सैर कर दुनिया की ग़ाफ़िल, ज़िन्दगानी फिर कहाँ? ज़िन्दगानी ग़र रही, तो नौजवानी फिर कहाँ?
This couplet in Urdu––please do not mind the spellings––nudges one to travel around the world while one is (still) alive, for life would mean less (nothing) in old age.
Although I do not go out of my way visiting places, I try to live up to the spirit expressed by the poet and try to make the best of the opportunities that come my way. And, I love to travel by rail rather than by air. Time spent travelling in the train is fun. Sometimes it is more memorable (and enjoyable) than arrival at the destination. The same is true about life too––the struggle and toil that one goes through in life, is as enjoyable, if not more than the achievement of the goal. A journey is a period of time, it is dynamic. The achievement of goal is, but a stationary point. Talking of train journeys––two of my best friends are the people I met during one such memorable journey more than a quarter of a century ago. Arun! Prashant! Are you listening?
I always carry a book when I travel. But lately, the opportunities to flip pages have become rare. There are enough books to read in the faces of people around you. Thanks to the media (social media, included) people are so opinionated and so articulate these days that it is difficult to concentrate and read a line because of the cacophony that surrounds you. When an issue is debated, it becomes difficult to stay neutral. People nudge and tip you to one side of the fence even if you don’t have the knowledge, let alone an opinion, on a subject.
In those regards, my last train journey from Nizamuddin to Ujjain to visit my nonagenarian mother was no less memorable; I carried back a life’s lesson from it. My co-passengers were three men and four women––a balanced crowd, devoid of gender bias. The ages of the men are not all that important; the women were ‘going to be’ senior citizens in a year or two. This revelation came when the conductor made a round and it was revealed that they had availed the concession, which is due to senior citizens (women aged 58 years or more).
The men sat silently; the women were chirpy––talking and cracking jokes. They were less mindful of the people around. Nonetheless in polite meaningless conversation, it emerged that they were a part of a larger ‘women only’ group (nearly a dozen or more travelling by the same train) visiting Ujjain and the nearby places of tourist interest. Their visit to the holy city had nothing to do with their religious beliefs. They were just going sightseeing.
More about them…
That rare species of genuinely happy humans had got together and embarked on this excursion; they had been visiting places similarly for several years now. They had been abroad in the yesteryears. They said that they were through with their commitments in the sense most Indians look at life. Their children were married and well settled in life with respectable jobs. The husbands? Well, they too were happy doing what they were doing.
They appeared to be working ladies in Government jobs travelling on Leave Travel Concession (LTC). A little more familiarity led to a revelation. They were all working for MTNL/ BSNL. They were travelling at their own expense, not on LTC. They had not received their pay cheques for some months and to add to their woes, there was a move to lower their retirement age. There were some glitches with the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) too.
Surprisingly, there was no trace of grief that one would normally associate with people in such a state––no pay for months and uncertain future. Their only ray of hope was––the union leaders being true to themselves and finding an amicable solution. If the union leaders fell for any personal allurement by the management/ government, all of them would face doom.
“Why were they, the MTNL/ BSNL, a one time Nav Ratna Company, in such dire straits?” queried a curious listener.
“Sir, for years we (MTNL/BSNL) have been getting a raw deal, a stepmotherly treatment. Successive governments have tried to clip our wings. We were not allowed to partcipate (actually ‘forbidden’) when 4G spectrum was auctioned. Now even though we give unlimited data, other private companies are preferred because although they offer very little data, they provide much higher speeds (4G). We have enviable assets, which are rotting. If the government has decided to favour the private players over us, so be it. They can go ahead and sell our assets and give us our pay.” With passion they continued to talk in turns. “Now that we do not have 4G we’ll not be eligible to go in for 5G although our R&D people are already working with some world leaders on 7G technology.”
One of the ladies showed a video clip on her mobile in which someone was trying passionately to elucidate how MTNL/BSNL were unscrupulously marginalised.
Their arguments were Greek and Latin to us. And honestly, we didn’t care. We were satisfied with our Jio and Airtel connectivity. Without going into the depth of what those ladies were saying, we tended to believe that MTNL/BSNL were paying for their poor performance. Period!
Did they care what we thought about MTNL/ BSNL or about them? Or, what was in store for them? Not the least.
Those exuberant women were joined by many others of their ilk when they disembarked at Ujjain Junction. None would have believed that they were going through a crisis of their lifetime with no end in sight. “We want to live life today and now,” said one of them. “Tomorrow when we retire, we’ll go and settle down in different parts of the country and might not get an opportunity to be together ever again.”
Never seen women of such substance, such grit. God was perhaps reading my lips when I picked up my bags to proceed homeward: “Oh God! Give them their due, and more.” I had prayed.
A week later, lost in the din of the UN Climate Summit and Howdy Modi, there are two news items.
One, a threat from a foreign vendor: “Won’t invest more if denied 5G permission, says Huawei.” Is it going to be another nail in the coffin of BSNL/MTNL?
Two, a relief to the deserving: “BSNL pays August salaries to staff: CMD.”