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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