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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Imagining Life and Love, In a Moment

I was on the train, returning home to Thalassery. Having left town less than 48 hours earlier to attend a couple of business meetings, and returning by way of this overnight journey, I was rather exhausted. Sure I was only traveling up and down the state of Kerala, as diminutive as it is, but traveling in India, even if it's only for five minutes, can be exhausting as all hell. Dozing off in my seat, I was rudely awoken by the sudden rush of feet, and the low but all-pervading buzz of hushed human voices, accented by the odd shout. We had arrived at a major hub as far as train travel was concerned, and what was once a peaceful overnight train was soon transformed into a cacophonous day train. It was only about 7:30 am, which for someone on a night train is just about the right time to wake up. For those working folk who live “here” and work “there”, this is probably the last train they can catch to make it to work on time. Sure it's like this everywhere in the world, minus the one billion and still growing population. Trying my best not to adjust too much, lest I land up with less than half a seat to sit on, I continued to maintain my dozing posture. No matter, because all it took was for a heavy-set man to ignore the fact that there were already three people including me on a three-seater, to bend his knees a little and throw his hip into the gentleman closest to him, in the direction away from the aisle, and the seat now seated five. Before too long, and as the human activity all around me reached its crescendo, the train sounded its horn and we were off again.

Once the journey had recommenced people around me settled down, and I found that I was still in possession of my original seat space. Well, mostly all of it, anyway. Resting my head on my hand, which was itself resting on the window sill, I slowly opened my eyes to take a look at my new, temporary neighbors. How strange is a journey that throws random people together, packing them in so tightly, almost on top of one another, constantly reminding them that this is their lot in life, because if they had it any better, this is probably the last place they'd want to be right now? Uncomfortably cozy, I guess I'd call it, if that's even possible. Well, while doing my nonchalant recce, I noticed that there was a couple sitting in front of me. Middle aged, and somewhat stiff as is often the case with a well established, long running, “happy marriage” in India, what struck me as being odd was that the husband occupied the window seat, while his wife had to deal with sharing the rest of the padded, bench-like seat with three other gentleman. From general observation of male behavior when the man finds himself having to consider the safety of his mate from others of his own wretched kind, it's usually the other way around, with many husbands willing to deal with members of their own gender jostling for more room to rest at least one buttock, ensuring that their wives get all the fresh air they want, never having to deal with the flying elbows and stray knees. Just an observation. And, to avoid staring at them myself while several of these images flashed through my mind, I quickly averted my gaze to the outside world whizzing by.

Briefly, I did consider the fact that maybe the husband occupied the window seat because otherwise I would have been sitting opposite his wife. Going by my logic, I could have been the most obvious and lethal threat in that section of our train compartment to the gentleman, in terms of the person most likely to cause his wife harm, judging by my apparel and overall drowsy, red-eyed state. Frankly, the only damage I could have really done would have been to explode in her face, in which case the entire compartment would be at risk, to establish a “potential terrorist” image of myself, from my own assessment of what I was wearing. However, the four other men on the other side of me quickly dispelled that myth. I mean, I wasn't exactly sitting pretty, so to speak, with my scraggly beard and a long kurta, looking like some Osama wannabe, clutching my bag like I was about to flick a switch and send all of us sky high one itty-bitty bit at a time. But of the remaining “gentlemen” on the seat next to me, there were at least two who looked like they would slice you up for a couple of extra rupees to buy themselves a cup of coffee. One of them, I was sure, was going to slit my throat just for fun, the way he get glancing at me with a half-psychotic, half-not-all-there look he kept flashing me. The first couple of times, I couldn't tell if he was looking at me or out the window. I clutched my bag even tighter. Reaching into my pocket to grab my phone to try and distract myself, I soon realized that I looked really obviously like I was trying to do something else as uncomfortably and with the subtlety of a rhino in heat. In spite of what my brain was telling me, I spent another uncomfortable minute trying to make it look like I was doing something important on my phone, when in reality all I was doing was resetting the alarm I had set an hour ago. Unbelievably, and as if I was about to reveal the miraculous answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” everyone around me, including the couple, continued to stare at me. That was it. They only averted their gaze when my phone was finally in my pocket. Or maybe they were staring at me because they thought I was going to trigger an explosive device with my phone. It was back to the closed eyes, pretending to be asleep, for me. When would I finally reach my stop. I almost started praying, then thought against it. If the "potential terrorist" look with a fervent jamming of what appeared to be a numeric code on the cell phone wasn't freaking people out already, the prayer was sure to send them over the edge. You know, like I was paying my final respects to God before the big "ka-boom."

