This sleep, if any, had only been intermittent. The body and the mind were desperately seeking some rest, and that would send me into a slumber again, now being awoken at a stopping, now by a fellow passenger squeezing himself to find a little space and settle down. I felt blessed to have found a seat.
Earlier last night, the auto driver would not stop talking. And when he wasn’t talking, he would chant some ‘mantra’ and tell me how powerful ‘Ayyanar’, the watchman-deity of the countryside was. His faith in the Gods seemed unshakeable. At one level, it was frightening too, for he would keep twirling his moustache, as he described tales of how people had wronged him and how every time he sought revenge by invoking his deities. To me, it was sad – for here was a man, who claimed to have discovered the power of prayer, yet was using the very same power to satiate his baser tendencies, of avenging those who he had perceived to have done in harm in the past. I say perceive because in retrospect, it always seems like everybody only does what they are meant to have done.
Yet there was something compelling about the man, I was being drawn to him by a certain force that I couldn’t fathom. It was probably the honesty, for I do believe it is important, above all, to be honest in prayer.
“The Mother Sakti is with you in your journey”, he said and then added, pointing to the flask of liquor in my hand, “but be good, be careful”.
I rush to the train after one last smoke – it would be a while before I could think of smoking. I run, not thinking much about this relatively small episode, but one that was significant in an eerie sort of a way.
– – – –
By the time I located my train, it had started moving and I had to rush and jump in, just in time, never mind the coach I was supposed to be in. I like boarding that way – there is an excitement in it, every time. No fun being on time. When I finally got to one of the air conditioned coaches in which I was supposed to have a berth reserved, I quickly spotted a ticket checker and flashed my ticket. Indeed, I was looking forward to catching up with the much needed sleep during the 30 hour journey that lay ahead of me, one that would take me to the maximum city. As it turned out, my ticket continued to be waitlisted and I could not be accommodated in the air conditioned coaches. What is more, I was informed by the man that since my ticket was still wait listed, the law did not even permit me to board the train, leave alone a luxury compartment. I was in no mood to go back home, and a plane ticket is something I couldn’t afford.
When I got off, and stepped into the general (unreserved) compartment at the next station, I was questioned by a curious Good Samaritan as to where I was headed. On learning that I had a fairly long journey ahead of me, he directed me to the other half of the coach. And rightly so, at the next stopping, quite a few people got off from my coach. And that is how I ended up feeling blessed, and thanking God for having found a place to sit.
– – –
It took me a while to settle down, I had done quite a bit of running to find a place, and not sooner than I did indeed settle, I was the subject of a curious fellow traveler. Harmless curiosity, I had told myself, for it is in the blood of this race to befriend, to ask for more details than one might be willing to share.
His name was Ram, as I happened to learn later. He seemed very upset when he discovered a patch of chewing gum stuck on his shirt. He kept cursing the unknown body that had chewed it and left it astray, saying it was some ‘meat eater’. He was from a village near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, and my guess was that caste, creed, religion and other such considerations where of significant importance in his world. Ram is a migrant labourer of sorts. I am not able to understand what he does, as all he is able to describe is ‘Aluminium Company’, and I don’t bother to ask him anymore. He seemed visibly upset, because he had been sent to Pune, from Madras, without prior notice. He would lose the 400 rupees worth of groceries he had bought in Madras, and it was but obvious that losing such a sum of money was a significant loss for him. He did decide to move though, with a small bag that contained his possessions – minimal clothing, and a blanket to protect him from the winter. The travails of a man who keeps moving in order to make some money and survive, I think to myself. He kept asking me what I was, and I could only tell him that I was a bum, that I had no family, no religion, no belonging. All of which was a lie, of course, but I was in no mood to entertain more curiosity, no matter how harmless. I was beginning to lose out on the last bits of energy, and when the train stopped next, I found myself blessed, again. This time around, for having found a vendor who was selling tea. I offered Ram a cup, which he gratefully accepted. It suddenly occurred to me that in all the hurry, I had forgotten the sandwich that was lying in my bag. I had learnt then that Ram had not eaten anything himself, because he had to leave in a hurry. Though there wasn’t much to eat, we split the sandwich, and he ate his bit gratefully, mouthing the word ‘bread’ repeatedly. Very soon, I found him dozing off, and then sleeping quite sound. I sat there a while, smoking – indeed, it was not allowed, and I just decided to relish the kick of breaking the law. Not much later, I decided to rest myself, for it was almost dawn – and well past 5 in the morning.
