All for the sake of a seat

When bags, handkerchiefs, towels or magazines are used to “book” seats on trains and buses...

February 10, 2017 04:26 pm | Updated 04:26 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Illustration by Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration by Sreejith R. Kumar

Who said you need smart phones to book seats on trains and buses? All you require is a handkerchief, and the grimier, the better.

The other day the train had barely pulled into a station when a large, hairy, male hand plunged in through the window, startling the bespectacled young man huddled in the side seat out of his catnap. It dangled a tiny lady’s handkerchief like a pendulum under his nose. Now fully awake, the chap, showing signs of being a hypochondriac, involuntarily jerked his head away, stopped breathing and watched the grubby hanky anxiously while trying to distance himself from it and the germs it probably carried, but the hanky persisted in pursuing his nose.

Alarmed, he withdrew further and further into his seat quite determined to disappear through its back, when the fierce-looking owner of the hairy hand peered in. ‘There!’ With his chin he indicated a spot just vacated by a passenger on the seat of the sleeper coach. ‘This!’ he commanded, offering the hanky as if it were a sweet-smelling bouquet.

Overawed, the youth obeyed the monosyllabic orders, held the hanky with the tips of his fingers and dropped it on the seat almost as gracefully as would a lady from medieval Europe who wished to show favour to her chosen knight.

He was just in time. An army of passengers swarmed in. The first thing they noticed as their darting eyes searched for a perch was the hanky occupying a seat, but they didn’t take it amiss. Such is the sanctity of a handkerchief when it is used to indicate a “booked” seat that no one dared pick it up or shove it aside. Instead, following the policy of the proverbial camel in the tent, they seated themselves about it, shrinking the space where it rested. Viewing the drama from the seat opposite, I thought only a tiny Thumbelina could fit herself there. How wrong I was! A lady of generous proportions hustled in, scattering all who stood in her way with great authority before claiming the hanky and the seat. Obviously an old hand at this, she blew her nose to establish ownership of her handkerchief, then marked her territory by wriggling expertly into the space, miraculously getting it to expand. It is an art and she did it exceptionally well. In no time, her family, including the hairy-handed spouse was seated around her and for good measure, she accommodated a couple of kids on her capacious lap. I could only watch with admiration.

It is a long established practice to book seats this way in buses. People fling bags, handkerchiefs, towels or magazines through the windows on their chosen seats or any available seat to “book” them. It’s almost a Frisbee-throwing match out there with passengers exhibiting enviable aim and precision to land these identified flying objects with great expertise on the chosen targets. This is where Sports Authority representatives should gather to spot talent.

Generally nobody disputes their claims, but on occasion some not-so-conscientious objector performs the sacrilegious act of removing the marker to sit on the seat. My husband said he once saw a man do that and when the belligerent claimant arrived, he nonchalantly handed the hanky over. Very quickly battle lines were drawn and the whole bus got involved in an exciting free for all.

Hankies and the ubiquitous towel are also used to mark the attendance of a person. I remember going with my friend to an office and being confronted by a vacant chair at the relevant section. ‘He’s present,’ the person at the next table said helpfully, pointing to a towel draped neatly over the back of the chair. ‘He’s gone for tea, but will be back.’

We waited and waited, then returned the next day to get the same response, only this time, the towel was over the armrest and he had gone for an early lunch. More visits followed and it became a game for us to guess where the towel would be and where the owner would have gone. My friend wondered if the towel was an example of synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent a whole, or metonymy, where a word or a phrase is used to stand in for another word. I said I wasn’t sure about that, but it definitely meant the person was not in his seat.

One fine day, there was empty space in the place of the chair. Synecdoche? Metonymy? Whatever it is, the disappearance was downright frustrating.

(A fortnightly column by the city-based writer, academic and author of the Butterfingers series)

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