The moment he walked in, big-bellied and broad-grinning, I had a hunch. This man loves to talk.
The world is divided into two categories of travellers – those in Category 1 keep to themselves, unlike the ones in Category 2 who need to thrive on inter-passengerly communication. I belong to the former group and by corollary, tend to be wary of the latter. Perhaps this trait is genetic, for my father with whom I was travelling that night from Alappuzha in Kerala back to Chennai, also belonged to the same group of reclusive roamers. Both of us stepped into the second-class compartment, all set to indulge ourselves with 15 hours of quiet introspection. However, as is often the case, that was not to be.
The moment he walked in, big-bellied and broad-grinning, I had a hunch. This man loves to talk. If you had to picture a mascot for Category 2, Mr. M was it. Clad in a youthful t-shirt tucked into his jeans and a fat belt-pouch, he sported a thick white moustache and topped it off with a bounce in his step, and a twinkle in his eye.
My dad and I smiled cordially at him and exchanged wary looks with each other. After about 30 minutes we seemed to have reached a sort of delicate equilibrium; the slightest tilt of our conversation towards a general topic would upset that balance and set off Mr. M’s pent up verbal fire.
By this time he had already managed to inform us that he was a retired Air Force official happily married with two happily married daughters, and he needed to replenish his stock of water at the next stop.
Any hope of delving into a comfortable silence was dashed when the last member of our compartment Mr. K walked in. Mr. K was much younger than Mr. M; a little more Mallu-looking (I’m allowed to say that since I am a Malayalee myself), somewhat buff, with thick curly hair and a gloriously black moustache. Like Mr. M, Mr. K too had the quintessential spring in his step as he walked in confidently, fished out his dinner box and began eating his salad. He had eaten too much karimeen (a variety of fish) during the weekend and that over-indulgence had wreaked havoc on his digestion, he explained, offering us his vegetables. Mr. M heartily guffawed at his new, more amiable co-passenger’s antics.
By then, my father and I were beginning to warm up to this exuberant duo. They didn’t seem like the type to lull us into a false security and drug us with salad, and even if they were, the most valuable item we were carrying was a bunch of special bananas, so we could risk it we supposed.
Gradually, the four of us became the life of the bogey. At one uncomfortable point, Mr. M did a quick psycho-analysis of me (He minored in Anthropology he said, and face reading was a hobby.) He covered my traits, my relationships with people and even the kind of man I should marry! I joked that his daughters must have had a difficult time keeping secrets from him, and he laughed, assuring me that they never needed to.
Mr. K at one point launched into a passioned rant about corruption in society and how it makes the best of us bend. He had applied to nine schools to get his child admission into kindergarten, only to realise that earnestness was not appreciated as much as money and influence were. There’s no point being good, agreed Mr. M. And it wasn’t just the education system that was corrupt, what about healthcare…
That I worked at The Hindu launched us into a quick examination of newspapers in India. They both had high regard for The Hindu though Mr. K admitted jokingly that the big words sometimes bamboozled him. It was soon time to head to our respective berths to sleep.
Morning came, and Chennai greeted us with a wave of its reassuringly familiar pungency. Everyone sleepily gathered their things, as practicality drowned out the memories of last night’s shared moments. Every Category 1 traveller comes across memorable Category 2 characters now and then. The trick is to be open-minded enough to appreciate their quirks, and sometimes you’ll find that your highly-valued peace-of-mind may be a little overrated.