On the Shatabdi Express

This is an account from 2016 of a journey I made on the Shatabdi Express from the city of Mysore in Karnataka to Chennai, state capital of Tamil Nadu.

The Shatabdi Express from Mysore to Chennai was due to depart Mysore at 2.30 pm so I got to the ticket office at around 12.45. As soon as I saw the queue that had already formed at the reservations counter for the departure that afternoon I had a bad feeling. This was confirmed when 20 minutes later, after I had gone to the trouble of filling out the obligatory reservation form, I was told in no uncertain terms by the man behind the counter that I would only be able to travel as far as Bangalore, just a couple of hours down the line. I would not be able to go the whole way to Chennai as the leg of the journey between Bangalore and Chennai was already fully booked.

It was like a kick in the guts to hear this news from the ticket man, as it now meant I would only be get barely a third of the way down the line to Chennai on the Shatabdi. I felt instant regret for not having had the patience to wait for that reservation confirmation to come through back in the Coorg town of Kushal Nagar over a week ago. It was stupid beyond belief to have walked out of the office of the travel agent, therefore not getting such an important part of my travel itinerary fully sorted beforehand. Now what was I supposed to do? Unless I wanted to stay marooned in Mysore, or take my chances by going to the bus station, and hoping against hope there would be a nice deluxe express coach on the stand just about to depart for Chennai, I would at least have to book a ticket on the Shatabdi to take me to Bangalore. What a bummer of a situation, but it was all my own doing, no doubt about that.

It was not long after I had bought my ticket for Bangalore that I found myself standing alone on the platform of Mysore central in the hot Sunday afternoon sun, with well over an hour to wait until the train was due to depart. It would not be an understatement to say I felt very pissed off and miserable, as well as more than a little stupid over having made such a fundamental error, despite having been to India countless times over the last 25 years or so. But there was nothing else for it but to stand there on my own in the heat and rue the fact that I had been more than a little causal over the whole affair. Now I had paid a high price for it by only being able to buy a ticket which would take me under halfway to my destination.

A little while later I began to get thirsty and went to buy some water, where I got into a needless argument with a drinks vendor on the platform. I had asked for a bottle of mineral water after reading the price list which showed bottles available for 10 rupees, however when I handed over the cash to him he told me the price was 15, not 10. Things went downhill from there pretty quickly. It was clear the seller had given me a more expensive bottle and that had meant an extra 5 rupees. Given all that had recently gone on over the ticket I lost my cool at this point, badly lost it in fact and simply tossed the bottle back over the counter at him, with the result that it crashed on the floor. After that I just walked away. The guy looked stunned over my behaviour, he issued a bunch of curses to a group of Indians who were hanging round the drinks stand with him, but in this instance I really could not give a fuck. Why couldn’t they just do the obvious thing for once, give me the standard 10 rupee bottle instead of going for the max? Well of course the simple answer to that question was they were doing the obvious thing and that of course was to try to get as much as possible from the situation when a pale faced punter like me came along.

I was then left to stand outside the compartment of the Shatabdi Express train already pulled up alongside the platform and where my seat was, feeling like shit, staring down on the rail tracks shining brightly in the hot afternoon sun. I just could not bring myself to think about what it was going to be like in a few hours time, when the train stopped at Bangalore and where I would have to get off to begin the process of looking for a way of completing the journey to Chennai. Since it would be late Sunday afternoon by the time I arrived in Bangalore, I knew that the chances of being able to get to Chennai on the same day and making good on my room reservation at the Woodlands Hotel in Mylapore would be pretty slim, almost to the point of non-existent. There was little hope of getting another train from Bangalore to Chennai that day, I was pretty sure about that; if the Shatabdi was full then other trains would be as well, if in fact there were any. In India that was just the way it worked.

