Invisible in the crowd

(Image Credits)

I missed writing it when I returned from home. The day before when I was to return, Ma asked me to cancel tickets of Shatabdi since I'd be accompanied by my elder brother till Chandigarh and from there I could board a bus and get to Delhi faster than the train. She said, why waste money when I am getting the convenience of half the journey.

Initially, I was hesitant. I don't know, but hopping means of transport without prior reservations is something that I am not entirely comfortable with. And then, I thought I can do it, and since I've often thought of journeying like this, stopping at stations and then going on like a hitchhiker, like some adventure, (and also to challenge my reluctance of being in new places abruptly, which I often allay by reassuring myself that I am educated enough to reach my destination, as long as they have sign boards in English or Hindi) I canceled the train booking. You know how these decisions are made? You are dithering between various options, ‘go’ and ‘no go’, trying to be as rational as possible, and then abruptly, you go like ‘what the heck, lets do this!’ and cut the red wire.

The next day, when we reached Chandigarh, I found that the queue of Delhi Volvo contenders was long enough to fit in two Volvos before I could get to the ticket counter. Midway, I got a demonstration of how road aggression works, that too without doing anything wrong other than driving properly, from my brother who decided to drive ‘bumper to bumper’ with the car ahead, to not let the guy who had just broken the next queue at the toll booth into our queue before us. The people in ISBT too, were standing in a similar ‘bumper to bumper’ stance. Everybody was returning from their Diwali vacations, the rush was obvious. I felt like an idiot to not have considered it beforehand; wasn't it the same reason why I had booked the return train tickets well in advance? So, the chances of getting a Volvo seat were quite bleak. I stood in line, nevertheless, vacillating in my mind between staying in that line or moving into the currently empty queue for the normal bus adjacent to the luxury counter. In between this contemplation, a person accosted me and introduced himself as someone from the nearby taxi stand and offered to take me to Delhi for 900 rupee. 900 rupee is almost double the cost from Chandigarh, but I thought that emergency times require expensive steps. Besides, 900 rupee was okay to me. My bus tickets would have cost around 550 bucks or so for a Volvo after such a long waiting time. So, at least I was getting the comfort of a car, I thought, and acquiesced. However, he needed 5 more people, and when he asked the people next to me, they refused, saying it was too much. It was. Meanwhile, some of them were busy calling taxi drivers from and were coming in with more competitive rates. 4500 for 6 guys, came in, we all agreed, then came 3500, the guys sealed it straightaway.

It is funny how people readily collaborated in their hour of need. All I had to do was to be there in between. So, we were 6 of us, and I managed to ask the name of one person, who seemed more like me, seclusive and not much communicative with strangers around. Ashish. It turned out that he was from Bilaspur, so we indeed had something more in common. We didn't have anything else to talk about for the rest of the journey except once, when others stopped the cab to buy beer. He was surprised that the three of the other people travelling with us knew each other. They were, I knew it because they were standing in front of me in the queue and talking among themselves.

Meanwhile, Ma had called in a lot of times, and she was kind of feeling miserable, for she thought that it was on her bidding that I had canceled the tickets. At times, I too gave into this temptation of letting her feel so, and responded in a dejected tone. I wasn't having things in order, but then, it occurred to me that it was an adventure of sorts. And I was headed to Delhi anyway. She was relieved when she heard that I was on my way, but, soon was back into being miserable since the Diwali traffic had more tricks up its sleeves.

The national highway was too crowded, thanks to the Diwali rush, and then flyover construction work between Ambala and Karnal and even 4 lanes could not accommodate this deluge. So, when she came to know that I was going to be late, she said that it was a mistake to cancel the tickets. It was. But was it?

The three of these people started talking, starting from Shiv Sena. The fourth one butted in his opinion about how he hated the Thackreys. He spoke with such indignation as if he had some personal grudge with the family. I found it amusing and was almost sure that this guy knew nothing of Maharashtra or the Thackreys more than what shouting they do on the TV and the kind of goonda activities their activists in other states are notorious for. For reasons that will unfold later, I shall refer to him as the ‘Broker’. Then, another one said that some party in Punjab, I think it was the Baadal’s, who were to Punjab what Shiv Sena is to Maharashtra, a pest (according to them). Talk then shifted to Punjab and its political past, and one of those three people tried to include the driver - who was a aged Sardaar - into their conversation. They asked about Bhindranwale, and one of these people whom they called Mamaji (by which name, I shall refer him for the rest of this narrative for he reminded me of Mama Shakuni), rejected him as a bad person (with a ‘mc’ slang). The driver said that he knew everything, and that this person, Jarnail Singh, was not a bad person at all. The only wrong thing he did was to stand against Indira Gandhi and Zail Singh, and was then cajoled into propagating the slogan of Khalistan. I found it very amusing how he asserted himself 'humko sab pata hai' (I know everything about it). He then told how he was in transport back then, and even during the Emergency, when it was curfew hours past six, his bus was never stopped at checkposts by the police. He said that they stopped everyone, but not him as if he were someone special to them, or perhaps too regular to be dangerous. He might be knowing something, he might not. But neither did the other people who weren’t even born when these events occurred, and absolutely not me, I know nothing of Punjab's history. But their talks made me feel sorry for not knowing Himachal's history.

