Queuing Theory


As our rickshaw pulled into Jaipur train station and we took a look into the booking office, it seemed that all was not rosy in the fabled Pink City.

We had planned to leave on the 6pm train for Nawalgarh – a smallish town some 130km north of Jaipur, and had ambitiously allowed ourselves half-an-hour to purchase the tickets for the Shekhawati Express. Having been unable to purchase the tickets on-line and without the energy to confront the bedlam of the train station before we really had to, we reasoned that half-an-hour would be plenty of time to rustle up the required tickets. After all, we could always cheat and use the (much written about, but never actually seen) Foreigner’s Booking Office or, failing that, the ‘Ladies Queue’ that is apparently provided at every station.

In glorious technicolour hindsight, we should have known that our half-hour allowance was absolutely laughable. Almost two months travelling in India and we still had learnt nothing – nothing! – about the complex laws of local train travel.

What greeted us, of course, was a ticket office of – perhaps 15 – ridiculously long and densely-packed fighting queues of desperate people all waiting to purchase tickets for trains – trains that were probably not due to leave for another week or so, let alone in the next twenty minutes. Our eyes drifted towards the tail-end of the queues but they all seemed to snake out the door and into the hopelessness of the early-evening.

Our hearts sank. Sayonara Shekhawati.

After a quick scout around and frantic questioning of anyone who vaguely looked like a railway official, we realised there was only one thing to do. Apparently, the fabled Foreigner’s Booking Office didn’t exist at this station, nor did a dedicated Ladies Queue. However, it was possible for women to create their very own D-I-Y ladies queue, basically by pushing in up the front of any of queue of their choosing. This apparently was a legitimate practice and, it seemed, our only hope.

So it was, with 15 minutes to departure and an almost impossible task at hand, that I surveyed the teeming mass of people and chose my unsuspecting target for the brazen attempt at Mission: Queue Jump.

Even in our brief travels thus far, Christophe and I had witnessed the wonder of the Indian queuing system. Our utterly naive queuing technique was of course rooted in the primitive idea of standing in an orderly line and patiently waiting one’s turn. The Indian system, however, was a little more… how would you say… dynamic. Essentially everyone (preferably more than 9 or 10 people for a more authentic experience) simultaneously compete for the space immediately in front of the ticket window. Time of arrival at the ticket window is irrelevant. If someone is already standing there, that too – is utterly irrelevant. The natural laws of physics are seemingly defied, as the body of a space of a single, physical being is seemingly occupied by at least 4 other bodies simultaneously. It seriously is a wonder of science!

Yelling is essential. Pushing is fundamental. A moshpit has more manners.

In fact, I had frequently seen Christophe on the verge of making it to the vital berth in front of the ticket window, only for the space to be magically usurped by about five locals who seemed to suck up the space like a vacuum. I had seen this and I had learnt vital lessons.

With my mission in hand, I approached what looked to be the most promising of targets – a rather shortish fellow at the ticket window, and just two other women creating their very own ‘Ladies Queue’ just beside him. I made my approach, discounted the swarms of people blocking my path and went into attack mode. With my elbows trained like an anti-ballistic missile defence system, I confidently wedged my way into prime view in front of the window. Fortunately, I could use my superior height to cunning advantage (not so tall, but at least a foot above all my fellow competitors). Then, the piece-de-resistance – the ‘Rupee Thrust’. This consists of holding a random wad of notes in your hand and somehow wrangling your arm through the small semi-circle window in the plastic screen between you and the make-or-break ticket issuer.

My application of the ‘Rupee Thrust’ was ruthless. I applied my technique with the mastery of a Sachin Tendulkar leg glance. I angled my arm through the window virtually up to my shoulder, and adopted an oblique angle such that no other competitor could take me on. I then waved the bank notes around furiously to show I meant business and pressed my face beseechingly against the plastic screen. Even the ferocious elbowing into my ribs, and the pulling and prodding of my torso by another very determined lady couldn’t deter me.

Amazingly, the technique worked. Despite the still-ferocious attempts of other brave warriors to overtake me in the queue, I managed to reign supreme and claimed the trophy – 2 unreserved second-class tickets on the train to Nawalgarh. Brilliant! And with a luxurious 5 minutes to spare as well…

Jubilantly brandishing our tickets, I turned to face what I anticipated would be a severely antagonistic crowd. After all, I had just committed the ultimate queue-jump – pushing in front of at possibly 40 people and saving myself at least 3 hours of waiting and frustration. An inquisitive man several metres back in line yelled out the familiar query – “Hey… what country?”.

I hesitated for a moment, thinking perhaps I should try and pass myself as a non-English speaking backpacker (perhaps Italian, given my queuing prowess), but with the glory of the moment, I couldn’t resist gloating.

‘Australia’, I replied triumphantly. ‘And I LOVE India!’ I shouted this out out in general to the waiting crowd, waving the tickets above my head.

Amazingly, a roar erupted from the still-queuing hordes. They were delighted with my response! The crowd then parted to let me through – all grinning furiously with my Indian proclamations of love. Questions trailed behind me – cries of ‘Ricky Ponting’, ‘Shane Warne’, ‘Kangaroo’ – the usual Aussie touchstones.

But I was already gone in a blaze of backpacks – grateful that we could make the train in time and amazed that the simple act of purchasing a train ticket could provide such waves of ecstasy. (Maybe a lesson or two for CityRail? Train travel in Sydney obviously needs some spicing up..!)