A few of you must have read my previous posts; a very few of you, I would guess. You must have come across the post about me bashing our very Indian infatuation with anyone who isn’t an Indian. If you remember I wrote about a train journey, in this update I’ll elaborate on that point.
Indian Railways is one of the most extensive rail networks in the world and naturally it occupies a very important part of our lives. It helps us move from point A to point B. And you know, what’s the best part? It’s cheap. This means, it must occupy a VERY important part of our life.
The western railway is run by the most misanthropic specimen of human beings. Especially the guys who arrange my seat numbers. I can assure you, there is some sort of conspiracy against me. For some reason, I always end up with a seat smack in the middle of those surrounded by senior citizen seats.
Its inexplicable and inescapable.
Except once. The only exception in the eight journeys that I have had so far. That is what I have written about.
I stepped into the compartment in Kurla Station, Mumbai (The train was due for Trivandrum). I was one of the first ones to do that, so the whole place was really quiet. I didn’t have to go far to find my seat. It’s one of those seats that no one ever misses. If you have travelled long distance in the Indian railways, and have used its beautiful toilet services then you must have noticed that whenever you enter or leave the AC compartment and step out, there’s a side bunk placed right beside the door, against which you will inevitably crash your door. That too with a loud sound; to the lasting inconvenience of the woe besotted passenger in that particular seat.
I had never really thought about that seat before, but now that I did, the gravity of my situation hit me like a wave. But I am a young man, with the fire of youth in my eyes and ‘Catch-22’ in my hand. I decided to quench my fire on the book. Provided the book is engrossing enough, I believed I could tide through any sort of disturbance.
That was where I was wrong.
Catch-22 is a very different kind of book. It’s a war book, based on the Second World War. Yet, its not about fighting. It’s more psychological, but very subtle. Hiding all the madness behind a façade of dark humour. I was positively intrigued.
And then I snapped out of it. The door was flung ajar, and in walked a family. It wasn’t just any bloody family. It was BIG family. They were followed by their relatives from their maternal side, their paternal side, from left side, from right side and every other side that God deemed uncouth for Man. Loudly, with a lot of excessive laughter and boisterous posturing; they occupied three cabins including the one I was cowering in.
They had lots of kids. Too many for my liking, or for that matter the census taker’s. One of the little bastards decided that he was going to be a pain and loudly occupied my berth. Confining me to the smallest space, he ran amuck on my seat, carefully trampling my precious luggage.
“Chhokra chhe (he’s just a boy)!” an obese woman, who I suspect was the mother, explained. I think she was trying to be apologetic, but I am not sure, because she was affectionately petting that imp on his head.
I threw myself back into the books, hoping that my surroundings would soon disappear and that I would find myself in the grim world of Joseph Heller. But that wasn’t to be. That bas… that kid, snatched the book from my hand, and started dancing around with it. I was aghast. No one would do such a thing to me in my home or even my hostel, because if there’s one thing I expect from this world, which is to leave me alone when I am engrossed in a book.
But this was neither my home nor my hostel. It was a beady eyed brat, grinning like an imp who was dancing with my book held out like bait for me.
I snarled and snatched the book out of his hand. Apparently I intimidated the kid with my lightning fast reflexes (or maybe my face), because the little thing started wailing. Not crying, mind you. Wailing.
“Soo chhe? (What)” the obese woman, towered over me, scowling . All my manly bravado withered away before this massive monument to motherhood. “He took my book…” I whimpered pathetically. “Su chhe, baby (What happened, baby)?” she then asked the kid, in a maternal tone. The little twerp pointed at the book, and mewled something to the effect that he wanted it. “Give it to him for some time.” She said, as if that’s the most reasonable thing uttered since Adam bit the Apple. “What?” I asked, just to be sure.
Soon, I was sitting in the extreme corner of my seat, glaring at the kid, who was fanning himself with MY book. The rest of the people, who were one BIG HAPPY family, were busy singing songs together.
“Pankhiraa tu urirajajo… Pawagarh re!”*
With so much screeching, I was sure that I was going to die. I mean there is nothing wrong with the song. But obviously, there must be reason as to why singing has become a profession. This was definitely going to be my worst railway experience, but what happened next was what would be called a divine intervention by a theist, or the law of averages by an atheist.
An old man, fit to be in a museum, stepped in.
“Arre! Kem chho, Jignesh-bhai? (How are you, Jignesh?)” someone shouted from an upper berth.
“Jignesh bhai! Oh, dekh ne, Jignesh bhai!(Look, its Jignesh!)” recognition dawned on the rest.
“ Tame kem chho? Majama chhe, ne? (How are you? Are you okay?)”
And they cackled back and forth.
I was relieved that the noise had stopped, that opened up a lot of opportunities. So I did a favour to myself and dozed off in a while.
At length, I was woken up unceremoniously. It was the same fat woman. But uncharacteristically she was smiling at me and in her hand there was an open sweet box. “Chahiye (Want one)?” she asked me. Sensing something afoot, I declined.
For a moment she was taken aback, probably wondering how a person could refuse an open box of sweet. Then she composed herself and pointed at the old man, who had just walked in. “You see, Jignesh bhai there, na?” she said.
“Well you see,” she continued in her most reasonable voice, “Jignesh bhai is very old. And he is three compartments away so we were wondering whether you ….”
