Friday, April 28, 2006

Hag In My Seat

(To RIP)

When traveling by train, people generally avoid the side-lower berth in sleeper coaches. Even if you are only of average height, your feet don’t fit within the berth’s frame when lying down. In order to sleep, you have to embryonize yourself, curve into a banana.

Even so, your feet will jut out and the people – vendors, beggars, passengers, who not - walking by will brush your feet as they make their way through the passage. Slumber is well-nigh impossible with hot kettles and cold bottles grazing your toes, however fleeting the contact may be.

People would give anything for a good night’s sleep and hence they give a wide berth to the lowly side-berth unless they’re elderly or extremely short. However, given a choice, in spite of the discomfort that it entails, I always take the side-lower berth. Call it a quirk of mine, but the side-lower berth does offer some definite advantages:


a) In hot weather, you can open the windows before sleeping. It’s a pleasure sleeping with the wind blowing on your face and cooling the length of your body.
b) You can keep your distance if your co-passengers are gasbags. If they are interesting, you can always talk of course. You have the best of both worlds. In the six-seat/berth compartment, you are stuck; you have to put up with whomever you are put up with. Also, if you choose the side-lower, you have only one co-passenger whom you absolutely must bear.
c) You can sleep with your head pointing whichever direction you choose- either in the direction of the train’s motion or against. I hate traveling backwards.

Plus, every time you make a booking indicating your preference as side-lower, it being so unpopular, you get what you asked for. Who can say that there is no joy in that? Hey, somebody actually granted you your wish!

So there I was in the Bangalore-Trivandrum Express. Sure enough, I had gotten my very own side-lower berth. I had dozed off almost instantly after settling in; it had been a tiring day. I woke up refreshed after a good night’s sleep, the cool night-wind had energized me. I found that many of my co-passengers had gotten off on the way.

(The Encroacher)

From a station on the way, an old woman with her son and his family boarded the train. They chose to sit in the six-seat cubicle on my side. Thankfully, they left me alone, one of them could’ve opted to sit on the other half of my berth, you see.

The train chugged on, and after a while, I left my seat to take a dump, leaving behind my bag and novel, “booking” my seat. Even so, when I came back, I found that the old woman had crept into my seat. Encroachment! Infringement! In sharp contrast with me who would’ve taken the seat of my preference given a choice, she had taken it given a chance!

She seemed harmless enough, the praying, God-fearing, grandmother-type, with big gold earrings the size of bangles dangling from her ears. The rosary in her hand would’ve made her seem saintly to some but to me, she was a scheming demon in white. The white witch was not going to vacate; she seemed oblivious of me - lost in thought, engrossed in prayer. I quietly sat on the other half of the berth.

(Do unto others as others do unto you)

I didn’t protest aloud but I did keep shooting lethal looks at her, my eyes glowing with indignation and irritation. For a while, I shifted around trying to force her out through subtle, surreptitious changes in the position of my legs, pulsing, nudging but no, no way she was budging. She was a Mountain Of Faith, confident that she would be forgiven her trespass against me.

Some time later, after futile minutes of desperation, I decided to hunt around for another suitable seat. Trudging along the coach’s passage, I detected a side-lower berth that had been left unguarded by its owner. I seized the opportunity! I sat down and when the rightful owner, a young man, returned and saw me there, I thought I could see glimpses of me in him. For a while, he and I played me-and-encroacher-grandma.

He started behaving almost identically as I had previously. Perhaps it was normal - just human nature, or maybe comfort-loving-selfish-young-urban-male nature, that made us behave like we did. What hardships had we ever known, born into a pacifist world of plenty? Here we were, pettily fighting for a mere seat. Enlightened, after a while, I smiled a knowing smile and ‘surrendered’. I walked away.

(Thought experiments)

I returned to grandma-taunting. I would appeal to the encroacher’s conscience telepathically: Get up! Get up! Respect the boundaries! Why were wars fought in your day? The prime reason… Moved by the injustice, and convinced of my innocence, I was shaking my head so much that it could possibly have been classified as an audible vibration. But older people have a higher threshold of hearing and hence my mental remonstrations failed to inspire remorse in the old lady.

She continued counting the beads on the rosary. Couldn’t she see the futility of that? You can keep doing that for an eternity and not have a clue as to how many. Infinity is a circle… Maybe God was listening to her prayers…If she wanted to stretch her legs, Let There Be Space! I climbed to the upper berth and I lay back reconciling myself to my fate.

For some time, I read my book with an occasional glance down at the old lady who, by now, had settled into a conscious trance, evidenced by her rotary rosary. I also resumed my stare-athon, with the old lady’s son this time, hoping that he would get the message.

Amongst other nefarious schemes for an ouster, of varying subterfuge, I thought of starting a conversation with the man in which I would cursorily and casually throw in the anecdote about the Arab and the camel – the one in which the Arab shares his tent with a camel and ends up being kicked out – with an occasional chance glance at his mother for good measure. That could get the idea through.

The parabolic parable was not to be, though; one just could not predict how people would react to their mother being called a camel! I’ve seen fights break out and heard that men have been killed for less. I could possibly have scraped through with my feathers unruffled in the probable scuffle with my quick-and-ready rejoinder: I was not an Arab, of course not! But cool logic tends to evaporate in the heat of rage; I decided not to take the risk. Thus scheming and plotting coups, unable to concentrate on my book, I nodded off momentarily.

(Hand Of God)

When I opened my eyes, sure enough, I fixed my gaze, leaning over, to my seat of contention. It was…empty! There for the taking! I looked to my left and saw the old lady, sitting with her family again. Thought can move mountains.

Joyously, though not ostentatiously (I think I managed to keep my rapturous glee down to a smirk of smug satisfaction), I descended down to my berth (mine!) and lay down. I even managed to read my book.

My joy was short-lived though; I shortly discovered that my cell phone was missing. Frantic, I rummaged around the compartment. My annexed neighbour however was unperturbed. Still counting the beads on her prayer-chain, she pointed out the phone to me.

It was there on the berth, my berth, where her head had been previously. It must have fallen down when I was sleeping in the upper berth. (I keep my wallet and my cell phone in my trouser-pockets, another of my quirks) I apologized profusely; I had only thought evil, you see, not said or done things. My apologies must have rung hollow and insincere; from the way they looked at me, it was obvious that they thought that I had done it intentionally.

She flung an accusatory glance at me, which rebounded off my innocence. I was only an instrument of Fate. And it was not as if she had not known the truth of gravity when she had lain in my berth - “There is a God, and He is Up Above.”

-Thomas Jay Cubb


  1. Tommie, I am a fan of the side lower berth too. Let me add two more reasons to yours. The probability of the upper lower 'cubbin' being occupied is close tozero. So you have to put up with just you, in your cubby hole. You can put your foot up on the window, let the air into your pantsand cool your, well, souls. I used to do this on my travelling job! Anand

  2. I prefer the top ones....
    But talking of enroachments...South India is heave,....The minute you enter MP, will know what enroachment really means....:)

  3. hahahahahaha... way too good!!!