Conversations with Strangers

I have noticed that I have start being a bit more chatty with strangers that I meet these days. The following are some pieces of information I have learnt from rank strangers.

Our watchman complained about robbers trying to whisk away vehicles in the wee hours. This was the second attempt in our apartment building, so I went to talk to the sub-control set up near Padmarao Nagar Park. The constable there told that only two days back they had caught one such robber, late at night in the Srinivasa Nagar area. It seems that most of these vehicle robbers and bike-gangs stealing chains are youth from rich families, who are addicted to alcohol/drugs. Most of these thefts are impromptu, based on finances and the pocket money cycle. They steal bikes and sell them for any price they get, sometimes even Rs.1000-2000! Since there is no pattern to these thefts, the police have been largely ineffective in finding out who they are and thankless that their job is, the times that they have caught these offenders, the rich-politically aligned- i am all powerful- super-dads have come to their wards’ [1] rescue and all their police work has ended in them getting to see the offenders go scot-free. If only those super-dads had funded their son’s vagaries properly, some random unsuspecting persons would not have lost their vehicles/jewelry. Just when I was feeling sympathetic to the lone policeman’s cause, I was brought back to reality. The constable started asking questions regarding completing graduation in a single sitting. It seems he plans to become an Sub-Inspector soon and for that he ought to be a graduate. He was enquiring if I knew some place where one could just GET a degree. Then he went on to make his career-plans even more clear. The city , it seems, is not a nice place for constables like him from Godavari to start their SI career. A small time place would be perfect, especially with the election season coming. The small time people/complaints are too much of a bother for too little benefit, he says. All he would do is get SET with some local big-shot and that would be enough. Though one cannot generalize based on the above statements, but I am sure this kind of attitude is all pervasive.

 

There is this soup-vendor on the way from Big Street to Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane. More about the prasadams at Parthu’s here. The last time I went to the temple, I stopped by to have some tomato soup. One year on, I did the same again. This time around I started asking a few questions. Now this stall had some Self Employment Group’s name on it. The guy started getting a bit defensive after a few questions which I thought he deemed them to be invasive for his business. After telling him that I was a non-local and that I had been a customer a year back, he toned down,  freed up with his answers  and even added the ” the moment I saw you, I knew I had seen you before” line. Now for the soup-deal. It is a franchise system, where one has to pay Rs.15,000 upfront. Each day he buys 4 containers of 4 different flavours, worth Rs.200, with an additional transit burden of Rs.50. On an average, he gets about Rs.250-300 per day, setting shop at 5PM selling one cup at a retail price of Rs.10 and closing at around 9PM.  Though  the franchises of a particular company have their own half kilometre no in-fighting radius, there is competition from other company franchises. So for 4 hours a day, considering the worst-case estimates, Rs.6,000 is guaranteed per month. This, apart from the day-job of a driver at L&T. Done with the soup I moved on thinking that if one is ready to put in their life into any which thing, there are bound to be ways to earn a decent living anywhere.

 

Indian Railways has these trains called Rajdhani Express. Supposed to be one of the better services offered by them. Starting this May, Airtel has taken over the maintenance of these trains, as I learnt from a fellow passenger who does a weekly Bangalore – Hyderabad trip. I was told this but there was no sign of the change. As luck would have it, an old rake had come and the up-gradations to the facilities were yet to happen to this train. The maintenance team was still Airtel’s, but there wasn’t much difference when compared to the normal Sleeper class. The toilets were stinkier than normal if I might add. The food was okay, but the chai-paise seeking staff was not. More on the economics of tea later. Let’s hope that in due course, things will change in this regard in all classes, on all trains. 

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Once upon a train journey

Today I intend to tell you the story of Ramudu and Shyamudu.

Ramudu had to travel to Chennai from Hyderabad, to check the average height above mean sea level of the Chepauk pitch. Considering the Iraq war, the oil crisis, the recent air-fare hike and the relocation of the Hyderabad airport to Shamshabad, he decides that traveling by Indian Railways is a far cheaper and more comfortable option. So one fine morning, he goes early to the Railway Reservation Counter at Secunderabad. The office is yet to be opened, yet he reaches early in time. He is joined by many others most of whom, who weren’t like him. Ramudu was there to book a ticket , well ahead of his scheduled departure, whereas most of these people were there to book tickets under Tatkal quota.

Fools, Ramudu thought of these people, because he saw the Tatkal quota in a totally different light. It was similar to what he saw at Anand theatre in Begumpet. The management would open the advance booking counter for the evening and night shows in the afternoon and close it early. Later in the evening, before the respective shows, they would put up House-Full boards and then sell a significant chunk of the tickets for these shows, in black. Ramudu saw Tatkal quota as a front put up by the Indian Railways to sell tickets in black. If only the government could do the same by legalizing ( illicit ) drugs, betting and the related what nots and earn heavily and do away with the multiple taxation structure and Ramudu, with his enhanced savings, could travel to Chennai by a flight, in spite of the higher airfares. But then again, this was the stuff dreams were made of. Ramudu realized he was still standing in line for the Railway Reservation Office to open.

Open it did finally at 745AM and he rushed to the inquiry counter, picked up a reservation form and rushed to one of the many counters. Since Ramudu was a regular to this ordeal, he knew one thing very clearly. One might be at the end of the line before the office is opened, but with so many counters, one can still be in the first 5 persons in a line at any one of those counters. It so happened that he was the fifth person at one such counter. But there is a sense of uncertainty about these counters at the start of the day. In front of every counter, there is a display board, showing the availability, train no., fare and related details of the booking they are making, assisting the customer to get the exact change ready as the Booking Executive (B.E. if one may call them that ) goes about booking the ticket.

