Mere four people ought not to carry that much luggage. But consider who the four were. First – me. If I am not travelling with half my house and then some, I feel very naked. And then there was with us a doctor who had gone all the way from Bangalore to Chhattisgarh for over two weeks and then attended the wedding in Cochin and was returning with us to Bangalore. The only thing he didn’t have was a railway ticket. Next was our friend, DB (Double Bitch) the wedding photographer with all his equipment and everything. And then there was Bubbles with her fruit baskets and bottles and bottles of hot/cold Bailleys water! So this is where it all started.
In my previous job, my community gave me reasons to become a huge fan of the Indian Railways. So now I am. And I’ve always liked the way trains look and sound. But I don’t like trains to travel in. Simply because it feels dirty. Just like a plane or a bus does. Or even a hired car. Travelling is simply dirty, grimy, and filled with the horror of what-if-there-are-no-clean-lizardfree-loos/rooms-on-the-way! I don’t mind travelling, but these days I’m beginning to believe that may be I’m not a huge fan. But we bear all kinds of hardships for family and that is what Baby V is for all of us so we had to go.
And so we went and were on our way back. I was in great trepidation because on boarding the train I realised that we were in separate compartments and what was worse – all the berths we had booked were either the middle ones or the top ones and I will die before I climb on to an iron bed with only five inches separating me from the roof of the train/upper berth. No sir, not me. I mean I was notorious for leaving my office early – exactly eight hours – because the building felt claustrophobic! And I had some sort of a catch in my left shoulder. The doc said that I had a frozen shoulder thanks to all the dancing I did at the post-wedding party and may be the balancing beer bottles stunt I tried in the ‘Tavera’ and that I ought not to try and climb on to any of those top berths.
So Bubbles advised us to take the TC into our confidence and tell him all our problems:
a. Doc had no ticket and was still travelling in an AC compartment. He didn’t even have a reservation nor was he on the waiting list.
b. I was simply too chicken to climb up a berth and may be I had a shoulder injury.
That’s exactly when TC cheyta came to the compartment where we’d all assembled. The TC as it turned out was a stern, no-nonsense man who did PC (polite conversation) only if a person had big boobs or a letter from some Minister. So while a Malyalee gentleman (and I use the term loosely) with letter from a minister secured his AC non-booked/un-reserved seat in the AC compartment, our Doc had to go grumbling and cussing to the second class compartments.
We reluctantly bid him good-bye and since train is a relatively new mode of transport for me, I shut up and waited for DB or Bubbles to broach the subject with the TC of where I would sleep. But neither did.
And then after the TC had moved ahead, when I asked them, DB counselled me against saying anything about my shoulder seeing how stern and unhelpful our TC was, and say instead if anyone asked me that I was pregnant so I could not be expected to climb up.
My berthing position (pun unintended) thus resolved, DB and Bubbles left to sleep in other compartments on top/middle berths. And just when I was gingerly trying to arrange the blanket and one very thin, slightly dirty looking pillow, TC walked into the compartment. He’d seen that I had boobs. And he made some random inquiries about my friends who had just left. Deciding he was finally being friendly because I had what it took to be a porn star in Mal land, I hinted coyly and delicately at my ‘condition’. He was immediately sympathetic. ‘Don’t worry, ma’, he reassured me. ‘You want to sleep in the lower berth, you will sleep in the lower berth. I will see to it that whoever comes here will take the other berths.’ At this, I thought it prudent to say goodnight lest we became life-long friends or lovers.
After about an hour I was rudely woken up thanks to loud noises and voices and in my pill-induced stupor imagined I was back in the US of A. But fortunately, it was just my co-travellers chattering away in American English who had finally boarded the train in some obscure Kerala station. Needless to say, they were Non Resident Indians or may be Americans of Indian origin travelling to Bangalore and clearly on a visit.
‘What’s this fricking luggage doing here!’
‘This compartment is so fricking dirty!’
‘I thought we had booked the entire compartment!’
‘No, only four fricking seats for the four of us!’
‘Why didn’t we just fricking book the entire compartment? It would have been cheap shit anywayz!’
‘And isn’t that our booking?’ At which point, I opened my eyes just enough to say, ‘Darlings, sorry, I’m pregnant and I’ve switched berths with the TC. You can check with him if you like.’ And pretended to fall asleep again.
At which point, I heard the nasal AE whine go on, ‘So why can’t she climb up?’
Stage whisper: She’s pregnant.
‘Oh, she’s pregnant? So do I have to sleep in the middle one then? And what are all these fricking sheets?’
I heard ceaseless rustling of sheets and pillows and blankets. At that, I had to open my eyes and watch these foreign fellows – They really didn’t know what to do with a pillow and the sheets! Like really. I was just wondering if I should teach them the ways of life in this wide world when some hapless cousin of theirs – a local – explained from outside the train: You put one white sheet on the bottom, sleep on that, another one on the top and the blanket on top of that.
And that was shocking to them.
‘Pillows? These are pillows? They just give us these dirty pillows! How are we to sleep on pillows?!’
‘These are white?’
‘This is so fricking dirty!’
And then the mom piped up in her Indian-American English accent, ‘Take the covers, I’ve put in pillow-covers in the baggage I bought.’
‘You want to use our pillow-covers on these pillows?’
‘But what else are we to do?’ wailed the mom.
Then one girl piped up, ‘Okay, here, let me take one. I don’t fricking believe this! Our fricking pillow cases.’
Mom: At least it will keep the head clean.
‘Ugh, this is so dirty and thin!’
Mom came up with a brain-wave. ‘Roll the blankets and sleep on that for height.’
‘Ugh, mom, have you seen the blankets?’
‘But at least it will give you the height,’ wailed mom again.
And so it went on well into the night till my pills proved (finally) strong enough to knock me out.
In the morning I woke up cussing, as is my usual practice these days, in German and pretending to be pregnant and uncomfortable. The Doc had decided to visit me and he had bought me a cup of tea. We were just sipping the tea and trying to sit amidst the many blankets and pillows strewn everywhere when my accented bed-fellows woke up too.
And the girl said to her brother: Did you sleep? I couldn’t sleep with the smell! (Ironically, considering none of us bothered to venture near the loo and brush our teeth, our breath smelled worse than the entire train did.) And that blanket, it’s so rough. I just threw it down. It’s all so dirty! And the train just kept shaking! How can one sleep if the trains shake as much as this! It’s fricking annoying! If anyone asks me ever in life what was your most difficult experience, then I’d say this. This night has been my most difficult experience. And here she punctuated the sentence with her fist on one hand.
And her family – sister (one number), brother (one number), and mother (one number) sagely nodded their heads.
I just looked at them and wondered why they didn’t just fricking hire a fricking plane! And why on earth couldn’t they say ‘fuck’ like normal people if they really wanted to curse?
And though the subject of this song is not one to take lightly, I understood anew what ‘lost Americans’ living in their own bubble really meant.