THE RAILWAY CYNIC’S JOURNAL

An earnest bachelor travelling on work slides his glasses up his harried nose and attempts to tinker with his laptop while a family of seven corners him in with a teething baby, a farting grandpa, a painfully beautiful daughter, a corpulent son who strips down to his underwear, a family friend playing Antakshari with himself, a matronly housewife who rains curd-rice from the berth above and a sickeningly cheery paterfamilias who wants to discuss the stock market.

An arthritic retiree reposing on the lower berth curses upto the seventh generation of the ten teenagers who’ve spread a bedsheet over twenty legs bridging the two upper berths and are playing a very physical card-game that requires frequent ululations and screaming of the war-cries ‘doooooood’ and ‘faaaaaaaack’ in a high cackling voice that terrifies him more than the possibility of death by burial under millennials.

Merciless fathers alight at ill-lit stations in the middle of the night and petrify their adoring children by not re-appearing until half an hour after the train is in motion, twenty-five minutes after they’ve begun to wail and twenty minutes after their mother has decided to disembark at the next station or signal, whichever comes first.

The perspiring state of semi-sleep I have befuddled my tired aching cramped limbs into is shattered at the wispiest crack of dawn by the piercingly nasal cry of an ambitionless man peddling weak tea over-boiled from questionable water collected from the rusty faucet in the much-abused toilet.

Obese aunties waddle to the loo for a pre-chai prophylactic dump, scent up the closet, pant their way back to newsprint-stained vadas seared in rancid oil and the continued interrogation of a solitary girl accha beti what is your good name what caste is that Hindu only na haan haan Jain is Hindu only where is your native place mummy papa let you travel alone aaj kal ke girls na they are so modern in my time toh accha how come you aren’t married you look old enough to have two children better get engaged at least soon varna all the good ones will be taken heh heh.

Fearless lads suspend their scrawny bodies out of the overcrowded doorway, their hearts throbbing hair flying faces gleaming until the piss flies into their eyes.

Every wayside station boasts of a paan-painted drinking water fountain used to wash hands, faces and kerchiefs, a bored man listlessly waving a green flag, and a single hut sheltering a single couple, the girl bedecked and bashful, the boy staring at the horizon for a glimpse of any train to escape on.

The train thunders across a mighty bridge over a brown rivulet at whose banks women squat and beat their families’ clothes with a vehemence reserved by those who live next to a railway line and a couple of hours from the nearest station, whose menfolk have long departed for all the big places all the big trains go to.

Respecting the caste system of Rajdhanis-and-Shatabdis-first-everything-else-follows, my train spends an eternity at a siding while a sun-baked man with a damp towel around his neck cradles a fluorescent green bucket in his elbow and executes his business idea of walking along the tracks selling once-cool bottled water to the passengers of a fully air-conditioned train.

Middle-aged men wearing faded black trousers and nondescript shirts strut on the platform with arms akimbo, staring at the signal, wishing, urging, daring it to turn green so they can sweat under their collars and manfully leap aboard a train speeding at a kilometre an hour.

The train halts at a red signal in the middle of a nameless nowhere boasting of cracked earth, failing fields and an undernourished bull being worked to death by an undernourished farmer who doesn’t lift his eyes off God’s earth to look at the sky, the train or anything else.

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SIR-VILE

Some evenings, I pop over to the small hotel opposite college for a quick sabudaana vada or idli saambaar. There, I often run into the same man. Short, slight, fiftyish. Triangular face, toothbrush moustache, endearing smile. His clothes hang off him. He never looks rested. But he greets me pleasantly every time we meet. Just seeing him smile brightens my day. Were you to meet him, you’d like him too.

Other patrons often behave rudely with him. He is a waiter at the hotel.

This man is good at his work. He remembers my usual order. Brings me extra saambaar, unasked. Waits for me to finish my snack before placing a tumbler of filter coffee on my table. As I sip and slurp, other tables summon him with a snap of their fingers, send him scurrying for two measly cups of tea, and complain about the quality of service.

You and I, we may never have done this. But we have continued speaking in English to the McDonald’s cashier who was noticeably uncomfortable with the language. And fiddled with our phones while muttering our orders. Avoided eye-contact with the garbage-man. Or rolled our eyes at each other when the cabbie initiated a conversation.

Where do we find the temerity to talk down to people, especially those older than us? Does the aristocracy of wealth permit us to behave like feudal lords? And on what basis do we sustain that swagger, when very often, the money we’re squandering was earned by someone else?

It is no-one’s life ambition to be a doorman. Yet doormen exist. They hold open doors we can manage ourselves, force out a ‘good evening’ they’ve been instructed to offer, and present a salaam that puffs up many a fragile ego. Day after day, this is life for them. Perhaps we cannot see the point of their jobs. Does that give us the right to see through them?

What the service industry calls a salary, you and I would call a stipend. The cosmetics salesgirl can’t afford the mascara she’s peddling. The man at the box-office has never watched a film in 3-D. The courier-boy earns in a year what you spent on the new plasma flat-screen TV he just delivered. We barter money for a service, the exchange is balanced, the transaction complete. But over and above this, we also expect courtesy, helpfulness and respect in every interaction. As ye give, so shall ye receive, no? It is their job to serve you, not their honour. And it is your right to be served, not your birthright. Be nice.

