Monday, February 13, 2012

Repost - The Saga of the Side Middle Berth

Back in the day, we used to have a blog on Livemint, now deceased. Recently, vox populi (and a dolphin) have been asking for certain posts, now long forgotten and dead. We are reproducing.

The Saga of the Side Middle Berth
Which was provoked by disturbing goings-on on the Charminar Express last night [Note: This is circa July 2009.]

Long, long ago in a land far, far away, there lived a dairy farmer. He and his friends were mesmerized by the magic of trains. Often, on hot summer days, they would gather near the doors of the air-conditioned compartments, hoping to catch a refreshing gust of cool air as the doors swung open and shut. When the coach attendant caught them, he would shoo them away. The farmer never forgot how cool and good the AC felt, and nor did he forget the treatment that was meted out to his friends.

Many decades later, Lalu Prasad Yadav became India's railways minister. Much Gangajal (and other unmentionables) had flowed under the impressive bridge at Patna, but the minister had not forgotten his encounters with the AC sleeper coaches all those years back. While he set about busily turning Indian Railways around from its slide into bankruptcy, Laluji made plans to make his dream of AC travel for the common man come true.

Or so goes one theory behind the fully air-conditioned Garib Rath superfasts that were introduced in 2005. Another theory holds that they were conceived to steal back the section of upper class rail passengers who had succumbed to the voluptuous overtures of the low cost airline boom. Like all legends, the truth is probably a heady cocktail of all of the above.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the seed of an idea for creating the Garib Raths for providing fully air-conditioned, cheap travel options to Indians who had hitherto been unable to afford this luxury, germinated in some cosy corner of the labyrinthine megalith that is Rail Bhavan.

The powers that be were acutely conscious that they would be accused of populism and pandering to the 'masses' if they came up with a cheap, loss making train that would have to be subsidized by receipts from other railway operations. Right from the beginning, the idea was to make sure that the trains would be profitable (like the Rajdhanis). So how do you take a Rajdhani Express, reduce the ticket price substantially, and yet keep the operation profitable? Simple! You have to carry more people.

Trantrantrantraaaaa...(and other fanfare). Enter the Dragon [At this juncture, connoisseurs of that Telugu classic 'Money' are invited to chuckle]. This scorcher went by the name of Side Middle Berth (SMB. Or, in the interest of industrial quantities of cuteness, Simbu). Simbu suddenly meant that you could carry 9 more people in the same coach. Simbu was cool, Simbu was innovative, Simbu was the new kid on the block. It is rumored that the designers all dislocated their arms from paroxyms of a patting-oneself-on-the-back epidemic that briefly swept through their brotherhood and sisterhood.

At some point, someone must've gone, "Machaan! (Or Aila! Teri To! Edo! Orai! Dude! as the case may be) What is good for Garib Rath must surely be better for Sleeper Class!! Why don't we bung Simbus into SL coaches, and suddenly we can carry 81 people instead of 72!" Kaching kaching kaching! The cash register sound was like a siren song. Lo, and presto. Suddenly a whole new class of coaches started showing up, all souped up and Simbued.

The problems began from Day 0. The IRCTC website, which had been commissioned by Chanakya and inaugurated approximately in the period of Pulakesin II (and is now officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site), still assumed that you could only seat 72 people, and allotted seat numbers accordingly. Many an uncle (including this one), showed up in the compartment to find out that the comfy lower berth number 33 that they'd booked in the interest of their arthritic knee had mysteriously wafted upwards and was kissing the ceiling now. It became mandatory to take a look at the reservation chart to find what your new seat number (with promised lower berth) was. This was OK if you were in Howrah or Chennai Central and had all the time in the world, but if you were in Ankamali For Kaladi (I kid you not, this is a real station), you only had 13 milliseconds to do this.

Others (i.e. I) resorted to deriving complicated formulae to remember the new berth number. Issued in the general public interest under a Copyleft license

1. Take old berth number (example 33).
2. Divide by 9 (=33/9 = 3.remainder)
3. Remainders are for WUSSES. Chuck the remainder.
4. Add quotient to original berth number (33 + 3 = 36)
5. Give Praise Unto The Mundoli

Quarrels erupted ("This is my berth!" "No, this is my berth!" "No, this is my birth!" "Hain ji?")

And this was only the start. Once you got the poor Simbu occupant on the train, you had to seat him somewhere. In the bygone era of equality and uniformity, it was 3 people to each long seat, facing each other fixedly for several hours. Now Simbu was inserted into one of the long seats. Disruptions in the space-time continuum!

