PENGUIN INDIA recently published a collection of essays under the title INDIAN ESSENTIALS
I was one of twenty authors invited to write an essay for the book and the subject suggested to me was "commuting in India". I wrote my piece several years ago and was quite pleased with it, so I thought I'd post a couple of excerpts here as a teaser trailer. If you want to read the complete piece, you'll have to buy the book!
Right until the moment that I sat down to write my piece for this collection of essays, I had expected to make a patchwork quilt of some fifty years of train journeys, from early childhood to now. Then I opened a new file on my laptop and in that instant the gently bubbling spring of memories changed into a trickle of stale anecdotes about lost tickets, colourful fellow passengers and the time I threw up all the way from Madras to Bombay courtesy my mother's mutton sandwiches. I’ve told these stories dozens of times and though they’re reasonably entertaining when accompanied by cheese sandwiches and tepid coffee, they're not exactly marble-plaque material.
So I decided to fashion an amusement from scratch, using myself as fall-gal and the Indian Railways as my stage. I decided to go on an actual trip from Delhi to Madras, on the Rajdhani, but to treat it as if it were an amalgam of all my previous trips.
Naturally, then, my first priority was to create a disguise for myself. Stage magicians will tell you that the main part of a successful trick is misdirection - drawing attention away from the mechanics of the trick by doing something just outside the plane of intention. With this in mind, I did two things. The first was that I bought myself a set of clothes of the kind that I never normally wear: a salwar-kurta ‘suit’ made out of cheap shiny cloth, mud-brown in colour, with an all-over print of dull red flowers. On my feet I wore a pair of vomit-pink slippers, one size too small and I took care to paint my toe nails metallic sea green two weeks in advance of the journey, so that by the time I boarded the train my feet looked moth-eaten and diseased.
My second move was to shave my hair off.
My reason for taking this drastic step was simple: I didn't have the time or inclination to grow my hair out, yet a woman with short-cropped hair not only suggests that she makes regular trips to a hairdresser but also that she has the money and leisure to pay for such indulgences. By contrast, a shaven head, in India, instantly communicates a message of traditional values, self-sacrifice and most importantly, loss. A woman will not normally remove her hair except for sober reasons - the loss of a spouse, catastrophic illness, mental derangement, louse-infestation or in quest of a favour from the gods. Whatever the cause, nobody doubts the credentials of a tonsuree. The very nakedness suggests an exposure to the elements and an absolute lack of secrets that is pitiable and for that reason, disarming.
‘Excuse me?’ I said.
Both men looked up. They were mismatched in the way of famous comedy pairs, Laurel and Hardy or Tom and Jerry —something intrinsically funny about the differences between them. The tall, broad one said, ‘Yes?’ while the smaller, more delicate one just nodded, with his head cocked to one side.
My immediate impression was that they were both young, perhaps in their twenties. Travelling salesmen was my first guess regarding their careers, but they might just as well have been cousins going home for a clan gathering or graduate students taking a Puja break. They were dressed decently, but without any flair. In the dim light all I could see was that they were clean-shaven, wearing long-sleeved shirts, with their luggage stowed neatly under their seats. The big one’s hair rose up in a poll of black curls on top of his head while the smaller man’s hair was straight and slicked back, parted on one side: a large hearty rabbit and a small nervous mongoose.
‘I’m doing a survey,’ I said. ‘Is it all right if I ask a few questions?’
‘Sure, sure,’ said Rabbit, as he shifted his bulk aside very slightly, as if to make
space for me, except that there was plenty of space and therefore no real need for him to shift.
‘- usually, we are the ones asking the questions,’ said Mongoose, unexpectedly. ‘Never mind! We will give the answers this time.’ He said this with a straight face, neither smiling nor frowning. There was something melancholy in his sobriety.
We were all speaking in English, though theirs was more accented than mine.
I said, ‘Oh! Does that mean you’re … ?’
‘- media consultants,’ said Rabbit, turning the palm of his right hand up, as if this were a self-evident fact. Something in the way he performed this gesture made me want to giggle.
‘We do market surveys,’ said Mongoose, nodding morosely.
‘Really!’ I said, smiling too brightly. There are certain circumstances which cause me to laugh uncontrollably. I produce a loud, chuckling rattle - sub-machine-gun with a touch of hyena - that is difficult to turn off once it gets started. I grow breathless, my sides ache and my eyes stream with tears. The fits usually occur when there is an obvious trigger, such as a comedy film or the company of friends, but sometimes, as on this occasion, the hysteria rises inside me like a volcano of soap bubbles, for no clear reason at all. An image flashed before my eyes, of me with my shaven head and green-painted toe-nails falling off my seat howling with laughter, as the two media consultants looking on, puzzled and a little pained. I clamped my hand across my mouth, hoping they wouldn’t notice.
‘How about you?’ asked Mongoose. ‘You are in survey business also?’
Further images were flashing in my head: scenes from Peter Sellers’ movies, of Herbert Lom’s face starting to twitch as crazed cackles leak out of him. I feared something similar was about to happen to me. I began massaging my cheeks as if I was in pain.
‘Uhh,’ I stammered, ‘not really, no. I’m - I'm a journalist -’
‘You should let her ask the questions,’ said Rabbit to Mongoose, in a reproachful tone.
The smaller man turned towards me, his eyes trusting and morose. ‘Please, Ma’am, you go ahead and ask. We will tell you anything.’
I was very grateful for the relative darkness of their cubicle. Sucking in a deep breath, so that the giggles were pushed back down into my stomach, I said, ‘I’m doing a series of articles about reincarnation. Maybe the two of you have some interesting stories to tell me?’
There was a brief silence. Rabbit cleared his throat and shifted slightly in his seat. Looking straight ahead as if reciting a passage he had memorized, he said,
‘Well … speaking for myself alone, I can say I take six eggs once a day.’
‘Eggs?’ I asked, unsure of what I’d heard.
‘Hard boiled,’ he said, thinking that I’d wanted clarification.
Mongoose was shaking his head from side to side. ‘He refuses to listen. I have told him so many times, but still he eats them. He says it is a question of faith.’
‘Just a moment,’ I said. ‘Why are we talking about food?’
‘You asked about it, so I am telling,’ said Rabbit, turning his palm over once more.
‘It is true,’ said Mongoose. ‘We have been travelling together on field trips for three years. He takes six eggs every night before dinner -’
‘I’m sorry but … what do eggs have to do with reincarnation?’ I had gone to a stage beyond laughter now. There was a floating sensation in my head, as if my giggles had transferred themselves to my sinuses without pausing to be released along the way.
‘You can read it in the papers every day,’ sighed Rabbit, raising his eyes to the ceiling with a long-suffering expression. ‘Some people are dying, some people are getting attacks. Excess of eggs leads to catharsis of the hearteries - leading to incarnation. But I am still eating my six eggs a day because … because … it is my belief!’ He closed his eyes.
‘No one can help him,’ whispered Mongoose, ‘no one’. He seemed on the verge of tears.
I got to my feet, knowing that I would explode if I remained in their company a second longer.
‘Thank you!’ I managed, before I fled. ‘You’ve been very informative!’