Train journeys can be far more annoying than air travel and this is not an elitist observation. Rich people can be just as irritating as the hoi polloi, but the potential for air rage is considerably less since one can bear the prospect of being jostled off the armrest or having orange juice spilt on one’s lap with equanimity. This too shall pass after say, sixty minutes.
On a train journey, however, Einstein’s theory of relativity becomes blindingly obvious: the hours stretch like days and mild-mannered men lumped with annoying travelling companions contemplate mayhem with mustard, make that relish. Apparently the standards of maintenance on Indian Railways are not what they used to be, if it weren’t for a faulty knob…
I boarded the Shatabdi Express to discover that my fellow passenger was a prissy little nerd clutching a large suitcase; actually it was more on the lines of a steamer trunk. It was the voluminous, portmanteau-kind-of -thing that wealthy dowagers took on ocean voyages to Blighty bearing the legend, “medical.com” on one side.
Aha, that explained the elaborate security: it contained valuable dotcom stock.
Uncle had placed it reverently across both our seats and was billing and cooing to it when I arrived. ‘Shall we exchange the seat, saar?” he bawled as I headed for the window studiously ignoring the request. Somewhat peeved by my response he slunk over to chat with the large retinue who had come to see him off. “He is not wanting exchange,” he mouthed, rendered temporarily dumb by the thick windowpane.
I was struck by the large number of friends and relatives who had come to see him off. Even making allowances for his cyber millionaire status, the turnout was impressive with nearly a dozen of them displaying affection bordering on devotion. It was only later that the penny dropped. What I had foolishly taken to be tearful farewell was actually relief at his departure. His near and dear were taking no chances: they were there to ensure the obsessive- compulsive old fart didn’t do anything silly like missing the train.
Trying to get to my seat, I wrestled briefly with the suitcase whereupon Samson hurriedly bid the family goodbye and assumed the missionary position. He slid his left leg tentatively along one side and repeated the process with his right. Having completed these gymnastics, he hunched protectively over his luggage looking like a Tamilian Mr. Bean. This exercise resulted in his thighs being spread to the eastern and western limits of the compass: a vulnerable position for a gentleman of a certain age. Come to think of it for any man, irrespective of age. On one side his knobby knee poked sharply into my thigh while his right foot was splayed over my footrest leaving me squashed against the glass. On the other side, the hapless co-passenger bore the burden of his left foot and knee with a resigned expression.
From time to time he caressed the various locks on the suitcase in the manner of a sultan stroking the fleshy contours of his favourite courtesan. All our pleas to store the wretched thing at the rear end of the compartment fell on deaf ears. His manner implied that it was as sacrilegious as suggesting divorce while on honeymoon. What would happen if he forgot to collect it when disembarking, he demanded belligerently. Given their level of intimacy, I thought it unlikely: MF Husain would sooner have displayed absent-mindedness on the subject of Madhuri. But nemesis, in the form of sloppy maintenance, was at hand.
Reclining seats have a tendency to malfunction when treated in a cavalier manner and so it was with the one directly in front of our baggage lover. The occupant, having jiggled and fiddled around with the knob controlling the degree of inclination of his seat, finally lost patience and gave it a sharp thump with the heel of his palm. With a ghastly rending crack, it flew backwards onto our Samsonite and his Delilah at roughly the speed of sound.
“Ooh,” moaned Uncle in a shrill soprano, clutching convulsively at his family jewels. I quite forgot to mention he was taking coffee at the time. Suffice it to say it was not a pretty sight, but it separated the lovers. Our man spent the rest of the journey with an ice pack, emitting piteous whimpers from time to time. The attendant wheeled the case away to the rear of the carriage and the mystery of medical.com was solved: it had been in the family for a while from medicine to commerce.
One hopes the railway authorities are circumspect about fishplates and unattended baggage. On the other hand, reclining seats, considering how splendidly they work in the unmasking of cyber impostors, should be left alone. Let’s hear it for falling standards on the Indian Railways....