Did I mention the Toy Train? I sure did, and I thought at the time that it would be my last train story, because up until this point my experience with Indian Railways has been moderately painless. Until Siliguri, that is...
The three of us, by now thick as thieves, took the jeep down from Darjeeling to Siliguri, hoping to be able to book a train ticket to Varanasi on the overnight train. I knew that the train would almost certainly be full for that night, but having had no real problems with booking a ticket before (except for Bhopal to Gorakhpur, but that was due to Rama's birthday) I reckoned we'd be all right for the night after.
We arrived at Siliguri's main station, NJP, in mid-afternoon and joined the queue at the ticket counter. However, when we reached the counter we discovered that we could only buy tickets for seats there, not berths, and we should go to the other side of the station to see the Ticket Collector, who would help us. We did as we were told, but the Ticket Collector had very little English and proved pretty useless, and he just sent us back to the same queue at the ticket counter. Again the ticket counter refused to help, but a return journey to the Ticket Collector finally produced an address for Siliguri's railway booking office. We couldn't believe that NJP, a major station, didn't have its own booking system, but shrugging at the madness of it all, we took a rickshaw to the booking office, a good few kilometres and a cosy ride away with all our backpacks stuffed behind us.
At the booking office I joined the queue at the Information Counter to ask about availability of berths on the train, and when I finally reached the man he told me it was well nigh impossible to get sleepers out of NJP towards Delhi, as they were all full for days, but if I joined the ticket queue and bought a waiting list ticket for the journey I required, then I could come back and have a word with the Reservations Officer about getting in on an emergency quota. I thanked him and joined the shortest queue for tickets; inevitably this counter closed as I reached the front, so I joined the back of the only other queue, which was still waiting for its counter to open. After maybe three-quarters of an hour I got to the front of the queue, handed my reservation form over, and the man frowned. 'For tonight?' he said. 'Or tomorrow,' I replied, explaining what the man at the Information Counter had said. The ticket man disappeared, came back and asked me to wait. This I did for a quarter of an hour, after which he left the room, came back and sent me right back to the Information Counter.
The man at the Information Counter wasn't exactly thrilled to see me again, and said I still had to get a waiting list ticket before I could get onto the emergency quota. Armed with my timetable I grilled him about availability on other trains, but all the trains were booked up for at least four days, there weren't any first class berths available, and I really didn't fancy an overnight bus ride through the sweaty fields of the Gangetic plain. Eventually he handed me over to the Reservations Officer, a fat man with an attitude problem, who told me exactly what I needed to do if I wanted to get onto his emergency quota. 'Get a waiting list ticket,' he said, smiling smugly, 'then bring your passport and proof of money exchange, and we will see what we can do.'
I could feel him enjoying The Power, a strange opiate one feels when one knows one has complete authority over a situation, and someone without that authority wants what only you can give them. In India, coping with The Power is an essential part of survival; to get what you want you have to kowtow to sad little men who have snaked their way up the ranks of the railway company, always being polite when what you'd rather do is smash the man's face into your right kneecap. I coped admirably, repeating in my head the anti-Power mantra, 'I can always leave India, but this poor bugger can't...'
Returning to the ticket queue for half an hour and five Marlboros, I finally got a waiting list ticket for the next day's train, as today's had already started on its journey and I couldn't get a waiting list ticket for a train that was already on the move, could I? Then it was back to the man with The Power, and roping in Martina and her encashment certificates, we handed over our passports, sycophantically helping the bulbous idiot to decipher the calendar and work out that thirteen comes after twelve and that tomorrow comes after today; and after crawling through the dirt and kissing his boots we finally got the assurance that we would have three berths for the journey the following night, and all we had to do was turn up at the station and we'd be in the computer and on the train. I thanked him gushingly and walked off, unconvinced that he would actually prove to be of any help.
After spending the next day shopping and playing cards in the fairly nondescript boom town that is Siliguri, we turned up at the railway station on time and went to the reservations counter, where we discovered that two of us had a berth, but mysteriously the third one didn't. This meant that I had to spend until 2.15am that night being as nice as pie to the conductor, another man who wielded The Power, in an attempt to persuade him to find me a berth on the impossibly crowded train. To his credit he did find me a place to sleep and didn't even ask for baksheesh, but this final bending over backwards to blow sunshine up this man's anus had washed me out, and I spent the night out like a light. When I awoke, we were well on our way to Varanasi, and all I did was plug in my Walkman and stare out of the window. It was bliss to be temporarily disconnected.