Humour: For one night only

The ingenuity of Bhola-babu

Those were the days, in the early 80s, when the Railway Reservation System didn’t kick in, not as yet. If you urgently needed a berth in an overnight train, you went to someone who could get you in the train, get you a berth to stretch your legs through the night, and if possible, also requisition a bed-roll from the station, if travelling first class.

Those were the days I often had to travel overnight by train from Howrah Station. And every time, I sought Bhola-babu.

The portly, going-bald-but-not-yet, middle-aged man, in a pair of loose-fitting trousers and a carelessly worn shirt, would promptly show up.

“Coming Tuesday?” he would exclaim. “And today is what? Already Friday. Tch. Very difficult, sir. All trains going full.” All these, he would say not looking at me, but standing across my desk, staring at the scribbled scrap of paper held in his hand, which outlined my unfair demand. I well knew his opening gambit.

But such was my trust on him that without any further communication from him, I would show up at the railway station on the designated day and time for the journey.

I would wait on the platform by the first-class compartment, and Bhola-babu would show up just minutes before departure time, his appearance always a bit heckled, by design or otherwise.

“I somehow managed it this time, sir,” he would say while handing over the ticket for a reserved berth. I knew this line all too well, and like a cooperative partner in a dance duet, I would exclaim, “Ah, what would I have done without you, Bhola-babu?”

Once he arrived when the train was whistling for departure. Must admit, my trust on him had started to waver for the first time. Without a word, he dragged me towards another compartment. “I didn’t get any berth here,” he shouted above the din of the platform while still hauling me. “So I got you one in the Mughalsarai coach,” and added, “Don’t forget to get down from the train at Mughalsarai Junction at six in the morning tomorrow, and change to another bogie. This one will be cut-off there.”

On another occasion, he looked sheepish as he approached me at the platform. “Couldn’t get it,” he said. “O my god, what will happen now?” I exclaimed. He didn’t seem to have heard me and dug deep into the pocket of his trousers and fished out a dozen tickets and started to sort them out. I was getting impatient but he was engrossed in his chore.

He separated two tickets. Those days, for a reserved seat or berth, there were two tickets, one for the journey and one for the reservation. “This is your journey ticket,” he said, “no problem, from Howrah to Tundla.” I took the ticket. “This one, sir, is in the name of A Banerjee,” he said while handing me over the reservation ticket. I raised by brows, but Bhola-babu brushed me aside, “This ‘A’ remains the same as in your name, sir,” he said with a smile, which I knew was forced.

“Only, you have to be Banerjee, for one night only.”

The train whistled, and I ran through my options. Those days, you didn’t have to prove your identity every five steps.

How Bhola-babu did what he did, I never dared to ask. He got his commission and I, my nightly berth at short notice. My compulsions and his ingeniousness carried us through those balmy years of travelling by train, when squatting on a first-class berth by the window didn’t shut off the air brushing on the face. But how far could Bhola-babu stretch his ingenuity?

On a wintry December night, I waited at platform number 8 of Howrah Station, one of those two platforms where you could drive your car to and park beside your compartment. The Kalka Mail would depart at 9.50. Bhola-babu arrived when the platform clock showed 9.48. “This coach, sir,” he said, “cabin D, upper berth.”

Eyeing the clock, I almost snatched the ticket from him to board, when he quipped, “One thing, sir.”

“What now?”

“Sir, season time now, no berth available for one month.”

“So?”

“Sir, reservation in the name of one Miss Ashima.” I froze. “Very close to your name, sir.”

The Kalka Mail hooted. Bhola-babu dragged and shoved me inside the compartment. The train started to move.

“Sir, I managed my best, now you please do this little bit of managing. For one night only.” 

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