With a scheduled runtime of 28:30 hours, the Rajendra Nagar Express from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to Patna Junction gives the impression of a very fast train. Those who take it frequently, though, say it routinely takes more than 34 hours.
Indeed, the train rolls into the CST platform well past the departure time of 11.25 pm. By then the platform is a sea of people, mostly with a wait-listed ticket, all they require to board a sleeper or general-class compartment. “Baaki train mein adjust kar lenge,” says Atul Kumar Singh, 28, going home to Ara in Bihar for a wedding. He works for a security agency in Mumbai.
The state of the sleeper coach proves true to his experience. A couple of hours into the journey, passengers have parked themselves at every visible space: between seats, the passage, the vestibule and even other people’s confirmed berths and luggage. “The train is taken by migrants from Bihar mostly. They always have compelling reasons to travel back home, so they manage somehow,” says a travelling ticket examiner being hounded by people for a vacant berth, which he doesn’t have.
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“Can the new government change this, at least?” Atul Kumar Singh says, pointing at the crowd. “I don’t think so.”
Most of them have voted in Mumbai and adjoining places. They say they voted on issues such as price rise, corruption, a better economy linked with better salaries, and jobs. A freewheeling discussion makes it clear that the one promise they would have loved to vote on was one that was not on any party’s list.
“What I really want from the new government, whoever makes it, is to help me go back home to a life I am used to in Mumbai,” says Intezaar Singh, 35, from a village near Mughalsarai, who drives a radio taxi in Mumbai. He’s in a confirmed berth but forced to share it with another.
“I left home when I was 21 and had never sat inside a car. In the past 15 years, I have graduated to driving an expensive AC cab, and I am able to send around Rs 10,000 home every month,” he says. “Can I ever go back home to these comforts?”
Badal Das, 35, a Bengali born and raised in Patna, sells toys to distributors in Mumbai. He says the choice to migrate was forced on him. “Laluji and Nitish say the migrants who work in Delhi, Mumbai and other big cities are Bihar’s pride. As if anyone enjoys being the state’s pride at the cost of leaving one’s old parents, home, family and friends,” he says, perched on a side-lower berth in AC-III tier. He shares it with a friend, only one of their tickets having been confirmed. “Does anyone think we enjoy travelling like this?”
People emerge from an AC-III coach to complain it is not cool enough. Inside, a number of men stand guard as their wives and children sleep on the only confirmed berth. Some with RAC (reservation against cancellation) tickets are given a berth to be shared between two strangers.
At night, after the lights are off, almost as many people sitting around the berths as are sleeping on them. Near the vestibule between two AC coaches, a debate rages. “Kuch nahin hoga,” declares Arun Kumar Singh, 50, a trader, returning home to Buxar, Bihar, after 15 days with his daughter’s family in Mumbai. “Neither Modi nor Rahul has a magic wand,” he advises a group of youngsters, parked on the coach-attendants’ berth near the toilets.
They disagree. “Things will improve only if the government keeps changing. We have seen a government for 10 years. Let’s see another. If that one does not perform either, there’s always going to be another election,” says Praveen Kumar, 32, of Samastipur, who works in a manpower vendor company to an IT-enabled services firm.
Rajeev Jha, 40, of Danapur is travelling with his cancer patient father after visiting an oncology hospital in Mumbai. His ticket is not confirmed while his father and brother have got their berths. Jha has been to Mumbai many times in the past one year. “What a hospital. I tell you, a country is developed only when every state has a hospital like that. Can the new government do that?”
Not everyone is a cynic. Rakesh Kumar, 30, has been living in Mumbai for five years. Single and earning what he calls a “comfortable salary” at a retail company, Kumar hopes more job opportunities open up. “The gloom will lift, whoever comes to power, I am sure,” he says, refusing to say who he voted for. “I only hope property prices are a bit stable so I can invest in a flat, and maybe get my parents to shift with me.”
Early into the third day, it is clear that one of the most popular trains to Bihar from Mumbai is going to be hopelessly late. As it reaches Mughalsarai a little past 4 am, almost five hours behind schedule, people start making calls to relatives to hold back coming to Patna or Rajendra Nagar to receive them. A fight breaks out between two passengers, apparently over a missing shoe. Everyone looks on. It’s almost a break in the monotony.
From a sleeper coach, Atul Kumar Singh has by now shifted himself to the vestibule of the AC coach. “You know why all this jhamela happens?” he says of the fight. “No one gets a confirmed ticket even if they try two months in advance. So trains are overcrowded. I tell you, if the new government can ensure confirmed tickets for all, it will never be voted out.” Then he adds knowingly, “But I know it will not happen.”