Stories from the Jhelum

Jammu to Pune, Dec 2019

The longest train journey that I have done is Guwahati to Nasik. That’s only once. But the Jammu Pune journey and the return has been a regular for me, thanks to my partner in Jammu, Aakash, and also the school that we jointly run there for the last 10 years. My preferred mode of travel from Jammu to Pune is to take an overnight train to Delhi and then take a flight to Pune the next day from Delhi. Jammu airport, like the one at Pune, is a military one. Civilian flights from Jammu don’t operate beyond 1430 hrs. This time I had already done my reservations the same way, but then the Govt of Maharashtra came up with new rules for flights from Delhi. Mandatory Covid checking of all passengers coming in from Delhi. Being married to a pathologist for 20 years now, I have developed an allergy to testing. So I rerouted – and booked myself on good ole Jhelum Express for the journey back. My relationship with the train goes back many to the time the train was started. We used it to visit grandparents in Delhi. And the Jhelum was, for many years, the only direct train from Pune to Delhi. As I grew older, I found most of my work taking me to North India, as a result I was on first name basis with most of the pantry car guys. For most of my childhood, the family would travel Sleeper class – and that practice continued in my entrepreneurial days. But as I grew older, the little luxuries of air travel started happening. And the upgrade to AC 3 tier. The biggest attraction of AC was the supply of bedding by the Railways – implying a lighter weight to carry around. 

The Jhelum had been in a state of suspended animation for the last 9 months – and had seen a recent resurrection. And now relabelled as superfast. However, Covid has made the railways do away with the bedding supply. The miser in me, and let me assure readers that there’s a lot of that inside, questioned the utility or shall we say futility of paying extra bucks to the railways, if the extra services are not being delivered. So I took my revenge on IRCTC, and booked myself to travel Sleeper class. The Jhelum used to depart at 2145 hrs and reach around 1530 hours on day 3. A leisurely 42 hour journey. The resurrected Jhelum runs slightly faster – arrival time being the same, but departure delayed by 1.5 hours at 2340 hrs now. 2340 hrs is not too great a time to board. Jammu’s public transport goes into sleep mode by 2100 hrs – so one has to either walk down – or take unreliable autos to reach the station. I usually end up requesting my partner to drop me off. 

Got dropped off at the railway station around 2245 hrs. Had expected an army of doctors to be there to see me off at the railway station. But was happy to note that it was the usual Indian army folks. But I am told that till a month back – at least for arrivals – the Covid Rapid test was de rigeur. And the Jammu health officials had announced a handsome booty for the doc army for any suspect found positive. Voila! Jammu railway station started consistently reporting 500 positives a day, most of them false positives, and these 500 lucky ladies and gentlemen being treated to the hospital hospitality of the Jammu Union territory administration. Even better news to follow, the train was actually parked on platform 1. Plonked my sleeping bag on the Side lower berth and went into snooze mode. 

IRCTC’s website loves giving you the side lower berth, if you opt for lower in the preference. This is especially the case when you are a single male traveller. The fun part of the sleeper class coach is that the glass roll down windows are always out of alignment. If you manage to lock one of the sides, the other side is always 15 mm vertically shifted up. And as the train rocks and rolls through the night, the lock loosens up – and the glass window begins its gradual ascent. The metal windows are much better – they are heavy enough to settle down firmly into their slots. But then they have louvres – which ensures that passengers are treated to a generous supply of cold air through the night. Of all the berths in the sleeper class, Side Lower gives you the luxury of the best view – you have two windows all to yourself – all night long. Jammu night time temperatures were hovering around 5 deg C. And being a frugal baggage traveller, all I had was one sweater and one pullover. In such situations, the only choice is to layer on. By the time I went to sleep, I had 6 layers of clothing. 