The prospect of slinging my rucksack over my shoulder, heading over to the bus station to see what buses were going to Chennai from Bangalore, filled me with no enthusiasm whatsoever. There was also the fact I didn’t even know from which bus stand the buses to Chennai went from in Bangalore, probably it was in some unknown part of the city which would take me ages to find. Even if I managed to find a bus, there was then the certainty of not getting to Chennai until the middle of the night. This was because if a fast train like the Shatabdi took 5 and a half hours, a bus would take 8 or 9 hours at least. It all added up to the fact that I would probably have to spend a night in Bangalore, something I most definitely did not want to do. Through the years I had stayed in Bangalore many times and was pretty much bored stiff with the place if truth be told, always ending up in the same old haunts on MG Road, Brigade Road and Residency Road. There was also the extra expense to throw into the mix as well, although in the great scheme of things that was hardly going to break the bank. Nevertheless there was simply no escaping the fact that it was a major bummer of a situation, the more I thought about it, the more I berated myself for not having done the sensible thing a week ago in Kushal Nagar and just hung on in there to wait for the agent to confirm that ticket.

It was quite a long wait for me on the platform in the afternoon heat, until the compartments of the Shatabdi were finally opened so that we could step on board. The train had been in the station all the while, but access had been denied until everything from the previous trip was cleaned up and made ready for the return leg back across the country to Chennai. When the doors were opened I clambered aboard and safely placed my rucksack in the ample storage space above my seat. After I had sat down and took everything in I realised I was now even more gutted than I was before. The train was clearly brand new, the windows were clean to the point of being almost sparkling, which meant you could actually see out of them, which was always something of a bonus for Indian trains. Often the glass windowed compartments were pretty much useless for looking out of due to being filthy, but not this time, they were crystal clear. There was also a nice stream of cool a/c blowing through the carriage which felt like bliss after my long, sweaty and miserable wait on the platform of Mysore station, where I had spent a long time beating myself up for blowing my top with the drinks vendor over that bottle of water.

By the time the train pulled out of the station at 2.30 pm the carriage was probably no more than half full with passengers, but I knew that didn’t mean a thing, as when we reached Bangalore the compartment would change pretty damn quickly and fill up in an instant. That was for sure, that was for certain, in India it was always best to never let appearances deceive you, as then you might easily drown in your own misconceptions. I just could not believe how damn comfortable it was in that compartment of the Shatabdi, how smoothly the train glided along the tracks as it made its way out of the east side of Mysore towards Srirangapatnam. It was all too good to be true and of course it appeared to my mind like it was like some kind of torture, knowing that I would only be able to enjoy it as far as Bangalore, before I would have to leave it, to be left to my own devices in the wastes of Bangalore railway station on a hot and sticky Sunday afternoon.

Things quickly changed however when the ticket inspector appeared at the end of the carriage and made his way through, checking the tickets of the passengers. A few seats in front of me was a guy I recognised from the queue at the reservations counter in Mysore, who had also wanted to buy a ticket to Chennai, only to end up disappointed just like me. When the inspector came to him I observed them talking for some while, then it dawned on me that the guy must be trying to thrash out some kind of deal with the inspector in order to stay on the train all the way to Chennai. I immediately woke up to possibilities this tactic offered, so when the inspector came to me and looked at my ticket, I boldly told him that although it was only for as far as Bangalore, I actually needed to get to Chennai and that was there anything he might be able to do about it? Needless to say I also very quietly mentioned that I would be able to pay whatever it took, within reason of course, for him to allow me to stay on the train.

Despite what seemed to be his initial shock and surprise at hearing such a request, he told me to wait in my seat, that he would come back to me later. This was really all I needed to hear, as long as I was not refused point blank I knew that all I had to do was stay on the train and by the end of the day I would indeed be in Chennai! When the train got to Bangalore I knew I had to make sure that, for whatever reason, I did not get off the train, just remained on board, either still in my seat within the compartment, or in the small space outside where the toilets were, along with a small pantry used by the Shatabdi catering staff to store the food dished out to passengers at fairly regular intervals throughout the course of the journey. The reaction of the inspector, which indicated that he might indeed be open to some form of negotiation, was the chance I had been looking for and I therefore welcomed it with open arms. Fantastic, I now knew that if, or rather when, I was asked by the inspector further down the line, why exactly I was still on the train when my ticket was for only as far as Bangalore, I would be able to say to him I was waiting where I was as per his instruction when we had first had our little conversation. I could play dumb in other words, push it all back onto him to sort out, which he would by way of finding me a seat somewhere, in return of course for a little bit of cash. That was how it worked, simple as that.

