Of all the students in 80s and even early 90s, destined for admission in the Delhi University, who would be boarding Magadh Express, there were many whose parents were reasonably if not wildly affluent and they could have easily afforded air journey. If not air, they could certainly have travelled in AC coaches of train which offer some protection from the dirt, grime, sweat, flies and smell of travel via Indian Railways. Why in the world did they choose to travel in second class of the Magadh Express?
Partly it had to do with the socialist spirit of times. Money was meant to be saved, not splurged. Ostentatious display of wealth was considered vulgar—an attitude that would change dramatically beginning with economic reforms. Partly it also had to do with the notion of knowledge and its equation with the notion of wealth. Acquisition of wealth could wait. Meanwhile, students must travel in smelly second class sleeper coaches even if some of them could have afforded to be airborne. Individualism was still some distance away and sense of collective solidarity of students almost mandated travelling together.
Others, whose parents were not exactly rich, had no choice. Be that as it may, Magadh Express starting from Platform No. 4 or 5 of Patna Junction was how Bihari students travelled to Delhi for admission. After a long summer vacation, the platform would turn into a sea of students agog with expectations.
Platform No. 5 after summer vacation
When Anupam noticed Bhawna for a few fleeting seconds on Platform No. 5, he was feeling lonely, what with his father looking away to conceal his moist eyes. Right then he saw a girl whose dimples would emerge playfully while she was talking to her mother. Her long hair—a shade of brown—was tied in a casual bun. Her eyes glinted for a moment when he looked at her and at that very moment, he—in his internal monologue—whispered to himself he would move mountains to get this girl. One of those impromptu pledges which obsess, consume, torment individuals for a lifetime and beyond.
Platform No.5 after summer, autumn or winter vacations would be witness to a sea of students—from varied social backgrounds, speaking different dialects, even English in different regional accents, boys trying to impress girls, girls looking at boys fleetingly and apparently indifferently, gossip and grapevine brewing up in their tumultuous heads, all bound for different colleges of Delhi University. One anxiety that marred temporary reunion on Platform No.5 concerned anxiety about impending results. Students would try to figure out scores they were likely to secure knowing that when it came to awarding marks, DU could be extremely squeamish.
Magadh started for Delhi at 7.30 pm but students would start arriving by 6 pm. Girls would arrive with their insecure fathers and proud mothers but boys would mostly be on their own. One way or another, the girls, mainly from Notre Dame and St. Joseph's Convent, and the boys from St. Michael's and to a lesser extent Loyola and St. Xavier's, knew each other. Those from Patna College—notwithstanding its hoary past—did not find favour with these girls.
Regardless, boys of all antecedents would gravitate towards girls on Platform No. 5. Boys would suddenly break into English while passing by girls and they would use youth neologisms like sophisto, mojo and fashionista. Girls' parents—certain that their innocent daughters were being wooed by awara boys—would throw a security ring around their daughters. Worried mothers would make their daughters pledge they would not go astray and would give their hundred per cent to becoming an IAS officer and take care of those harassing boys who in their estimation were clearly on the slippery slope of turning into ruffians and goondas.
With time, the number of DU-bound students on Platform No.5 would grow. A suitcase and an airbag with a plastic water jug and a magazine like India Today—it is how boys would emerge on Platform No. 5. Mineral water was yet to become part of daily life or students were simply ignorant of physical, chemical and biological contamination, so they had no qualms in filling their jugs from tap water. It was precisely the time Lee Kuan Yew was trying to make tap water safe and potable in Singapore. On Platform No. 5, students were simply unaware of these developments.
Arrival of the Magadh Express
Usual helter-skelter upon the arrival of train would subside with porters' leaving after fierce haggling and students would be busy finding space for their luggage. Parents who had come to see their daughters off would throng the train windows seeking to repeat those nuggets of morality to their clearly uncomfortable daughters as to how the world is unsafe for girls and boys are unreliable and the road to becoming IAS is straight and narrow and how they must keep reading interviews of IAS toppers in Competition Success Review.
Eavesdropping boys would mumble on an irritated note: aap bhi saath hi chaliye (you should accompany your daughter to Delhi). While departing, Magadh Express would leave moist eyes, weak knees and anxious hearts behind. A few students—for no reason—would shout "Raja Ramchandra ki Jai". Not to be outdone and sympathetic to tremendous sacrifices made by Laxman, a few others would join the chorus, "Lagle Lakhan Lal ki Jai".
Inside Magadh Express
To be inside the reserved coach didn't mean everyone had a reserved berth or even a humble general ticket. There was security in numbers. One berth could accommodate as many as three students. Others would simply be footloose after dumping luggage with their friends, hopping from one coach to another to meet other friends and to have a good view of girls who were no longer with their annoying parents.
TC in the train would appear cosmetically before disappearing eternally. Bereft of tickets, students would look at penal provisions written on the wall of coaches cynically. Upon going through penal provision of ₹250 and/or a prison term of six months, they would feel like pulling down the chain of the train. They would touch it before abandoning the idea.
Daily passengers from Patna to Ara would join the students on their journey and they felt themselves entitled enough to occupy reserved berths. What Aligarh is to UP, Ara is to Bihar. They looked at DU-bound girls and boys with mixed feelings of awe and revulsion, lust and indifference. Good that Ara is just 55 Kms away from Patna otherwise human history would have been witness to some more incidents of skull-breaking.
