Seated behind a half-drawn curtain on the side-lower berth in an AC-2-tier coach, Ram Narayan is hurriedly going through his ticket charts. Dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, his black coat kept by his side, the 27-year-old looks out through the glass windows occasionally, waiting for the train —Mahakoshal Express Delhi-Jabalpur-Delhi —to start.
At 6.10 pm, the train finally departs from Jabalpur station in Madhya Pradesh. Narayan, a Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE), picks up his coat and black bag — which has his toiletries and a change of clothes — and makes his way towards coach number ‘S-8’, one of the eight sleeper coaches of the daily super-fast train. “It is very hot so I was sitting in the AC coach, but they have a different TTE. I have been assigned three sleeper coaches,” says Narayan, pausing at the door to smoke a cigarette.
For three years now, Narayan, a resident of Baihari village in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh, has been working as a ticket examiner, checking tickets, upgrading seats and issuing challans on the Banda-Allahabad, Banda-Kanpur, Banda-Lucknow and Banda-Jabalpur routes. But this wasn’t the goal he started out with. “After my BA from Bundelkhand University in Mahoba, I started preparing for the SSC (Staff Selection Commission) exams. Most of my friends were doing it, so I followed them. I wanted a government job,” says Narayan. “The coaching was expensive so I started teaching at the coaching centre as well. I gave up on SSC exams after two attempts till one day someone told me about the railway exam. I cleared the two levels — a written and medical test — and now, here I am,” says Narayan, the second of four siblings.
Inside the S-8 coach, as he reaches berth No. 7, the seat reserved for the TTE, he finds a man comfortably perched on it, chewing tobacco. “Ticket hai (Do you have a ticket)?” asks Narayan sternly. The man smiles and hands the TTE a ‘general ticket’: “Paise nahin hai, adjust kar dijiye (I don’t have money, please accommodate me somewhere).” But Narayan will have none of it. “Zarda khaane ke paise hain (You have money for tobacco)? Katni station pe utar jaana (Get off at Katni station). This is the TTE’s seat.”
The passenger simply nods and stares out of the window. “Mostly, they listen to me, but there have been occasions when things have got ugly. Once, a man sitting on my seat threatened to throw me out of the train. Our training doesn’t prepare us for all this,” says Narayan, making his way to the other berths. “Sometimes members of the Railway Protection Force accompany us, but mostly, we are on our own. In case of any misbehaviour or violence on board, all we can do is submit a complaint memo to the Railways and the case is taken up in a magisterial court.”
In June this year, the Delhi state consumer forum directed the Railway Ministry to pay Rs 75,000 as compensation to a passenger travelling on the Link Dakshin Express on March 30, 2013. The passenger, who had booked a lower berth as he was suffering from knee pain, alleged that when the train stopped at Bina junction in Madhya Pradesh, some “unauthorised people” entered and occupied his berth, and none of the officials or the TTE helped him get his seat back. The forum also directed that Rs 25,000 be deducted from the salary of the TTE.
Though Narayan has not heard of the case, he says it is unfair to hold the TTE accountable. “There is too much pressure on a TTE. We can only ask passengers to vacate seats. Also, though there are four TTEs assigned to a train, at any point, only two cover the entire train. We can’t be present everywhere all the time,” he says.
Narayan will get off at Banda station around midnight, and another TTE will replace him. At his next stop, a woman in her 60s hands Narayan two general-class tickets and says one is for her son. “I don’t know where he is now,” says the woman. Visibly frustrated, the TTE says, “Mataji, ye general ticket hai, aap sleeper bogie mein ho. Aur beta kahan bhaag gaya (Ma’am, this is the sleeper coach and you are showing me general tickets. And where has your son run away)? Please leave as soon as he comes.”
“Kahan jayenge hum (Where will we go)?” the woman says to her co-passengers. They all nod. Narayan moves on. “Who knows if she will get down on not? I have done my job, I can’t keep re-checking tickets,” he says. “Old people are the toughest to handle. Family members usually use them to negotiate with the TTE,” says Narayan. As he moves ahead, the train stops at Maihar station and Narayan spots a popcorn vendor getting onto the train. He approaches him angrily and asks him to deboard. “Ye avaidh vikreta hain (These are unauthorised vendors). They are not allowed,” he explains.
By 9 pm, Narayan has checked tickets in two coaches and stands near the door of coach S-6 to get some air. “This is the only respite from the heat. AC coaches are much better, but they usually station seniors there,” he says. “A TTE’s job is not like any other government post. It is a tough one. Today, my day started at 2 am when I boarded a train from Banda. I had to get up an hour earlier to get ready. I took a shower in the afternoon at Jabalpur station. I will get to eat my dinner only after midnight, when this train reaches Banda. Sometimes, I am on a train for two days at a stretch,” he says.
Narayan lives in a one-room rented accommodation in Banda with his wife and two children, aged three and one. “My wife has gone to the village with the children so I will probably eat at Banda station,” he says. His days off from work are not always fixed. “I usually get a day off after working for 10 days. I am always sleep deprived and hope for a ‘station duty’ at least once a month. That’s easier — check tickets on the platform, guide passengers and put up charts on trains,” he says.
In coach S-6, he finds three men sharing a berth. Only one has a confirmed ticket for the sleeper coach; the others have got on board with a general ticket. This time, he is more sympathetic. “Round poori hone do, phir koi seat hogi to deta hoon (Let me complete my round, if there is a seat, I will allot it to you). But be ready to pay the difference in the price of the general and sleeper coach tickets,” Narayan tells them.
Passengers do offer him money in exchange for seats, he admits, but adds, “I avoid them. Times have changed. Anyone can make a video and upload it on the Internet and I might lose my job. I don’t earn enough, but losing my job would be worse.” His salary is Rs 22,400 per month. Talking about his early days, Narayan recalls how he got a warning ticket from the Divisional Railway Manager after his first stint in the general coach of a local train in Gwalior. “I was so nervous. I only issued one challan (fine) for Rs 300 after I caught a man pulling the chain. There are no written rules, but we are expected to collect close to Rs 1.5 lakh in fines per month. Since then, I have tried to be more stern,” he says.
A little after 11 am, as the train pulls into Chitrakoot station, Narayan makes his way back to the TTE’s seat in S-8. “I have made my peace with most things about the job, but it is the conditions in which we work that irk me the most. Paani nahin hai, khaana nahin hai (There is no water or food on trains). At times, we are stranded on trains for over 24 hours because they always run late. There is no one to listen to our complaints or advice,” he says.
Settling down in his seat for a short nap before he reaches home, he adds, “Woh M S Dhoni mein jo TTE ki life dikhayi thi na, bilkul waisa hi hai (The way a TTE’s life was depicted in the movie MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, that is exactly how we live).” It’s another hour to Banda, and bed. Unless the train is delayed.