Poets(Bengalis?), Freedom Fighters, Scheduled Castes, and other nightmares…
!!! Q please…
And I try pushing the short little man wearing a Goodyear cap in a proper line behind me.
“Space dedo, ne”
But space doesn’t exist here, only for poets and freedom fighters.
Imagine a nightmare, unimaginable even to the world of 1984, of Huxley, of the Jungle, of Upton Sinclair, of Proust and his monoamine, a nightmare of a system that doesn’t do anything, a system intended to do good, but instead corrupted and misunderstood… better actually misinterpreted and defectively implemented… imagine the railway reservation office in New Delhi. This is your nightmare. Worse than French Absurdist Theater, worse than Camus and Poe, worse than your visiting your mother in law.
Bordering on the usual ridiculous and unplaced capital boulevards of Delhi is a British relic, at least now air conditioned, a building filed with what at first seems incalculable, maybe 150 different counters with small men and women, 1984 like office staff wearing white dentist coats, prescribing a service worse and more excruciating than the deepest root canal. They hold the power to grant you a simple ticket on the world largest and most complicated train system. At least you are happy chaos does not insure. No agents or swindlers. Egalitarian at least in practice.
After six months, you no longer are entitled to the special foreigner’s quota office for train bookings. After 6 months, you’ve lost your prestige, paid your taxes, and given access to the nightmare of the Indian system, where you wait hours for a spot on the waiting list. No longer can you come an hour or so before and hop on a train, now planning is required… Freedom is restricted. Certain permits and notarizations required. Certain stamps obligatory. No longer does your passport give you freedom. Foreign residence gives you only new pain. Taxes and fewer benefits.
You walk. You try to think. You meditate. You concentrate on your breathing.
You stand straight, you try to decipher which counter’s queue to enter into. Counter 3 seems strangely empty. A lone bureaucrat leisurely reading the Times of India behind sheets of bulletproof glass.
Print on the glass in red: “Counter reserved for Poets”
You think to yourself…. Surely I can pass as a poet.
“Namaksar, sir I’d like to book a ticket to Kolkata, I am a poet”
“Guild Card please” the little man in angry glasses spurts.
Worse than a literary critic. You imagine him riding subways as a college student, forging reading clubs trying to spark some Bengali poet’s society.
“Guild Card sir, Guild Card Please??”
“What exactly is a guild card?”
“Counter 110-115” and with a snap the small opening at palm’s eye closes, his eyes return to the lines of text.
Guild card you think… imagine what office in Delhi holds the power to grant such authority. You imagine the application, samples, required, forms to be filled. You imagine wearing your beret, wearing black and walking in with a small type writer, mixing Hindi with English, speaking in Iambs, of lydics, of swans, of the sky as a horse, and snap back, searching for these counters he quashed at you.
You turn to left, returning to the hordes. The overhead gyrating fans; the next counter reserved for freedom fighters… a group of Rajasthani Farmers inch forward. As you search for counter 110 you walk by others, some sanctioned for Schedule Tribes, for the Disabled, for the Blind and Mute, for Journalists, Officers, and for pilgrims, and spastics… yes spastics… some counters offer their services only in Hindi. You wonder where Muslims go. Is there a line for Christians? Punjabi’s or non-believers? Men of Portuguese blood, of unkempt mothers? Anglo-Bengalis?
Forward you navigate finding finally the counter, hundreds of people strangely ordered in a queue of sorts. You count to the end scouting the heads in front of you. The 160 cm men in a range of colours from Assamese to Ethnic Tamils… You wait. The lone foreigner who decided for what reason to stay for so long.
You wonder where the Embassy officials, where the NRIs go, where the Human rights workers and Development experts queue… You can imagine the ambassador of some nation queuing here… Agents must be somewhere… Do the Maharani’s wait like this too?
Your space inches forward taking the novel out of your bag. Aside from the poet/ticket man you are the only one reading. Gladly the room is non-smoking, and no vendors allowed. You are pleased that with over a thousands heads that there is a controlled peace. You see two young men spurt past, ticket in hand, glee in the faces. You imagine yourself walking out ticket too in hand. As you wait the room seems to grow tense, you imagine riots breaking daily. And as you turn the pages… a hundred or so later, you come to the front of the line. Fill out the form and ask for a ticket to Kolkata in your best Hindi.
Aware of his power you try subtly and verbal bribery. But no spaces for tomorrow or the day after. He spurts a waitlist number… Number 91. Your wait was pointless. You stammer with anger. You heave… no spaces for three weeks you ask, how is this possible? You can’t imagine with seven trains a day that there are no spaces for three weeks. But then a billion people, a million people passing through the station daily. You dream of Tokyo, of Shinjuku of trains that are simple to use.
“Next” and the man with the good year cap pushes forward, running you over worse than a tire.
Angrily you walk around, demanding the chief supervisor of the office.
A young peon, a chai boy directs you away to an office lined with Desert Coolers… you walk in, and with charm ask the station officer what to do. You sit and order the boy to bring two chais.
He helps you like all good Indians. You are instructed to go to an internet office, book the ticket, (a undisclosed number of seats reserved per train for internet booking he whispers to you). Your face glows… Counter 144. You thank him; explain to him your work. The sips of cardamom tea, of cinnamon steam open small chatter between you and the officer. You are relieved that you’ve learned the new secret to this system. Empty and unmanned the glass in newly fresh Hindu Red glares Internet Bookings Only. You race to the Internet café across the boulevard, disappearing into the bazaar shop, register and navigate the website of the Indian Railway Corporation. Seats are available. Your credit card used as tender. You wait and wait. The spin disks… Confirmed pops in a AOL “you’ve got mail” charm. You print the receipt and hand the 15 rupees to the Bisap. To Counter 144 you walk to pick up your tickets and are handed a minted ticket, Delhi to Kolkata train number 2382. You understand the glee of those two young men earlier. You have won the lottery… The new cyberworld wonders of modern India… only 4 hours wasted to buy a ticket you think to yourself.
You hail a rickshaw… Off to Lajput Nagar… C.P wails by, foreigners you see; no not foreigners but tourists still given privilege.
Delhi whizzes back… the sun is still out, it beings to rain.
The devil beats his wife and you smile having won, ticket in hand, wondering if a poet will be seated beside you tomorrow on your journey east.