The taxi ride from Faridabad to Nizamuddin station was like being in a video game — a reckless orgy of vehicular violence. Between horrific visions of seeing myself lying mangled in a mess of twisted metal that was once a Maruti Omni, I tried to remain as calm as possible. The relative safety of the back seat was no cause for comfort — I was being tossed from side to side and my motion sickness made it worse. I don’t remember how long the ride took, but I vaguely remember being nauseous at the end of it and relieved that I had reached Nizamuddin station in one piece.
The rest of my journey to Chennai, though it took two days, was far less traumatizing. It was a completely different world, the kind that reminds you of what it is to be uniquely Indian. There was song; there was dance; there was food from different parts of the country. There were so many different languages, but a common voice; many different lives, yet one soul. It was a Festival of India on wheels.
A fifty-something woman with greying hair, dressed in a silk sari, nestled into the corner of the window seat opposite me. A portly six-footer in a billowing kurta, whom I assumed to be an automobile parts dealer at first glance, settled his bulk into one of the ‘side seats’. A father and son duo sat directly opposite to me, the father strategically wedging himself between his young son and the silk-sari woman. To my left sat a man, twenty-something, wearing thick black spectacles, a pink shirt with floral prints and a large collar. He was a walking advertisement for hair gel — jet black hair slicked back so neatly and firmly that you could see the reflection of the overhead lights on his head. He seemed stuck in a time warp — somewhere around the time of Sholay. His wife (I assumed), in stark contrast to his dress-sense, looked like a dancer from a nineties bhangra-pop video — low-slung jeans, peeping bellybutton, a tight yellow top, bright red lipstick and streaked hair that, for some reason, reminded me of a horse’s mane.
The first ten minutes of the journey went in arranging bags, suitcases, footwear and an assortment of make-do carrying cases — cloth bags, paper bags, and plastic bags in different shapes and sizes. Most of my co-passengers then spent the next couple of minutes taking sips of water from bottles, although no one looked particularly thirsty. Then the son took out a folded sheet of paper from his pocket, unfolded it and began studying it intensely, while the father fished out a newspaper and his reading glasses. Bhangra girl got busy with pulling out a blanket from a bag while Mr. Hair-gel ad took it upon himself to perform the mandatory task of flicking all the switches on and off. After all, it was absolutely necessary to check if the lights and fans worked in perfect order! I fervently hoped one of the fans wouldn’t work, just to see what that man would do when he found out. Unfortunately, that day, everything worked fine.
A moment later, the jamboree began and the Festival of India was underway. Cell phones began to trill a cacophony of familiar, unfamiliar and downright bizarre tunes from all across the compartment, calling attention to themselves and to their owners. The portly six-footer began to hurl a mixture of instruction and abuse into his cell phone, twice as loud as its ring-tone. From what I could gather, the person at the other end of the line had been instructed to collect a payment from M/s Gupta Parts (I was right about the automobile parts, after all!), a task that he had obviously goofed up, judging from the fact that the hapless fellow had just been likened to pubic hair. The barrage lasted a full fifteen seconds before he abruptly ended the call, rushed towards the toilet and didn’t turn up for the next hour or so.
That was one of the more peaceful hours. Mr.Autoparts was back, and immediately restless. He would look out of the window for sometime, then look at the air-conditioning vents overhead and look at everyone else with a ‘don’t you see what i see’ expression on his face. When no one seemed to take notice of whatever it was, he spoke up, choosing me to be the random recipient of his complaint. He was extremely unhappy about the state of the air-conditioning in our compartment – it just wasn’t working and even if it was, it just wasn’t cool enough. After announcing to me that had decided to ‘do something about it’, he got up and left towards the door. I had seen him in action over the phone earlier and was curious to see what drastic action he had decided to take. I didn’t have to wait long.
The door burst open and Mr.Autoparts came storming down the aisle with the air-conditioning attendant in tow. The attendant was an old man with longish, greying hair, a white beard and a Zen-like calmness showing on his face. He obviously has faced worse, I thought… the Yoda of air-conditioning! As I sat smiling to myself, the battle continued, most of which involved Mr.Autoparts describing the technical aspects of air-conditioning and the importance of correct settings, not to mention the terrible maintenance record of the railways. After listening to Mr.Autoparts with closed eyes, Yoda attendant calmly opened them and announced that the AC ‘is switched on and set to the correct temperature’. Mr.Autoparts would have none of it though.
“Why am I sweating then?” he demanded. A trick question, I thought. But Yoda was unfazed. He looked around the compartment. I thought some people were actually smiling at him…
“Sir, it is on. It will become cooler in a while. It should be OK by night,” he said calmly and started walking back to his post.
Mr.Autoparts was stunned. He stood there looking quite shocked, while his face did a series of color changes from red to deep red. He was now really sweating profusely. Some of my co-passengers looked a bit concerned. I had heard that the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke are similar and I began mentally preparing for CPR or worse. But he allayed my fears in a moment.
