Those who follow these outpourings of The Man from Madras Musings know that he gets around quite a bit and much of his travel is by train. In the past, MMM has written feelingly about nights of horror when he, as a guest of our railways, has had to deal with filthy toilets, plenty of four, six, eight and even hundred legged co-passengers, and, above all, water supply – either none at all or too much of it, threatening to flood the entire coach. Of his travails caused by fellow passengers-snoring, persistent usage of cell phones, playing videos loudly and, above all, quarrelling in public, MMM will say nothing. After all, the railways are a public service and you cannot choose whom you travel with. If MMM is so finicky, why does he not charter his own plane, as an auto­rick­shaw driver once asked of him. But in short (and MMM would have shortened all of this if he had enough content), MMM has much more to say about our railways and has been biding his time for a suitable opportunity.

Conceive his delight when the other day MMM’s phone rang and the regulation recorded dulcet voice at the other end announced that it was calling from the Indian Railways and would MMM care to answer a survey and, if so, press 1 on his telephone. MMM duly did and the voice expressed its delight. Its first question, it cooed, was on punctuality. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being verrrrry bad and 5 being verrrrry good, said the voice) how would MMM rate the railways. MMM unhesi­ta­tingly gave 5. He has no complaint on that aspect of the service and when you know the kind of hazards our railways go through, the most frequent being people talking on cell phones and walking on the tracks, it is really a wonder that trains run on time.

The next question was on food. And here MMM gave the railways a 1. MMM, as you know, has suffered enough, what with coloured water passing off as soup, sambar as a side dish for chappatis because there was no dal, idli-s that you could use to break the emergency window open in case there was a fire and the hammer was not in its usual place, and, of course, chopped onions that would have been fresh when the first railway line was laid. The voice thank­ed MMM once again and he braced himself for the subsequent questions. He fully ­expected these to be on cleanliness of toilets, the hygiene in compartments and the quality of bed linen. But, no, for the railways apparently considered punctuality and food to be the only two concerns that it needs to bother with. Perhaps it was the poor rating that MMM gave on the culinary score, though the voice did not take any offence, but he was immediately thanked profusely and informed that the results of the survey would soon be up in the public media. The call then went dead.

Sure enough, the results were published in newspapers a couple of days later. The railways, said the report, had been rated highly on punctuality and people felt that there had been a marked improvement in this area in the last two years. MMM wondered as to when a survey had been done earlier whose findings could have been used to compare the present rating with and, therefore, from which an improvement could be concluded. There was, however, no mention of the food rating.