Train journeys have a special significance for me. When they aren't teaching me about society and humanity, they're telling me things about myself.
When I last travelled, my ticket was not confirmed. The day I was supposed to travel, I asked a railway official what I could do, and whether I should upgrade/take a chance/cancel?
He responded by telling me not to travel at all.
Which made me lose my temper, march towards the 'general' unreserved dabba, throw my bags and myself inside, cursing.
I'll admit I was unnerved.
I've traveled 'third-class' before, but never alone. And this time, I was in UP, which has given me memories of being theatened - politely , as Lucknow-wallahs are taught to speak - out of my pukka (reserved) seat.
But, like our wise ancestors have said 'jab okhli mein sar diya, toh moosli se kya darna?'
Besides, I was still fuming at the rude railway official and was determined to travel by this very train, this very day.
I nudged, 'excuse please'd and pushed until I found standing space, and a place for my bag on the overhead rack (where several young men were sleeping, cushioned by our collective baggage).
I must have stood for 3 minutes when an old man asked his old woman to shift and accomodate me.
I sat on the outer edge of a hard seat, at first (strange... did the railway ministry think that people who don't have reservations do not deserve to sit on cushioned wood?).
As the crowd swelled and a man's crotch began hovering too close to my face, the old woman placed her arm round my body, protectively - as if it were a shield. When she realised it was just going to get worse, she asked me to exchange seats. For the rest of the journey, she would, by turns, slap and pat the heads of 3 young rickshaw-pullers, who were squatting at her feet, dozing off into her lap.
Many stood for 5 hours. A few stood for 8 hours. No fights broke out. Those who could not sleep, smiled at nothing in particular, or cracked jokes.
A man dumped his baby nephew in my lap, when the mother grew sick of feeding him. Later, the family advised me to join 'door sanchaar', because "there is no money in writing, is there?"
The old man... he would not let me buy myself a cup of tea. I called him Baba once, and for the rest of the journey, I stayed under his wing. Cups of tea. Mineral water. Boiled chana. Peanuts... "Eat! This is not food, this is timepass."
His old woman... she told me of her dead daughter, as old as me when she died. And she broke down. Then she showed me the wounds left by broken glass bangles.
I asked her the history marked out on her tattooed arms - "this one for myself, that one for my husband, and that for the mother-in-law"... a peacock, a clove, a tree, a name...
When they found out about me, they reacted with a sombre nod. "Yes... learn to walk alone."
When I stepped off the train, I touched Baba's feet. The gratitude was not on account of the peanuts or the chai, but for reminding me of what a society could be.
For all that, it was not a comfortable trip. My body hurt. My head spun. There was no question of visiting a loo. But I am glad my ticket wasn't confirmed.
I do not know if 'destiny' is all it's made out to be, but I've been told that whatever force controls our lives, whoever guides our destinies, wants us to learn - and remember - some lessons, and fight some fears.
I had forgotten my lessons. I had lost touch with, and therefore grown afraid of, my own people. I had forgotten why people are worth it all, and what makes them worth it all.
On the way back, I was reminded of why I'm not afraid of traveling alone in this country: chivalry is not quite dead.
My dear mother had done me the favour of packing me a Bakas - a large 30-year old tin trunk, weighing half my body weight.
But at 3.30 in the night, there were no coolies volunteering their services.
I looked at the trunk, I looked at the night.
I sighed my dilemma to a young man. He helped me carry it until I found a coolie. At the taxi stand, another young man stood guard over my luggage while I went looking for a taxi....
And chivalry is not quite dead.
(All the same, mom, next time, I WILL NOT carry a tin trunk!)