One doesn’t know how the Indian Railways, whose budget was merged with the general budget in 2017 after 92 years of being presented separately, will ever seriously deal with what every long-distance train passenger with a confirmed ticket would admit as the most profound concern: the desire to have the lowest berth, that slice of luck to sleep low.
The silent joy of lucky allotment of the lower berth is often accompanied with the anxiety of being socially, if not emotionally, blackmailed into parting with it. Then there are losers trying their best to not look so but unable to conceal their evident envy. Their pretense of having made peace with their fate is duly busted when they seek to exhaust that slim last hope, pleading, if not bargaining, with the ticket examiner for any available lower vacancy.
Getting the lower berth, if not partly mediated by the combined quota, comes down primarily to how lucky you are with the IRCTC’s booking algorithm for seat allotment. It’s the invisible mathematical protocol that dictates your loftier, medial, and underlying existence. The only problem is that the order of desirability begins and ends at the lowest point, the lower berth.
In a happy turn of hypothesis, assume you have been allotted the lower berth. Are you sure you would sleep there? If you are male, young, or middle-aged, you should be anxious. You survey the usual suspects in your immediate neighbourhood – female passengers and senior citizens, and obviously those who are neither but are too confident about their charms or social skills. You should be very worried if you haven’t developed the thickskin of saying you are too unwell to move and the exchange of seats isn’t an option . If you can’t, count yourself among the most vulnerable section of lower berth-allotted passengers in the coach.
It’s not that the Railways hasn’t done its bit to assuage the usual suspects (no disrespect intended). In December 2018, the Ministry of Railways “enhanced the combined reservation quota of lower berths for senior citizens, female passengers of 45 years and above, and pregnant women in mail, express trains and Rajdhani, Duronto trains. The ministry also stated that it has “revised the quota to 13 seats for normal mail or express trains having single coach of the designated class”. For trains with more than one coach of the designated class, it added, “the number of lower berths reserved will be 15.” According to a media report, the Railways explained the current quota in allotment with the following table.
That, however, is not only too little but irrelevant to the overt and covert battles for lower berth in a train coach. Quotas anyway can’t be extended by much, lest they deprive non-quota passengers of the probability of luck turning their way, the lower way. The already vulnerable can’t be exposed to the fate of extinction from the lower berth.
One is also not sure how the secret wish of many passengers ready to pay extra for the lower positioning can be reconciled with the distributive justice ideal of a government-run public transport service. Monetising seat preference seems out of sight now, but the Railways offers you the chance to showcase your attachment to the lower berth by asking for the sacrifice: would you like to cancel the booking if you don’t get the desired berth. That’s a risky trade-off, given the luck of even getting a confirmed seat isn’t too frequent to be sulking.
The reasons that make the lower berth such a catch are obvious and quite democratic, cutting across class, gender and age. Some of them are prized positioning for stowing away the luggage, window view, access to washrooms without resorting to acrobatics, easy disposal of wrappers and other trash, and the closest simulation of domesticity in sedentary and sleeping stretches. That’s, of course, in addition to the quiet satisfaction of defeating so many aspirants to the coveted pecking order.
As many exercises in the public sphere in India, the attempt to snatch someone’s algorithm-won luck in a train coach is a microcosm of social drama. If you are entangled in conversation with the hopefuls, the dreaded request would be slipped in at the most unsuspecting moment. You can’t suddenly turn from an able-bodied, affable and gentle soul to the callous self-centred beast of the consumerist age. This is scrutiny you force on yourself by walking into a well-laid trap. In being caught off-guard, you have no option of retreat. Better watch out.
What, however, would rankle you isn’t your act of involuntary generosity but how such successful exchange pacts are often a victory of the glib talk, social blackmailing and empathy-retail concealed beneath the mien of gratitude. Your moment of moral indecision or sudden affection for the neighbour’s children or liability of a long conversation or sudden rush of chivalry is generally interpreted by the recipient as the conquest of cuteness, communication prowess, feminine grace, and of course their persuasive ways with the world.
One doesn’t know whether Budget 2020 would stoop too low to consider the lower berth in its policy prescriptions for the Railways without blunting the random and evening-out appeal of algorithm justice. Irrespective of how the ministry sees it, the lower berth is definitely the elephant in an Indian rail coach that makes luck the ultimate arbiter of a long and low journey.