It was in the month of November 1970. I was at the tail end of my tennure as the CO of Black Archers (Number 47 Squadron Indian Air Force), then located at Hindan near Ghaziabad. I already had my posting order for my next appointment in my pocket; I was going as a Directing Staff to DSSC (Defence Services Staff College) Wellington, Nilgiris, Tamilnadu It was an appointment to my liking. I had the option of availing my full joining time and make the travel to Wellington into a holiday. On the other hand, Leena had not seen her parents for a long time while my mother had visited me just three or four months ago. It would be nice I thought if Leena could visit her parents at Siliguri before we moved down south. I mentioned the idea to her and obviously she was thrilled. Some of this thrill was eroded when I told her that I shall not be able to go with her. The three girls had their schools open and I was knee deep at work. There was an air defense exercise to see through before I was to hand over the Squadron.
Leena was unwilling to travel by first-class rail if she was to travel alone. The compartment had few people, and often the travelers were indifferent to each other. Travelling long distance by sleeper class was on the other hand like a picnic. Lots of people who are easy to befriend. She would be traveling with my son who was just under two years old. It would be easier to find some one to look after him in a sleeper class when she needed to visit the toilet. So, it was decided that she would travel by sleeper class.
In 1970, we had no computerized booking system, and I found it difficult to take a day off to go and stand at the reservation counter. Flight Lieutenant PK (Piddli) Gandhi was one of my boys in the squadron and his father worked for the railways. Piddle spoke to his father and the ticket was arranged for in good time. On the appointed date Piddli and I took Leena and Subir to Ghaziabad Junction Railway station to launch them on their journey.
In the Assam Mail (New Delhi to Guwahati) there were two bogies for the Sleeper Class. At the station we found no notification of location of reservation for the people joining the train from Ghaziabad. The ticket we had obtained was an old style card ticket attached to a reservation slip which proclaimed that the seat was confirmed for Leena Sen, but the seat number / coach number were left blank. The platform at Ghaziabad was low and it was difficult to board a train with a young child in ones arm. As the train stopped, we saw a glimpse of a conductor guard in the first sleeper coach. We got in. After a little jostle we cornered the conductor guard and asked for her seat, only to be told that her seat was in the other compartment. The rail rake was not a corridor type. We had to get down to the platform and get into the next compartment. Leena found it difficult to get down from the train with the child in her arms and handed the child to me. I just about to managed to find her seat and give the child back to her as the train moved. Piddly shoved her luggage below her seat.
We stood on the platform but could not wave out as her seat was on the other side of the coach. As the train pulled out and we started strolling back along the long platform, we saw the train come to a halt near the outer signal. Some one must have pulled the chain. We stood on the platform and watched the train for a few minutes till it started moving again. Piddli and I strolled to the exit gate. There was a ticket collector at the gate and he put his hand out for our platform tickets. I fetched out a ticket and as I proffered it to the ticket collector, I froze. I realized that it was Leena’s ticket that I thought was the platform ticket. The platform ticket was in my other pocket. I wheeled about and ran to the station master’s office and told him of the situation. The stationmaster was very helpful. He immediately sent out a telegram to Aligarh, Kanpur and Barauni informing them about the ticket of a passenger having been left behind and requesting the station master there to issue a journey certificate in lieu. Somewhat mollified, I returned home.
Even after reaching home, I was really not comfortable about the situation. I needed to do something to ensure that leena did not get into any trouble enroute. I remembered that Squadron Leader MS Vasudeva had recently moved to Kanpur. He was with me in the Archers till very recently. I rang him up and explained the situation to him. He promised to meet Leena on the train and see if she needed any help. This brought me comfort and I relaxed.
Leena realized that the ticket was not with her as soon as the train had moved. She pulled the chain to stop the train. (That is how we had seen the train at the outer signal soon after it had left the station.) The conductor guard came to her compartment to reset the brakes and then he questioned her as to why she had pulled the chain. Smart as she normally is, Leena now went on the offensive with full gusto. ‘I had given my ticket to you, how come the train is moving without you returning my ticket to me? ‘ Leena was full of indignation. This attack caught the conductor guard unprepared. He fumbled and said that he had given the ticket back to her husband. Leena was however on a war path. Husband? who’s husband? where is my husband? I am traveling alone with a child, where did you find my husband? The conductor guard was in a tight spot. He tried to defend himself fumbling for words: the gentleman in uniform with you who was holding the child. Leena was not to be cornered so easily. ‘Did I introduce that gentleman to you as my husband? Who authorized you to hand over my ticket to a third party?’ The conductor guard was now completely in the defensive. ‘OK ma’am, please do not get excited. The train will stop at Aligarh. We shall sort out the problem there.’ He was reasonableness personified. The train started and went on towards Aligarh. Leena was happy, but she did not know that the conductor guard will handover charge to some one else at Aligarh and push off without solving her problem.
The new conductor guard who joined the train at Aligarh was a straight laced law abiding government servant. He started from square one. How would he know that the story told by Leena held any substance? She was a passenger on a long distance mail train not in possession of a valid ticket. True, his chart showed one Leena Sen for the seat she was sitting on, but without a valid ticket he had no way to confirm that she was indeed the named passenger. He had a rule book to follow and he had no room for manoeuvre. He was smug behind his book of rules. He unfortunately did not know this passenger he was now facing. By the time Leena finished with him he was squirming to be let off. He promised not to bother her again till Kanpur where he would get off the train.