“In that case, I will set the AC myself! I am an engineer,” he announced loudly and started behind the attendant. I feared the worst, but nothing much else happened. There were no signs of any violence and the attendant, in his Zen way, appeared to have let Mr.Autoparts do whatever he wanted to, without making much ado about it. Soon, Mr.Autoparts was back in his seat, a broad smile on his face. The compartment was indeed cooler…
That night was one of the coldest nights I had ever spent on a train. The blanket that the railways provided wasn’t adequate to keep my extremities from becoming numb. By midnight, people had got up from their sleep and begun grumbling. It looked like it was their coldest night too. Mr.Autoparts seemed to take no notice at first, but soon, as the grumbling proceeded to become mild swearing, it was clear that people would freeze if the AC wasn’t reset. When people began referring to him as they swore, he didn’t seem any more comfortable than the others. Someone volunteered to fetch the attendant. The Yoda of air-conditioning appeared again, went up to Mr.Autoparts and said, Zen like, “I told you it would become cooler. Now, please go fix it.” With that he turned around and calmly, Zen like, walked back to his post and didn’t come back for the rest of our journey.
The Festival of India went on over the next two days. At every station, the son would pull out the sheet of paper from his pocket, look at it closely, then at his watch, shake his head and mumble something. The father, at each such instance, would get irritated and tell him to give the Indian railways some credit, all the while insisting that the train would reach Chennai on time. I learnt later, that the sheet of paper was a printout of the train’s itinerary with the exact times of arrival and departure at each station from Nizamuddin to Chennai. The son had downloaded it from the railways website, he told me. The argument ended only about twenty minutes before we arrived at Chennai – the train was indeed on time, much to the delight of the father. The son finally conceded defeat and I suppose they lived happily ever after. My troubles, however, had just begun.
It all started when I told a vendor that I would like some coffee — in Tamil. Suddenly, the silk-sari woman almost lunged at me wide-eyed and hissed, “Tamil?” Her tone of voice betrayed a mixture of relief, surprise and indignation. She seemed annoyed that I hadn’t told her earlier. It suddenly struck me that she had been silent all through the journey and that most of my conversations with the others had been in Hindi or English. In the twenty minutes that followed my ‘yes’ to her question, silk-sari woman unleashed on me her entire life story (or at least most of it I think!) — in Tamil of course. Into the last twenty minutes she crammed all that she hadn’t said during the whole journey — it was almost like I was being punished for ‘not being there for her’ for the past two days.
Her name was Lakshmi and she was originally from Tanjore. Yes, she was a Tamil Brahmin. She had ‘settled down’ in Chennai in the seventies with her husband Mr. Ramakrishnan, who used to be ‘in service’. Her son Ram (‘only child, small family-happy family’) was a software engineer (what else!) who lived in Düsseldorf, working on a project that had ‘something to do with insurance’. No, she hadn’t been there yet, because she and her husband were ‘retired and happy’ — heaven knows what the connection was. Anyway, Ram wasn’t going to be there long – he had to be back because his wife Ramya was ‘due’ in three months. No, not in Düsseldorf but in Agra. It was a ‘small thing’, but Ramya was sure that her child ‘should be born in her motherland’. It was also a ‘small thing’ (another one), but Ramya was ‘very traditional, thank god’.
That was just the first ten minutes. In the next ten, and until the train came to a complete stop at Chennai Central and I made a suggestive move towards my bags under the seat, I learnt more about the life and times of Ramya and her mother-in-law. Ramya lived in a house in Agra in Tilak Colony. It was a ‘small thing’ (yet another one), but she had made many ‘north Indian’ friends there, including Mrs.Chopra, who made the best til ke laddoos. Ramya’s ‘upstairs neighbours’ were a nosy lot, always peering in through open windows and doors. It was another ‘small thing’ (again), but Idhayam gingelly oil was available in the market in Tilak Colony. Another wonderful thing (not to mention ‘small’ again) about Agra was that she could get Ambika Appalam so easily. Lakshmi maami’s life indeed seemed to revolve around these countless ‘small things’.
By the time she got around to telling me details of ‘that girl Pooja’ who lived next door, smoked, drank, wore tiny shorts, and had her ‘she says it is her would-be’ stay over, I had inched my way towards the door. Before she could complete her description of what she had seen through poor Pooja’s bedroom window ‘that she never closes’ and who knows what else, I was pulled out of the door on to the platform by a porter in a hurry to get in. By the time I collected myself and my bags, I noticed Lakshmi maami waving at someone at a distance in the middle of bargaining with the porter. I was relieved that her attention had finally wandered.
Soon it was time for final goodbyes. Lakshmi maami was now standing on the platform, smiling. An old man, whom I assumed to be none other than Mr.Ramakrishan himself, was walking towards the exit with her bags and the porter. She thanked me profusely for the wonderful ‘conversation’ we had. I was wondering what to say to her when I noticed a huge, round package under her arm.
“Oh, this?” she said, her smile widening when she saw me staring at the package. “Just a small thing from my Ramya. She grows them in her kitchen garden, you know. It’s a gourd.”
Oh yes, I thought. The gourd of small things.
© Shyam Madhavan Sarada, 2005