When you reach the railway station and find out that your train is going to leave at 2:00 am instead of 4:00 pm, when your father and you have braved the amorphous queue at the Reservation and Cancellation counter only to be informed that there isn’t a single seat available on any other Howrah-bound train, when you’ve been saved from certain asphyxiation in the aforementioned queue by a young man with unreasonable patience and good cheer who takes it upon himself to implore everyone in the crowd to please stop pushing, it doesn’t seem such a bad option to sit down in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) and simply wait until your train departs. At about 11:00 pm, when you’ve eaten your dinner and settled nicely into one of the waiting room’s not-uncomfortable chairs, it doesn’t seem too terrible to wait another few hours until the train’s revised departure time of 4:00 am. And at 3:30 am, when the screen that shows the latest train schedule has been turned off for the night and you make your way down to the platform to hear that your train will now be leaving at 8:30 am, you have little choice but to wait in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) until morning.
Our train isn’t an exception. I believe the recorded voice when it appends to every one of dozens of announcements of rescheduled arrivals and departures, “the inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.” It can’t be easy to reorganize the thousands of track changes and signal crossings that fall out of place when a sensibly cautious train driver refuses to plow through the fog that smothers north India in the winter. There is a feeling in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) that forces far beyond our influence will determine how long we need to wait, and that we must therefore wait with equanimity.
As I wait, increasingly unconvinced that our train will ever leave and quite certain that even if it does leave I will not reach my destination in time for my friend’s wedding, I try to analyze the experience of spending the night in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) with people who have come from and are going to a range of different places, both geographically and socially. But all my thoughts are trite, and I end up people-watching.
I am sitting in a corner with two tribal girls on their way home to their village for Christmas. They’ve been sitting here since 11:00 am, having hauled their luggage—five bags and a suitcase which must collectively weigh more than they do—to New Delhi from Gurgaon on the metro. They are headed to Barddhaman, one stop before Howrah. From there they’ll transfer to a second train that will take eight hours to get to their district, and then two buses to get to their village. They have no reserved tickets—they’ll take their chances with the unreserved compartment, confident they’ll manage to find somewhere to sit because they are two teenage girls travelling alone. This strategy has worked for them before. The older girl’s eyes shine when she describes how their whole village will stay up all night dancing on Christmas Eve. Going back to Gurgaon is simply out of the question.
In the seat next to mine, a woman does her best to sleep comfortably, her head resting on her husband’s shoulder, her feet propped up, like mine, on my suitcase. But her husband isn’t a good pillow, and after he’s dispatched to the Gents’ Waiting Room, she stretches out, her head not quite on, but definitely pushing against, my thigh. She begins to talk to me from this position, and I bend my neck down, looking awkwardly towards my lap to converse with a stranger.
Two national athletes spend some time waiting in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper). They’re both dressed in tracksuits with “INDIA” printed on the back, and I wonder if they ever travel wearing anything else—I wouldn’t, if I were them. I strain my eyes to read the smaller letters that spell out the sports they play, but can’t quite manage it. They exude confidence but also graciousness—one of them carefully unpacks her bag to take out a neatly folded old newspaper and hands it to a lady sitting on the floor, so she has something to rest her head on as she sleeps leaning against the wall. Sentimentally, sleepily, I feel proud that these women represent our country.
At one point, what seems like the entire elderly population of a village of Tamil Muslims heads into the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper). They are chaperoned by a competent young man who somehow manages to look dashing despite earmuffs tied around his head and a towel draped around his shoulders above a full-sleeved black soccer jersey. Within minutes he has found everyone a seat and procured large plastic bags filled with packets of rice and sambhar. When they finish eating, the tiny old ladies pick up every grain of rice that has fallen on the floor to throw into the dustbin.
There is unending demand for the two plug points in the room, phones constantly crying out for electricity. One man waits until almost everyone is asleep for the chance to plug his phone in, pacing up and down as he waits for it to charge. He only stands still, turning away from the door, when a policeman sticks his head into the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) and loudly states that no men are allowed inside and that no one should fall asleep lest their luggage be stolen. The policeman and the man ignore each other, and the policeman returns his attention to the inexplicably large crowd passing through security at 1:30 in the morning.
The only person who doesn’t seem welcome in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) is Priyanka Chopra, but she’s there anyway, in the tone-deaf advertisement that sells tobacco in the guise of silver-coated elaichi. It’s one of just four advertisements that play in a loop between the train schedules on the waiting room television. Dil bada to tu bada, the voiceover croons, and I feel like grabbing PC by the shoulders and shaking her until she understands that looking in the direction of a poor child with faux-compassion does not make her a good person.
Three teenage girls come in to the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper), spread a small sheet of plastic onto the floor, and huddle together on it. One of them is clearly the cool kid, and though she’s shivering in the cold, her hands remain remarkably still as she applies her kajal with a matchstick and styles her hair a la Gauhar Khan. They’ve come from Chirgaon to take a test at the Post Office, and the cool kid’s tone suggests that I have no business not knowing where Chirgaon is or what test they’re taking at the Post Office, so I nod silently and pretend to understand, making a mental note to google Chirgaon when I get back home.
My sleep-starved mind loses focus by 6:00 am or so, and the people leaving and entering the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) start to blend into one another. There are many families, many small children, many, many suitcases. The sun rises anemically through dense fog, and our train finally pulls in, almost 24 hours late. Every other train coming from or going towards the east is delayed by five hours or more. I decide not to get on, and start to make my way to the metro.
More than forty-eight hours later, the train I was supposed to be on still hasn’t completed a journey that should have taken twenty-five hours. The wedding’s over, and I wouldn’t even have made it to the reception. I’m not sure if the tribal girls will make it to their village for Christmas, but I’m really hoping that they do. At least the fog has started to lift.