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 😛 ).