I’m surrounded by paragons of politeness. My aunt chats for a bit with telemarketers before stating she isn’t interested; I bark out a curt no and hang up. My dad, who once spent a few months working door-to-door for a consumer survey, proffers more thank-you’s than anyone else I know; I am always furious with itinerant salespeople who ring my doorbell. I remember my mum persuading the elderly lady who cooked for two generations of my family to rise off her haunches and sit on the sofa; I have never invited the plumber to leave his slippers inside the house.

I have an easily memorisable phone number. My dad didn’t bribe or browbeat the network executive; he asked if there were any available, and said please. My friend stayed on for five extra days at the Andaman Islands, free of cost; he’d befriended his scuba diving instructors. On the last day for paying my college fees, I had a meltdown in the middle of a bank when I realised I didn’t have my paperwork in order; a compassionate bank clerk transferred funds from her own account and fed me laddoos before I left.

I’d like to work as a barista for a while. When not respiring coffee (sweet joy!), I want to observe humanity. Does the boy who pulls a chair out for his girlfriend, whistle to attract my attention? Does the woman who asks for extra chocolate sprinkles, snap when I ask if she can tender exact change? Does the couple canoodling in the corner smile at me when I flip the music to something more romantic?

George Saunders said, ‘What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.’ I think of the buck-toothed woman listlessly manning the baggage counter at the department store. And the chatty rickshawallah who grew up on the campus of Benaras Hindu University, and drove me through the flooded streets of Bombay. And Prem Singh, watchman, father of two, who many monsoons ago, contracted malaria, developed jaundice, and died.

I think of how many such people I meet every day, and how long my life may be. I cannot live with such regret. Can you?

* * *

PANGS

Day One of my Paediatrics posting. The lady sits beside me in a share-rickshaw. Her son sits in her lap. She looks fiftyish. He isn’t more than five.

His eyes are strange. His head sways with every bump. His arms flail. His legs are limp.

His mother hugs him closer. When his tiny fist accidentally punches me, she smiles in apology.

Is it Down’s? Delayed development? Polio? Or is the child just sleepy?

Should I meet them in a clinic instead of a rickshaw, will I have an answer?

*

The Gynaecology OPD is packed. A Psychiatry resident brings a young girl to be examined by my Head of Unit.

She was married off as a child. Her husband is an alcoholic. Her mother-in-law forced her into prostitution. She conceived once – and delivered. She is pregnant again, and wants to abort.

My unit doesn’t perform abortions.

She is nineteen. Her furtive eyes settle on my textbook, which she examines with interest.

‘Aap yahaan seekhte ho kya?’  

She looks at me eagerly. I don’t know where to look.

*

It started with leukaemia. When bladder cancer followed, he went to Urology. But Anaesthesia pronounced him unfit for surgery. And Medicine diagnosed tuberculosis. Then he fractured his leg.

He aged twenty years in two. Whenever we met, he’d complain about how doctors make him run around without explaining what is wrong with him. I never knew what to say.

Recently, I spot him again in the corridors. I duck into the nearest doorway and hope he hasn’t seen me.

*

The houseman scrubs her back with antiseptic. A ward-boy holds her still. When the lumbar puncture needle pierces her spine, she begins to scream.

She is one-and-a-half years old.

The first attempt draws blood. So does the second. And third. With the fourth, fluid emerges. The houseman sighs with relief.

Why couldn’t he get it right the first time? Why didn’t a registrar perform the procedure?

How could he avoid it if the baby wriggled? How will he learn?

*

A train arrives at and departs from the opposite platform. Five minutes later, I notice them.

A little old man and a little old woman have alighted. She totters ahead with a cane. He follows, with his hand on her shoulder. Neither of them can see.

Where from? Where to? At their age, why commute? At that hour, how will they get home?

By the time they cover the length of the platform, the next train arrives.

*

The conductor starts issuing tickets on my last bus home.

At the first stop, a youth gets in. The conductor rushes down the aisle and sits next to him. He puts his arm around him and speaks affectionately, and loudly. The boy squirms, but smiles shyly and nods from time to time.

The conductor wears a hearing aid. The boy never utters a word.

I haven’t gotten my ticket. But at my stop, I rise and silently slip off the bus.

No one notices. The conversation goes on.

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THE BIOMECHANICS OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT

Warning: If buttocks offend you, stop here.

When a rickshaw contains three passengers and one large suitcase, the gymnast of the trio sits in the middle and performs a full-split. He may capitalise on this position and deliver a baby, but this is not advisable. Space constraints will eject man, suitcase or baby.

If you are the fourth passenger of a share-rickshaw and engrossed in backside politics with the driver, be careful. He will reach between your unwilling thighs, grasp firmly, and jerk – the starter.

Passengers cornered into window seats of the new BEST buses conform to the first orthopaedic principle – immobilisation. Buttocks are compressed into bucket seats designed for a toddler’s tush. One shoulder is braced against the shutter of a window set low enough to wind-blast your abdomen. The other is wedged into the man-boob of a bariatric surgeon’s delight.

