Monday, April 10, 2006

The Day I Ran Away From Home

The year was 1996, I was in High School and like most teenagers, I could not simply agree with my parents on things concerning my studies and my future. Ever the hothead , I decided that enough was enough and there was no point in staying in a place where no one appreciated me ;o)

So there I was, all of 17 years old standing in the queue at New Delhi station and bought a general class ticket to Vijaywada. Having bought the ticket, I was left with exactly 70 rupees in my pocket. I headed towards the platform where the Tamil Nadu Express had already been placed and by the time I got there, the general coaches were more than full. Every imaginable space in the coach was taken up by specimens of the human or the luggage kind, so all hopes of ‘comfortable’ journey evaporated in thin air. By then, I had steeled up myself to face the consequences of my decision, so 28 hours in a coach where people were packed tighter than sardines wasn't really something which worried me.

Just as the train moved, I made forced my way inside the very first coach and barely had I managed to cross the first few feet, I found my way blocked by a mountain of Indian Army standard issue trunks. Determined as I was to find myself a sitting space I found a way across and after an agonizing ten minutes pummedled by a screaming, shouting, pushing, shoving mass of humanity I managed to find space on an upper berth sufficient enough to rest a quarter of my bum. The rest of the berth was occupied by a huge Jat who probably had probably bathed in a gallon of arrack before getting on because the stench emanating from him suggested no less. The rest of the bay was occupied by a large family of migrant labourers presumably from somewhere in Madhya Pradesh judging by the dialect they spoke.

Half an hour was what I could manage at the most on that perch. The seat edges were rusted and there were jagged tips which continued to pinch my butt at every jerk. But an alternate was nowhere in sight. The family down below had spread itself over the seats, the floor everywhere. Their luggage was piled inbetween people and there were some people sleeping on the overhead luggage racks as well. For those who haven't see the inside of a general coach in India, the width of these racks, which run along the length of the coach is about 8 inches only !! If that wasn't enough, one of the kids below started bawling at the top of his voice as he wanted to crap. Since there was no way his mother could take him to the loo, she simply opened the window, asked the kid to stick his ass out between the grilles and crap for all he was worth.

That was about all that I could take and I jumped off the berth landing on my toes, in a space not more than 10 square inches as anywhere else would have meant landing on somebody else. Now the only other way to go was back across the mountain of trunks and hoping to find some place among the faujis. It took me a full 5 minutes to cover just those few meters to and over the trunks and the moment I landed on the other side, I was face to face with of bunch of soldiers who were staring at me as if I was some Jehadi who had walked right into their pub. Luckily I had noticed that most of the names on the trunks were Telugu in origin, so in my best coastal twang I explained my situation. Fortunately, some of the soldiers belonged to villages around my mother's home town and upon learning that I too was from those parts, I was welcomed almost like a long lost brother, and I got enough of a trunk top to rest my entire butt.

I learnt that the soliders were returning home from a vacation after having spent the entire winter in Kashmir fighting militancy. Their unit was their on special deployment or something. Most of the soldiers were from families of fisherman and lungis and banian along with the warmth and the salt of the sea was something they were really looking forward to after months in layers of clothes in the icy heights of the Himalayas. Speaking of the cold, in my hurry to leave home I didn't realize that I was wearing only a light sleeveless pullover for warmth and it being the last week of January, the temperature in the fields of Uttar Pradesh was pretty low as our train sped through the darkness towards Mathura. The cold wind was seeping into the coach from the door and window sills and I was really shivering by now. Practically everyone in the coach was adequately armed for the cold and here I was cold, shivering, hungry and suddenly - very alone.

Thoughts of hot food and a warm bed were running through my head now, and home despite everything that had happened earlier in the day, seemed like the best place in the world to be. My reverie was broken by a tap on the shoulder and I turned to find one of them asking me if I needed anything for the cold. Apparently they had noticed me shivering & huddling and were wondering what prompted me to turn up defenceless against the cold. I was offered room inside one of the blankets being shared which I gladly agreed. However, I had caught the chills by then and had already begun sniffling. Sensing that I might fall sick, a bottle of the Indian Army's finest XXX rum 'Crazy Horse' was produced out of a trunk along with a steel tumbler the size of a small bucket !! The tumbler was then filled almost to the brim and a few cursory drops of water were added and then passed on to me. I hadnt till then had a drink stronger than a beer, but then I was on my own now, a man. So how could a man then turn chicken out at a mere tumbler of rum, so I just picked it up and gulped it down in one straight go to the nodding approval of the faujis, after all thats how one should drink.. isn't it?

I don't know whether it was really the drink or my mind playing games, but within seconds the cold had simply vanished and instead I was now feeling warm and comfortable, and the tips of my ears were probably glowing red hot. Its a feeling that I have come to love over the years and even today, there is nothing like gulping a large drink down on a windy night in Delhi and then feel your ears slowly go toast. Now that the bottle was out, the soldiers decided to help themselves to a drink as well and minutes later, I was savouring the last drops from the now empty bottle.

As a first timer though, I was expecting myself to get sloshed any moment now, but none of that happened. Instead, I saw each of the soliders nod off one by one and then spent the entire night huddled inside the blanket waiting for the rum to have its intoxicating effect on me. Morning saw me curled up on the floor inside the blanket sandwiched between the bodies of the rest of them. Being soliders, all of them were accustomed to an early start to the day and by 0530 all of them were yawning and stretching in whatever little space that was available. The temperature and the weather meant that almost everybody had a full bladder, but it being the first coach, it had toilets at the other end only.

Not having the guts to trample over sleeping bodies, neither having the will to hold an overflowing bladder we were in a quandary when suddenly the train stopped. Whooping with joy, we got off and lined up by the tracks and just as we had unzipped the train started moving again ! Now I don't think I need to explain how difficult it is to hold back then; but we all mustered the last nanogram of our will power and ran to catch the train and then took turns two at a time to pee out of the moving train - much to the consternation and amusement of the early morning squatters by the tracks.

Relieved, we flopped over the trunks and holdalls and had a hearty laugh. Reaching Itarsi, we all had hot tea and pakodas for breakfast and I picked up half a dozen bananas to last me the rest of the day as that was just about all I could afford. As the day wore on, the coach got progressively emptier and we all got decent seats and took turns taking naps on the solitary upper berth that we managed to occupy. In the evening, out came the rum bottles again and this time thankfully I was handed smaller drinks and one kindly lance-naik even procured coke from a wayside station and to this day I have not been able to rid myself of the addiction to this particular concotion.

Night fell and I finished off my last banana and tried hard to stay awake as my destination would arrive just past midnight. Reaching there on time, I got out of the station onto the deserted streets and got into autorickshaw that changed my whole destiny......... but that is another story for another time, another place.


chandni said...

this particular adventure of urs is enought o write a book on...

But did the 17yr old find what he was looking for...then?

Mridula said...

My, your parents must have been one anxious lot! Did you ever wrote the sequal?

Mridula said...

So when is part two coming :)