Cameraperson: Athar Rather
‘36.3 degree celcius.’
The man holding the gun to my head nods and lets me pass. I proceed for my baggage scan, keeping note of the yellow circles drawn on the floor of the New Delhi Railway Station.
It was Day 1 of ‘Unlock 1’. About 200 passenger trains kickstarted across the country after two months. And there I was, waiting to take my first train ride after lockdown.
Scared, anxious and paranoid, my colleague and I had taken all precautions possible. Mask, check. Gloves, check. Face shield, check. Shoe cover, check. Travelling in times of COVID-19 is not going to be easy, clearly.
My baggage cleared the X-Ray machine. Before taking the stairs to Platform 4, from where I was supposed to board my train, I glanced back at the station door which opened towards Ajmeri Gate.
For Some, It’s a Never-Ending Wait to Go Home...
The slabs surrounding the huge white pillars were occupied by some passengers waiting their turn to get hold of a ticket and go back to their loved ones. Before proceeding for my thermal screening, I happened to have an encounter with one of them.
Sanjay Rabidas had been waiting for the last 3 months to go back to his kids in Bihar’s Darbhanga. Rabidas had come to the city to work as a labourer and taken up a small shanty. “I have been longing to go back home. I have exhausted all money to pay my rent or afford my food. My kids are getting worried at the village.”
“The government has been extending the lockdown by two weeks every time. They said from 1 June, I can get tickets to go home but there are no tickets available.”
The counters for current reservation have also just opened after three months. The man behind the glass window shouted through his mask, “There are no trains to Darbhanga or Patna today. You have to go to a different counter for advance reservation.”
Not convinced, Rabidas said, “Nobody is listening to us at any counter. I went there thrice, they are not even letting us speak.”
I tried to help. As I repeatedly dialled the Bihar helpline number and the IAS officer in charge of taking migrant workers back to Bihar from Delhi, I was met with a confused voice and a blank tone respectively. The former hesitantly informed that there were no more Shramik trains from Delhi to Bihar.
Meanwhile, a cop intervened. “Why are you all crowding here? Nobody without a reserved ticket can enter the premises. Leave from here and go check at the nearest night shelter.”
I tried to argue but in vain. The cop rushed Rabidas and his friends out of the station and asked us to quickly proceed towards the screening gate. Unfortunately, we had to oblige as we saw Rabidas leaving the station premises with his black backpack.
What Happened to the Good-Old Days of My Favourite Train Rides?
Walking towards our platform, I looked at the e-ticket on my phone. Not only did I have a reserved ticket but also on a Rajdhani two-tier, something that Rabidas said he “could never afford.” I felt guilty and privileged. Maybe I could have taken his contact number down before the cop arrived and called him later to lend some help. I should have done more to help.
With that regret, I boarded the train. Our journey would be two-hour-long but the train is bound to reach its destination – Chennai – in about 28 hours.
Thankfully, I got my preferred side-lower seat but nothing else about that journey was like old times. Train rides used to be my favourite, just looking outside the window, peeping at random lesser-known stations on the way, waiting for a food vendor to get on the train from one of those stations with my favourite boiled egg toast or simply just plugging in my earphones and lying down as the train rocked me to sleep. Nothing of it was the same. There was such overbearing anxiety about this tiny invisible virus that had changed so many things we took for granted.
All the passengers in my compartment – although there weren’t a lot of them – wore masks and repeatedly used hand sanitizer. Esther, who will be covering the 28-hour-journey said, “I have brought my own food and water since the Railways had said there would be no meal provided on the train. But I am so scared to use the washroom. I don’t know how long can I not use it.”
After about 2 hours 10 minutes, our train screeched its way to the Agra Cantt station. We were screened again for our temperatures but unlike the New Delhi station, the platform at this station was empty. The stalls, offices, and counters remained closed.
The board which displays the details on normal days flashed, “No trains to display.”
Outside the station, I saw a man hugging his toddler before getting on a rickshaw. I remembered Sanjay Rabidas again. He was probably still trying to get a ticket back home.
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