Next time, I must choose the middle berth. There is no ambiguity about it. There used to be a very useless side middle berth during Laloo Prasad days as Railway minister. But thankfully, they removed that abomination. (On second thoughts, I think it still exists on some rakes of Garib Raths.) And sometimes you do hit the jackpot with railway bogies too. The new horizontal sliding windows of the new ICF rakes have much better alignments – and so less leakages. 

The average speed of any train is determined by the frequency of its stoppage. The Rajdhanis will halt every 3 hours, the Jhelum halts every 30 minutes. And this is what makes the Jhelum popular. Every village enroute has been gifted a stop. And you don’t have to resort to risky chain pulling to get the train to stop in front of your house. In most of my train journeys in the last 3 months, I have seen occupancy rates between 20 to 50%. But for the Jhelum, it was close to 100%. There was a regular stream of co-passengers who occupied my neighbouring berth all the way from Jammu to Agra. By the time I would say hello to my fellow passenger, the guy was already departing. In earlier days, most of these travellers would not have bothered to do a reservation, let alone buy a ticket. But the new railway rules prohibit unreserved and even waitlisted ticket travel. This was forcing these poor guys to actually buy reserved tickets!

Come Agra, 3 people plonked themselves on the side berth. All of them had confirmed tickets – but they wanted to test the limits of social un-distancing. Peek into any long distance train, and you will find masks as rare as diamonds in the mines of Panna. These unmasked travelling junta are the real heroes and heroines in building the nation’s herd immunity. After a few hours of bonhomie, one of them left to occupy his berth. One of them had a waitlisted ticket which had been confirmed – but there was nary a TTE in sight to tell him where his berth was. I tried helping him by browsing the net with his PNR number in the buffer memory. No luck there too. So I did the next best thing – I sacrificed my leaky lower berth – and shifted my sleeping bag to the warm environments of the upper berth, leaving both of my UP friends to share the lower one. Having had an amazingly restful sleep I treated my fellow passengers to a fruit party the next morning. Food is a great lubrication for speech. So we got talking. Ram lal turned out to be exactly my age, though with much darker hair and teeth. He did not have too much curiosity about my background – but was more than happy to narrate his life story. 

Ram stays in a town about 80 km from Allahabad (or Prayagraj as per Yogi ji’s rebaptism.) His family has traditionally been into the business, or being UP, we could say caste, of cloth washing. His dad was one, he is one, and so is his son. The only difference is that Ram lal specialises in ironing. In small town UP, ironing is a luxury, not a necessity. And especially post Covid, people get their clothes ironed only during shaadi season. The Ramlal family, which consists of one wife, two daughters and two sons, would go and help during the rice harvest. The reward was one ninth of the produce. Enough to get them about 250 kg of rice a year. Government rations help. They have their own small plot of land, my guess is about half an acre, which also yields a little rice and wheat – which is sold to buy daal, tel et al. Vegetables are cheap in UP – the average veggie costs about Rs. 10 a kg. I was surprised, because when I had visited small town Bihar a few months ago, I found the average closer to 30 than 10. But even then veggies continue to be a luxury for the Ramlal family. I was curious – and asked him how much does his total monthly ration bill come out to? After a lot of probing, it came out that the family was spending only 1,500 per month on rations. 

One of the daughters got married some time back. Her husband stays in Dharavi, Mumbai. Ramlal’s elder son did his BA – but could not find a job. Elder son also shifted to Mumbai and found a job in the ironing trade at Rs. 9,000 a month. He has since shifted to Pune to another job which was paying Rs. 12,000 a month. Ramlal himself had a small paralytic attack a few years ago, which made it difficult for him to stand up for long hours to do the coal powered ironing. The farm labour income has dried up as members left or were incapicated. Ramlal was making the journey to Pune city – to become part of the transformation of Bharat to India. What touched me about Ram was that he gave much more than he received. For the meagre fruits that I offered, I was rewarded with 4 types of mithai. When a young woman came a sweeping with two kids in tow, he actually dug deep into his pockets – and came out with 2 Rs to give her. A far cry from his rich co passenger, whose heart and pocket dont’s seem to get affected any more by poverty. Tis’ rightly said that the poor are much more generous than the rich.