When squeezed into a packed last seat, one feeble contraction of your Bebo-ish derrière produces Richter-scale tremors in the Dolly Bindra-esque bottom seven places away. When a speed breaker launches your collective backsides into mid-air, ‘one gigantic arse’ acquires literal meaning.

In interstate buses, a hanky flung through a window earmarks its landing spot for one-and-a-half buttocks or a mother with her bedwetting child (whichever is larger). Clinging onto his palm’s-width of seat with a sliver of buttock, your co-passenger across the aisle steadies himself by plonking one foot on the mountain of raw fish between you two. The foot will bear ulcers.

Those last to get toeholds in a local train form a bulging skein of quivering buttocks asking to be gently patted, perhaps by fond commuters jostling at the next station. In the meanwhile, the expulsive force that builds up is transmitted hillock-to-buttock, especially in the morning (you know what I mean). As we’re all (resignedly) consenting adults and actual sodomy is averted by hopefully at least four layers of clothing, Hakuna Matata.

Some men travel with their families. You courteously avoid contact with the ‘leddies’ by becoming Siamese twins with the foul-mouthed rogue beside you. You try to avoid inserting the heads of their many imps between your buttocks. When they alight, you behold that the tender surface on which you’d focussed your weight is an ancient gentlemen, lying dead asleep.

Tall women of marriageable age will benefit from a night’s contorted slumber on the RAC side-berth of an outstation train – four inches height loss guaranteed. Time spent sitting on an upper berth with chin massaging thyroid is for fingering the lint out of your belly button – the only thing in sight.

Gravity makes you graze your buttocks past your neighbour’s grimacing face and rush to use the aircraft’s Lilliputian loo. Like Stanley ‘The Mask’ Ipkiss, you redistribute your bulk around the food cart. Your neck is cricked to the acutest angle while you admire your neighbour’s gourmet meal and wonder why yours looks like yesterday’s leftovers allowed to mature overnight in a warm dumpster.

About the biomechanics of ship journeys, I am at sea.

* * *

RINSHIKIJIKATOMEY

…is a word. I’m sure of it. I’m certain even about its pronunciation – a short pause between shiki and jika, and a succinct mey at the end. But after Googling, searching my memory, and quizzing a Japan-returned friend, I still don’t know what it means.

Here are some other things I’d like to know:

1. The function-flowers funda: Why do we bestow hapless dignitaries with floral ‘tokens-of-our-appreciation’? Do bonsai blossoms, bedraggled ferns and cheap squares of cellophane, a bouquet make? I suspect an organiser-horticulturalist nexus formed to perpetuate a social custom that ends with a dais littered with unclaimed saplings. Do they then go back to their crafty botanist?

2. Perpetually pehle aap: Nobody wants to go first; everybody seconds that. Why do we wait for someone else to answer incorrectly, before guessing it right ourselves, by elimination? Someone has to bungee jump first! We experiment by doing nothing, and you are your own silent Ethics Committee.

3. Ominous Indian epithets: In Konkani, ‘Biji’ means ‘mashed’. What sort of fate do Punjabis wish for their paternal grandmothers by christening them that? Are Gujaratis so dismissive of their fathers’ sisters that they call the good lady ‘Phooey’? Is a ‘maasa’, a Maharashtrian fish or a Gujju mother’s brother-in-law? And if ‘bhanji’ means ‘niece’, whose niece is Sir Ben Kingsley (born Krishna Bhanji)?

4. A town called quota: Being labelled is protested as being stereotyped, but capitalising on one’s label is permitted as a constitutional birthright. Have Sushilkumar Shinde’s Dalit origins helped solve the power crisis? Will you trust a neurosurgeon to operate on a fragile tumour because he comes from a nomadic tribe?

5. See, for complexion: Dusky women slop on Fair-and-Lovely. Fair and lovely women go to tanning parlours. When will they realise that (most) men know blushes aren’t permanent, and it is impossible to age back twenty years in one trip to the powder room?

6. Marxist mythology: In a diktat smacking of communist sympathies, Kunti decreed that her Pandavas must always share equally. Everything – including a wife. Chinese comrades under suspicion had to make self-criticisms before being accepted back into Party folds; Sita was made to undergo a trial by fire before entering the welcoming arms of her loving husband. Readymade and historically vetted propaganda, yet the communists disavow religion. Pity, no?

7. Crime and self-punishment: Do crime beat reporters garner journalistic acclaim for digging out the grisly details of a private death? Do we read their stories to envision our own macabre abductions/rapes/murders? And do elegant SoBo hostesses discuss the difference between murder and manslaughter over tinkling teacups? Then why are we obsessed with gore?

8. Radio rants: Every night, Fever FM feels the need to educate me about the technological and cultural advances of outer Siberia. Radio Jockeys with jocks’ intellects dispense relationship advice. Anirudh LLB has multiple (and very vocal) orgasms on the airwaves. Why do we even bother tuning in?

Someday, I will find out. Until then, rinshikijikatomey to you.

Whatever that means.

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