Things would more or less settle down after Ara which did not mean that everybody had a berth to himself or herself. It simply meant that like India, Magadh Express too had found its semblance of balance in chaos. Those who were not students but were unfortunate enough to be aboard Magadh Express that day—after initial tantrums and reference to the preamble and the Fundamental Rights—had reconciled themselves to the presence of intruders and nightlong anarchy.
After Ara or Buxar would also come out dinner not from steel boxes but from newspapers containing useless editorials in which editor had used words clearly unwarranted and ideas smacking of wishy-washy socialism. Dinner anyway sounds presumptuous for a couple of chapatis or triangular parathas, slightly burnt, crispy aloo bhujiya and may be a pickle or two that reminded students of Maa, Maati and Maanush.
Mughalsarai which later caught the fancy of those who love changing familiar names for putatively historical reasons would arrive after three and half hours. Insomniacs would get down and have a round of the platform. Adjacent to the Wheeler Bookseller was a confectionery shop which fried hot jalebis. Eating jalebis at sleepy Mughalsarai in the dead hours of night was heavenly.
Most of the travellers aboard Magadh Express would be lulled into sleep by lullabies from wheels on rail. An iron bridge of colonial vintage across a river would yield strong trundling sound that would interrupt sleep temporarily. Two students sharing the same berth lying on it from opposite directions was as much about solidarity as culture of poverty. Once Mukesh, Saurabh and Baba had just one berth among themselves so they decided to sleep by rotation. Mukesh was the first to sleep but he refused to get up when his time was over. Saurabh and Baba shook him violently, shouted into his ears loudly and abused him vehemently but he was impervious. Frustrated, Saurabh took out his smelly socks and dangled them close to his nose. Rotting smell of socks was too overpowering for Mukesh to keep sleeping.
Some of the students would occupy space between two berths with a flimsy bedsheet and an inflatable pillow as bed; a few others had nothing against turdy smell emanating from bathroom. Once in a while, someone would switch on the light or someone would fart long enough and loud enough to evoke murmurs of disapproval. The train would criss-cross through the cowbelt-heartland of India and by the time the first ray of the sun would descend upon us, the train would be hurtling into Tundla.
Tundla to Aligarh
Tundla because of its proximity to Agra often tempted students to get down and take a train or bus to Agra. Tundla—despite an important Junction under North Central Railway—did not have usual thrum and bustle of a railway town. Its British association was very visible. But what really attracted students was its tangy chaat consisting of tikki, papdi, sev, sauce, tomato, black and plain salt, chat masala, tamarind water and what not. Not hunger as such but craving for something spicy and tangy that would make students rush towards chaat vendors. Girls would outnumber and out-eat boys.
From Tundla onwards, the journey would become interesting. On either side of the railway line, wall advertisements written in humongous font would draw your attention towards them. Even a cursory glance was enough to leave anyone convinced that the biggest problem that India confronted was impotency or naamardgi and associated concomitants like night fall, quick fall or shighra patan, enfeeblement of semen or dhaatu ka patla hona. For sure and certain treatment or shartia Ilaaz, suffering Indians were expected to meet a vaid or hakim at the given address.
This obsession with impotency and potency explains why people were angry with population control measures spearheaded by an extra-constitutional authority in Sanjay Gandhi. Cowbelt inventively inverted a popular slogan giving a clarion call for "Indira Hatao, Indiri Bachao (Remove Indira, save masculinity). To provide variety and more entertainment, there were doctors and vaids and hakims for "Daad, khaj, Khujli, Bawasir and other Gupt Rog" whose panaceas were promised to ensure root and branch removal of those diseases which—notwithstanding advances in modern science and medical research—had defied the ingenuity of Homo Sapiens. When one of the Stephenians got posted at Amroha, one of the first things he did was to visit Shafa Dawakhana.
By the time one reached Aligarh, Professor Arora's Rishtey Hi Rishtey would start appearing on walls with monotonous frequency. It anticipated matrimonial sites by a good 50 years. Biharis had a particular image of the way brides and grooms were selected or rejected but Professor Arora proposed outsourcing when outsourcing was yet to catch the fancy of the Republic. Rishtey hi Rishtey ads were closely followed by Sablok clinic of Daryaganj which was immortalised by Anu Kapur in Vicky Donor. Sablok Clinic was possibly the natural corollary of Professor Arora's. Hathras would draw peals of laughter for its association with Kaka.
When the train would pull into Aligarh, a few students would disembark for Aligarh Muslim University. But a rush of locals would barge into coaches and with nimble deftness, would occupy every inch of vacant space including upper berth. Just as it was futile picking up fight with locals of Ara, it was similarly imprudent fighting with Aligarhians. It would be 9 in the morning or so and the urge to reach Delhi would be uppermost on students' minds. From the train, Western UP does not look as prosperous as it is nor does it seem as crime-infested as it is. By the time the train reached Ghaziabad, industries small and big would start becoming visible. It is in these factories that migrant labour from Bihar finds employment.
People in general are taller and speak in a variation of Hindi that is grammar-agnostic. By and by, small stations pass and Shivaji Bridge and Tilak Bridge—named after two Maharashtrians who have inspired considerable historiography—would appear in view.
The question that would often confuse students from Bihar—Paharganj side or Ajmeri Gate side.