The Great Indian General Compartment
I travelled from Pune to Mumbai on Friday night, in the general compartment of the Nagercoil express. If there is any way to travel by the Indian Railway (if you are willing to forego comfort), it is by the general compartment. Better wielders of the pen than I have written about its romance, so I will not try that. But every journey is a new romance, unaffected by previous memory.
I jumped in before the train stopped, and grabbed a seat. The kind made of wooden planks, by no means comfortable. And then the very atmosphere of the compartment, composed of most parts air mixed with the smells of dust, hair oil, gutkha, sweat and the remnants of food eaten some time ago. It was filled in no time, and the joy commenced when the engine gave its piercing blast.
The compartment was filled with mostly Marathi and Gujarati travellers going home from a day's work in Pune. The lot were tired, cramped and generally not in a conversational mood. Two engineering students were sitting cross-legged in the upper berths, talking of their future career prospects. That brings me to my first observation. They spoke to each other in pucca English, convent-school types. That surprised me, for English is alien to a general compartment, filled as it is with the rich tones of the various dialects of India's languages. Of course, India's newly rising international chhavi is partly because of English fluency, and I wonder whether that is leading to further 'Englishification' of India.
I was reading Richmal Crompton's William in Trouble. William Brown has become a great friend of mine, and is a regular visitor to Rumia nowadays. It was an engaging read, provoking a few badly stifled laughs. Then came a chikkiwala. Now I must confess a weakness for chikki, in total disregard of my dentist's stern warning. Sadly, the quality of chikki seems to have gone down. The five-rupee-worth I bought was wafer-thin, and tasted a bit stale. I wonder if Bush's Iraq war, widely held to have triggered the sharp hike in fuel prices, has caused this decline in chikki standards.
I tried to strike conversation with folk in whatever Gujarati I knew, but all were tired and not in quite a mood to talk. So back to William and company. He had just written a poem:
He bashed him dead
An' blood came pourin' out of his head-
but then he got embroiled in other activities with which a boy's days are so full. I wish I were a boy again - my boyhood was so different. But the immediate response to the poem was uncontrollable laughter, rekindled everytime I went over the above lines. The efforts at suppressing it only attracted the attention of the other passengers, who were rendered most uncomfortable by the shaking of my body. Like it or not, everyone was staring at me. Anyway, I'm quite used to it, for I see no sense in maintaining a dull demeanour to appear dignified.
The journey had to end, but not without a last romance. A fellow came selling shengdana (peanuts), and by reflex, the William went into my bag. My other hand pulled out my wallet, removed a two-rupee-coin, and held it out for peanuts. I have this terrible weakness for shengdana. I cannot resist buying it if I see it. Several observations. Firstly, the business seems to have been taken over by North Indians, for they keep saying 'seng' instead of 'sheng'. The purist linguist in me hates that. Secondly, the material itself was first class. The husk removed, the yellow meat of the nut roasted correctly over the coals, and the quantity reasonable. Yum! If you want to destroy me, just offer me poisoned shengdana. Sometimes I can see myself as a Socrates, a condemned intellectual, taking from my executor that fatal paper-cone of shengdana laced with hemlock...
But journey was over, I had to go home, so that's it.