Inequality looms. The 3-seat fellows all suddenly acquired smug grins (Ha, ha! Look at those 4 unfortunates trying to fit on that slab, lucky us!). The 4-seat wallahs were apoplectic at the insertion of Simbu. They stare him down, and start moving their hands across their throats in a highly knife-like and suggestive manner. Poor Simbu became an uncomfortable outcast, trying to minimize his width (to fit in the seat), his height (to fit in the berth) and in general behaving like a touch-me-not.

So far, so good. Everyone has found their place, and made their peace. The train is careening into the night. Bedtime arrives. Now, the fellow who would normally be in the Side Upper Berth (SUB, obviously a.k.a Subbu), clambers onto the berth with the alacrity of a space monkey. The horror, the horror. Subbu finds that in order to accommodate Simbu, they've moved his berth closer to the ceiling. He can't sit up, and needs to constantly watch out lest he is decapitated by a very suspect, tetanus inducing fan that is hanging in front of his face. So now Subbu also hates Simbu, and makes dark plans for what devilry (involving fluids) he might do unto the sleeping form of the hapless Simbu, from his veritable Golan Heights of strategic advantage.

Simbu doesn't make a fuss, and quietly occupies his shelf in the rack. The lights are switched out, various expectoratory and other noises are heard. Soon, that comfortable and familiar silence of the Sleeper Class coach descends, punctuated by only the clickety-clack of metal wheels on metal points. Before the bastard in 41 starts snoring at 50 million decibels, as he inevitably will, you know it. (Sometimes I am that bastard, so please don't cuss too much).

It is 2 a.m. The rocking of the train has lulled the panic-stricken Simbu into a lap-of-mother type sleep. The rocking of the train has also resulted in Simbu starting an oscillatory rolling in his berth. Now in their infinite wisdom, those coach designers (of dislocated arms fame) did not move the light switches that we find between the 2 side seats (i.e. between Subbu's seat and Silambarasan's (i.e. Side Lower Berth) seat). Crucially, this switch is now athwartships of Simbu's gently oscillating backside.

In the old days, they had those massive metallic or Bakelite switches where you needed a team of horses (to pull the switch) and a Reynolds pen (to poke and jiggle the light/fan) before they would get going. As part of the Simbu innovations, they've replaced those switches with more 21st century avatars, which actually respond to feather touch. Alas, they didn't account for Simbu's gently rock-n'-rolling backside. At 2:30 in the morning, under the influence of the oscillatory impact, the fluorescent light starts to go on-off-on-off.

Now I'm not one to complain about a light flashing a couple of times. But absolutely, positively the last thing in the world I want is a Simbu-induced, fluorescent strobe light equipped, moving-at-100-kmph discotheque in front of my face at 2:30 in the morning, somewhere between Bapatla and Chirala. That is, without other expected accessories such as alcohol, recreational drugs, music, and pulsating, gyrating, nubile bodies all around.

But this is a delicate situation. One way to "handle" it is to...umm...reach out with one's hands and reposition the...err...oscillating rear end, but even in these heady post Section 377 days of freedom, some of us balk at this sort of thing. The other is to reach down from the upper berth and poke Simbu in the eye with one's big toe and wake him up (but not before toe is retracted) and thereby stopping the on-off. The third is to fill one's heart to the brim with the hatred of the Side Middle Berth, grit one's teeth and grin and bear it. Guess what we did.

To cut a long story long, the Side Middle Berth is a PHENOMENALLY bad idea. We have listed at least 4 reasons. Bad for Simbu, bad for Subbu, and for everyone who loves and cherishes Indian Railways. The good news is that there is talk that this sentiment has reached the highest echelons of Rail Mantralaya, and that steps are now being taken to possibly get rid of this obscenity. The bad news is that Simbu, who got this berth because of Tatkal in the first place, is now running around like a headless chicken on Platform 1 at Secunderabad, because he doesn't have a seat any more. If you see him, give him a hug.

PS It is noted that we've been highly gender un-neutral in this post and it's all "him" and "his" and all that, but may it be known by these presents that Simbu, Subbu and Silambarasan might equally have been Simbdoori, Subbulakshmi and Silombavardhini, without loss of generality.

The reader will be pleased to note that the SMB in SL coach phenomenon is now officially a thing of the past. We like to believe that this happy turn of events came about because of this post.