Sunday, January 20, 2008

Stranger on a train - 1

Hunsur-Mysore, January, 2008

When a middle-aged man alerts you to the fact that you're ticket jumping and should actually move from the cool greyness of the lonely three-tier compartment you have comfortably ensconced yourself in, to the hard wooden benches of the unreserved compartment instead, as per your ticket; follows you there; takes his seat opposite you on a two-seater and then proceeds to tell you how glad he is to have made a good friend to chat with on this three-hour journey, you're pretty much doomed to three of the longest hours of your life.

The journey began promisingly enough, with a story of a stick up and a death by gunshot at headpoint, in Lucknow.

It was a crowded restaurant in one of the more affluent commercial districts of the city. Tables were filling and emptying quickly and harried waiters rushed around, doling out orders and handing across bills.

At one such table two men were finishing up lunch when the waiter handed them their bill. They scrounged around in their pockets briefly and handed him the money, while continuing to finish up their meal. The waiter returned to them a few moments later, pointing out that they had paid two rupees short of the bill amount.

Within seconds, the customers turned violent. Their tempers flared. They asked how he dared to question them. They asked what difference two rupees would make. He stammered that he was only pointing out a genuine mistake and that they should be tipping him a couple rupees extra, if anything, and not undercutting him.

One of the men pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot the waiter dead. Then, in broad daylight, in full view of tens of stunned customers whose activities had ground to an abrupt and deafeningly silent halt, the men walked out, got into their car, and left.

There were more stories.

Stories of hurrying home in the insurgency in Punjab, stories of pilgrimages undertaken in the freezing cold of a Jammu winter, stories of loyalty and assiduity from Calcutta.

But gradually the tenuous thread hanging these unlikely and disparate strands of storytelling magic together, begins to fray.

A peanut-seller enters the compartment and dashes in and out of each berth cluster throwing a few peanuts onto our laps, for free. In a few minutes he is done and goes down the same route, but this time much slower, with his paper cones and warm bag of brown nuts. Ensnared by the quick testers, people dig for change and the adolescent peanut-seller does brisk business.

Outside the sky darkens and the wind gathers speed as we leave Mysore further and further behind.

The fraying threads have fallen apart to reveal gaping holes now – the storyteller opposite me is taking on the bulky form of a real person: a man consumed by his work, unable to communicate with his wife. Determined not to share his sorrows and hardships with her, he turns instead to a polite stranger on a train; a stranger whose eyes are constantly drawn to the moving black shapes outside the iron bars, pupils returning to him – tedious storyteller - in later and later intervals, with weary politeness: the barest indication that he still has some semblance of an audience.

Stories of colour and texture, from the corners of India have been overshadowed by the monumental confessions of personal trajectory. Long hours slaved, dedication and sincerity overlooked, increasing work loads, growing responsibility, the draw of more money – all eating angrily into personal solitude. And from initial conversation punctuated by self doubt and negation, now the story teller's tempo rises, his hands weave up and away and he speaks with renewed vigour: this time about heroes, about beacons of hope in this dismal rut of middle-class aspiration and mundanity.

Hitler! He adores (no, too fawning a word), he idolises Hitler.

“His determination! His ability to set a goal and achieve it, whatever the cost; his single-minded purpose!”

I mutter something about war crimes.

He leans forward to remind me of Bush. Triumphantly he mentions hundreds dead in Iraq – like a sparring partner who has been secretly practising overtime, he stops any pretence of accommodating my interjections, and indulges instead in an unstoppable eulogy to the majestic heroes who dared to punish those they believed had done wrong.

“Rapists? Should be murdered! Their hands should be chopped off!” He leans across and grabs me by the wrist. “They should be made to remember! Their executions should be public. People should watch and be afraid. There should be no doubt that thievery will lead to DEATH!”

My wrist is released.

His verbal sparring has outdone any partner who might have risen to meet his defiance and daring suggestions. He pushes each barrier of resistance, each seed of criticism with more and more confidence. “War crimes... Saudi Arabia... dictatorship...?”; the mild protests from the polite Listener are brushed aside with the confidence of a first time speaker-storyteller who has just succeeded in enchanting his virgin audience. His words are louder, more enunciated; definitive pronouncements now, listen to them - “Death! Hanging! Execution! Public shaming! Mass killing!”

The tirade continues. Earlier mild confessions and retorts, “... but although I am not a History or Geography student, I think...” have been overtaken by bold declarations of justice and revenge.

The night thickens. The compartment thins out. I draw my hands into my lap.

My story teller is now possessed by ghosts from a past that was not mentioned in the stories of the Lucknow shootout, the Amarnath trek or the Calcutta file-clearings. These are stories from a history that precedes my entry, stage left to the ticket counter where I stood before him and bought a cheap wooden bench ticket - “Unreserved, Madam! A fine of Rs. 150, or maybe more, depending on how the TC likes you!” - from Mysore to Bangalore, and he bought the same after me, asking the same question I did: Which platform? To which the irascible ticket vendor, nearing the end of a shift, dreaming of hot tiffin brought to him in a shiny scrubbed carrier, told him to just “follow the lady”.

He talks of persipacity and boldness; of capital punishment, of death camps; of grit, determination and resolve; of blinkered progress without a second thought.

Suddenly there is a scramble as the train starts to slow down. Crowds of people who materialise suddenly swell up at both exits; squeezed young men appear like toothpaste blobs, large head and then, painfully eked out, a visible thin rest-of-the-body coming around the corner of the berth, diving for a window seat – the train goes on, after this brief halt, down south to Tuticorin.

We hurry out, story teller and once-listener and suddenly the suspension of disbelief in the dimly lit compartment with the two curious ladies (wondering why the young girl was talking, so closely, to a stranger), the staring man from the berth across (who was fascinated by a certain point between the young lady's chin and the base of her neck), the farmer-turned-land owner men (wondering where the two ladies were going)... is shattered. The station is patchy with pools of white light and shallows of darkness hiding sleeping coolies and hungry old ladies and suddenly, scurrying out together, past long corridors smelling of tin-urine-sweat-hurry, up stairs where people scramble confused up and down along the same side of the banister, past unquestioning ticket checkers, we emerge into the night.

They live in the same neighbourhood, three streets away. He had asked her (earlier on, whilst they were still friends) how she was going to get home - “pre-paid auto,” she said, and he had said he would take one too.

They reach the station entrance and are ejected out into the sudden darkness of the night outside.

“Goodbye Madam,” he says briefly, raising a hand cursorily in a half wave, hurrying into the confusion of the street.