Saturday, June 09, 2007

Close encounters of the interesting kind

You meet all sorts of people while traveling on trains

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent journey from Kochi to Delhi I meet Jacob George*, who is working in the Army. He has served for 28 years and is due for retirement in a couple of years. He is trim, with a flat stomach and a toothy grin.
“I served during the Kargil war,” he says. “It was a terrifying experience. I was near death many times but somehow I came through unscathed. Did you notice that most of the men who were maimed were young people.”
“Yes I did,” I say, suddenly remembering the pictures I saw of injured men. “What was the reason behind it?”
“They lacked battle experience, that was why they were injured,” says Jacob. “When you are under fire, you have to think calmly. When a round is being fired by the Pakistanis, you must wait till the round is over, then make your move. And always crawl when you are on flat ground. Because then when you are being shot at, there is a chance they might miss you because the bullet is hitting the ground at an angle of 45 degrees. If you stand up, you present an immovable target.”
Jacob looks outside the window. It is a serene morning: blue sky, mellow sunlight, green paddy fields.
“I know of men who crawled three quarters of the way under fire and then the last few feet, feeling impatient, they had stood up and run and got shot,” says Jacob. “There is no substitute for battle experience.”
Then Jacob tells the story of his friend Ravindran*, who was slated to retire within two months, after 15 years of service, when Kargil happened. Apparently, an artillery shell burst near Ravindran and a splinter sliced a part of his skull. He lost his memory and does not know who he is. He lives in Pallakad in Kerala.
“In a perverse way, his injury was a blessing in disguise,” says Jacob. “He got Rs 15 lakh in compensation, his wife has got a job in a state government co-operative. Since he has three daughters, they will be able to pay the dowry for their marriages. But the price may have been too high.”
Sitting next to him is Sandip Bose* who has been working in the Air Force for 35 years in the mechanical section and is now serving in Coimbatore. He is due to retire within a few months.
“I joined the Air Force because I wanted to serve the country,” he says. “My heart beat with patriotism. I love India, my motherland.”
“But now,” he says, “Is there any leader we can look up to? There is so much of corruption in the armed forces. I keep quiet, as do a lot of others. We know that if we protest, our lives and careers will be ruined.”
In the next berth sits Abraham George*, a retired engineer who lives in New Jersey. In the air-conditioned coach he sees a rat, quickly puts his legs up on the berth and says, “This is terrible. Abroad, the train would have been stopped and the rat would have been caught. The bogie would have been fumigated. Passengers would have filed several lawsuits. We are paying good money for this seat, so why does all this happen?”
His fellow passengers yawn; they have seen rats, cockroaches, ants, moths, so what’s new? Abraham looks stricken. His eyes bulge out, he licks his lower lip several times and says, “Do you think they will jump up onto the seat where I am sitting?”
“No, no,” assures another passenger. “These are Indian rats and they know where they are allowed and where they aren’t.”
On another journey to Hyderabad, I meet a railway driver. This is the first time I am meeting one even though I have been travelling on trains all my life. "I have been a driver for 25 years now," says K. Pratap*, 48, a Keralite, who is returning to Vijayawada, after his annual leave. "It is a tough job. The cabin is very hot and at night, you have to stand all the time to see the track properly. At the end of an eight-hour shift, which becomes ten or twelve, if the train is running late, I am very tired."
Pratap’s eyes droop behind steel-rimmed spectacles, he has a paunch, there is a lot of grey in his curly black hair but all this is compensated by a boyish grin.
"I have to admit that I am paid very well," he says. "But this job has taken a toll of my health. Several colleagues, including myself, suffer from high blood pressure, sugar, diabetes and heart problems."
I feel sad when I hear him talk like that. I remember, as a kid, holding my father's hand, as he led me down to the end of the platform so that I could look at the engine. It looked monstrous, with its loud horn and belching smoke and blackened exterior. And there sat the driver, his elbow on the window sill and, to me, they were heroes, because you had to be really strong and tough to handle this huge instrument.
Pratap continues to shatter my idealistic image when I ask him about trains running over people. "We are never hauled up for that," he says. "If we run over somebody we stop the train. If the person is alive, we take him to the next station. Otherwise, we leave the body where we found it. And let's face it, most of them are suicide cases."
I am thinking: 'Thank God, I did not meet Pratap when I was a child. It is always nice to lose your illusions later than sooner.'
As I look around I notice that, apart from an elderly woman, there are only male passengers. I remember, with a wry feeling what I told a friend the previous evening: "God, I hope that tomorrow when I get on the train, I will have a beautiful woman, for company."
Instead, there is Gavin Menezes. He is a Railway employee and a Kerala state level body builder. His deltoid muscles and biceps bulge under the tight blue T-shirt he is wearing. With his mass of black curls and wide smile, he could easily pass off as a pop star.
After an hour of conversation, Gavin and I exchange names and when he hears mine, he bursts out laughing.
"Do I look like Charlie Chaplin?" I ask. "I have a similar moustache."
"No, no," he says, still laughing. "Let me explain."
He works in the computer section of the Ernakulam South station. This is just next to the Area Manager's office where the slots for the Emergency Quota (EQ) are filled. Gavin is told to go to Delhi at the last minute. He buys a ticket and rushes to put his name in the EQ. The clerk, a woman, asks, "Gavin, where do you want to sit?"
And the South station resident hunk says, "Please put me next to a beautiful woman."
The woman scans the list and says, "There is a Shevlin Sebastian. She could be a beautiful woman."
And that's how Gavin ends up next to me. We both laugh at what has happened and compensate for the absence of beautiful women by talking about them for the rest of the journey.
(*: All names of people have been changed)

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