I must have really fallen asleep, because I was woken up by the sudden jerk of the brakes on the train. The almost-melodious screeching indicated that we were approaching a stop. Was I finally here? Had I arrived at my destination? No. I was still at least an hour away. To make matters worse, this was another major, or "Junction" stop, which meant suffering in stationary silence, still crammed in with everyone. In the world of the Indian railway system, there were stations that had very limited train traffic, often having only one passenger train stopping there like once a week, coming up to stations which had a lot of passenger and cargo traffic, but only warranting the stipulated “two-minute” waiting period that allowed people to just get on, by the seat of their pants in many cases, and “Junction” stop, a place where several rail lines converged, and where the trains would wait for a duration of time ranging from five minutes to infinity. The world outside the train was abuzz, here at Kozhikode Junction. Vendors were screeching at the top of their lungs, selling everything from hot tea and snacks, especially the local delicacies, “Calicut Banana Chips” and “Halwas”, while even random bits of educational material for children aged 3 to 7 were appearing by the sack load. Being at the window seat, I stuck out my hand to stop a fleet-footed tea vendor, or "chai guy" as I liked to call them. It was supposed to be a great way to slowly emerge from my slumber, at least as played out to the other members of the compartment, while ignoring them all along. However, no sooner had I stopped the chai guy, everyone else in the immediate vicinity sprang to life and started buying themselves cups of tea as well. The couple in front of me seemed to be an exception. It was almost as if they were playing a game of "statue" with each other, seeing who would be the first to make any sort of involuntary movement. Next to them, a pair of gents with briefcases who had been talking nonstop since they showed up, always being careful to keep their conversation below a "clearly audible" level. They appeared to be colleagues, both sporting company satchels, which were all the rage these days. The heavier set of the two, had shown signs of excitement as the train was pulling in to the station, perhaps due to an acute sense of smell, or food-related ESP. Before I could say the word "Tea" to the chai guy, Mr. Heavy-Set, seemed to be headed for a name change in my head, because he grabbed the railings with his left hand, and squashed me against the seat with his right. He was out for more than just tea, from the looks of it. In fact, Mr. Uncouth-formerly-Heavy-Set and his colleague went a step further, purchasing snacks from the chai guy's friend, who happened to pause momentarily to share a light-hearted moment, or so it seemed. As more people reached out over and in front of me, breathing heavily on me for the sheer effort they had made to be able to get out of their half-seats just to get their hands as close to the window to collect their refreshments and pay for them, I silently prayed to the Almighty to give them all steady hands, lest I suddenly and inadvertently play the role of "table cloth at a children's party". There were a few brief, but tense moments, the most tense being when Mr. Leather-Mitts-For-Hands grabbed his friend's and his little paper cups full of tea, and proceed to withdraw his hands back inside without considering the horizontal bars in the window that were only barely large enough to allow said paper cups through in an upright position. The moment his cup made contact with one of the bars, we all froze, the chai guy included, waiting to see what would happen next. I was the only one not relishing the potentially disastrous outcome because I was on the bottom of the pile, and soon-to-be unwitting recipient of hot drink on my shoulders and upper back. In that split second, the clumsy gentleman was staring at his cup along with a couple of the other "pushers and shovers" who recognized this as the moment that one of them had gone too far. The chai guy was staring at me to see how I would react, always hoping for something explosive to be able to tell his friend that night, and I was looking down at the platform outside, hoping for a miracle, wondering how devoid of excitement the chai guy's life was anyway, and bracing myself for the first drops of scalding, watered down, railway station tea. Luckily for everyone involved, nothing happened. After that moment had passed, the cacophony picked up where it had left off.

As I settled back down to my squished-but-I-still-have-a-bit-of-seat space, I noticed the couple in front of me sipping on some tea themselves. In all the confusion a few minutes ago, I didn't notice the husband making a purchase of any kind, not that I was supposed to be watching him or anything. Smoothly done, if I was to say so myself and going on the melee that resulted earlier. Still, paper cups of tea in their hands, looking out the window, I could almost hear myself telling myself that in about twenty or thirty years' time, I would like nothing better than to be sitting there with my special someone, looking out at the world passing by, as we sip on some tea. It was one of those moments of particular beauty, not so much in the physical appearance of the people or the place, but more in the symbol of the moment being one in which two different people came together one day, and how time and the world brought them together. Well, together enough to enjoy a cup of tea on a crowded train without letting any of the nonsense around them affect them whatsoever. It made me think about all the ideas that I had harbored of settling down. Did they include seeing myself with my beloved, surrounded by a sea of humanity at every turn? Did I picture myself sitting on a train, whether or not next to the window, with my dearest beloved seated right next to me, cups of tea in both our hands? Or, did I imagine sitting on a porch, our porch, on a house by the beach, sipping tea as we watched the sun set gently behind the horizon? We could be rich or getting by, it didn't matter, as long as we were in it for ourselves and each other, hoping to discover the magic of life in the company of the person we had chosen to live our lives with. Maybe I could bicycle to work, because I worked at a nearby shrimp shack, and we only traveled into the city once a month. I could already imagine myself getting ready to board the bus into town, vigorously helping my beloved onto the bus while cursing some jackass for being inconsiderate for choosing to try and get down at that very moment. Was that how it was with these two in front of me? What sort of lives did they lead? How did they meet? I began to let my mind wander with the images of “The Imagined Lives of Mr and Mrs So-and-so” pieced together from old Malayalam movies and TV shows that I remember seeing.

