Friday, June 27, 2008

Ticket to Ride

Buy ticket from ticket office,” Monu says, “no from person outside station.” He means it – inside the station, on the wall, a notice declares, “Ticket from a tout is a ticket to jail.” So we queue up, duly chastened.
Victoria Station – V.T. to its friends – is about two hours’ drive from our flat. We climb out of the car, and do a quick double-take – V.T.’s the twin of London St Pancras, contriving to be impressive and pretty at the same time. Inside, you couldn't be anywhere but India. We're confronted by dozens of ticket windows, with explicit, but, to us, incomprehensible directions, about which stations are served from each. A kind man, in a pale blue shirt and cream trousers (unofficial official uniform here, as for Michael Palin), sees our white-faced bewilderment, and tells us we need the first floor, desk 53 for foreigners. Monu’s words ringing in my ears, I’m inclined to doubt him, but he wants neither payment nor thanks, so we do what he suggests. Halfway up the sweeping marble stairs, where the first floor’s cut away to accommodate the staircase, there’s a plinth lagged in cushioned plastic, for the protection of unwary heads, who presumably choose to bound up four stairs at a time. I look around me, and the only head, I can see, in need of protecting, is Jacob’s.
Buying a ticket’s the most cumbersome, time-consuming exercise I’ve ever seen. You have to fill in a form for every journey you want to make, with train time, name, number, and date, as well as everything about the passenger you’d need, to register with Dateline. Now, and only now, we discover that they only accept pounds or rupees. Everyone puts his credit card back in his wallet. Happily, there’s a magic wall on the ground floor, in its own little kiosk, so Jacob and I go to collect a million rupees, then slope back upstairs, trying to look inconspicuous. By now, three people have been served, but one has pushed in, so it’s still not our go. The ticket lady, with a lab coat on over her sari, slides a wooden sign in front of her window - “Please wait” – and disappears. “She go lunch,” says the pusher-in, fatalistically. Painted on her window - underneath the depressing news about credit cards - “11.50 – 12.10 lunch.” The ticket clerks obviously dine alone, at Indian railways, a twenty-minute lunch-break doesn’t include time to chat. We chat, though, to some nice Americans in the queue, behind us, swapping travel tales and life stories and Soft Mints. Some would-be travellers try to start an ancillary queue, to my left, so I put a proprietary arm out, casually, to the marble counter, blocking the pass. It also fences in the pusher-in, but it serves him right for pushing in, in the first place. If anyone else tries to queue-jump, I will cheerfully punch them. Happily for international peace, no-one does, and, when Mrs Patil finally comes back from her chapatti-wrap, new-minted tickets are handed over. She needs to see the ATM receipt, though, in case I might have been counterfeiting rupees in our spare room, with hand-rolled paper and a box of crayons, of an evening. You’d be brilliant at drawing Gandhi, if you did, his face is on every banknote.
The foreign tickets allocation only covers journeys within two days, so we have to join the scrum on the ground floor, to buy tickets for the rest of the boys’ Indian adventure. It’s like at Sainsbury’s deli counter, you have to get a token first, and wait for your number to be allocated. Sadly the ticket-for-a-ticket queue snakes round the whole of the ground floor. We join it, disgruntled but resigned – isn’t queuing our specialist subject, in the UK? Before we’ve properly exhaled our first sigh, another charming man in a blue and cream ensemble, tells us we don’t have to queue, if we have credit cards, so we skip off to windows 11 & 12, and are served almost instantly. The bloke behind us openly reads our forms over our shoulders, inching forward bit by bit, until he’s one of us, then at the counter between us, and I even have to ask him to move, so I can sign the receipt pushed under the screen. They don’t do personal space, in Mumbai. Well, logically, there’s not room for it.
So, we succeed, but Monu doesn’t. He needs a ticket home. An Indian person, at an Indian railway station, wanting an Indian ticket, from Mumbai – in India - to Lucknow – also in India – and he needs ID. Not a single word of ill-will against British Rail will ever pass my lips again.
The boys’ train’s early evening, so we spend the day touring Elephanta Island, to get our money’s worth out of the repeat two-hour trek to south Mumbai. Back in the car, all sporting bizarre monsoon-tan, we have lots of time, until we drift to a standstill. We were always going to hit traffic, because that’s Mumbai, but this is carpark-traffic, and our hour and a half leeway’s beginning to melt. “Sit. Sit. Sit,” says Monu, so we know it’s bad. “Today, V.V.I.P. visit Mumbai, all all road stop.” In a bold move, we leave the car, and cross the road, to Marineline Station, where we catch an urban train into Central Station. Only three stops. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?
Put aside all the articles you read about Mumbai railways having the highest passenger fatalities, not to mention over-crowding and pick-pocketing. None of the signs, blossoming on every post, is in English. It’s definitely our lack, for not understanding Hindi, but knowing that, doesn’t make it any easier to find a ticket, or a platform, or a train. We hop up stairs, across walkways, down stairs, no ticket office, ask again, increasingly desperate. The boys manfully tote all their worldly goods, without a murmur. I’m finding three cartons of juice and a bag of caramels for the train, almost more than I can bear, though in fairness, I’m also weighed down by an invisible rucksackful of panic. Our tickets are seven rupees each. Platform 1.
A million Indians are on Platform 1. We excuse-me, sorry our way through the throng, turning heads with our white-and-Elephanta-Island-pink faces. I ask four different people if the next train’s to Mumbai Central. Apparently so. We move forward, as the next train comes in, and everyone round us laughs, wagging fingers, holding us back. Ladies only. A whole train, just for ladies. It’s a very short train, with daylight visible between fluttering saris. It looks like a very nice train, but – I check out all the y-chromosomes around me – it’s not for us.
Less than two minutes later, a train we can board. Well, with some polite elbowing then hefty shoving, we can. Sardines have room for potted plants and scatter cushions, in their tin, compared with this. My second foot’s barely landed, when the train starts to move, and I turn back, to count the boys, in a panic. One, two, three. Mr Roland, bonus. It’s all a bit real, clamouring for attention from every sense, but olfactory has it, by a nose...
An Indian friend tells us about four businessmen he sees, travelling on such a commuter-train into the city, who balance a briefcase on top of their four pot-bellies, to play a hand of cards. I don’t think it’d work, with a back-pack.
Think sausages. When you puncture a sausage skin, the unconfined sausage, inside, just pops out. So, the urban network, here. “Indian train, doors all-time open, very danger,” says Monu. People hang out, catching the view or the evening air, or pushed by the sausage behind, I’m not sure.
We pull in to Central Station. People behind us are already tunnelling through us, to get off. We burst out together, onto the platform. I count heads. Roughly quorate. Chelo.
Local’s divided from national by a slender footbridge, and it’s another world. We’re still the only westerners visible, but there’s slightly more organisation in the air. After all the adrenalin, there’s an hour in hand. On the platform, no train, but a passenger list, including Gower, Pomeroy and Hardy, our own trio of musketeers.
Whole families are camped, in the main waiting-area, picnicking or sleeping. The boys buy chips and coke from the unlikely MacDonald’s, but Jacob – eager to embrace the whole Indian experience, his insides still unruffled – prefers idli, and watermelon-juice.
Freedom’s just a boarding-step away, so the boys allow a photo-opportunity, before they escape.

Monu – like Radar – appears at our side. We would have made the train, if we’d stayed in the car. It takes us more than two hours, to drive home. As we pass a tv shop, Monu leans out of the car to catch the cricket results. India’s winning. By the time we get home, the boys are halfway to Jaipur.