I have a distinct memory of a ride in a local train when I was two years old. I remember crazy traffic on Mumbai roads – the reason why my parents chose to take a local train even though they were with two young children. I remember boarding the local with my mother, somehow. I remember that a gentleman – who I distinctly categorised as a ‘kind uncle’ – put me on the luggage rack, out of harm’s way. I remember wide-eyed, yet dry-eyed, fear as I looked down at more people than my childish brain could begin to comprehend.
I’m sure time has embellished the memory, but that was my idea of a ‘crowded’ local train. Fourteen years later, when people warned me that the local train from Kharagpur to Kolkata would be crowded, I admit I was more than a little nervous. I dressed simply – no loose clothes that could get caught in other people’s things. I carried no luggage at all because I’ve heard horror stories about pickpockets on trains. Together with a friend, I boarded the train at Kharagpur.
It was empty.
Maybe not. There were five people in the coach.
Half an hour later, a lady boarded the train with her bedding equipment. She spread it out on a wooden seat, lay down and slept for the rest of the journey. My friend and I couldn’t stop laughing.
That night, we were asked whether the train was crowded, and we laughed again, talking about what we expected and what we got.
“No, no, no,” we were told. “Here, from Kharagpur, local trains aren’t that crowded! No, we just thought you may not be able to sit together in the train, so we wanted you to be prepared to find seats a little far away from each other.”
Ah. That’s what ‘crowded’ means for some people. We live and learn.