The husband had been one of the better students in his class. He had a passion for cricket, but never let it get in the way of his studies, because he had a dream. He was going to do something big because that was his destiny. Sure his grandmother kept saying this to him, but it was almost as if he knew that his purpose on this planet was special. He was biding his time, all through school and college, right until it was time for him to enter the “rat race” and get a job. Not wanting to create a fuss with anyone, because he was so not the “dramatic” kind of person, he knew that one day it would come to him. He couldn't say what it was, and he certainly never spoke about it, but all the while, he knew some powerful force was working towards an expansive crescendo of cosmic proportions, and he was going to be right in the middle of it all. He started out as a junior executive in a local accounting firm, and never gave his career much thought. He was happy with what he was doing, and he was good at it, even if it wasn't his true purpose. But, he was patient, if he was nothing else at all. His wife, she had been raised as the quintessential Malayalee girl in a small town. She grew up climbing trees and throwing stones at ripe mangoes in the neighbors yard, like the boys were wont to do, but because she grew taller than them earlier on, she established her dominance over the group from Day 1. She had been excellent in her studies, and because her father had insisted that she learn classical dance at an early age, by the time she graduated from high school she already had a glass cabinet's worth of trophies, medals and awards. She worked hard and loved doing it if it made her father happy, so it was no surprise to anyone when she unquestioningly accepted her father's wishes to have her "married off" immediately after her graduation from college. It didn't matter to her that her husband would be almost twelve years her senior, or that he was almost married once before. As long as her father had made his wish clear to her, her only job was to carry it out with aplomb. She knew she was special because her father always told her her that he believed she was a gift from God, and because he believed it, she did too.

The first year was awkward , but also a little fun. They both learned that they had no idea what living with another person meant, let alone sharing in the other person's daily routines, etc. But, they figured it out in their own little way. Whenever there was a potential for conflict, his first reaction was to start playing the “omniscient father”, using stock phrases like, “See,...” and “You have to look at it in the larger scheme of things.” She, on the other hand, would revert to a child-like, pouty, little girl, often stomping her feet as she stormed off mid sentence, screeching and wailing. The cute thing was, even without them realizing it, one of them would overdo the role-play, causing the other person to crack up, effectively ending the fight. It went on like this until their first daughter showed up two years into their marriage. They ended up having two children in all, and both of them had had stellar academic records and were married to well-off gentlemen when the time was right. There weren't any grandchildren yet, but from their own experience of having their parents pestering them about the “ticking biological clock”, they decided to let things run their course, especially in this new 21st Century world. Now that they were all alone at home, and because retirement meant that the husband didn't have to go anywhere, it meant they had all the time in the world to themselves. And, that was the problem.

For over 25 years, he had rushed to work to crunch numbers all day long, and she had tried to do a million things that she remembered being good at when she was in school. He spent his first year of married life on an underpaid bachelor's salary, but soon went into a partnership with some friends and set up their own accounting firm. She turned her attention to artistic pursuits that she had once enjoyed. In the last two and a half decades, the interiors of their house had gone through more aesthetic revisions than there are classical art styles found the world over. She did a fine job with each one, don't get me wrong, but a passing fancy meant that he could walk out of a house that looked like it was pieced together from bits of Angkor Wat, and walk into a house that looked like it gave birth to the Hippie Movement. They loved each other, of course, and they loved their kids even more. But, laying there in bed, one fine Sunday morning, it hit them both. They had had dreams once, long ago. And somewhere in the running around of the last half of their lives, those dreams had been suffocated, mercilessly. Oh they still had potential, alright, but it was going to have to be the potential to move past this revelation as quickly as possible. It was one of the saddest things for them to realize that just when they thought they had had it all figured out, and that just when they had done everything to make the people that mattered most to them happy, they had somehow neglected themselves in the end. All of the little stories, with the even more miniscule sub-stories in my head seemed to make sense as I watched them sitting there next to each other, sipping their tea. They hadn't said a word to each other since they had gotten on. It seemed to me that the lady was almost afraid to make an utterance of any kind, lest she anger her husband, while whenever he did seem to say something to her, the husband resorted to a Neanderthal-like dialect of some language, consisting purely of grunts and snorts. It's a pity, I thought to myself, because I'd seen this sort of thing way too often in my own life. It reminded me of my parents, and the way that we had seemed to co-exist in a broken home that was somehow kept together by a daily liberal coating of super glue. It seemed curious to me how people didn't seem to learn from each other's mistakes when it came to bungled relationships, preferring the opportunity to commiserate rather than to sort out the issue. I watched the wife as she finished her tea and handed her empty paper cup to her husband to dispose of it appropriately. He had finished his tea too, and without looking at his wife, he grabbed her cup, crushed them both together, and flung them out his window. Suddenly, there was a little fluttering noise, followed by a sharp jump by the husband, and a short yelp by his wife! Because the train was traveling in the direction that they were facing, the husband's weak-wristed throwing of the crushed paper cups only resulted in them flying back in through the window, startling both of them.

