that they just confused the hell out of them all so they didn’t know whether the Brits were coming staying or going until it was too late and the machine was in through the back door and that was that. Everything then ran on time, if you had a ticket of course. But now it seems that the Indians have made it all their own with all sorts of bits of paper to sign, and pieces of paper and tickets stacked under rocks behind counter windows across the country. No spikes I don’t believe as that would tear the tickets and you can’t have that, there could be chaos.  

So I’d been to the ticket window, then the enquiries window and now back to the ticket window to tell her the good news, that it was possible yes. So she was going ahead and then she dropped a bomb shell, that when I was just about to pay for my ticket I would have to go back to the office over there (that arm movement again) at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning, and sign a quota ticket or something as there was a long waiting list for that train, but if I signed the ticket tomorrow they would find me a place.

“So I said hang on, I’m buying a ticket for a train, that is already booked full but if I come back at 10 o’clock I can sign a form and I’ll be able to get on”

Yes she said

I was baffled and wondered why they could just do it there and then or put another carriage on.

“But what if it’s not possible to squeeze me in above 150 other people?”  

“Then you can cancel your ticket sir” she said

“And what about the one from Bangalore”? I said

“You should be able to get a train to there before then” she said coolly printing the tickets out. “That will be 1156 rupees”

“Ok ,do you take cards?”

“Cash only sir”

I didn’t have enough cash on me I said I’ll just go and get some  

“Will you leave 500 sir, how many hours will you be”?

I looked at her, “hours? I’ll be about 5 minutes”

“Very good sir so please leave 500 deposit.”  Which I did, went across to the ATM machine came back and went back to the window. She was on the phone and didn’t bat an eye when I stood there.  A guy who had been stood there nudging me as all this had gone on, he was actually on the phone as well, it crossed my mind that they were on the phone to each other, leaned  right over me as I got the money out of my wallet and said

“You still owe 656 rupees.” I’m sure he was just being helpful but I had a wad of notes and some geezer was leaning over me while I counted it out while he was on the phone. It was unnerving to say the least my instinct was to push him away and hard. But he was absolutely correct, I kept cool, well ok I was slightly warm.  I pushed the 656 rupees through the window the woman picked it up and counted it without breaking off the phone. Then pushed a ticket booking form through the window which I had to sign my name, age, date of travel, where I was going to and my full address with post code and date of ticket booked. I was honestly baffled.  I pushed it back through when it was all done, she pushed it back to me and said

“Signature there please.”

I signed.

“Now come back at 10 o’clock tomorrow for the exemption form in the office over there.” That arm movement again. I couldn’t see another office anywhere and as I walked out and I knew it would wind me up really badly until tomorrow.

Through all of this I was starting to see myself and Britishness, which is funny after the fact and in retrospect.  I have also had a great deal of insight into a lot of the Bangladeshi  and Indian guys who have worked on the teams with me on the London Lite and Evening Standard newspaper campaigns. I often heard the Bangladeshi or Indian team leaders telling the merchandisers where to stand, with that wave of the arm.

“Go and stand down there near the bridge” clear as mud to me and I would often pull them abut it. A dear friend of mine Mohammed Al Matin a team leader on the London Lite once invited me to a party at his friends’ house. His directions were

“Go to the tube station, come out and go down the road for 10 minutes and you will find us.”

I took him at his word went to the tube station he mentioned. Came out to fine a massive round about with 5 major roads leading off it. I was at the time really irritated, I called him and asked him to explain clearly which road and which direction. Long story short was he actually couldn’t explain to me how to get there. I had been really irritated and in the end he said

I will come and get you, which I really didn’t want. I’m English, I make my own way.

But back then at the station I really needed to know where the office was for tomorrow morning it’s honestly all I’d gone back in for. I’d stood in front of an empty window, two or three guys had tried to push me out the way, me and one of them were seeing whos foot had the strongest toe hold whilst trying to look like neither of us were aware of the other. I had been first and so was righteous so when the guy appeared at the window I elbowed him out the way. The guy behind the window shouted at him and he shrank back, then he called me and waved at me in that characteristic way Indians do palm down, through a door by the side of the window, it was like Mr Benns magic door, in I stepped and there I was greeted with great respect and asked to sit down.  I noted above a a notice board behind the table Picures of the Indian gods Shiva and Vishnu in the middle, Ganesh on the left and Jesus all done out in Indian clothes and colour, it really made me smile, he had become another god on the pantheon here and lets face it we could all do with a little extra help sometimes, so he was on the team so to speak. 

So you are going to Mysore tomorrow then from there to Bangalore on Sunday and arrive at Hospet on Sunday morning.

I was astonished, how did he know that. I hadn’t seen him before. He asked me to sign the “Application for emergency quota form” which he passed me on a 12 inch square piece of cardboard to help the pen flow. He looked the journey up on a screen for me checked times and said

“Don’t worry I will arrange everything for you. Come back tomorrow at 8pm your train is at 8.35pm”

Honestly I was staggered. How had he known?  I’d somehow been booked onto a first class sleeper train and I honestly didn’t know how. I later thought perhaps you don’t ask questions just follow the rules, there is a system in place, it works, they are good at it. So state where you want to go, don’t ask silly questions, and stop getting upset. Was it a cultural thing?  It seemed to me when they take the time the English will tell you exactly how to get there so you can make your own way, and when they make the time, the Indians may not explain and may not want to, but they will take care of it for you.

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