I now sat back in my seat and for the first time since getting on the train I began to enjoy the ride as the Shatabdi made its way eastward from Mysore through Srirangapatnam, Mandya, Maddur, Channapatna, and Ramanagara until it hit the outer edges of what was now the huge and sprawling metropolis of Bangalore. Once known as the Garden City in what is without any shadow of a doubt the dim and distant past, Bangalore is now an Indian mega city fast closing in on Chennai in terms of size and population. At some point before the train stopped at Bangalore where the big changeover took place, another inspector made his way through the carriage. Once again I took the opportunity to quietly inform him that although my ticket was only as far as Bangalore, I would be more than happy to pay whatever was needed in order to stay on the train to Chennai. Guess I just wanted to make sure I had made things as clear as possible if things got sticky later on. Again I was told to simply wait where I was, that he would also get back to me in order to sort something out. This something would of course involve him stuffing a bunch of rupee notes into his pockets after having been given them by me, but that was OK, that was fine in fact. Quite simply it was the name of the game and in this particular situation it was exactly how I wanted it to be.

Not long after this last encounter the train pulled into Bangalore station and as I expected things changed dramatically, almost in an instant. Initially I thought that I might be able to get away with actually staying in my seat, not having to move at all, but it soon became apparent that it was not going to be possible. It was also clear that I would have to get out of the compartment as well, due to the fact that there were so many people getting on board. In a couple of minutes the carriage was completely packed out with Indians heading for Chennai, all looking for their seats and storing their luggage away. Time for me to quit before I had someone in my face telling me in no uncertain terms that I was in their seat, which was fair enough I suppose, as there is little doubt that if I had been them, I would have done exactly the same thing.

I pulled down my rucksack from the overhead rack and made my way out of the compartment to stand in the space outside the door next to the toilets. Here there was no a/c, which in fact was a bit of a relief as the natural temperature of the day, now that it was close to 5pm, was actually rather pleasant. An added bonus was that mercifully for an Indian train, the toilet was not that smelly, there was not the usual nauseating stink of piss to contend with, which was naturally a great relief, as on a bad day the whiff could be strong enough to knock your head off. I tried to appear as natural as possible as I stood there with my rucksack at my feet, to make it look to anyone that of course I had a seat in the compartment, but simply out of preference I was standing outside, enjoying the heat and a stretch of the legs and before going back in and sitting down for the rest of the journey.

The imperative thing during all of this was to make sure that I didn’t get close to getting off the train whilst the Shatabdi was still beside the platform in Bangalore City Central. If I got off, the game would be up, my chips would be cashed, I would be faced with that absolute bummer of a prospect of making my way out of the station and into the late Sunday afternoon busyness of Bangalore. That was something I most certainly did not want to do. The longer I remained stuck to the spot, nonchalantly leaning against my rucksack, as if there was nothing in the world that I wanted to do at that particular moment in time but be there, the more confident I felt I was going to be able to pull it off. At this point the ticket inspectors were nowhere to be seen, they were probably on an extended tea break, so as the last few stragglers got on board I knew it would only be a couple more minutes before the train pulled out of the station.

Sure enough after a few more minutes of waiting, the Shatabdi slowly began to move, I now knew that there was no way I would be getting off before it had reached Chennai, which meant quite simply it was mission accomplished, goal achieved as far as my plan was concerned. It was now going to be just a question of negotiating with the ticket inspectors as to what kind of deal they were going to be prepared to cut with me in terms of what I had to cough up by way of baksheesh. I looked into the compartment just to check on the off chance that there were no spare seats, but it was obvious that it was packed to the rafters. This did not unduly worry me as I knew that, like most Indian trains, the Shatabdi was a long one with a lot of carriages, that somehow somewhere there would be a spare seat or two on it, due to a reservation being cancelled at the very last minute or someone not making it to the train on time for some reason or another.

It must have been a good 15 minutes or so before one of the inspectors made an appearance again, when he did he gave me a look of shock and surprise, as to what exactly was I still doing there. Why was I still on the train when my ticket had only been for as far as Bangalore? This was a reaction I had pretty much expected, it all being part of the game, so I was able to quickly shrug off his feigned astonishment by reminding him that it had in fact been him who told me to stay where I was, telling me that he would be back later to sort things out. As far as I was concerned, the fact he did not re-appear before the train reached Bangalore when I was still in my seat, did not mean I would have to get off the train or anything like that.

