It was an extended vacation in many ways. I had stayed way longer than I had originally intended to, spent way more money than any prudent man should have, and indulged in a touch too many vices. Now it was time to go back and I was actually glad to oblige, because if I had kept this up even a little bit longer, I would have been reduced to either begging for alms or pushing drugs. Both of which remain my last resorts for survival to this day.
The benevolence of friends had secured me a two-tier AC ticket and I stood on the platform at 15:45, waiting for the train that was scheduled to arrive at 16:00 and depart at 16:40. I tried my hand at Jedi mind-control techniques to help ease my last fifteen minutes in the humidity before I could slip into the comfortable confines of coach number A3. They failed to produce satisfactory results.
When the train finally did arrive, it seemed to take an eternity to decide whether to stop or go right ahead and ram into the colonial-era walls of Victoria Terminus. Better sense finally prevailed and a heap of sweaty, yet grateful passengers piled in.
I clambered in with my heavy bag and looked around for seat number 12. The Indian Railways thinks it is a brilliant idea to allot people seats based solely on their age: if you’re old and tired of the world and its ways, you get a comfy lower berth, if you’re middle-aged and still prone to notice silver linings, you get a slightly-less-convenient upper berth and if you fall into the category of people who are still stupid enough to believe that life is a bed of roses, you get a side upper berth that’s like a combination of a cupboard and a jail cell. I, in spite of my grim views about all of human existence, fell into the third rank.
It is of no concern to the authorities that you are over six feet tall and weigh approximately as much as an average, pasture-fed, middle-aged cow. You are expected to be filled with gratitude while you stuff your oversized body into the six-foot-long berth with an iron rail on the side – meant to keep kids from falling off during any of the approximately 16572 times that the train will jerk during the journey. Even coffins allow you to rest at full length and provide enough space for you to turn in your grave in the event that someone takes it upon oneself to molest your life’s work.
I dumped my bag on the dreaded seat number 12 and sat down below, slowly attempting to come to terms with my fate while staring greedily at this old lady who was sprawled over her lower berth seat with a good two feet left unoccupied. Like Indian clockwork, the train slowly set into motion at 16:52 and drifted reluctantly towards its destination.
By the time I was done fuming at the injustice meted out by the railways, quite a few hours had passed and I was really looking forward to the insipid meal they insist on referring to as dinner. I just wanted to roll into that cocoon of a space and hibernate till the early morning, at which point I was sure to be jolted awake by the vendors who would sneak up to my ear and announce with much vigour that they had some tea they would like me to purchase.
Believe me when I say that I tried to fall asleep with all my might, I really did. But it didn’t work. Every time I tried to make the slightest of movements I was hindered by the delightful safety measures in place. Also, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I wouldn’t be able to stretch my feet out straight for the next 12 hours at least. All this discomfort manifested itself in the form of various waking nightmares which ranged from being buried alive to being trapped in a car that was undergoing a transformation to become a pile of tin cans.
I assure you that none of the scenarios that played out in my head during that time were at all alluring. What with me being humongous in proportions and the railways assuming that we were all produced in a factory with molds labeled ‘mini’, I had encountered such problems in the past and had overcome them by staying up all night with a good book for company.
Sadly, I could not adopt this strategy this time – because the day before I boarded the train, I had come up with what I thought was a brilliantly simple method that would finally allow me to sleep in trains. I figured that if I stayed up for two days in a row, I would be tired enough to take one look at anything resembling a bed and thank the heavens and my ancestors before slipping into sweet dreams. Well, guess what? Now I was incredibly sleepy but couldn’t sleep, and every time I attempted to lure my mind away from sleep by engaging it in a thrilling book, it assured me that it would not render its cooperation in this endeavour.
At this point I would like to ask you, dear reader, if you believe in Angels. Not those over-the-top, covered-in-glitter, flying-into-children’s-rooms-unannounced ones you see in the movies, but actual people who restore your faith in humanity and its pursuits. I never did, until this fateful day, because as I was struggling to stay merry in my misery, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed this girl staring at my berth with the kind of envy that you normally associate with a kid’s eyes as he passes a candy store.
