“Booking tickets has now become a real pain”, said the man behind me in a broken Hindi-English accent. I nodded in the affirmative cursing my stars for having cancelled the train ticket I had & having to wait for hours to get a tatkal booking done. This was the first time I was booking a tatkal ticket from the station.  So I was unaware of the formalities & rules.

As I walked into the reservation compound of the Ernakulam South railway station at around 6.45 am, there was a long queue outside the office. I went and stood at the end, wondering what would happen next.

By around 7.30, they opened the office and began issuing token numbers. There were 7 counters and on first come first serve basis, people were allotted to each counter. The last counter was for the ones who wanted tickets for self alone while the rest six were for those who wanted more than one ticket. Once I was given mine, I scanned the room for a nun whom I had seen earlier so that I could ask her what was next. I spotted her, ‘At what time do they start issuing the tickets? Do they call these token numbers?’ 
‘They start by 10 am’ I looked at my watch: 8am. I was glad that I had brought a book.
‘I don’t know about the token numbers’. She turned to the person sitting next to her,‘How does this token system work?’
He asked, ‘What is your token number?’
I began digging my bag for the form, finally I unearthed it, ’19 it is’
‘They would have assigned you a counter number. What is it?’
‘Hmm.. 7’
‘Alright! they start issuing the tickets by 10 am. Then you just have to go stand in front of counter 7 in your place. Others have been allotted numbers too. Ask them theirs, find your place & wait.’
‘Thank you’ I walked back to my old place, took out a book & began reading. After an hour or so, as I looked up, Kochi had really woken up. The office was teeming with people. Yet it didn’t seem like Kochi. There were many north Indians, east Indians, tamilians, I could hear a couple speaking telugu, a smart North Indian city girl with her dad jabbering away in Hindi, a foreign couple, a few Keralites here and there, other unintelligible tongues, the noise of vehicles outside which were minimal about an hour ago, a sudden burst of ‘baharo phool barsao’ which I soon got to know was a ringtone, other ringtones – of Late Nokia, samsung, the old tring tring etc.