As the train stopped at Kanpur Central Leena found Vasudeva waiting for her. He had a copy of the telegram and its number (as dictated over telephone by me) and was ready for action. He had another officer with him. While this companion looked after Leena’s belongings, he took her to the station master. The station master was unfortunately not impressed by a dictated copy of a telegram. Is se kya hoga? he said. Mere paas to yeh taar pahoonchi nahi. (What is the use of this? I have not received such a telegram!) No amount of persuasion yelded any result. He brought her back to the compartment and the train left Kanpur.
A new conductor guard made his appearance after a while and the whole game was played over again. The new fellow was a mild chap. He asked Leena to continue up to Barauni and try her luck there. In 1970, broad gauge connectivity to Assam did not exist. The Assam Mail (Broad Guage) ran between New Delhi and Barauni. From that point, a new rake Assam Mail (Meter Guage) continued for the rest of the journey up to Guwahati. This change of train was an unavoidable hassle. Leena got down with her child and her luggage and went over to the meter gauge train, only to find that her name did not feature on the list of reservation on the meter guage train. Now she was in real difficulty. After a lot of running around, she found an official who would listen to her problem. This gent took her to a compertment and asked her to sit on a particular seat. She asked her to wait there until the new conductor guard arrived and then she could ask him to regularize the allotment of that seat for the rest of the journey.
The wait at Barauni was long. Leena has always been very communicative. By the time the train was ready to depart, she had created a fan group sympathetic to her for the hassle she had had to face till then and fascinated by the chubby baby boy who was ignoring all the hassle playfully. Finally the new conductor guard arrived. When he came to check the ticket for Leena, the ongoing drama was re-enacted. He was a reasonable man and he was sympathetic. However, he had his rulebook. Here was a passenger without a ticket and without her name on the reservation list. How was he going to let Leena continue her journey? His logic was irrefutable. Leena called for a cooly and prepared to get off the train. Her vibrant charm however came into play here. Amongst the fans she had gathered around her in the train over the past hour were two elderly gentlemen working for the forest department of the West Bengal Government. Both of them knew Leena’s father, having worked under him, ( A Small World?) and were propelled by protective instincts to come to her rescue. They argued hard to prove that she was entirely free of any blame. The original conductor guard at Ghaziabad was the original sinner. Leena must not be victimized for some one else’s fault. The conductor guard was puzzled by the public support she had generated. He pleaded procedural disability that was simply discarded by the crowd. He then put forward a personal plea. He had had to face disciplinary action because he had allowed a similar lady to travel under similar circumstances. He had just resumed his duty after a period of suspension. If he were to allow Leena to continue and should a superior inspector fault him again then he might lose his job! A perfectly good plea, no doubt. Leena’s fans were however adamant and threatened the guard with a ‘peaceful gherao’. The the conductor guard was forced to think again. He consulted a colleague and decided that descretion was the better part of valour. He allotted the seat to Leena after accepting the original ticket number and telegram reference of Ghaziabad having received the same ticket from the scrap of paper supplied by Vasudeva to Leena at Kanpur. Leena reached Siliguri victoriously. For many months thereafter the tale of her journey was the hottest news amongst family and friends.
Days and years passed. I slowly became an Air Commodore. In summer of 1983 I was on the last legs of my tennure as the AOC (Air Officer Commanding) Jamnagar. One morning, out of the blue, I got call from Air Marshal PP Singh, who was then the Vice Chief of Air Staff. The call was a personal one and the Vice Chief’s voice was full of excitement. ‘Ei Tiku’, the Air Marshal said, ‘What is your girl up to?’ I did not know how to react to that statement, but the Air Marshal continued. ‘Young Sukanya has landed up in Tihar Jail. You better come here quickly and get her out of that place.’ The information put me in a spin. My second daughter Sukanya was a post graduate student in Chinese Studies at JNU. To the best of my information she was not involved in student level politics. For her to get arrested and be put into Tihar Jail was unexpected to say the least. I reacted fast. A civil flight to Bombay was to leave in 20 minutes. I obtained the necessary permissions on telephone and left for Delhi via Bombay by that flight.
A very large number of JNU students were in Jail in relation to a student agitation. Sukanya was one of the bystanders who had got picked up. However, having been put into jail, she refused to accept bail. They demanded honorable release of all students and stuck to their demand. I could do nothing. I returned to Jamnagar after a day. The students continued their stay at Tihar and Leena was rather upset. She decided to go to Delhi. Notices had been served on the hostel students to vacate their seats. JNU was closed for the summer break prematurely. Sukanya’s personal effects left at the hostel had to be taken charge of. Leena therefore set off for Delhi by train along with our youngest daughter. For financial reasons she travelled by sleeper class. (In those days the Service Officers were not paid very well!) On the journey she found a middle-aged gent as a copassenger who was bit of an extrovert. Very soon they got talking to each other. When he learnt that Leena was married to a fighter pilot, he became very expansive. ‘I have great regard for the wives of service officers’, he said. Then he started narrating how this regard had grown in his mind. ‘Long ago’, he said, ‘I was traveling from Delhi to Guwahati. It must be twelve or thirteen years ago. At Ghaziabad, a young wife of a fighter pilot got into the train with a child. She was going to Siliguri. As soon as the train moved she realized that her ticket had neen left back with her husband. She was quite young, but my God ! how smartly she handled the whole situation ………’
Leena sat bemused as the gent recounted her adventure of 1970 blow by blow, some times spicing up the tale through his imagination.
Really, the world is a small place.