Now it was a known fact for Ramudu and others, that the counters which had their display boards powered off, were not going to opened immediately and would be done only if there is a huge rush for reservations. But it also happens that some of these counters, which had their display boards on, are not opened at 8am, but a little later in the morning, say after 30-45 minutes or so. But there are customers at all the counters which have their display board powered on. One by one, the railway staff started occupying their seats at the counters, in a seemingly random order. At this stage all but few ( 2-3 ) lines, were being catered to by the railway staff. Ramudu was in one of those few which weren’t. But he had not wasted time while this simple situation was being obfuscated by a gargantuan description. He had meticulously filled the reservation form and was patiently waiting.

But his patience started to run out, when he saw that he was in one of those lines. He started contemplating moving to another line. At this moment, sanity prevailed as he remembered The Golden Rule of Lines in Railway Reservation Office ( to hell with Queues ), which stated that, the moment you ditch a line on the premise that it is moving slowly and move to another, that line will move so much more faster than the line to which you have moved to. Of course, the rule never alluded to the pace of the line when you showed loyalty to it in the time of a conflict of interest between two lines, but the disincentive proved enough for Ramudu to decide against moving to another line. For this, he was rewarded with a railway staff person immediately taking charge of the counter. Poor fellow got stuck in traffic it seems.

There were a few who shifted lines only to be done in by the Golden Rule. Their counters, got staffed 2 minutes after they had left the line and they created a huge commotion at the Chief Superintendent’s counter. In spite of all this around him, Ramudu was not perturbed one bit. He was in fact, feeling good about himself for having stuck to the line. It moved and it was now his turn. The B.E. , after confirming with Ramudu, entered the details in to the DOS command like package from the previous century, from the reservation form. After a final confirmation about the berth to be allocated, the B.E. pressed a combination of keys and voila, came out the ticket, looking something like this Know Your Ticket dummy ticket.

Dummy Ticket

( Note that the ticket has no details about the passenger’s name or the photo-id that they ought to be carrying )

Since this story was supposed to also include Shyamudu, let me bring him in now. Shyamudu wanted to accompany Ramudu, since it was his barometer that Ramudu was taking for the measurement. Ramudu informed Shyamudu about his travel plans. Shyamudu was not inclined to go to the Reservation Office, stand in line and book the ticket manually. Instead, he preferred to use the Indian Railways online booking service at www.irctc.com. He logged in, searched for the train Ramudu was traveling by, entered his travel details, credit(debit) card details and photo-id details. Everything is done in a flash and a printout of the ticket is ready.For travel, Shyamudu (foolishly) decides to take a photocopy of his passport and not the passport itself, citing ( to himself ) security reasons.

The travel to Chennai went ahead without an incident. Together they found out that a barometre would hardly suffice their cause, and that they needed to invest in a differential GPS to get anywhere close to the accuracy levels they needed to settle their argument on the pitch at Chepauk. After having a nice meal at Murugan Idli Shop, they boarded the train back to Hyderabad. The TTE ( Traveling Ticket Examiner ) arrived a good hour into the journey. Ramudu gave his ticket, following which the TTE did the routine looking back forth into the reservation chart and ticket, ticked the reservation chart across Ramudu’s name and returned the ticket to Ramudu with the most lifeless face. Then he took Shyamudu’s e-ticket, checked with the chart and asked Shyamudu for his photo-id. Shyamudu showed the photocopy of his passport. The TTE refused to accept the photocopy of the passport, which had Shyamudu’s photograph, as a valid proof of identity. He insisted on the passport being present in original for him to verify. Shyamudu was fined for traveling without ticket. What happened after that is beyond the scope of this textbook.

Finally the rant after all that crap.

I do not know whether Shyamudu actually paid the fine. As such he could have just shown another valid photo-id in original and be done with the process. But Shyamudu was a 70 year old lady who at that point of time, did not have any other id on her person. All she could come up with was a <em>this will not happen another time as I was not aware of the details</em>. Probably someone else had booked the ticket for her online.

This whole situation made me finally write what I felt about a situation. The verification of identity, for railway travelers using an e-ticket. It is important to note the premise of this verification; a ticket booked on one person’s name is not transferrable to another person. Verification is needed, that is something I totally agree but what is irksome is the fact that the same verification is not done for Ramudu. Note that Ramudu needn’t always be a manchi baaludu ( good boy ). It could very well be that Bhimudu had booked the ticket on Bhimudu’s name but Ramudu travels ( he got the ticket somehow ) pretending to be Bhimudu.

The two basic ( for my rant ) differences between a normal ticket and an e-ticket is that for the e-ticket you pay a little bit more and that the information is keyed in by a railway employee in one case and the customer in the other. So the railway decides to trust their own info excessively but is totally skeptical about the customer. Fine. But the chances of malpractice are the same in both the cases. In that case they ought to be checking every single passenger’s identity. I know it is not all that viable but that is the only solution that I see that can be termed fair to e-ticket passengers and monetarily beneficial to the Railways. One might say that it ends up being more workload for the TTE’s but for someone whose job is checking every ticket, checking another ID should not be a big deal. But then not everyone has an id, you may say. Then why the insistence on an ID for an e-ticket only?

As I see it now, one gets suspected for using the online portal, paying more to the railways and avoiding the personal contact with the Reservation office whereas you can go scot-free for having a normal ticket, even if you are flouting the most basic of rules.