After a long wait, the normal reservations were minimized to one counter & tatkal queues began forming by 9.45am. I went to my counter, found my place & waited. It was just a matter of few minutes & I’d know whether my 3 hours wait was worth it. At sharp 10 am, they began issuing the tickets. The uncle before me was fidgety.
‘This queue is so slow. I should have requested for another counter. We were issued this counter because we were taking tickets for self only.’ He said in his strong Tamil accent.
I gave a half smile wondering whether other queues would be faster than ours. He kept bantering this when a boy came and asked him, ‘ which number?’
‘I’m 17’
‘acha! I’m 18’
As I gave space for him, Tamil uncle spoke again, ‘ I should have asked them another counter. This counter is…’ this time the new guy was his conversant.
‘No. This queue will go fast. Fatafat jayega ye. Rest of the counters will have people booking for many people. They will have to enter names one by one, it will take time. Ours only one person’s booking, toh will be over fast.’ his voice was full of hope.
‘Oh is it? Great then! I thought we were so behind. This system is good. They won’t let anyone without the number in between right?’
‘No no. They wouldn’t. They check the token numbers and then issue tickets. I tried for my tickets online yesterday. But couldn’t get. Thats why I came here at 6 am today. If I don’t get today, I’ll come tomorrow at 4 am’ he said, smiling.
‘No don’t worry! Have a positive attitude. You will get your tickets and I will see the smile on your face today.’
‘Haan! I really hope. Mil jayega. I’ll definitely get. Mainly, my mother will be very happy to know. Yesterday she called me asking whether I got my tickets. When I said I didn’t, she was very disappointed. Today if I don’t get, I’ll come tomorrow at 4am.’
‘You will definitely get today. And first thing call up your mom and tell.’
‘Haan wahi!’ All the while smiling.
Behind me were the North Indain father & daughter, ‘Ye kitni slow hein!? Pehle ek din jab mein aayi thi, woh lady fatafat tickets de rahi thi. Aaj 7 minutes me bas 2 tickets!? 10.30 ke andar sab khatam ho jayenge’
Tamil uncle, ‘Yes. She is very slow. One finger typing! Haha’
As I peeked at the lady sitting there, my heart went out to her. She would look at the keyboard, type a letter, look at the monitor, again at the keyboard, a letter… impervious of the fact that the future & hopes of many people before her was in her hands. Hundreds of people, all over the country would be waiting in queue in many reservation offices at the same time, many others would be refreshing their browsers to get the irctc site & this lady was sitting here lethargically learning type writing. In between, she would look around, here & there, down, the keyboard, the monitor & mumble the amount unintelligibly, ask for change, make faces… God!
The guy began checking an app on his phone, ‘I have only 54 seats available in my train. Let me check the status.’
After a few minutes, ‘It’s 34 now. Mil jayega mujhe.’ 
‘Which site is it?’
‘This is a utility’
Few more minutes of anticipation
The girl behind me, ‘Mera train mein 200 seats hai.’ Tamil uncle looked at her questioningly.
‘I have 200 seats in my train for tatkal. Mil jayega.’
Her dad, ‘Bangalore train, it isn’t so difficult to get because they know many people will want seats, they put extra compartments.’
I asked her, ‘Which train are you opting for?’
‘The 8.40 pm one?’
‘Yes. The same.’
*Great! So it has 200 reserved for tatkal. There are chances that I will get one.*
The guy kept praying & fiddling with his phone,
Tamil uncle,‘You should have confidence! Have faith! In fact you go before me. My needs aren’t as important as yours.’
‘No it is ok. They will check the number.’
‘I will tell them. Dont worry. You go’
‘No it is alright. There are 29 left and I will definitely get. We will go by order.’
And soon Tamil uncle’s turn came. The Lady slowly typed in the name & mumbled the amount. While she was fishing for the change, uncle gave way to the guy who gave his form.
‘I will wait here. I want to see the smile on your face.’
‘Oh’ he was visibly overwhelmed by how Tamil uncle was. So were we.
He gave the form & stood in a half pray position staring at the lady. Though it wasn’t my ticket, I too began to pray that he gets his ticket, to make a mother smile. After eons & eons of waiting, the lady said the amount & few of us in the front of the queue were smiling away to glory. The guy & tamil uncle walked away. Meanwhile, I got my tickets too. On my way out, the guy asked, ‘You got tickets?’
‘Yes. Which is your place?’
‘Amritsar. Yours?’
‘I belong here. I’m going to Puttaparthi.’
He gave a quizzical look, ‘I’m going to Bangalore where I studied, just for a visit.’
‘Oh alright.’
I didn’t want to make further conversations. Though the fellow seemed harmless from the events that unfolded that morning, I wouldn’t prefer making a conversation with any stranger more than a limit. So I was trying to leave when Tamil uncle asked me, ‘Mole.. Kitiyo?’
‘Ah kiti’

‘Where are you going?’
All of a sudden, his soft expressions changed. ‘Bangalore-o? Please be careful mole. It is not safe. Didn’t you hear the ATM incident?’
‘Yes uncle’
‘Be very careful. He just slashed that lady with a knife. Very brutal. Be careful tto’
‘Okay uncle, I have to leave now.’
‘Okay mole.’

That morning gave me many things to think, from the Indian railway’s systematic methods of tatkal booking, which is spoiled by such lethargic staff to those hundreds of people who are working far off from their hometowns, persons like Tamil uncle who understood the guy’s needs and was willing to sacrifice his time or even his tickets for the guy so that he could be with his mother, how the same utility was used by many for many needs, how some who really needed it, never got it. Most importantly, I got to know the procedure of booking the tatkal tickets in person😀

PS – It’s advisable to be there before 6 am if you want tickets for a train with very few tatkal seats.