Since the days of the British Raj, countless visitors to the Indian subcontinent have found themselves captivated and entranced by the mysteries of this region's complex tapestry of cultures and traditions. Many more have found themselves bewildered, frustrated and wanting their mother. For the European visitor, the experience of, for example, attempting to buy a train ticket in Delhi will almost certainly provoke the latter reaction.
Beyond Colonial Days
The Indian rail network is, rightly, a point of national pride. The infrastructure, and indeed many of the trains, are relics from the British occupation of the subcontinent. However, unlike the British rail system, the trains leave roughly when they're supposed to and usually get to their destination without the passengers having to change onto a coach halfway there.
A Jolly British System
A less fortunate legacy of the British era is the concept of a ticket queue. In other parts of Asia, there is nothing recognisable as a queue on such an occasion; one simply selects a vending window, gets a good run up at the shouting mob in front and fights through the melée as best one can. This can be stressful for a foreign visitor, but has the advantage of being an uncomplicated system. In India, however, the British notion that there is a correct way to do things seems to have been left behind, and that this way involves people patiently waiting in an orderly line. This practice appears to run quite contrary to the culturally ingrained habits and inclinations of the average Indian. The resulting process represents the harmonious coming together of cultures in much the same way as a car accident might represent the harmonious coming together of a Ford Capri and a lamppost.
Before you even get to stand in line, it is necessary to collect an application form, on which the passenger is required to give a bewildering array of personal details and, more problematically, specify the name and number of the train for which a ticket is required. If the passenger has not established exactly which train it is that they want, but merely has a destination and a rough time in mind, this may present a problem. There will generally be a number of large boards displayed around the station which appear to be timetables but which, on closer inspection, invariably prove to be of no help whatsoever. If there is an information desk, the attendant will probably point irritably to one of the unedifying boards and appear to consider their job done. Randomly accosting locals and appealing to them for help will often yield far more in the way of results here - sooner or later, someone will know how to get where you want to go (or will say they do), and many more will be keen to be generally helpful to the confused foreigner and practise their English. You will probably end up with something written on the form anyway. It helps to be flexible here.
Next, one proceeds to the ticket hall and is confronted with a number of vending windows. Some have a sign designating the different categories of customer that can be expected to 'apply' for a ticket there. These categories may well strike the visitor as somewhat arbitrary and oddly grouped together. For instance, 'Foreigners' can expect to stand in line with 'University Teachers' and 'Freedom Fighters' among others. Having selected and joined the relevant line, the foreigner is now faced with the tense and gruelling task of queuing itself. This requires constant vigilance and unwavering concentration. The briefest lapse in attention will result in the unwary foreigner looking up to find that the queue has moved forward a couple of inches and another five people have materialised in the gap, who will be staring nonchalantly at the ceiling is if they've been there all the time and, in extreme cases may even be casually whistling. Should the foreigner try to protest, naturally, none of them will speak English. The only discernable rule of the queuing game is that, while any and every tactic to get to the front of the line is allowable, the appearance of an orderly queue must be maintained – jumping, however blatant, is only permitted when the person in front is not looking. Security guards will often be on hand to enforce this rule and diffuse the occasional scuffle that breaks out. It is the unwaveringly watchful customer, then, who will ultimately prevail. The eventual purchase of a ticket will tend to be accompanied by a sense of achievement seldom encountered in European train stations.
One Final Tip, So To Speak
It is also useful to know that many large train stations in India will have a number of locals hanging around outside who will, for a little baksheesh1, go into the station and negotiate the sale of a ticket to the required destination. Whatever they're charging (usually in the region of 20-40 rupees) it's probably worth it.