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On Friday 5th, Louis Armstrong saved the day. I had tried to get a berth on the sleeper train south from Udaipur to Ahmedabad, but all I managed was a waiting list ticket; the last time that happened was back in Siliguri, and I really didn't fancy having to squirm my way into some idiot middle manager's good books just to get a reservation. Even so I idly asked about the VIP quota, and was told to visit the Area Manager, who referred me back to the Ticket Inspector, who eventually referred me back to the original ticket office. I decided to stuff the railway and get the bus, and joined my final queue for a refund.
When I got to the front of the queue there was nobody at the window, but hanging out at the back reading a list of computer printouts was a big, burly black man who looked exactly like an Indian version of King Louis. He saw me looking dejected at the window, came over, looked at my ticket and said in a deep, throaty voice, 'No problem, sir, I am on that train. You just turn up and I will find you a place.'
'You will?' I asked, wondering if this would turn out to be an expensive exercise.
'I am the conductor on that train,' he winked, and turned back to his printouts. Even if he was setting me up for a major baksheesh kick, I felt he deserved to be taken at face value, and nine hours later I was waiting on the platform, wondering if I was going to be spending the night propped up in the toilet, nodding off on someone else's shoulder.
But Louis was a man of his word. I spotted him holding court on the platform, went over and gave him my ticket, and he said, 'I remember, from this morning. Berth six, that coach over there, OK?' As he said 'OK' he flashed me a smile, and I wondered for a fleeting moment how much this was going to cost me; I would have to pay for a conversion from waiting list to berth anyway, and it would be a perfect opportunity for rubbing thumb and forefinger together in a meaningful way. Still, I figured he would deserve it.
The train pulled out only an hour late, and I soon discovered that not only was I in a separate compartment labelled 'Ladies Only' with lockable doors and only six berths, but I was in there with five other passengers who'd had similar experiences; they'd had no booking but had also ended up with a berth. I told them about Louis and it turned out that he had saved us all: one westerner, two Indians by birth who had spent their whole lives abroad and were on their first visit back to their homeland, and three obviously influential Indian upper middle class family members. I felt privileged and somewhat relieved; if there was to be any baksheesh, we would all have to pay.
Ten minutes into the journey Louis appeared at the door, beaming. He sat down in an empty space and boomed, 'No charge for these berths for you; I like to help you all.' He then proceeded to give money – presumably change – to the middle class Indian man, and idly chatted in Urdu for a while (in which all the others were fluent, the overseas Indians having learned it from their parents). Then he asked me a few politely interested census questions in English, said he was really happy to have been of help, and left us to sleep our way to Ahmedabad.
And as I drifted off I thought to myself, what a wonderful world.