Mine was the upper berth in the compartment closest to the toilets. The ticket never said that, but the stench from 30 odd people’s excrement came for free. I climbed up as soon as I got in. The train was to stop for a good 10 minutes on its way to Coimbatore from Bombay. I settled the bags down and waited for the train to move. The train however continued to stand there, well past the 10 minutes stipulated for it.
I looked down upon my co-passengers from my high perch. There was a Marwari man and his teenager son, a man whom I guessed could be around my age, but with much less hair. By the window sat an elderly man in a proper mundu and shirt with a kudumi to boot- a priest or at least someone pretty orthodox I guessed (after all, even C.V Raman answered to that description). Another elderly man entered the scene. With a proper suitcase right out of the 80s which he promptly chained to the lower berth before settling down and taking in the other passengers, and assessing their abilities to cause harm.
That got us 6 of the 8 for the compartment including the side berths. Considering that I had to use the toilet and that I have a strict “no toilet when the train is stationary” policy I decided to go down and wait. No idea how and why the policy came about. But I guess it was borne out of some empathy for those who have to wait at the platform.
With the side-lower seat empty I stationed myself there to wait for the train to move. Like in all trains and social situations, they decided to take me in. The Marwari kid was standing near the door and seemed pretty disinterested. The guy-my-age gave me an ‘Am cooler than you at this time and place’ look that only Indians who’ve been abroad are capable of. The Brahmin in the Mundu had much simpler expectations from his fellow passengers. One scared look at me later he decided that I was ‘mostly harmless’ and decided to concentrate on whatever there was outside the window on the other side. The elderly man being on the same side as me decided not to turn around and look at me. Some pain in the neck probably.
The place next to the guy-my-age was empty. As if that was a sacrilege a man burst in from outside to squat there. He looked aged. How much I couldn’t guess. Neither could I guess when was the last time he had had a bath. There was no luggage he had to carry, nor did his old and slightly torn pants, or faded and dirty shirt betray anything hidden like a wallet or even a ticket. Clearly someone who lived on the platform and had managed to get in for whatever reason.
The initial reaction was to shoo him away. But somehow I couldn’t get myself to do it. What if he was drunk and launched into a barrage of expletives? What if it was a social experiment to see how people react, with a camera hidden somewhere to record people’s behaviour, to be beamed later on some C grade channel well into the night when no one was watching? What if he was a genuine ticket holder who had just been through some of the worst moments of his life?
I decided to look around and see if anyone else was planning to take any action. The Marwari guy in front of me sat there as if the man across the aisle did not exist in his world. His son still stood there near the door trying to look cool while taking sneak peeks trying to figure out what this man was doing in that compartment. The guy-my-age, who was sitting right next to the man sat there fidgeting. Clearly not comfortable, his aura of coolness was now gone as he looked around trying to see what others were doing or planning to do. The elderly man opposite him sat tighter and checked if his suitcase was chained properly. And then sat staring at our man. The guy-my-age now having reached some level of comfort kept looking straight ahead closing his eyes to the problem beside him. The brahmin next to him, however, was clearly mortified. He looked at the man wondering what he was doing there and, making his disapproval known in the form of a fierce, and also scared, frown he looked at his other, more legitimate, co-passengers silently pleading with them to do something, before setting them back on the man as if to keep a close eye on him.
The man settled down peacefully though. After a few minutes of meditative stillness with his eyes fixated above and head resting behind him on the folded middle berth he decided to show some signs of life. Parts of the body were scratched, the pant was pulled up right up to his knees as he scratched the dry skin on his legs. I wondered how he managed to survive and what incentive was left to continue living for him, what there was to look forward to in his life except maybe the next meal or drink. It was a scary thought. Scarier than I thought as I realized I was putting myself in his place. I knew this was no Che moment for me. I either never have those or I guess am too common a man to go around changing the world.
The co-passengers continued to be in their old states of existence. One not caring, the other trying not to care, one clearly mortified and on the verge of a nervous breakdown and the last curiously, curious like me. The man was clearly comfortable now. I wondered what would happen if the train started moving. They couldn’t possibly stop the train and unload him. So he was pretty much guaranteed a free ride, at least till Cantonment. That seemed to be his motive too – to get as far as possible without the TT finding out.
But then, the TT turned up just as the train sounded its horn. “Aye shoo!” he screamed at him as the man scampered out of the train moments before it began moving, bringing the whole scene to an anti-climax. “Why didn’t you guys shoo him away?” he chided us, “What if the train had moved? He’d have got a free ride”. “That would have been very interesting” thought I, but decided to hold such thoughts to myself as I handed over my ticket and license to the TT.