Pune to Ludhiana, Oct 2016

A 36 hour train journey is 3d Facebook. Met with 3 interesting people on the Jhelum express journey from Pune to Ludhiana.

Half of the Jhelum Express runs because of army power. An interesting family boarded from Ahmednagar – an armyman, one wife, two daughters and two strangers. Their story: Stranger (and her brother) was traveling to Delhi to meet up with her husband who works with CRPF and is posted at Palam airport. Stranger started from her village which is 150 km away from Ahmednagar at 0800 in the morning – to catch the KK Express at 1200 hrs. Needless to say, she missed her train. Was waiting for the next train to come when she spots Army bhai – thanks to his army issue black trunk. Approaches him for help. It so happens that Army Bhai had actually made reservations for his parents (after all the Government was paying, so how does it matter), who were in any case not going to come. So he asked stranger and brother to join them. Managed to fool the TTs along the journey into believing that the 24 year old was his mother and her 21 year old brother his father!

Protagonist number 2 was from a village near Guntur. He was part of an Aayappa group which was headed to Kashmir for the Amarnath yatra. They were scheduled to depart the previous day, but thanks to the Itarsi Relay Room fire, Jhelum was cancelled that day. (Btw, it seems to be running only alternate days nowadays). There were no Sleeper tickets available – was advised that the probability of a WaitListed ticket getting confirmed was higher in 3A – so the gang booked themselves on 3A. Thanks to Baba Amarnath, most of their tickets got confirmed! Guntur Bhai is a polyglot. He can speak Telugu, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and of course, Hindi. I asked him how? The Telugu was obvious. The Kannada because Guntur is not very far from Karnataka – so Kannada is one of the ‘local’ languages. The Tamil he picked up from truckers coming from TN, who could speak no other tongue, but Tamil. The Marathi he picked up when his dad sent him to Mumbai to work in the marketyard there. He came back to his Guntur village after spending more than 20 years in aamchi Mumbai, as he was getting dis-illusioned. The marketyard experience was put to use when he started his Fruit stall in the Guntur village. Here is a chat I had with him.

Is there still a Mumbai connection?

Of course,– I have 5 kids who stay there – all married / settled. 3 sons who work in Central Railway, 2 daughters who are married and stay there.

So what makes you stay in Guntur?

I am only 55 now. A man has to make a living. And there are still a few more kids to be married off..

Wow, so how many more kids remaining here?

3. The youngest is in class 8.

If I may ask, what made you come to the magic number of 8?

You know, I come from a large family. We are 12 siblings. I am the youngest. And I am the only one surviving. My dad died when I was in my teens. His wish was to see me married off. And I respected that. He passed away soon after my marriage. My mom advised me that in order to ensure that you have someone to take care of you in your old age, you need to have a lot of kids. At least a few will outlive you.

Great, but in today’s age child mortality is quite low, did you not realize that?

Saab, I actually had 11 children. 3 died. But you are right, none of my children have more than 3 kids. Families can’t afford too many any more.


Which brings me to the 3rd protagonist. A 32 year old Russian-Canadian school teacher, who was sharing seat number 48 with the RAC-ed Protagonist Guntur Bhai. She did not understand the concept of RAC – and that 3 how people had to occupy two seats. She imagined Guntur Bhai to be a lecher – and actually told him in very clear English what she thought of him. Fortunately for poly-glot Guntur bhai, English was one language he did not understand, even though Ruski Behn’s body language and tone was enough. His RAC neighbour came and sat next to me – allowing Ruski Behn to fold up her seat – and sit in marvelous isolation. Ruski Behn meditated the whole evening – and I imagined she would continue doing so for the rest of the journey. After about 15 hours of traveling, a question accidentally slipped my tongue for Ruski Behn –asking about her destination. The answer was much more than mono-syllabic – and soon she was telling us her life story.

