(Painting: Paul Klee’s ‘Mountain Train’)
The Traveling Ticket Examiner, fondly abbreviated to “TT(E)” in India was explaining to my neighbor.
“I tell you he is higher berth, you are lower”.”
“Caste is coming in Railway trains also?”
He looked around to gauge the reaction. No reaction.
“But I believe Ambedkar”, he said to me, “he said to abolish caste”.
I smiled weakly and nodded.
I had made the mistake of meeting his eye.
This may become tiresome.
Had I started something?
Fortunately he shuffles off when the seat’s proper claimant appears.
His was the lower berth in the next compartment, it turned out.
By and large, caste has worked well for India over the centuries.
It may work for several more if only our politicians and ‘reformers’ would leave it alone.
Having a caste and being proud of it for the group identity it gives you is productive, sensible and makes for self-respect and discipline, provided you don’t talk of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’.
Now there enters a set of transgressors.
They have penetrated our family and ‘legal’ space.
The head of the invading family is tall and wears a disgruntled look.
A vague, quick ping of memory goes off in my head.
Have I seen him before?
I have seen most people before.
I like the shape of his nose.
Is he a Rajasthani?
I decide not to resist him.
His brood scattered over three compartments is coming together and pitching its tent in our midst.
The immigrants appear to know they are transgressors which makes them less threatening.
Tame aggressors with a sense of right and wrong are not difficult to forgive.
Once I get a signal of guilt from another, I find it possible to get remote and withdraw into myself.
Two of us are sleeping on the upper berths and till they wake up and want to sit below, this large family can use “our” space.
There are times when one starts to skirmish over one’s space and it turns out that space was not one’s in the first place.
One such mild face-off occurred as I was musing thus.
A man showed me his ticket, it was the berth number I had been allotted and was in possession of, and the bogie was the same.
He was getting pretty impatient for me to see the light and to take my things and vamoose.
As I held my ground, a neighbor well-versed in railway literature, perused the Norman conqueror’s ticket and declared,
“This is for tomorrow’s journey”.
In the silence that ensued, the Norman conqueror’s wife impressed one and all by not upbraiding her husband in front of us.
Not just berths but all possessions are hard to establish as ours, and the same applies to what we identify as ourselves.
Our places upon this earth are rented, never owned, notwithstanding the documentary proofs.
So are, in essence, our identities which too are merely rented.
Our bodies, we are told, we have taken on rent for our pleasure and that disease and death are the fee.
In the very act of proving our identity it changes, given the obstacles in communication.
Conversations destabilize our identities and that is why they are said to be good for society.
Besides, shouldn’t I know that I am real and that I really do exist in space and form?
Unless someone acknowledges me, how do I know I physically exist at all?
Just one mirror isn’t enough.
I can’t even see my own back in it.
I may say I want privacy.
I consider this an excuse to avoid knowing who I am not, for it is by usage and social exchanges that I can understand that I am no different from anyone else.
This will help me to tear down the wall of my special identity, on whatever pretext i may have it.
Anyway, the world is not so constituted that it can provide everyone the private space that he needs.
All this is tedious philosophy but not deep and so nobody will drown in it.
Let me return to the train reality.
How do we open our packed lunch and eat in front of so many strangers in this small space?
We shall share.
Sharing is a social strategy.
We will at least make the offer.
It will break the ice for now.
Anyway, our families shall inevitably and comfortably frost over again later, as before, by mutual benign and natural neglect.
Possibly by the time we reach Bina, the next junction.
That’s the nature of things.
I conclude this one has been somewhat thought through.
It’s time to unbox the bluff and social manner.
Samvatsara Vikari, Chithirai 30 (May 13, 2019)