Have you ever booked a Tatkal ticket online on the IRCTC website? I haven’t. But I have seen my father doing it. Again and again. Keeping his tea cup beside him, he sits upright in front of his laptop at 9:45am sharp. That too once every two weeks atleast. If some relatives from my village, who do not have any access to internet, have to visit any place in India urgently, they call my papa to book the Tatkal tickets. Plus he books normal tickets in advance for those two months school holidays during which my cousins pay a visit to the capital every year. In addition, he books tickets for my travel from Chandigarh to Delhi every alternate weekend. But my brother is the best. He gets flight tickets in advance to come from Chennai to Delhi after the end of each semester exams:(
But last week, after a 40 days superb stay at Mangalore ECC at Infosys, it was time to get back to my base location-Chandigarh. As the status of all the seats in Rajdhani 2nd class showed waiting list, we were in complete panic mode. We had tried to book Tatkal tickets online ourselves, but the website had crashed and took longer time to recover in the office. Later, we could only see waiting list of 17, 32, 60, and 70 on the screen! And we couldn’t be send off in a flight because of our lower job levels (my brother smirked a lot when he heard this) and our stay couldn’t be extended further. So we decided to go and manually try for Tatkal tickets at the Mangalore railway station one day before the scheduled Rajdhani departure. I told my mother and she started arguing on the phone. You are a girl. How will you stand in such a long queue? Those queues go well outside the station! People stand under the hot sun and there is lots of pushing and poking! YOU ARE NOT GOING! I’ll tell your father to book the ticket right now himself! She stopped only to catch her breath and I stole my chance. I told her that it wasn’t just my ticket that had to be booked. My entire team was there too. How can I tell my father to book tickets that would make him shell out around INR 15550 at one go? I couldn’t. I didn’t want him to.
So on the early morning of Friday, I went to the station with one of my team-mates. Just the two of us. Others were not needed. One person could book four tickets manually and so just the two of us were enough. We reached the station well before 7:00am and stared. I had imagined people lining up to the counter and long queues going well outside the station. I had visualized passengers sleeping on the platform, waiting for the Tatkal counter to open at 10:00am. I had imagined irritated people glaring at the yawning railway officials, poking, groping and pushing at their neighbours standing ahead of them. But this was so not that.
We went inside the station and enquired about the Tatkal counter. A fat man pointed outside the station. Surprised, we came outside again and looked closely rotating ourselves 360 degrees to spot anything familiar. Far away from us, just at the corner of the station was a RESERVATION CENTRE banner. We ran. I rushed past a speed post office and a deserted KSRTC canteen. We came in front of the sign board and turned to our left. The main gate of the counter was closed. The shutter was down with a big rusty looking old lock on it. Few people stood outside the shutter like a hurdle. Some men were smoking while some just hung around. No queue whatsoever. I sighed reassuringly towards my team-mate but he frowned. There were no women in sight. The group in front of us consisted of only men. I hesitated for one moment and then started going forward. But he stopped me and pointed at a deserted area. He wanted to stand in the men crowd alone. You can join later when the shutter opens, he said. In my heart I was much grateful to him. When I moved towards a corner that was opened to a starting point of a railway track, I saw few men staring at me again. They turned away soon as if embarrassed that I had caught them staring at my sleep deprived face and messy hair.
Nothing exciting happened except a couple of vans dropping off long packages of speed posts and a couple of nearby villagers walking on the railway track with a small plastic bottle in their hand. There was a red engine ahead of me in sight. I had a sudden vision of Shahrukh Khan’s dance in chal-chaiya-chaiya. Around 7:30am, the shutter opened and there was a mad rush to get inside fast ahead of everybody else. I too ran and entered but my colleague had already reserved third place in the queue in front of the Self Tatkal Counter-counter for passengers purchasing Tatkal tickets for self-travel only: - no agents/representatives are entertained. The room was rectangular and contained seven counters. There were signs of NO Smoking Please, Tatkal Reservation Scheme and Please Tender Exact Fare plastered on the old walls. There was a black board that showed white bold lines referring to Senior Citizen’s Rule- Senior citizens of the age of 60 and above (Gents) and age of 56 and above (ladies) can avail concession at 40% below the basic fare in all classes but to carry some proof of age and produce it on demand. There was a huge sign put up that claimed physically challenged persons can buy their concession tickets at any counter without queue.
I turned and saw a middle-aged man with a big shoulder bag. He was sweating profusely under its heavy weight. He pointed at a sign and asked me what it meant. I went closer to look at it. It read FOR JOURNEY COMMENCING FROM 01.10.2013:- BOARDING CHANGE PERMITTED AT THE TIME OF BOOKING ITSELF AND ALSO UPTO 24HRS BEFORE DEPARTURE. I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Seeing my blank look, the man looked away in frustration and asked another guy for help. Your complete education is a total waste, I told myself.
I tore myself away from the sign boards and moved to the Train departure timings at Mangalore Central board. The weirdest that I have heard and travelled in are Flying Rani (Surat-Mumbai) and Garib Rath Express (though no garib can afford the quoted fares easily). Here I found many new names I had never heard before- Santragatchi Vivek Superfast Express, Lokmanyatilak Terminus Matsyagandha Superfast Express, and Subramanya Road Passenger etc. By the time it was 9.30am, the place had become crowded. There was no separate queue for women. So my friend asked me to sit on a seat while he stood in the queue. There were 4 rows of stiff iron seats. I sat in one of them and peered at my neighbours. A dude in white t-shirt and faded jeans was sleeping soundly, his mouth half opened. Next to him was a middle aged man, picking his nose. Somebody’s phone rang loudly with chipkale-saiyaan-fevicol-se ringtone. Then quite suddenly, an old man appeared next to me. He was too thin and had a walking stick. Some hair that he had was as white as Albus Dumbledore’s. He smiled a toothless grin on seeing me rising from my seat.
“Can you fill up this form?” he asked extending the Tatkal form in his hand and a blue ball-point pen.
I took both from him and started filling up the details. He refused to sit. I don’t know why. So I also stood up and filled the form for him. I asked him all the details and he answered them. These mainly were Passenger Name, Train Name, Train No., Date of Journey, Address, Station From, Station To, and Signature. He signed in the last and went away in one of the normal booking counters. Barely five minutes had gone by when he came back again.
“Wrong train!” he declared and produced a new form under my nose.
We filled up the new details again and he signed for the second time. This time he sat next to me. I started discussing with him regarding his vacation in Madras. He was going there to visit his daughter. He complained about no separate queue for senior citizens at the Tatkal counter too. After a few minutes, the Tatkal counter opened at 10:00am sharp. I went to my friend. Now everybody were wide awake and alert. When our turn came, we paid the required amount and got the tickets in next few seconds. Phew! So much planning, getting up early, no bathing, no breakfast and lots of standing in a queue just for that 2 minutes task! But the rain god had different plans in store for us. It was raining heavily outside, just like always! So we had to wait for next half an hour. When the downpour turned into drizzling, we walked away fast to catch an auto that would take us to a nearest bus stop. And that way my first tryst with the Tatkal ended- feeling hungry, my dress half wet in the rain, sandals squeaking with every step and costly tickets to Chandigarh in my purse. But the experience was good (hello! I didn’t have to stand in a long, long queue!). But ask me to go back there again and you might get my mother breaking the news that I am ill or have fractured my legs and therefore is unavailable to go and stand in Tatkal:-)