Post 78, Ludhiana Railway Station

9:00 a.m.: Rachit is at the Ludhiana Railway Station. His friend Santosh Yadav, who is employed by Birjinder’s brother-in-law and had helped Rachit find his present job, is returning to Sargana along with a companion. Rachit has asked him to carry back INR 600 to his parents and is here to hand him the money. The train is crowded as is the platform. A posse of policemen in uniform survey the platforms while others in plain clothes walk around with a microphone warning passengers to be wary of drug dealing gangs. Neither Santosh nor his companion manage to secure a seat. Rachit scours different bogies to identify any vacant seats but is unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, Rachit bids Santosh adieu as the train departs some half an hour later.

Post 58, DMC Hospital, Ludhiana

3 p.m.: Rachit calls me from DMC hospital, where he is attending to Birjinder’s aunt. He is getting bored and wants me to come over and keep him company.

3:45 p.m.: Rachit and I meet at the parking lot of the hospital. He is wearing a black jacket and a pair of jeans. He is leaving for Birjinder’s home in Abdullahpur Basti and asks me to come with him. I sit behind him on his scooter, and we drive away. On the way, he informs me that his brother Suraj is contemplating return to their home in Bihar.

“He earns INR 7000, but spends nearly INR 5500 per month. So what is the point of his continuing to work in Delhi if he can only save INR 1500 per month?” Rachit asks me and continues: “In the last four months, he has sent a mere total of INR 6000.

“Somebody we know in the village has offered to recommend him for the job of a guard in Patna, so let’s see what comes of it,” he adds.

Rachit plans to purchase an inverter, a device that backs up electric supply in the event of a power failure. He has identified a shop in Ludhiana that allows customers to buy on payment of instalments, but he is worried about carrying such a heavy load on the train. He asks me to enquire if I know of any establishment in Patna that might sell inverters and allow customers to pay in instalments.

4:15 p.m.: Birjinder’s wife calls Rachit and asks him to hurry home. Rachit assures her he is on the way and mutters: “The slightest delay annoys them,” before speeding up.

Post 32

5 p.m.: Rachit has had an easier day today than the last few days have been. Ambika has recovered from his illness and returned to work. He even managed to sleep a few extra hours in the morning.

Both the grinding machines in Kamal flour mill are operational today. Vishnu is preparing a 50-kg delivery for a client at a dhaba (roadside eatery) nearby. The vegetable vendor Bhullan complains of a plunge in his sales after demonetisation was introduced.

Rachit asks me to accompany him to the Guddu’s vegetable shop, where he purchases two kilograms of tomatoes. We hear from the television news of a train accident near Kanpur, where 145 people are suspected dead.

8:00 p.m.: Bablu is sitting in his room with his nephew Rakesh and son Ranjit. They arrived yesterday by train. They are eating their dinner: rice with scrambled egg fried in oil, accompanied with alcoholic drinks. Earlier today, the mill owner Birjinder allowed Bablu and Ambika to sell some scrap iron, the proceeds from which have been used to buy the alcohol. Bablu’s nephew works in a factory that manufactures sewing machines. The son worked in Ludhiana a few months ago, then went back to their village in Gaya for a few months, and has now returned to Ludiana where he will look for work.

Post 6, Saharsa to Ludhiana

8:30 a.m.: The train arrives into the platform. We board it and take our place. Seating is unreserved, but the compartment is not too crowded and we are all able to sit together. We find a vacant cubicle. Rachit and Aravind sit opposite Suraj and I.

9:00 a.m.: The train departs. In a few minutes we reach the next station, Simi Bakhtiyarpur, where a large number of pilgrims board the train. They alight at the following station, Mansi Junction.

10:00 a.m.: Rachit is hungry. He takes out a pouch of beaten rice from his bag. Aravind has brought some pakodas. They lay out their wares on a newspaper and share the snacks.

1 p.m.: Rachit buys lunch from the hawkers on the train. Roasted chickpeas and samosas. Suraj borrows Rachit’s headphones and tunes off.

3 p.m.: Rachit is hungry again. So are we. He lays out the beaten rice left over from the morning and we gratefully help ourselves.

7 p.m.: Chhapra. A passenger who boards the train here sits next to us and gets talking. He tells us about the factory he owns in Gorakhpur.  The factory produces sports goods. He used to work in Delhi when he was much younger but decided to shift to Gorakhpur in order to be close to his home in Chhapra.

10 p.m.: The train enters Gorakhpur. Our co-travellers takes his leave. Rachit is tired and wants to sleep. We prepare to retire for the night.

Post 5, Sargana / Saharsa

11:00 a.m.: I am at Rachit’s house to enquire about our travel plans later this evening. His mother tells me he is still asleep.

3:00 p.m.: I call Rachit. Rachit tells me to meet him at his home at 5 p.m., as planned.

4:30 p.m.: Rachit calls me and asks me to come home.

5:00 p.m.: I reach Rachit’s home. He is waiting with his friend in the three-wheeled autorickshaw in which we will travel up to the bus stand. Rachit asks me to accompany him inside the house, where his family and neighbours sat waiting. Rachit’s mother brews some chai for us. In the meantime, Rachit’s elder brother Suraj returns from the market and gets ready to go: all three of us will be on our way soon. Rachit’s mother gives us each a spoonful of curd to sip, as a symbol of good luck for our forthcoming trip. Rachit bends forward and touches the toes of the ladies in the room in respect and seeks their blessings. Both brothers pick up their backpacks and step into the autorickshaw waiting for them outside.

6:00 p.m.: Rachit insists on driving the autorickshaw, and does so at enormous speeds of about 60 kmph, which in the narrow road could have been fatal. On reaching the bus stop, we continue to sit in the autorickshaw as we wait. Rachit’s friend is pained that Rachit will be unable to attend his wedding in a few months. Rachit gets talking with a co-passenger 22-year old Aravind who is also travelling into Punjab to look for work.

6:45 p.m.: Rachit, Suraj, Aravind and I board the bus to Saharsa. It is a small bus, with a capacity to seat 30-40 people.

9:30 p.m.: We arrive at Saharsa station. The train is scheduled to depart from Platform 1. Rachit spreads out a plastic sheet on the platform and asks his brother to sit there looking out for our luggage while he searches for something to eat. Rachit and I locate a low-cost eatery, the Janata Khana Store, where we buy litti (dough ball made of whole wheat flour) and samosas (pasties stuffed with mashed potatoes, peas and spices), which we take back to our companions. Aravind has brought some vegetables and paranthas from home, and we all share our wares.

10:45 p.m.: Rachit and Aravind want to confirm the train departure timings, so they go to the counter to enquire.

11:30 p.m.: They have made their enquiries and are back. Rachit lies down on the plastic sheet for a quick nap before the train arrives.