Surviving the ‘encounter’

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So, how many times have you ranted against that ‘slow’ railway counter clerk and looked daggers at her? Please spare a thought for us, pleads Nivedita Louis, a railway counter clerk of seventeen years vintage. Her tongue-in-cheek account about life on the ‘other’ side will make you laugh. It will also make you think.

This is my 17th year at the Railway counters…yes, you read it right…s-e-v-e-n-t-e-e-n-th year and I am really astounded at my survival. Most part of my service has gone in answering enquiries. The toughest job in the planet next to being the American President, without Lewinsky, of course, is being a poor counter clerk in Indian Railways.

We had an integrated phone cum personal enquiry counter before the advent of present day automated enquiries, and our day started with ring-a-ring-aroses. The shrill bell of telephones ringing was a nightmare with sirens – I once had five phones attached to me, in addition to personal enquiry where the queue length would give shivers to Tirupati Balaji! No wonder I am half deaf now, when my son says ‘turn left’, I hear it promptly as ‘stand straight’.

Did you say ‘aam admi’?

Who says the ‘aam admi’ can’t question anyone? Given the right target (that would be me) every one of them feels like Big B and I shudder akin to the participant in the hot seat. From the usual “Which platform does the Gorilla Express (that would be Kurla Express) arrive?” to “What time does the Champak Gandhi (ahem…that is Sampark Kranti) Express arrive?” the questions shot are indeed rapid fire.

The most intelligent and technical question that the common man asks would be, “Will waiting list 199 get confirmed?” You have to answer that hypothetical question by working out imaginary algorithms in your mind. Mind you, the answer has to perfectly satisfy the man. If you say it may get confirmed (be careful honey, use only ‘may’), he incredulously looks at you and wonders…she must be a nut case, how can waiting list 199 get confirmed? If you say it is difficult for it to get confirmed, he is sure you must be terribly envious of his maiden journey with his maiden wife!

Then you have the timetable enthusiast who knows the trains in every nook and corner of the country by heart, yet he wants to test your prowess. He taps his fingers impatiently as you try to remember the number of Uttar Samparkkranti Express, was it 12554 or 12445? He smirks at your intelligence or rather lack of it and with a wistful smile says it is 12445, and he travels regularly all over the country. You know pretty well that the old man is driven out of his house after his afternoon lunch by his battered wife, who loves some rest. Armed with the timetable, he attacks me – the poor clerk at the counter.

In case the senior gentleman forgets his proverbial earphone, imagine you are dead and gone by the time your shift is over. You say two and he hears it ‘who’. You say the train is at 7.25 and he definitely understands it as 7.45. Why don’t the counters have a free earphone attached to each counter? They can come, slip it on, ask and move on, rather than testing the strength of our vocal cords. The height of the counters and the passenger never matches, it always happens that he is at the first floor shooting his questions and I am at the basement! Already a midget at 5 feet and sunken lower in my 2 feet chair, it is definitely a verbal volley before he huffs and puffs, walking away, sneering at the ‘deaf’ counter clerk.

Next to attack me is the proverbial ‘doubt Dhanapal’ with his doubts galore. His preconceived notion that all counter clerks are born with the sole purpose of wasting his time doesn’t help. He comes with a well prepared questionnaire, his question starts from what is the full fare to a destination in second class, then first class, AC three tier, two tier and then first AC. That is when you feel like he is going to let you go, unfortunately it doesn’t happen.

Next round of questions start from what is the child fare in second class, senior citizen lady fare, senior citizen male fare and then comes physically handicapped person’s fare and by the time I answer all his questions, he is sure as hell – Railway clerks are obsessed with numbers. He sits beside the counter, with a bunch of papers, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, with all his ten fingers…wait… twenty fingers, including his toes. Sitting at my counter, I do wish I could lend the poor man my fingers as well!

The next in line are the missus and the mister. She stands profusely sweating in the queue, happy that her husband has given her the freedom to stand ahead of him, and boy is she mistaken. She is only a soldier pawn moved forward, while he is the rook, destined to kill. As she approaches the counter, he pushes her aside with a swipe of his hand and starts shooting questions. A woman wouldn’t know how to ask questions, right? After all, we belong to a nation that treats women like ‘soooffffttt flaaawers’. Any doubts, ask lawyer M.L. Sharma!

Working in the booking counters, issuing tickets is no better either. My shift starts at ten in the morning, with no break in between till eight at night. As I sit keying away like mad, yelling and pushing away tickets and change, my stomach would be growling in hunger. It is again a wonderful coincidence that crowd peaks at lunch time when you long for food, and in the evening when your chaai sits silently near you, gathering skin. Don’t you dare touch it, the man outside will pounce on you saying ‘Government employees are always irresponsible…how dare she drink tea during the peak hour?’

The new ten commandments

So fellow railway men and women, here are your ten commandments to work successfully at the counter:

  1. The customer is always right. Anything that is left for you to pick up is your dignity.
  2. Never raise your voice against the customer. He may be plain deaf and you are wasting your energy.
  3. How much ever pressure you get, don’t ever dream of getting up and going to the loo during ‘pee’k hour.
  4. Never ask for change. With the fifty rupees reserve cash you get to work in counters, you can become a la Jesus, shelling away change to the 2000 odd passengers you meet every day. The more you ask, the more unsuspecting crevices he will put his/her hands to pull out that wet five rupee note, and imagine if you can live with that after touching the note!
  5. Don’t, I repeat, DO NOT enter into an argument with the customer. Instead, close your eyes and imagine how his wife would have kicked his butt the moment he left for the station. You may even derive sadistic pleasure out of it.
  6. Never turn aside and talk to your colleague in the next counter. You have a doubt or you have a question to ask, they have to wait for later.
  7. Always believe in tit for tat. When the man outside gets sweat sodden note from his ‘secret’ hidden pocket under his pants, make sure that you also issue his ticket after duly picking your nose!
  8. How much ever your stomach growls in hunger, please do not keep the ‘closed’ board. You have come to work, not eat to your stomach full. Instead, wait for all the trains to leave and if you are still alive, go taste the stale food!
  9. Do not brush your teeth or floss if you are working in the night shift. You need to counter the ‘alcohol’ reeking smell of the drunken passengers with your special early morning breath. In addition to this, imagine you are in the midst of a jasmine scented garden while issuing tickets, when your senses are actually undergoing an olfactory attack.
  10. Worship your in-laws and parents. They are the ones who are going to manage your children while you click away like mad at the counters. Your night shifts will be their nightmare; your absence when your kid is sick would be their time in living hell.

Life behind the counters is not rosy and sweet. The next time you encounter someone in the enquiry counter without a smile in her face, please know that she is over worked. Know that she has children back home who have locked themselves up in loneliness. Know that she has shouted out her lungs to people like you in her eight hour shift. Please acknowledge her and think that a counter clerk is also ‘human’!


Nivedita-Louis

Nivedita Louis

The writer is currently a Commercial Apprentice with Southern Railways. She is married with two kids. She has a B.Com and an MBA and is an avid blogger, social activist and voracious reader. You can read more of her writings at: www.cloudninetalks.blogspot.com

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