If life were a rail-ka-dabba, where you don’t have a reserved berth, you’d learn a lot of lessons.
Humility, for one.
And the old, old lesson of do-unto-others… that lesson finally comes home to you if you’ve spent a night in a train in India, without a reserved ticket.
Finally, you begin to understand what it means to have a ticket to ride, but no place to call your own. Not even temporarily.
Ever traveled on an RAC ticket in an AC rail-dabba?
I recently did, again, on my way to Lucknow (yeah, in our infamous bhaiyya-land. My land.)
There I was – unreserved unless, miraculously, 18 people decided to cancel their trips, at the ‘n’th millisecond... but that miracle never happened.
I didn’t expect it to.
I was grateful enough to just be inside a compartment, and hoped that – being alone, a woman, and possessed of eyes that fill up, without much effort on my part – I wouldn’t be thrown off the train, en route.
I wasn’t. But that night, I finally understood what it means to be a migrant into a big city.
What’s the connection?
This – that you have no place you can sleep in peace, because everywhere you look, all space is already taken -
Booked. Bought. Someone else’s space. Even the aisles aren’t yours to lie down in. They’re public ‘common’ space. Government space. Public space. Private space. Leased space. Not your space.
You can’t even sit up, without the fear that the rightful owner will turn up at the next station and order you off. Not only will he order you off, he will also glare at you for having sat on ‘his’ seat, even if he isn’t around yet, to make use of it.
He will have the ‘oh, so you don’t have reservation?’ tilt to his chin. He will have the ‘pata nahin kahaan kahaan se chale aate hain…’ admonition in his eyes.
You will, without having intended it, given offence and will squirm with the guilt – you have no real right to be on this train, perhaps. At least, not in the nice, AC dabba. You probably belong to the ‘general’ compartment, where you ought to risk your life like millions of others, fighting, stomping, stampeding, elbowing, punching, throwing your weight, literally, onto six square inches of floor, luggage rack… anything!
But you crouch there, on a corner of somebody else’s berth. Hoping against hope that the rightful owner will not turn up. Or not for a while, at least. You very, very tentatively stretch your feet, and shut your eyes, between stations.
At the slightest movement, or the sound of a throat being cleared, a shuffle in the aisle, a child crying, a porter crying, you quickly sit up straight and draw your feet back, folded tight against your hips. Is it time to stand up? Already?
The rightful owners, finally, turned up at midnight. An old couple with their daughter… granddaughter? I sit on the edge of the berth, that belongs to the old woman. She lies down. She doesn’t ask me to clear off.
There are others like me – five schoolgirls who didn’t get reserved seats are similarly perched on the edge of other old women’s berths. And a schoolboy of about 14, sulky, is hunched on the floor, at my feet. All of us are apologetic, though the girls crack jokes about phoning their 'boys' on the sly. I bury myself in a book, wishing I were invisible.
The old woman falls asleep. My back is beginning to ache, because once the middle berth has been opened up, you can’t sit upright. Nobody can. But the little schoolgirls have somehow been accommodated – with other women, or on the floor. Even the schoolboy has also been allowed to sleep on the floor, near my feet. He’s sulky.
The uncle-ji across has gotten into a fight with another uncle-ji on the top berth, because top-berth uncle-ji refused to ‘accommodate’ the teenaged schoolboy on his own berth.
Neechewale uncle-ji is cribbing loudly, “What kind of people are these? Don’t know how to adjust. He’s just a young boy…”
Uparwale uncle-ji retors, “He’s a grown boy. We’re both tall. We can’t fit in together.”
Neechewale uncle-ji repeats, “Selfish people. Don’t know how to adjust… easily done.”
Uparwale uncle-ji finally loses it. “Why don’t you ‘adjust’ with the boy?”
Neechewale uncle-ji says, “I’m…er… heavy!”
Uparwale uncle-ji smirks.
Neechewale uncle-ji, grumbling, stretches out to sleep. He tells the boy, visibly magnanimous, “You can sleep on the floor... we all have to adjust in life.”
The old woman is making soft moaning noises in her sleep.
I wonder if she’s sick. But my own back is totally killing me now. It's 2 am and I can’t bear to sit. I stand up and take a walk down the aisle. The father of the five schoolgirls is also walking. I return, tentative, sit down some more. But the old woman, still moaning in a strangled, breathy sort of way, has stretched her feet. I sit at the very edge, back bent at a 45-degree angle.
I am also very hungry. I haven’t eaten all day and I dare not get down at the station, to buy food. If I get up, that little edge of berth on which I’m parked, might be taken. That uncle-ji with five daughters is looking for a place to sit, too. What if he takes my place?
No, not my place… the place I’m encroaching on.
At 3 am, my back gives way. I slide down onto the floor, near the schoolboy’s feet. It is cramping for the knees, but at least, my back is straight.
The hunger is a gnawing one. I haven’t been hungry in so long. Hunger’s always been taken care of before it ate into me.
At 3.30 am, the old woman moans awake. She pats my head, and motions me to lie down on the berth. I’m too grateful to protest, or even whisper my thanks. I slip onto the lower berth and curl up in a tight circle, beside her. I can’t sleep, though.
This is the first time in my life that I can’t sleep because of hunger. It is not nice at all.
Thank God the old woman is thin. Everybody should be thin.
She is moaning again. It doesn’t matter.
A minor miracle has happened...
Perhaps this is how slum-dwellers feel if they’re rehabilitated. Ten years of getting your back broken in a city where, you’re told, you’ve no right to be in… the relief, the constant fear that the old residents, the rightful-righteous residents, might decide they need to stretch their feet, and you’re in the way.
You, who don’t have a reservation. You, who didn’t belong. Not unless 18 miracles happened.
At 5.30 am, I am up again, though... A miracle lasts only so long.
Besides, those who don’t belong need to work extra-hard to be allowed their stay. Their backs need to get used to more bending, less straightening. They need to be visibly grateful. they need to carefully slip out of the rightful-righteous people’s way, before they realize you’re in the way.
I am careful.
This one night, I don’t belong. This one night, I will not forget….