Monday, October 29, 2007

Train No. 6010

This is a tale that took place on February 17, 2003, and PANKAJ SEKHSARIA soon discovered that it was no unpleaseant experience ... .
FOR those who don't know, train No. 6010 is the Chennai-Mumbai Mail that leaves Chennai every day at 2155 hrs. It touches Kosigi station at about 10 next morning, reaches Pune exactly 25 hours after it leaves Chennai and gets into Mumbai the following morning at five minutes past four. It's also the train with the longest running time between Chennai and Mumbai.
So what's special about Kosigi? Well, it is a small station on this route, very near the Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka border that I know nothing about. It is in fact a really small station, and to the best of my knowledge most of the fast trains running on this route sector don't stop here.
This is a tale that took place on February 17, 2003, when we were travelling from Chennai to Pune by Train No. 6010. It had been trundling along at a reasonable pace and made me realise that of all the trains on the Chennai-Mumbai route, this is probably the only one with the most number of official halts. The weather was pleasant, very much like one would expect on a mid-February morning. A breeze enveloped my face as the train moved on and the scenery too was not all that bad. Also the compartment had passengers travelling with reserved tickets. Even the vendors were those from the pantry car, well turned out.
Things, I thought, could not really get much better. I was hoping that the train would gather speed and more important, that it would stop at a fewer number of stations from now on. All this was just about going through my head, when I could feel the train starting to slow down. We went past a yellow board on a small station platform that read "Kosigi" in the typical "bold black" typeface of the Indian Railways. The train came to a halt, and a bunch of five men and women with big baskets on their heads clambered in.
I felt myself being "disturbingly besieged". How dare they get in. Did they have tickets? Should I call the ticket collector? What's the use anyway. They won't do anything. A flurry of thoughts raced through my head. I didn't know what to do, but this was not acceptable. They would talk loudly, dirty the place, fight with passengers ... . I could picture a horrible scenario. The railways are doomed, I told myself, and so is this country.
In the meanwhile the old lady, in a "slightly torn" green sari, and the one with the largest basket, sat on the floor exactly beside me. As she started to uncover her basket, concern and worry gripped me. Would she spread her bedsheet and lie down there? Would she take out her food and eat it, and mess up the place? How long would this group be on board? How long would one have to tolerate this?
A delightful sight
The first sheet on the basket was removed. As she removed the second one, a most delicious and delightful sight unfolded before my eyes. This lady at least was not going to lie down and sleep on the floor, nor would she eat her food and mess up the place.
She was a fruit vendor, selling one of the most wonderful and delicious of fruits — tadgola; tadgola in Hindi, nongu, I learnt later, in Tamil.
Big luscious fruits, really fresh, probably just plucked from the trees that one could see in the countryside just beyond the station. I would be dishonest if I said that my mouth did not start to water. My concerns about this group vanished. The last time I'd eaten a tadgola was five years ago. The taste, the feel ... it all came rushing back.
And before I knew it I had made the first purchase. What followed were 10 delicious minutes as I quickly peeled the fruit and stuffed my mouth with the divine stuff.
Thank god, I told myself, for these vendors who sell their wares on Indian Railways. Compare this with the staid, uniform, uninspiring stuff dished out by the Railway caterers — potato chips in packets that have more air and less in content, cold vegetable patties that were probably made the day earlier, and tea and coffee that never taste like what they are supposed to be.

I have bought and eaten a variety of foodstuffs on many a train journey. The more memorable ones include the time when I did Mumbai-Pune where I had Parsi Dairy's malai kulfi; an idli-kind of a preparation on the Bongaigaon-Guwahati route and jhal muri on any train approaching Howrah. My most memorable afternoon was, however, spent a couple of years ago in what many call India's heart of darkness — the hot, sweltering plains of the Ganga in Bihar. I was travelling back from Jalpaiguri in West Bengal to Mumbai on the Guwahati-Dadar Express, Train No. 5648.
This train, unlike 6010, had most passengers travelling unreserved and even ticketless. The train was a mess, and passengers like me had to first beg and then bully the ticketless to get a seat on what was rightfully ours.
What saved the day, literally, was the food that was served by the vendors.
I remember the long green cucumber, soft and fleshy and a delight on that hot April forenoon. There was the sweet malpua, and the two kulfi walas. It was with great difficulty that I resisted sampling their wares, telling myself that it was not hygienic. What a fool I must have been! There were two types of chaat, a mooli wala, a jaljeera wala, a kela wala ... .
Coming back to 6010 ... the tadgola lady was soon in business. Her first offer was four tadgolas for Rs. 10, which I had most willingly accepted. Most of the passengers were soon haggling with her to give them at least five, if not more, for Rs. 10.
Though it could not match the variety on the train in Bihar, 6010 too had quite a bit to offer. There was a basket full of cucumber and carrot that had started doing the rounds (an interesting chaat was also being prepared), there was a bhel-puri wala, and there were the ubiquitous groundnuts. And then there were the chickoos; sapotas as they are called in this part of the world. And these were incredible too. Of the five people who had got into our compartment at Kosigi, all except the tadgola lady had sapotas in their baskets: big, round and extremely inviting.
While the tadgola lady had gotten into the act, the other four sat in the corner, sorting out their chickoos, counting them and dividing them into their baskets. These were six chickoos for Rs. 10, and the sweetest and the best that I have ever eaten.
This was when I got talking with the lady from whom I'd bought the chickoos.
"We get our stuff from Guntakal," she said. "There are big chickoo orchards south of Guntakal."
Her daily schedule?
"We take the Mumbai Mail (6010) from Kosigi every morning to Yelawar and the same one back in the evening." She did give me some costing and profit estimates as well, but that is something that I did not understand fully.
Not that it mattered ... .

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