Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A nightmare journey

After a recent visit to Darjeeling/Siliguri, K and I were returning home to Kolkata on the Darjeeling Mail, which leaves New Jalpaiguri at 8.05 PM and arrives at Sealdah station at 6.00 AM the next morning. My cousin, whose house we were staying at in Siliguri, had us dropped off at NJP station, and armed with our baggage and one rather fragile gift for a two dear friends, which I clutched to myself, we entered the train. The first sight that greeted me was that of a short, fat, pot-bellied man dressed in a tee and - get this - boxer shorts, performing some ablutions at the sink immediately before the door. I remember thinking vaguely how weird some people were - I mean, what's the point of getting into your night clothes in public on a train, for God's sake? - before following K in to find our seats.

Now, I hate trains. Always have. Being cooped up in a compartment with so many people makes me claustrophobic, and since I've never had much luck where co-passengers were concerned, the journey becomes, at best, tedious. Plus there's the close proximity of strangers in 3-tier coaches, which I find horribly intrusive. Planes might be just as bad at times, but at least it's all over in a few hours. So anyway, we find our seats, tuck our luggage away, I squirm my way into my window seat (luckily we had a lower and a middle berth) - not an easy task, since someone had helpfully wedged a suitcase right where I was supposed to keep my legs. K settles down next to me, we start talking, and then Mr Boxer Shorts comes in and plumps himself across from me. K's eyes widened, and we grinned at each other. And then arrived two other men, all clearly from someplace in UP, judging by the language they spoke - one in a loose white kurta pyjama, with hennaed hair and a tiki/choti at the back, marking him out as a Brahmin; and the other a huge fat man with a stomach to rival Boxer Shorts'. They plonked themselves down, began talking loudly, interspersed with loud chants of 'sri radhe radhe' every now and then. Across from us, on the two side seats, was a Marwari couple, who had begun eating their dinner quietly.

So far so annoying. But now, just a little while before the train was to depart, arrived another man, clearly of the 'sri radhe' party, completing the cosy foursome, again a potbellied, slightly seedy, but otherwise ordinary looking person. He stands there, talking as loudly as his pals, and then I notice him beginning to unbutton his shirt. 'Here's another about to wear his night-suit,' I remember thinking. Except he didn't. Wear anything fresh, that is - the disrobing, on the other hand, continued. While K and I watched aghast, this person calmly removed his shirt, sat himself down on the seat opposite, rucked up his undershirt almost to his shoulders, and, as if that wasn't enough, proceeded to unbutton and unzip his trousers. I shot one appalled look at K, who was staring expressionlessly at the man, dived into my bag, yanked out The Wizard of Earthsea, and stuck my nose resolutely into it. Bless Ursula le Guin for being brilliant enough to even engage my attention at that moment; and I came up for air only when K asked me, in perfectly normal tones, if he should 'tell that pig to wear some clothes and behave himself'. I asked him not to - I didn't think we could take on four enormous ruffians. Just then, a respectable-looking Bengali gentleman came in, and it turned out that his was one of the seats that one of the barbarians had occupied. There was a scramble to get his luggage out so he could go sit where he rightfully belonged - and I'm not usually so provincial, but I have to admit that the sight of a decent Bong man filled me with unutterable relief.

I didn't look up from my book even once since then except to talk to K, and then I didn't look ahead, pretending - and I can do that very well if I choose - that the people crowding my space didn't exist. Nauseous sounds of chomping, slurping, burping a while later told me the cave men had sat down to feed; Ged had just reached Roke, and I followed his efforts to find the Archmage with a desperation that rivalled his own. After a while K pokes me and says - again in his normal baritone - 'Look at that fat pig. He doesn't even know how to eat properly.' I refused. K continued staring, still without expression. Once the burp fest was over, loud post-dinner chatter ensued; the Marwari couple had settled down to sleep, but their noise disturbed the lady in the lower berth so that she sat up, looking at them - K tells me her look was one of horror, and then she apparently looked at us with much sympathy. At some point they clambered onto their respective berths and relative peace ensued. The Bong gentleman made his bed on the top berth with much apologies for taking up our space while doing so; and then he climbed up and firmly switched off the lights. The Marwari lady lay down in relief, I emerged from Earthsea, and we had a quiet dinner in the relative privacy afforded by the darkness.

The medley of snores kept me up all night, but I didn't care; and when the train pulled into the station, I leapt out almost before it stopped. White kurta Brahmin was still snoring, incidentally, regardless of his pals' attempts to wake him. The last thing I saw was a coolie poking him - hard, I hope.

So. WHY can Indian men not behave themselves in public? I mean, is that so hard to do? As K said, if a foreigner had seen these buffoons, would s/he not have been justified in believing that Indians are an uncivilised race? And, as K said later, that disgusting disrobing was, in a way, a complete denial of my existence in the same shared space - women, in their world, are clearly invisible, inconsequential entities. I think there was both a denial and an affirmation operating at the same time - the entire episode was also for my benefit, a form of sexual intimidation targeted towards the woman so far removed from their own social milieu. As a student of sociology, I am aware of culture-specific behaviour - but I fail to understand what role 'culture' has to play in the lives of people who know as little about the norms of public behaviour as a caged animal. And if it comes to that, give me a caged animal any day. Nor was this display about class/caste - in the minds of most people, even today, the people lower in the socio-economic hierarchy are the ones who're considered 'uncivilised', 'uneducated'. These people were middle-class, and of the Brahmin/Kayastha castes. How could they have been brought up - or not - so badly? And the scary part is that these aren't the only specimens - most Indian men are this disgusting. My paradigm and theirs are so far removed that we might be living on different planets - and our worlds collide only rarely, for which I am thankful. I'm glad I don't belong to their world, for - and I'm stereotyping, but I think this time it's justified - these men, without doubt, are chauvinistic, misogynistic, patriarchal tyrants.

I'm never travelling on a train again, unless accompanied by people - and then we can travel in the 2-tier coaches, and hopefully we'll fill up all the seats around. Oh, and here's another bit of irony - there they were, these right-wing, Hindu, crude specimens of humanity, with their sri radhes and their talk of 'Shri Krishna ki Janmashthami', and there I was, in my cool Tantra tee which said, 'God is too big to fit into one religion'.