The Age of Innocence in Coach B2 on the Jabalpur Amravati Express

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Train journeys always make for weirdly interesting conversations and encounters with fascinating people. Even when you want to just curl up into a ball and read a book – there are always those people who will not hesitate to poke a stranger and start a conversation. Facebook got the idea of the “Poke” from the Indian train traveler. No kidding.

So we are on the train from Jabalpur to Nagpur… The train has been lovingly named by passengers as the ‘ambulance train’ because of the number of passengers traveling to Nagpur for the better medical facilities it offers as compared to Jabalpur. So it is not an uncommon sight to see people hooked up to saline bottles or limping about with a walker, accompanied by caregivers, nurses or just relatives. There is no record of the sick-but-now-cured-passenger return percentage back to Jabalpur but I am assuming it is good going by the fact that it is always full to capacity.

That night my parents and I settled in and I was feeling particularly accomplished because I had managed to secure three lower berths which in train speak is equivalent to the Holy Grail. But my bubble burst in exactly 4 minutes past boarding when a man accompanied by a hobbling relative and his wife parked himself opposite and began to enquire which berths we had. Before he could complete his soon-to-come-obvious-request – I told him – yes you can have my lower berth for your sick relative but not my parent’s berths-  hoping to cut the conversation short.

Unfortunately my so called generosity got him all over excited and he settled down next to us and began one of the most hilarious conversations I have ever had with a co-passenger. Actually you could hardly term this a conversation – it was more of a monologue with us contributing to it with a series of grunts and giggles of various decibels.

He began with the question – “are you this?” ( of course most of this conversation is in Hindi – therefore some of the humor may be lost in translation but nonetheless) I looked at him for clarification of what he meant by “This” and saw him making a contorted gesture which after many unsuccessful attempts (which included tribals and circus clowns) I deciphered to be ‘The sign of the cross’. I finally said “yes – we were catholic”.

This made him launch heartily into a discourse on how and why catholics were different from other people and kept looking at my mother and me for contribution. My father had smartly feigned deafness and kept staring blankly at the seat in front – so he had long back abandoned the attempt to engage my dad in the conversation. I passed time by staring intently at my mobile phone, leaving my poor mother to nod her head in apparent attention.

The conversation flitted capriciously from work to trains to electricity to language and at some point it veered to dentistry and suddenly he got all animated ( as in more than he already was which is difficult to imagine but it happened ) and enlightened us how ‘toothbrushing’ was the cause of tooth decay and wear. How one should NEVER use a tooth brush. The best possible oral hygiene habit is to clean your teeth with your finger. As if that as not enough he asked me to guess which finger… I tried to pass on the question but he wouldn’t budge so I said – the index finger I suppose.

So he then tells me with a smug know-it-all expression – No. It is the middle finger. The middle finger is the best.

Then he whips out his middle finger and proceeds to wave it all around showing everyone the best possible implement for tooth cleaning.

At some point during this conversation a couple of people walking through the compartment passed us and saw this man waving his middle finger at us and their expressions changed from alarm to bewilderment when they saw us smiling in response to the gesture.

The sniggers around didn’t even percolate through the first layer of his consciousness. He actually took them for murmurs of encouragement and went on to regale all of us with anecdotes about the very useful middle finger.. “the middle finger is ideal because it can reach anywhere and everywhere. Even hard-to-reach places. “

By this time I was barely holding my laughter in and had to pretend someone had sent me a funny joke on the phone. My mother in all her innocence was still nodding at the man and shot me a pursed-lip-look to discourage my bad behavior. The whole middle finger meaning never quite reached her and it didn’t occur to her that it could be an abuse. I did not think to enlighten her.

We finally called it a night and retired to our berths some 30 minutes later but I slept like a baby knowing there are still people like my mother and that man out there in the world.

One innocent having a conversation with another.

A world where the middle finger is still a mere appendage ( and now may be the possible replacement to the toothbrush 😛 ).

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Snowflakes and Tears – Kashmir

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I am no believer in “Love at first Sight” but Kashmir certainly makes a compelling case for it. 

The moment the plane hit an air pocket jolting me out of my nap – I looked out the tiny aircraft window and there was a catch in my throat. Snow capped peaks towering over the horizon.. Acres of green clad countryside like the whole state is wearing one large Cashmere shawl… Streams cutting through rocks like giant silvery knives… if the sight leaves you unaffected – you must have a heart of stone.

But then begins the tragedy. 

Look carefully and you’ll see that the snow capped peaks have dark tears running down their faces. 

And with good reason. 

Kashmir is that unfortunate woman who is being pimped out by her own sons to the highest bidder. 

They probably don’t want to. 

But they do it nonetheless. 

She is that gloriously beautiful woman who must satisfy the demeaning demands of a million men to fill the empty bellies of the sons she has borne. 

Her pimps are vicious because even as they peddle her they resent the men who hire their beloved motherland. They are somewhere shamed deep within  that they must resort to this wickedness. Because wickedness it is. 

Spurious saffron shoved into the face of every tourist. Soaking wet unwashed overcoats being hired out to desperate vacationers. Brawls erupting over the mildest of provocation between the sons of the land while the mother looks on in silent desperation. A 1000 people herded through a suffocatingly narrow passage like sheep from a corral on to a truck – for the Gondola ride to 14000 feet. 

The popular spots of Kashmir do not allow for tourism for those who enjoy the luxuries of tourism. The pimps will ensure that it will be a quickie. You will be in and out before you even catch a proper glimpse of who the hell you screwed ( or screwed you). 

And then there are her offspring like Shaukat who owns a houseboat on the beautiful but scarred Dal lake who is outraged but helpless. He speaks in unflattering tones of his fellow Kashmiris (especially travel agents) and he doesn’t spare himself. In flawless English he calls this whole generation “Bastards” who carelessly are squandering the natural wealth of this state all the while giving tourists a less than honest experience. He speaks of travel companies bundling holidayers into houseboats late at night only to have them check out early the next morning so that they can tick the next spot off their crammed list. He says with real feeling ” How can you expect to experience a 2 crore worth heritage houseboat on the Dal lake if you only came here to sleep one night?” He speaks with passion about the failure to clean the lake and the leaking sewage lines running through the water rendering it filthy. There may be more people like him but like him they are all just sitting on their reeking houseboats watching the magnificent Dal Lake suffer the same ignominious fate as the many other less famous lakes of India.

But every so now and then you will reach a clearing – and see kashmir when she is not aware that you are watching her… and you will see that she hasn’t yet lost her innocence completely… that she has a melancholy expression but her eyes are bright and shiny and hopeful… and you will have that view to yourself for all of 10 seconds. And you will experience a possessiveness you never thought yourself capable of. You will resent wholeheartedly the arrival of another person and you will want to cover her up and take her home to protect her. 

And you will want to sing her the words of a Norah Jones song 

Come away with me in the night

Come away with me

And I will write you a song

Come away with me on a bus

Come away where they can’t tempt us

With their lies

I want to walk with you 

On a cloudy day

In fields where the yellow grass grows knee-high

So won’t you try to come

Come away with me and we’ll kiss

On a mountaintop

Come away with me

And I’ll never stop loving you

When the hordes arrive and you have lost that private moment and it gets too much – look skywards.

Not at a careful angle.

Completely turn your face towards the sky so that all the earth is obliterated. And if you are truly fortunate and it happens to be snowing you will see tiny glistening snowflakes spiraling down in the shape of an inverted funnel…. and the snowflakes will camouflage your tears….and you will forgive every evil that this place has been forced to stoop to.

And just like that – the fresh soft snow will cover the dirty runny mud underneath and the slate will be wiped clean.