She was born and brought up in Russia, a place which was only a 24 hour drive from Moscow (relatively close by, by Russian geographical standards). Her dad is an engineer who works in the petroleum sector. If there is one thing which binds India and Russia, it is corruption. Ruski’s dad was however not happy with the generally corrupt Russian society, so he decided that the family should move. Ruski was 15 years old when her dad applied for a Permanent Residency in Canada. Her mom was not too keen about the move, but eventually when Ruski was 21, the family left for Canada. She completed her college in Canada and decided that teaching was her calling in life.

In Canada, like in the US, thanks to strong teacher unions, teaching is a ‘secure’ job. However the first few years of school teaching a teacher is ‘ragged’ by sending her to inner city schools with difficult kids. After getting some experience under her belt, she then moves on to a ‘better’ school district. Somewhere along the way, Ruski got attracted to spirituality – and she began spending time in India at Mata Nirmala Devi’s retreats. Applied for a sabbatical to spend half a year in India – and here she was going to teach at an international school in Dharamshala, for which she would be getting down at Pathankot.

Ruski teaches English, French, Math and Arts. She started off by teaching grades 5-6-7 at an inner city school. She later on moved to Kindergarten, which was as challenging. One of the expectations of a Canadian teacher is that she also has to play the role of an entertainer. Packaging is important in the West. There may be Prescribed Learning Outcomes, but they have to be achieved by using stories, rhymes, visuals. Students are encouraged to build their own stories: this illustrates the concept of the beginning, the middle and the end. They are encouraged to write about interesting topics. Fairy tales are used to make them differentiate between the good and the bad.

She told us of an interesting French class she took. The class was on how to make pizza. Her entire discourse on that was in French. I am sure this would be a good way for us to teach our kindergarten kids English. Another thing that she does in French class is to pick up 10 ‘active’ verbs – and focus the class on the usage of those verbs.

Having a very selfish interest in Math, I asked Ruski about the tricks up her sleeve in math. Patterns, Sticks, Money, Colors, Cubes are the tools that she uses. Students are required to manipulate these to come up with questions and answers. They are given projects which involve ‘real’ stuff. For example, they can actually be asked to measure the perimeter of their classroom.

We ended the teaching discussion with a new academic system that has been introduced by Canadian schools – ‘Inquire’. In this, students are asked to research (Incidentally Umesh Mutta tells me that even Dubai schools have started a subject called ‘Innovation’, where students are expected to do research.) Inquire is not teaching but learning. Students are given a problem, which they are expected to solve in a group. After you have solved the problem, you are expected to share the learnings with the rest of the class. You have to devise the best way to use to share these learnings. You can use Games, Dance, Posters and Stories for example. Ruski feels that it is the ‘Inquiry’ sessions are ones where the real ‘learning’ happens, for teachers!

Ruski behn had been exposed enough to Indian culture as to be able to distinguish between married and unmarried women – by glancing at the neckwear – and she demo’ed that to us by having a conversation with a 35 year old who had meandered into our compartment to get her phone charged. She went on to advice Ms 35 year old about how if she fasts on 10 Mondays, she is sure to find a husband. Army Bhai’s wife had joined in by then, with yours truly and Army Bhai acting as translators. Army bhai could understand English. He explained to us that the Army works on Roman English – which basically means a khichdi of English-Hindi words but written in the Roman script: ‘Kal morning PT 6 baje’.

Army bhai’s wife asked Ruski Behn about her marital status. Ruski Behn mentioned that she was single – but ready to mingle. However she had very strict ‘mingling’ criteria. Mr. Mingle should be spiritual, a non smoker and a non drinker and should NOT have any female friends. (just like Ms Ruski’s dad). Philosophically Army bhai’s wife explained to Ruski that in India at least such Mingles were rarer than platinum and plutonium.