I love traveling by trains, not the short journeys that take you from Point A to Point B in a few hours, but those really long ones that take a day or two. There is something about settling down in your compartment, with strangers as fellow travelers, and the knowledge of the leisurely hours ahead, in what is going to be your home for the next couple of days. The many faces and personalities you come across only adds to the fascination of train travel. They range from the fun and enlightening to the downright exasperating.
On one such train journey, from Baroda to Pune, I boarded the train to find two Pretty Young Things (PYTs) seated on my side of the berth, and a middle-aged couple settled in the one opposite.
It was an A/C two tier compartment and the space was meant to accommodate just four passengers. Since it was only the second station, I assumed one of them was waiting for last-minute seat allotment from the TTE.
Even as I pushed my bags underneath the seats, and sat myself down, one of the PYTs piped up to ask,
“Excuse me. Would you mind changing seats with me?” She pointed to the other PYT and said, “We would like to sit together.”
I had no problem whatsoever since I was travelling on my own. She gave me her seat number which I gathered was further ahead in the same bogie. I was about to bend down to pull my bags out from under, and go forth in search of her seat when I remembered something. I turned to her and asked if hers was a lower berth too. She looked at me, blinked blankly and said,
“I don’t know.”
I rolled my eyes mentally, and told her politely that I was not willing to exchange seats unless it was a lower berth. Pat came her reply,
“In case it is not, you can ask around of other passengers, can’t you, and request someone to give you a lower berth?”
Excuse me? I take the trouble to book my seats in advance, and along comes this girl who wanted my berth and thinks she can send me off to beg around for a lower berth for myself?
I almost laughed out loud. No, scratch that. I think I did laugh out loud at her preposterous suggestion.
“If you want to exchange seats,” I said cheerfully, emphasizing the ‘you’, “you better find out if yours is a lower berth. If it is not, get it exchanged, THEN come back and tell me, I will indulge you. If not, too bad, no way is it happening.”
Both PYTs went silent on hearing me, and on their face was an expression that said they hadn’t met such an ‘unreasonable’ woman as me in their life. When a little while later, I told them that they had to switch off the lights as it was late and people had to sleep, I am sure they decided I was an ogre in human form.
Another time, I boarded the train, again at Baroda, to find a young couple sprawled on my berth. On the opposite berth was seated a middle aged man and his wife. They were all staring at me in the best Indian way, totally unabashedly. I ignored them, peeked underneath the seats and found no space for my bags. A little more peering in the darkness revealed that there indeed WAS space, but it hadn’t been utilized well enough. Tapping the huge suitcase, I asked,
“Whose is this? Please move it a bit further as I want to keep my bags too.”
They stared back at me as if I was an alien and they did not understand my words, or perhaps something simpler like they were deaf and couldn’t hear me. Their faces had the expression of zombies watching a soap on television. I repeated my question once again in a louder no-nonsense voice. Then, the young girl woke up from her trance, and condescended to answer.
“But there is only one berth free.”
Excuse me?! And how would that be relevant here?
“I am asking you to move the suitcase, not for extra berths.”
“But there are two of you!”
“So?!!! What’s wrong if someone comes to assist me with the bags?!”
I stood tapping my feet impatiently. The couple quite unwillingly got up from my berth and dragging their feet about it, moved their huge suitcase further inside (and it was as easy as that), making space for my bags, and also vacated the berth for me. I still don’t understand why it should have been a problem for them that there were two of us (one of who had only come to see me off), until and unless we asked them to share one of their berths with us!
Though these are two incidents that made me ponder about human nature, I have found train travels generally to be enlivening experiences of life and life-stories shared in the short span of time spent together as the train races to its destination.