I had got the gist as well as an escape route.
I imperiously snatched the book out of the little monkey’s hand and readied my luggage. “Thank you, beta. Bhagwaan tumhara bhala kare (May God bless you)!” she said, wearing her most genial fake smile, reminding me of a toad while she was at it. To say the truth, I was glad to exchange places with the old man. Couldn’t wait to get away from the place. And seeing the relief on the faces of my co-passengers, I could see that they were glad too.
I muttered savagely as I dragged my overfilled suitcase through moving compartments, all the while tripping everyone all over my luggage. Three compartment away was no joke. I was totally exhausted by the time I reached the place.
In the meantime, I realized that I would rather travel surrounded by old people, than with family that wasn’t mine. At least the elders gave me enough room to exist. That and the silence. If you want peace of mind, then travel around old people take that from me (an experienced traveler in my own right). They may occasionally get curious and ask personal questions, but if you can deflect that, the journey will be as smooth as butter.
I stumbled into the section and was annoyed to see the two part curtain drawn fast together. I dropped my luggage in an attempt to do the curtains apart, the whole time cursing the elders’ need for privacy. What exactly would they be doing behind curtains anyways? I rolled my now eyes as the curtains came apart.
I nearly fell face down.
Five of the six berths were occupied by beautiful girls. Two of them in the lower berths were fast asleep. One in the middle berth was softly head banging to some loud Indie pop music. The other one in the middle berth was busy messaging on her phone. The one in upper berth was busy reading a book.
I could have cried with joy, if it wasn’t considered lame given the scenario. This was heaven!
I had been standing and staring for quite some time, and they were looking at me curiously. “I ..uh.. I ..the upper berth is mine.” I said, feeling like an idiot. The girl who was listening to Indie pop asked, “What’s your seat number?”
“43…wait, that was the old one….uhh…15 ..no, 16!” I said.
The girl on the upper berth sat up and said, “Then that would be…..” she looked around thinking.
“The one you are sitting on.” I said, feeling like drowning in a pool of embarrassment.
“Oh right.” She said, and leaped over to the other berth.
I scrambled over my berth and for some time I just stayed like that. I felt highly self conscious, aware even of the hair moving on my hands. There was no sound except that of the all girl band playing something about ‘all revolution – girl style’. The lone guy in a girl bastion.
When the inactivity became too stifling and obvious, I decided that the world of Joseph Heller would be much more accommodating for me. So I started flipping through the pages of Catch-22 and quite soon I was lost.
It was some three hours when I realized I was parched. So I called out to the railway attendant who was hawking cold drinks. But the man with imperial high handedness disregarded me and walked away. Cursing the man and my luck, I wondered when that guy would backtrack and I get a precious water bottle.
“You want some water?” the ‘book girl’ said, offering her water. She was a pretty girl, and difficult to say no to.
I gallantly refused, but then considered it and took it anyways. I took a gulp and returned it to her. But she said it was okay.
I twiddled around with the bottle cap wondering what to say next.
“So,” I said, trying to start a conversation, “may I see, what book are you reading?”
“Sure.” She said, smiling.
I took the book ….and nearly dropped it. It was a black book, and on its cover it proclaimed, “New Moon by Stephanie Meyer”. The girl beamed at me.
“Nice…” I said, I heard the book is pretty decent. I wasn’t lying but that wasn’t the whole truth.
“Really?” she said incredulously, “This is the first book I am reading.”
“Umm..but isn’t this …like… not the first book?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said excitedly, “but I just saw the movie and I was like wow!”
A little bit of me died inside.
“Oh….” I said. My hand was clammy with sweat.
“Have you seen the movie?” she asked, smiling broadly.
“No.” I replied delicately.
“You should watch it.” She said with finality. “The movie is just awesome. I was like totally in love with the guy who played Edward…what was his name..?” she wondered.
“Robert …Pattinson I believe…” I said in a hushed voice, wishing I hadn’t.
“Oh yeah that.” She said, “Have you seen the movie?” her tone betrayed her suspicion.
“No!” I said quickly. “No….”
“Whatever,” she continued, she said tucking her pwetty hair behind her pwetty ears, “the movie was awesome, the actors
were great! The movie was fabulous yaar. So much mature than Harry Potter or Lord of Rings. Epic romance, yaar.”
I wanted to run. I absolutely had to preserve my sanity.
“’The’ … ‘the rings’.” I tried to correct.
“What?” she asked.
“Never mind.” I said. “Edward, the shining vampire.” I added snidely.
“Yeah,” she said, unaware of the sarcasm. “Totally awesome guy. You into vampire books?” she beamed.
I debated with myself whether I should tell her something about Anne Rice, but then thought otherwise. She wouldn’t know anyways. And I was tired and my head was throbbing. I had enough of shining vampires and over extended families for a lifetime.
I excused myself and proceeded towards an extended nap. I needed it. There is no trouble big enough that you couldn’t sleep through. But that was going to be difficult since someone was playing a Riot grrl band and the screams of “Double dare ya…triple fuckin’ dare ya..!” was now getting to my head.
* the translation is something like: ‘The bird flying over Pawagarh….’ and so on. It’s a beautiful folk song FYI.
PS:I didn’t make the poster below, but thought it nicely summed up what i was thinking.