Saturday, October 09, 2010

Cardex Cardiacs!

I am not sure about the year – could have been anytime between 1972 and 1974. We were planning for the summer vacation – my parents, my younger sister and I. We were all pretty desperate to travel on what was the real express then – and probably the fastest on SR – the Brindavan Express. We had heard stories from friends about how fast the train was, about how they had a ‘kitchen’ inside the train, about how they prepared food in that ‘kitchen’ and served to the passengers, about how the cups could be thrown away after drinking the coffee/tea – all with an awe that is unique to kids of our age. I would have been anything between six and eight years old; my sister two years younger – and quite an impressionable age to be awestruck by these things. 

We had been pestering our dad to book us by the Brindavan – we were always headed to Bangalore (SBC) and thence to Hubli (UBL), thence to Bijapur (BJP) for the first leg. The return was also the same route. He had been stonewalling – who would ‘pay’ for the tickets, he asked. As an employee of ICF, he was eligible for free passes and PTOs, the latter providing a concession of one-third of the fare (one-sixth for dependent children eligible for half tickets). All the stories heard about the Brindavan came from class and school friends whose parents were not shackled by the free travel – the money saved on the fare had to be saved by us – those were the days!

During one of the evenings, my dad came and broke the news – Brindavan was ‘dereserved’ for free passes and PTOs. That meant we could now reserve on the Brindavan and travel for free. So we set about fixing dates and working out connections onward to UBL. After my parents figured out the dates, we then set about figuring out a date to go out and book tickets at the Advance Reservation Counters of the Madras Central booking office – it is only now that we have the PRS and the e- and i-tickets!
One rather warm Saturday morning in early February, at about 0330 hrs, my father woke me up and asked me to get ready for the ticket booking mela. He had returned home at 0230 completing his Friday night shift and he was ready, just for our sake. We walked down the three-fourths of a kilometer to Perambur and took some mail that was in at that time and reached the counter at about 0415.

At that rather unearthly hour, there were already a few bricks – yes bricks – representing people who would join later in the queue. We would have been about the twentieth or so in the odd-date counter for Brindavan.

About the counters

Each train had a separate counter for II class, either sitting or sleeping, two or three tier. Some popular trains like the Brindavan, the NIlgiri, the Bangalore Mail, etc. had two counters each – one for odd dates of travel and another for even dates. For the upper class, read FC and Air-conditioned two tier, about six or seven trains were bunched to a counter. If you had to travel second class and the date you wanted to leave was full, you either had the choice to make for travelling two days early or two days late; otherwise, you had to start all over standing at the tail end of the queue for the odd/even date! Unless, of course, you planned for the 31st of a month

About the process

The cardex method was followed in booking tickets. A rudimentary explanation of the cardex method is due here. You could visualize a large sheet or polished cardboard, bleached and printed, about the size twice that of a double foolscap paper, or the A2, as we know it today. On this was printed rows and columns, each sheet holding one day of travel. Each column could hold data for three/four coaches depending upon the capacity. The train number, class and date were filled in before the first berth/seat was booked. This was done using a variant of today’s marker pen – double bold and probably in 32-point sized font, handwritten. A thicker cardboard was used to secure fifteen/sixteen/thirty such sheets representing one month of booking. The name of the passenger, age, sex, ticket number (card or BPT) was written against each berth/seat. The quotas were well marked; so were lower, middle and upper berths. I did not notice any cardex having window seats indicated. There was normally no way one could be booked against another quota – that cell was darkened before the process started for that day!

What happened to us

In an inspired move, or well-thought one, my dad asked me to stand in the odd-date queue and he stood in the even-date queue. I was surprised, at about 0600 hours, to see a large number of people enter the hall and take their places – it seemed everybody were headed to our counter, and everybody were ahead of us. My fears were allayed when I saw I was around twentieth from the window; my dad was tenth. We had a flexible option – so we could book on a date whoever reached the counter first.

The counter opened at 0700, and people began to book tickets. Some had travel dates that were not on the cardex of the clerk, he had to go to the large shelf and fetch the correct cardex for the month and thumb the edges for the date. For some, the cardex had not been opened at all – he had to fetch a balank cardex, fill out all the train details in marker, then bind it with a tag to a cardboard. As the tickets were removed from the slot, he had to write the name of the passenger and the age at the back of ticket, besides coach ‘A’ or whatever. Then he had to repeat the same process on the cardex and then collect cash and hand over the tickets. All this took a long time – almost four to five minutes per transaction.

My dad’s turn came at about 0830, sadly there were no tickets for the 16th of April. Our next choice was 18th, so that we could finish our booking. There was no cardex opened for this date as yet! The clerk went out and took his sweet time to bring the cardex – but he had the master details filled up as he brought it! Quicky filling out the details on the cardex and on the free pass, he proceeded to bring out a book. He inserted the carbon papers at the right sheets and filled out our request for onward reservation by the Bangalore-Miraj Mail/Pass leaving Bangalore at 1730 thereabouts. This would be forwarded to SBC via telegraph. All such requests would be processed in batches at SBC by a separate person; a reply would be sent to MAS confirming reservation, or informing a WL number or no room was available. Invariably, the reply was not forthcoming – we had to check out in SBC upon arrival and get the details 

Luckily, we got two window seats and two middle seats facing each other. As we found out later, our onward reservations were also confirmed; so were the return reservations. The journey was a memorable one – our first on the Brindavan, but that report will have to wait for some time.

My father recalls these things during a small talk this last week as he is recuperating from an small surgery to remove a cataract from his left eye – he has been barred from reading the newspaper and watching the TV – I thought it would be of interest to reminisce about this. 

This is also available here.


Anonymous A.Hari said...

Very interesting recap of good old days.



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