Seeing there was no point in saying anything otherwise, he now told me to pick up my rucksack and make my way down to compartment C3, to wait there outside the door. This was all fine by me as it simply meant he would now be sorting something out for me when he got the time to attend to it, presumably after he had finished checking the tickets of the people who had just got on at Bangalore, which might in fact take quite a bit of time. But no matter, I made my way through a couple of packed compartments until I found myself outside compartment C3, where I once again put my rucksack down on the floor and waited in that small space outside the toilets in order to be attended to.

Everything now was literally moving in the right direction, as long as I got to Chennai sometime that evening I really did not mind standing there for however long it took to get things sorted. Naturally enough, with the human mind being what it is, I certainly would not have minded if I did quite quickly get a seat inside that nice looking air conditioned C3 compartment, as I could see there were indeed a couple of spare seats, but if it did not happen for another hour or so, then so what? It might even be a case of making do and standing outside where I was for the next 5 hours or so until the Shatabdi hit Chennai. The main point was that I would indeed make good on that reservation I had made for a deluxe non-AC double room at Woodlands in Mylapore. Then the next day hire a car from their travel desk to take me down to the Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai, all as I had originally intended and planned, before that spanner had got thrown into the works back in Mysore earlier that afternoon.

As things turned out it was probably after another 20 minutes or so that the second ticket inspector came along and also asked me what I was doing there. I explained to him I had been told by his colleague to go and wait outside compartment C3, so that was therefore what I was doing. He was pretty cool with this information and as a result, it was not long before we got down to business. He told me stay where I was for a couple of minutes whilst he checked out what was going on in C3 as far as any spare seats were concerned. He soon came back to me and said quite simply, “Now, give money. 1500.” This was of course something I was more than happy to do, thinking in fact that the amount he suggested fell well within the realms of what was acceptable.

I guess 1500 rupees at the time was something like just over 15 quid which, to pay for a 5 and a half hour cross country train ride, was really a bit of a bargain in anyone’s book. It was probably something like twice the amount I would have paid if I had actually managed to get a ticket from the reservations counter in Mysore, but under the circumstances it was still most highly acceptable indeed. I peeled off three 500 rupee notes from the roll I was carrying in my pocket and these three 500 rupee notes disappeared quick as a flash into the pocket of the ticket inspector as soon as he got his hands on them, just as I would have expected them to do.

After that he led me into coach C3 where, sure enough, he had located a vacant seat for me. So there we go, done and dusted so to speak, and all in all I was more than happy with my efforts. There was still enough time for me to sit back, enjoy the last hour or so of daylight before the lands faded into night as the Shatabdi made its way across northern Tamil Nadu before ending up at the state capital Chennai. It turned out that after I had settled in my seat and had already been served my first snack by the Shatabdi train staff, the ticket inspector who I had paid off came back to check on me and to have a chat. He told me that he was a Man United fan, so we shot the breeze for a little while about football, all in a broken and corrupted English kind of way, which somehow seemed rather appropriate, before he left to go in order to get on with checking the rest of the tickets. He told me that when the train reached Chennai he would come back in order to assist me in getting off the train.

Don’t quite know why he said that, as getting off the train at Chennai was a relatively simple thing to do, as I knew full well from past experience, having done it many times before. I guess he was just wanting to make some kind of effort in order to show that he had indeed earned the 1500 rupees he had taken off me, or to at least go through the motions. I knew that the chances of him actually coming back and making good on his word when the train got to Chennai were absolutely zilch, but of course I just played the game and gave him no reason to believe that we would not be seeing each other ever again. After all, he had already done more than enough to make my day, so to play along with his bullshit for a little while longer was the least that I could do.

The closer the train got to Chennai the more I began to prepare myself for the arrival as it was always a little bit manic getting out of the station and finding a ride to whichever hotel it was you wanted to go to without getting seriously hassled by the touts who were always in attendance. I knew all this from past experience, that the touts were a pain, along with the station porters who would board the train immediately as it pulled in, way before any of the passengers had any chance of getting off. Funny thing was that this time when the Shatabdi arrived at the station I was not hassled by anyone as I made my way down the long platform and through the main concourse. Even the dreaded Chennai Central Railway Station pong wasn’t too overpowering on this occasion. First time that had ever happened, that was for sure.

The header image for this article is a photograph taken by Ragat Jain as found on Pexels.

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