A couple of years ago, on our way back to the bay area from Salt Lake City by Amtrak, our train- the California Zephyr- was delayed by about 3 hours. We were stuck at the station, with about 25-30 other passengers, and one station master. There was pin drop silence in the waiting room, as everyone was sitting quietly, either dozing off or reading, or just starting into thin air.
I was reading the book, “Collected Fiction” by Ruskin Bond, where he was describing a scene at a train station in India. It was a beautiful description, one that brought vivid memories of buzzing train stations to mind. What a sharp contrast it was, to the scene that I was experiencing on that cold night in Salt Lake City. Here’s the excerpt that I was reading, from the short story, “The Last Tonga Ride”, by Ruskin Bond:
“‘Do not worry about the train, it never leaves on time, and no one expects it to. If it left at nine o’clock, everyone would miss it.’
Bansi was right. We arrived at the station at five minutes past nine, and rushed on to the platform, only to find that the train had not yet arrived.
The platform was crowded with people waiting to catch the same train or to meet people arriving on it. Ayah was there already, standing guard over a pile of miscellaneous luggage. We sat down on our boxes and became part of the platform life at an Indian railway station.
Moving among piles of bedding and luggage were sweating, cursing coolies; vendors of magazines, sweetmeats, tea and betel-leaf preparations; also stray dogs, stray people and sometimes a stray station-master. The cries of the vendors mixed with the general clamour of the station and the shunting of a steam engine in the yards. ‘Tea, hot tea!’ Sweets, papads, hot stuff, cold drinks, toothpowder, pictures of film stars, bananas, balloons, wooden toys, clay images of the gods. The platform had become a bazaar.
The station bell clanged, and in the distance there appeared a big, puffing steam engine, painted green and gold and black. A stray dog with a lifetime’s experience of trains, darted away across the railway lines. As the train came alongside the platform, doors opened, window shutters fell, faces appeared in the openings, and even before the train had come to a stop, people were trying to get in or out.
For a few moments there was chaos. The crowd surged backward and forward. No one could get out. No one could get in. A hundrend people were leaving the train, two hundred were getting into it. No one wanted to give way.
The problem was solved by a man climbing out of a window. Others followed his example and the pressure at the doors eased and people started squeezing into their compartments.
Grandmother had taken the precaution of reserving berths in a first-class compartment, and assisted by Bansi and half-a-dozen coolies, we were soon inside with all our luggage. A whistle blasted and we were off! Bansi had to jump from the running train.“
Our train finally arrived at 2:00 am. All passengers queued up at the doors and boarded the train wordlessly, in single file. After 15 minutes, the train took off, leaving the sole station master behind at the platform.