I leapt on this chance and asked her if she wanted to exchange places with me (her seat was the far more comfortable regular upper berth). She readily agreed, pointing out that her sister, who had a broken leg, was occupying the berth below mine and that she would love to be closer to her. Before she could finish her sentence, I leapt off my seat with so much gusto that I was surprised she didn’t suspect that my seat was infested with rabid mice. While this new arrangement was indeed a drastic improvement over my situation just 5 minutes earlier, it still left a couple of inches of my feet dangling out into the corridor. They were almost six feet off the ground, but dangling nonetheless.
I exploited this new-found freedom by stretching like an alley cat for a good hour and a half and then dented a few more pages of this unforgettable book, the title of which eludes me at this moment. By the time I decided to rest my organs it was almost 1.30 am.
Then it happened, the first bump against my feet. I made the sound assumption that this would be a solitary event, since the interior of a train at this hour was scarcely the stage for many six-foot-tall people to be pottering about. So, when it happened again, about ten minutes later, this time accompanied by the waft of tobacco smoke, I decided to make a game of it and create a story in my head of what was happening, abandoning any hope of sleep altogether by this time.
This guy had apparently just stepped out for an illegal smoke, not exactly a phenomenal plot for a story, but I was hoping for more interesting folk to tread that path. Just when I had given up hope and was about to drift off again, I heard a faint rhythmic thud heading my way very slowly, and when it passed right by me, I could feel the bald pate of this seemingly disabled man (that thud was from his crutches) brush against the tips of my toes. My imagination got another boost when, just minutes later, a much taller man headed the same way at a much quicker pace.
The disabled man had tossed in his sleep for a while, I decided, wondering whether his urge to lighten his bladder was worth the physical effort it would take to get himself to the loo. When the body finally decided to be stern with him, he caved in and began the long, arduous walk towards sweet release. I also made him rich in my head, I already knew that he was old. The image I had of him was of this bald, rich and old man, who hobbled along, probably sporting a gold chain and other assorted ornaments.
“But this could only mean one thing,” I thought to myself, “the tall man who chased after him must be after his metal! (alloy,whatever). ” I imagined the tall man knocking that sweet old man senseless and then proceeding to stuff his pockets with the ill-gotten spoils. Now I found myself eagerly waiting to hear the soft thuds that would announce the well-being of the old man. They didn’t come for quite some time and I resisted my urge to peek outside the curtain, determined to piece this together using only my toes.
A little while later, a most disturbing development developed. Another pair of footsteps, loud and full of purpose, headed in the same direction, but nothing brushed against my toes. A short accomplice, I thought, and the feminine sneeze that escaped into the air told me that it was a woman. Not that she couldn’t be an accomplice, but the society I’d been brought up in attributed a far less sinister character to women than it did to big, purposeful men.
It was well past 3 am but not yet 4 at this point and I could feel this layer form over my eyes that is normally my body’s way of telling me that it will not put up with this stuff and nonsense for much longer. Five minutes later, I slipped into oblivion with a smile on my face because as I faded away, I heard the reassuring thuds that I was listening for all this while.
As expected, barely 2 hours after I had finally nodded off, I was jolted awake by a particularly eager vendor, who seemed to strongly believe that a cup of tea was far more important than a good night’s sleep; or functioning eardrums for that matter. Barely five minutes had passed since I had gathered my senses when the whole bogie was pervaded with screams of the “aaaaaahhhhhh” variety. Others rushed, and I peeked, in the direction of these screams, which was towards the by now infamous loo. The lady that generated those impressive decibels had fainted onto the floor because she had pushed open the lavatory door to discover the slumped body of a man with a full head of hair, wearing a purple shirt and cream trousers. He seemed just over six feet tall.
The police arrived at the scene soon after and began questioning the passengers about what transpired. As soon as they were done questioning the sneezing woman from last night, I headed straight to them and directed their energies towards the young, bald man with crutches, who was huddled in a corner pretending to nurse his leg.