I was recently on a train journey. It was about twelve hours long. I was in the 3rd AC coach on a tatkal ticket, on a day train. This explained why my bogie was mostly empty. My particular compartment stayed unoccupied through the journey, a rarity. And the adjoining compartment had three passengers: a senior-citizen couple and a man in his thirties. They seemed to belong to the upper-middle class. It didn’t look like the couple were related to the man. I would go on to learn more about them.
All the cliches, the romance and nostalgia of train journeys hold true for me. Every summer of my childhood, I travelled to my grandma’s place on a 24-hour train ride that briefly passed through the western ghats. I remember it as something beautiful. As is common knowledge, the typical Indian train journey consists of eating, napping, calculating at which place the train will make up for its delay, and finding out how much property your co-passengers own. Given that last bit, the nosy proclivity of us as a people, my father went great lengths to avoid conversation with strangers, while my mother did the exact opposite. I grew up watching this and eventually inherited my father’s shyness and reticence; I find myself behaving exactly like him on more occasions than I’d like to admit.
My father would often drop his surname and retain only the first letter while booking his ticket, back when ticket charts were pasted beside the coach door and everyone had to confirm their name against their seat number before entering the coach. Doing this, he said, prohibited people from identifying him as Maharashtrian, and he could thereby avoid any unwelcome conversations.
Allow me to go on a tangent. While writing this, I'm also reminded of the time when I was 21 and performed rock music with my college band. It was also a time when I was coming under a certain kind of boomer influence. They had me believe that the millenia-old legacy of Indian music and culture was in severe jeopardy because I was singing “English songs” at some godforsaken pub to make side money as a college kid. Not to mention, I was led to believe that I was putting the future of my generation—the entire 400 million of us millenials—in grave danger by singing ‘Hotel California’ (not before rejecting dozens of paper-napkin requests for it and finally caving in).
As a young adult, thinking about how I was a little slut for “singing in English” had my stomach in knots. Fed up from an inner tumult, I broached the topic with the head-chef and owner of one of the nicer restaurants my friend and I then performed regularly at. “Why don’t pubs have us perform Hindi songs Manjit?!” He was quick to reply, “Because people loosen up in a way that can turn unruly, going fully desi when they listen to Indian music. They get drunk and start making odd song requests and what not. English songs mean that people are generally not very forward with their demands.” This man had been a restaurateur for two decades, Bangalore bred, with zero interest in using the word ‘desi’ pejoratively. I knew he wasn't lying. Besides, nothing explained why every pub played or had bands perform only English music fifteen years ago. Even though what he said then may sound jarring and 'politically incorrect' today, learning this from him back then brought me huge relief; that it was our colonial hangover which was still making us behave in a certain way. No sooner was this burden of jeopardizing the lives of 400 million people taken off of my shoulders than the question appeared: Why are we like that?
I also noticed this the first time I flew international. Think of the moment when you’re on the return journey and you touchdown on an Indian runway. Everyone acts like the announcement was, “Pudhil station Andheri. Next station Andheri.” Most of us want to get off our seats even before the flight has landed, and parachute into our living rooms. But we seldom do this on foreign land. And we almost always speak in English to the stewards and air-hostesses, even on a freakin' domestic flight, say from Jaipur to Hyderabad; or with any of the airport staff. Or at any Starbucks or KFC, or at any place that is ‘western looking’ in the country. This isn’t a diatribe against English—it is my strongest language if anything, something I’m rather rueful about—but is a mere observation of our people. And our hypocrisy.
When we find ourselves amidst our own, when there’s only ‘us’ and no ‘them’, something happens within and a giant switch flips. We become open and free which can be charming, but we’re seldom satisfied with ‘charming’. We begin a long and determined journey to cross borders… personal ones. We start prodding and asking personal questions that are not always coming from a place of innocence.
So, back to the train journey I was recently on; having no one in my compartment meant that my wife and I could laze all day with no interruptions. But the adjoining conversation was picking up and got loud as they got comfortable with each other. The thing with ears is you can’t shut them or ‘look away’. So you are forced to become a participant, even if an unwilling and silent one.
The old couple had started by asking the young man about what he did, where he was from, where he was headed to and such. Some connections were made. “Oh, my niece’s husband is from the same village!”, so on and so forth. After an hour of establishing that they had much in common, they got comfortable enough to bring up the topic that gives us our biggest hard-on—caste. Like every Wikipedia link is said to eventually reach the 'Philosophy' page, every conversation in India ultimately reaches ‘caste’.
The old couple and the young man were overjoyed to discover that they weren’t far apart in their caste coordinates, horizontally or vertically, the latter always being more important. They then progressed to discussing their acquaintances’ castes. “Oh those people are Vaanis. Vaanis means you know na.” And some more.
At this point I was rolling my eyes so hard and looked so annoyed that my wife asked me if I was OK. I told her that the people next to us were going on endlessly about caste. Since my wife only speaks English, I decided to translate their conversation to her in whispers. I didn’t want to suffer alone.
The old couple decided they weren’t having fun and carried out a stealth attack on the unsuspecting young man. They asked a balding man, in his thirties, waxing lyrical about his business—“are you married?” One could almost hear the All that is fine, but preceding their question. The poor guy was thrown off. He fumbled and immediately shifted to English, “Actually, I’m unmarried,” just for that one line, as if to diminish the severity of his plight—of being an unmarried thirty-something man, that is. I’m all for using English as a defence in such situations and my sympathies lay with the young man, until he broke the awkward silence.
‘We’re actually looking for a bride for me this year,’ he continued in Marathi. By ‘we’ he clearly meant his parents and family. The old man asked, “What are you looking for?” like he was looking to buy furniture. And the young man promptly answered;
‘We’re very simple, nothing in particular. We just need someone who can adjust with us and support me, as I do my business.’
‘Yeah, right. Correct,’ the old lady chimed in.
‘I don’t care even if she is only 10th pass, she should just take care of the house and family. My parents have slogged for so many years, right? Now it’s time for them to rest,’ he said.
‘Yes yes. Even if she isn’t thrilled with the folks at home she should be nice to guests and outsiders and should tend to everyone. True,’ the oldie added, with both sides throwing in Hos (yesses) and Barobars (yeahs) for good measure.
"Yeah, nowadays couples live in a separate home and want to roam around places. And visit their parents once a week. Arre?! That is not our culture." the young man said as their conversation devolved further into an abyss.
By this point, I couldn't distinguish who was the oldie and who was the... baldie. To hear in real time, people from upper-middle class India, from well-to-do backgrounds, be so earnest in their backwardness was exhausting. Part of me wanted to go tell the young man, “Yo dude, why the hell do you need a wife to pick up after you, your parents and your guests? You just need a maid, if you want mummy and daddy to rest bro.”
Their conversation ended with the young man’s station approaching. They exchanged phone numbers and the oldies said, “We’ll stay in touch. I’ll keep you informed about it (a potential bride)”. As he got off the train, I hoped the old couple had forgotten to save his number or something stupid like that. As for the young man, I hoped that he stayed bald and unmarried; some people should really be alone. When we are amidst our own, we reveal who we truly are, and very often it is very ugly.
Sunday Slant is a weekly newsletter where I share my musings, links and other nonsense every week. Subscribe now
Who the hell am I? About me
Give me all your money in the form of chai: sumeruraut.com/support
Please forward this newsletter to someone (you really dislike).
🔗 Links of the week
OK, I'm sorry I was off-the-radar with links. I'm back with them. Enjoy this link dump. Visible only to members Subscribe, it's free.