In an instant, the all-pervading discomfort of traveling with strangers in closed quarters had been infused with a sudden burst of energy. Like the intense, shooting jolt you feel when you sustain an electric shock, the lady's yelp, as muted as she had tried to keep it, managed to wake up even the most dead-asleep man on my seat. So rudely awakened, the man spent no time in returning to his sleep after attempting to clean his throat with a few raspy breaths, adopting the exact same posture from a moment ago, resting his head on his neighbor's unwillingly limp shoulder. The husband shot his wife a shocked look before they both looked down on the ground to see what had assaulted them. He bent down to pick up their used paper cups, and proceeded to hold them in his hand until such time as they were ready to disembark, so that he could put them in a trash can. When he sat back up, cups in hand, he leaned back and glanced at his wife. She was hunched, facing towards him, and trying to duck out of his line of sight, it seemed. But no sooner had he shifted slightly to meet her gaze, she cracked first with a chuckle. Almost miraculously, the husband, a man who hadn't once said anything to his wife that didn't sound like he was annoyed with her, showed a glint of canine. He smiled ever so slightly, you could have missed it if you took your eyes off him for even a fraction of a second. But, it was enough of a hint, a sign that he too saw the humor in the moment. Enough of a sign to let his wife breathe a sigh of relief, and end with a series of softly shrill shrieks of excitement. She tugged at his arm playfully, like a child who had just discovered that her father was making a fool of her, catching him just in time to let him know that he had almost made a fool of her. Almost. With that, he turned to continue staring out the window at the world whizzing past, and his wife withdrew her hand from his arm, which she had been only just begun to tug vigorously, returning to her parallel gaze of the world outside our little train compartment.

As Badagara gave way to Mahe, and Thalassery was fast approaching, I stood up to attempt to make my way to the aisle. With a raised foot here, and a cry from a stepped on toe there, I managed to get to the door just as the train ground to a halt at Thalassery station. The gentlemen on my bench seemed to slouch naturally into place to occupy the void left behind by me, never once opening their eyes. Not even when an even bigger man than the first spotted an opportunity to turn three comfortably seated gentlemen into four slightly-less comfortably seated gentlemen. Thalassery was a “regular” railway station, so the train would be off in under two minutes, which meant getting to the door as soon as possible, whether on the way in or on the way out, imperative. Glancing back at the couple in the train, the man in front of the woman from where I was standing, I wondered if this is what I would be like. No, not sitting in the window, stern-faced and unwilling to speak to my wife in public. Well, I first wondered if I would someday have something like in my life. It's a thing of luck to find the right person sometimes. I mean, you come across more than enough stories of heartache on account of forceful match-ups made at the hands of selfish family members, too concerned about “image” and “wealth”. Even worse, the stories of people who braved life and limb to elope, just like in the movies, living rough and tumble lives in strange, new cities, until their families issued public pardons and invited them home, only to file for divorce a year later. Yet, here was this couple, who appeared ordinary on the surface of it, but who had surely shared a very unique life together, in spite of whichever over-arching demographic they seemed to fit. As the train began to sound its horn, and I turned around just in time to catch the final bogey leave the station, I thanked the couple on the train for their little story within a story, insofar as it had been a figment of my imagination. Still, whatever their tale, I had managed to catch an everlasting glimpse of the happiness that can exist between a man and a woman who love each other, no matter how many layers of iron hide it is trapped under. I guess what I should really have thanked them for, is for not calling the cops because of my staring at them so blatantly and ceaselessly. 
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