When I did come to my senses again – though I kept being woken up by one thing or the other – it was broad daylight. The sun was shining brightly on my face just then, and I realized it was not yet 8. The train had stopped in a nondescript place, and the first thing that came to my mind was food. Ram was still sleeping, and I jumped off, found the first vendor, and ate quickly. I hadn’t yet finished when I heard the whistle, washed, gulped some water quickly, and jumped back into the running train. I smoked a cigarette, with much pleasure, feeling the smoke clear the fog in the nose and the head simultaneously, while the outside was still foggy, in spite of the warm winter sunshine. There was that pleasant buzz in the head, as I inhaled deeply, and watched the world around me slowly come back to life, soaking in the warmth of the sunshine and the cool wind brushing against my face.
I did not realize how tired I was but I had indeed dozed off again, and when I next awoke, this time, for good, I noticed Ram was wide awake, reading the Sundar Kanda of the Tulsi Ramayana.
“None, not even the powerful shani, can harm you if you seek refuge in just the Sundar Kanda, let alone the rest of the epic”, he was saying. I rubbed my eyes, looked around, and on impulse, found some more tea to get me awake. I drank it and then settled down for more talk. I had learnt that his family of 2 sons and 2 daughters lived back in the village. I was surprised, for he didn’t seem like he was beyond the later is thirties. And to me, that was a lot of reproduction. Personally, I wouldn’t want to populate this world with more of my species, but it is every man to himself.
I was reminded of the time when I had travelled ticketless, between Delhi and Allahabad, my destination then not being far from where Ram lived now. It was a General Coach too, and I was huddled in a corner, with not an inch to move. Quite literally, for even if anybody had wanted to scratch their back, it was impossible for such was the crowd. We were packed, literally like a bunch of sardines in that coach, and I remember the relief, when we had arrived, after 12 hours of standing, in the January chill in those parts of northern India. My thoughts drifted back to the present, as I found Ram probing into my marital status and finding it amusing that i was yet to have tied the proverbial knot.
Ram was the typical rustic from the north. His faced looked jaded in the sun, and his half shaven cheeks gave him a beaten sort of a look. Those lines running dark and deep across his forehead, almost accentuating his personality, the typical smell of sesame oil, the simplicity of his life and his world was but obvious from the little that I had known of him.
“Ten thousand”, he had repeated a couple of times, with fascination. His eyebrows had gone up briefly, and I thought I saw a brief but a very lively twinkle in his graying, tired looking eyes. I had quoted that figure, when he wanted to know how much I earned. I knew I had lied, for in reality, I was earning much more. But the difference between our lives was so blatantly obvious to me, that I had somehow felt compelled to lie. May be it was the guilt, of being perfectly cognizant of this ever widening chasm between the so called haves and the have nots, and yet being content with the complacence of doing absolutely nothing about it, in spite of all the learning and education that I had had.
Somewhere around afternoon, the coach started getting more and more crowded. This was a mail train, and had several stoppings, and most people who got in were traveling shorter distances. There was a young woman with two children; she had the most beautiful nose ring and kohl shaded eyes. Ram was chivalrous enough to offer her a seat. I felt a tad jealous, for she would hardly look at me. I went on with my reading, and intermittent sleeping, and a few hours later, realized that Ram was still standing. I decided to walk around a while, and offered Ram my place.
“I did not realize she would be traveling so long – my seat is gone”, he said, as he gratefully accepted my seat for a while. Very soon, there were too many people and too much noise for us to engage in any sane conversation. I found myself picking up my pen and the little oriental notebook that was gifted to me, in order to write something. It was dark now, but there wasn’t any hope of sleeping. I wanted to be fully present there, in that coach packed with scores of travelers – young and old, mostly not so blessed as myself with the luxury of being able to travel in reserved coaches, air conditioned or otherwise. In spite of all the guilt I felt about being a mute witness to the sufferings of my countrymen, I felt a strange kind of peace descend upon me – if only for the span of the journey, I was one with with my countrymen, representatives of the real India.
Around midnight, Ram bid me farewell, he got off the train, came around to the window where I was seated – he had a kind smile on his face. He held out his hand, and when I offered mine, he grabbed mine with both his hands tightly.
“There are not too many people who bother to talk, to get to know others, specially these days. I am glad to have met you”, he said, and added “if you ever happen to be in Uttar Pradesh, please visit my home, my family would be happy to have you”, he said. I knew he had meant every word of it.
I smiled to myself, content with everything at that moment in time. In a few hours, by the crack of dawn, I would be in Bombay, eager in anticipation of what the famous city had to offer a bum during the short vacation to celebrate the advent of yet another year.
PS: Sorry if this was particularly long – it was written on the train during a journey, a few weeks ago. To those of you who got along reading until this point, my humble gratitude. To the bum, it is these little sojourns – journeys within the so called journey of life – that make life worth living.