How to... travel in a 3rd AC compartment

ILLUSTRATION: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Many patients turn up in my clinic with complaints that they attribute to overnight travel in a 3-tier AC compartment. The complaints range from muscular aches and joint dislocations to bronchial asthma and bronchopneumonia. Many report with contact allergy to the woollen blanket (pristine and unwashed since manufacture). I have seen two cases of rat-bite, one of snakebite (unproven, but if that, non-poisonous) and one case of butting by a goat (property of a farmer in ‘wrong’ compartment).

A 3 tier compartment in motion is like a hostel dormitory on wheels, and has been constructed on similar logistic calculations — to accommodate the maximum number of horizontal humans in minimum space. Railway engineers in their wisdom found it expedient to squeeze in more beds at right angles to the main rows to increase the number of berths. They were backed by statistical evidence to show that 2 in 8 Indians are less than 5 feet 6 inches tall, and ideally produced for the side berths, which are exactly that length. Also, 1 in 8 Indians is hunchbacked (due to old age, farming trauma, tuberculous spine or persistent humility). The deal is that at night, the half-berths of the lower side-berths can be lowered to approximate each other but are fabricated to sag at the junction; creating a natural hollow to accommodate the spinal bend.

Much research went into providing a middle side-berth but was given up as RAC passengers (‘Reservation Against Cancellation‘, but ‘Running After Conductor’, in reality) had to sit somewhere when waiting for allocation of berths. There could also be problem of a middle berth projecting into the middle-girth of fatter passengers hindering free movement.

3 tier compartments pose most challenges to women over 40, the obese and the elderly who had failed to book on time, and have been allotted middle or upper berths. (TTRs plead that ‘berth-control’ is a matter of ‘adjustment between passengers’). Middle berths are ideal for agile youngsters, and the rare elders who teach yoga and can levitate when necessary to middle berth levels. For the average non-yogic citizen, sliding into a middle berth calls for a combination of reptilian, avian and simian manoeuvres, largely lost during evolution. Even the reasonably agile find it tricky, as it calls for a sustained right angled bend at the hips, at the point of entry at the soles-end of the berth. Having glided in, turning over on to one’s back is even more of a challenge in the narrow confines of the berth, between the partition, taut chains and within a height approximating human width. There are stray records of fat people having lain through the night on their abdomen, unable to turn, breathe or snore, or call for help; a few had to be delivered in the morning at the caudal end, with a bluish hue.

As a rule of thumb, the top berths are beyond the reach of most men or women over 60, or weighing more than 80 (Kg). There are ladder steps along the side of the cubicle to facilitate the ascent, but call for adopting some demeaning postures en route, particularly for the dhothi or sariclad. The situation is even worse for those allotted ‘side uppers’. It is like mounting a restless horse using a swinging stirrup. The side uppers call for a brief straddling across the width of the corridor and an unsupported right turn in space. But most often you get a forceful push at your fulcral end from passengers in the corridor, fed up with your dangling, and keen to get on with their lives.

Suggestions for those denied lower berth

* Do not dye your hair before the trip. Avoid mascara. Look your age and preferably more haggard. Stoop, if middle lower is OK

Ask the robust young for an exchange of berth, within seconds of their appearance.

Abolish the idea of asking the fit-looking old co-travellers, smug in their lower berths, who booked their berths at the turn of the century.

If you are female, never hesitate to ask even men in their mid-fifties for their lower berth. Many feel flattered and oblige.

Forget chivalry and ask the older woman who seems strong and able. If she still has a waist, she surely ‘gyms‘ at dawn and loves ‘pull-ups’. One extra pull up shouldn’t hurt her

If you are young but obese, any sympathy from the lower berthers, is unlikely. If destined for an upper berth, get in to the train very early and make the ascent in stages, gently. Descent is easy, as gravity is on your side.

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