The Fly That Followed Me
Chapter Three - The Duality
“But train journeys with friends are fun,” I continued. “I mean, I like travelling alone, but if I have a group with me, I don’t mind the non-AC compartments as much. It’s fun to stand by the door and chat or eat those tit-bits of raw foods they sell. Time passes quickly.”
“Thank God you aren’t favoring the General Compartment.” he joked.
There are one or two General Compartments for the low-cost traveling at either end of a train. They have wooden seats with no reservations. One buys an unreserved-seat ticket for the price of popcorn. Board the train, and you can sit anywhere in that general coach. Thanks to the enormous crowd, however, each compartment is easily filled to thrice or more its capacity. The first-comers manage to get a seat, which they end up sharing anyway. The rest get the floors. Some sit, others stand. And eventually, there is not even an inch of space to move. It is a Rubik’s cube without the vacant square.
If you need to go to the toilet, you have to half-climb over the next guy, who takes your space in return. Then he steps on another person who follows suit. This continues until you finally reach the other end, standing where the guy nearest to the toilet door was, only to find people seated in the toilet as well. There exists just one smell—rather stink—which is the result of all individual smells, from sweaty laborers to stale articles, and it leaves its perfume on everyone.
Every time the coach is believed to be full to capacity, more people get on at each station, until everyone is positioned at weird angles, supporting each other. The slightest push at one end gets passed on like a wave to the other end of the compartment. They resemble the rocks at Nariman Point, statues stacked in a warehouse, GI Joe’s dumped in a random box, or simply, a crowded scene from a movie that has been paused.
What was so dicey about Nesh’s mention of a General compartment? Well, we hardly ever have control over little games our mind plays with us. Let it loose, and one stream of thought will float you onto many others before you even realize it. And each time you look back, you are left to wonder how you ever got there—thinking those unrelated, unprovoked things. Mine had taken me to an inspiring train journey to the hilly town of Lonavala.
All trains were running packed that night. Getting tickets is the biggest obstacle in unplanned adventures. Consequently, I had gotten two tickets for the general compartments. I was unsure, but silently proud, for she had forced me to get those. I kept giving her tips, warnings, and directions over the next fifteen minutes. She probably knew them, but just listened.
Our train finally arrived and crawled forward until the last carriages reached us. The Generals were literally flooded, and I could not see a single woman. The guys, old and young, were almost hanging from the doors.
“I’m such a nut. In no way can she get in there,” I thought. There was not much time and I looked ahead. There was a Ladies compartment next, equally flooded with women.
“Remember when you told me you’d listen to me?” I asked her, looking straight ahead.
“Good. Cos you’re getting in that ladies’ bogey.”
“What? No way. I’m staying with you.”
“Sweet, listen to me. You’ll be safe. I promise. There is a Ladies’ compartment, thankfully. It’s general but you’ll be fine. All you have to do is step in. Nothing will happen once the train starts moving. And the only next thing you have to do is step out when we arrive. You’ll be safe. You just need to be patient for an hour.”
“But, baby, I want to be with you.”
“Me too, sweet. But I can’t risk you in this coach, nor can I stop you from getting crushed between all the guys inside. So please—pretty please—listen to me, and get in.”
She obeyed hesitantly and my heart seemed to expand in that moment. I proudly looked at her and forced her in, gave her a final smile, a wink, and promised to see her in an hour.
My own compartment was worse but I forced, pushed and squeezed myself in with my bag. I might have stood between the two doors or on the path that led to the toilets; it did not matter. There were people everywhere, mostly standing. My bag took an additional space no one was willing to allow. So when the first man complained, it was time to apply rules one, two and three that I had told you about in Delhi a few days back.
“Arre kya bhai? Gussa kyun hote ho? Yeh lo mera bag. Aap isi pe baith jao. Theek? Aapko bhi aaram aur mujhe bhi,” I said, smiling. [What, brother? Why are you getting angry? Here, take my bag. You sit down on it. Okay? You’ll be comfortable and so will I.]
He was only in his late-40s, but his face had already developed many deep creases from the stresses of life. His shirt was quite tattered, and he smelled a new fragrance of foul. He was either drunk or had smoked-up. He looked at me for a while; then smiled and wagged his head. I stood with one foot twisted between some other foot, the fibre wall and my bag, while the other was positioned way off on its toes. It was a weird angle but I did not mind. Once the train moved, people wriggled and adjusted automatically. The crowd increased at every station and yet, we managed to make space for more in that constant area of our compartment. It was a mathematical impossibility that, on execution, reflected the human power of adjustments, the capacity to adapt. Our capabilities are automatically exercised when a situation in our interest demands it.
The train moved and the shifting resulted again. I relaxed better, more due to the drifting away of resultant body odors under the force of incoming wind. There were occasional waves and corresponding repulsions with associated curses: enjoyable in its own way. Half an hour into the journey, however, I heard angry screams from her compartment. We all did. A few guys laughed at the cat fight that must have been taking place.
I picked up my phone. “Hello? Sweet? Are you all right?” God bless the cellular networks.
“Yes, baby. Completely,” she assured me. “Well, kind of. Except that I intervened once when a catfight got illogical. Just to restore some control.”
The words delivered an affirmation on this end. I listened to her story. So did my smile, for it stretched further with the words. Independent, confident, and fun-loving, she finished her narration with golden words.
“One thing I’ve learned today, Kanha. And it’s mainly because it says so much, and hints at your sense of peace with yourself. It signals that capability of both disconnecting and assisting simultaneously, and I guess that is what they mean when they say ’a selfless heart.’ That is probably the only way it is possible. A simple thing...”
“... That your smile’s the best friend you have in a public place.”
The words rang in my ear. I didn’t say much to her except, “Sweet, I’ll meet you at the station. Get down and stay there.”
“I will, baby,” she confirmed with a subdued chuckle.
I stood restless from then on until the train reached our destination. As soon as she stepped out of her coach, I rushed with double the force. She was smiling and I spared no time to appreciate it with a massive squeeze. Another squeeze followed as she smiled more broadly. We walked out of the station with my arm around her shoulders. I kept giving her intermittent kisses in between her excited narratives of her first experience in a General Compartment.
What happened then? Something magical, something I wrote about not many days back, in Mumbai before tragedy overtook the city.
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© 2015 Malay Upadhyay
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