The talks drifted to Gurdaas Maan, whom one lauded for being a humble person, who meets people every Saturday. And that his music was the best in Punjab. The Mamaji chimed in his wavering drunken voice (it sounded drunk even when he wasn't) and said how 'maamla gadbad hai' in which Maan appeared (I thought it was a song he had sung) in 80s is still his favorite and how it was a rage back then. The driver told how Maan was his classmate and even then he was a good singer, but a very shy guy.

Talks then shifted to movies, and how these people liked 'Bang bang' but did not like 'Haider'. Well, it was a first for me. So far, I had heard things quite opposite to it. They said that Haider was too slow and confusing. Then one of them said that it is based on Shakespeare's play, the other confirmed it is Hamlet. The first one wondered if Shakespeare really did write a story on Kashmir. I was laughing out loud in my head. The other one said, “no, but he must have written something dealing with patriotism and the nation”. They didn't know how old Shakespeare is. One guy said that Shakespeare's stories are very complex, not everyone can understand them. I knew the kind of intellectual level they had. 4 of them. Ashish was busy trying to sleep.

But then, I quickly realized that I was wrong. Books are not the only thing in this world and though I may not agree completely, but books are not indispensible. These people I was with, they knew a lot of Punjab's history, and movies, both Hindi and Punjabi, and actors, and dates, musician names, their art, and critique. There existed a social intelligence that these people carried. One of them was trying to engage the driver into good talk. He was in some kind of hotel business, or hotel industry, owned a car in Ghaziabad with its insurance overdue, and yet running on road. He said it was Ghaziabad, cars don’t follow rules there. The other one who had been cursing the Punjabi songs playing in the car - which he did not understand - while the driver was out at the filling station, later asked the driver if he had only Punjabi songs. When he got a no, he said that the songs were very nice, in a very approving way. No one could suspect that he had been foulmouthing those songs half an hour ago. He too had a car and its insurance is due in December but the agent had called him to remind of its renewal in October itself, while he was not planning to get insurance at all. This guy seemed like a double player to me, the ‘munh mein Ram, bagal mein chhoori’ type (Google tells me that ‘a honey tongue with a heart of gall’ is its English equivalent). And he had a beautiful face, and a good imperial moustache. Oh, and an orange shirt that said 'nice stache' in black. I knew he knew it and wore the shirt on purpose.

He was indeed a player, and hence I would refer to him as the ‘Gamer’. He seemed to be double timing. To one of his girls, he was sending and receiving voice chats on whatsapp, while with the other, he had been like, trying to floor her. Sitting in the back seat, I could read what he was writing and what she wrote back (If you find that this is invasion of privacy and want to stop, then I am okay with that). Our Gamer was being honest in one sense - he admitted to her that he was not the good guy she thought him to be. But call it foolishness, but the girl replied back that she knew it and he must also know she isn't good either. Maybe she too was being honest. At one point he writes, 'I'll make sure you fall in luv wid me', and then, in the very next line, after a pause of few seconds, writes 'dnt fall*'. Talk of sending mixed signals. This guy was its master. This, he managed to do while also talking to other two (Mamaji and the Hotel guy) and planning a trip to Kathmandu, instead of Thailand this December. The Broker was from Nainital, and when our Gamer came to know that, he said that people from Nainital are very good. He told how he had a girlfriend from Nainital, and she was very good. They had lots of fun (think whatever you want, I have nothing to comment). No one could hear what he spoke in those voice chats to the other girl, and what she said back. This guy is intelligent, I thought. The Broker said that Kathmandu is a nice place and somehow managed to correlate his being from Nainital to the knowledge of Kathmandu, which he had never visited, in such a way that he became their definitive reference for the streets of Kathmandu. He talked as if Kathmandu was just on the adjacent mountain top, stone throw distance from Nainital. I don't know, I've never been to Nainital either. But they inquired him about the kind of girls they'd find there, are only Nepali girls available? Or Indian too, and stuff. I had only recently learned at home that gambling is a favourite passtime of many Nepalis, and Kathmandu streets had lots of such, benches. He replied in an affirmative like a Broker (Dalaal, and hence the name), all sorts were available. This guy was overreaching to establish rapport, that is what I think. Nevertheless, the Gamer saved his number.

This Broker was also the one to claim that beer tasted best in Delhi, and the other three agreed to him unanimously. They thanked beer to make the cumbersome travel more bearable. Bearable? They were sitting in the effing front seats, all seats for themselves. The three of us, the strangers were in the back seat with me in the middle.

An important advantage of taking initiative in such situations is that the three got the comfortable seats. We all were paying the same amount of money, so why should anyone get an uncomfortable seat? There should have been seat rotation, but it wasn't discussed. This Bilaspur guy probably had it worst, in the left corner. The Mamaji in front of him just rolled his seat back and this guy was huddled into the space. The headrest too was more of an unwelcome addition. The guy on the right might also have had my sympathies, but then, he thanked beer, so no sympathies for someone to have a good time. While we stopped midway, Ashish offered me is seat. I didn't want it, but how do you say no? I made a mistake of getting in before him, and he climbed from the same door, that I had, while I was asking him to come from the other side. So I shuffled around a bit and then discovered that sitting over a seat belt stick was way better that with an uncomfortable headrest in the back. Plus my occupancy requirements were a little larger for I was taller. I should have used this ‘tall card’ in the beginning. My head was touching the ceiling on the back seat. I should have asked for the seats in the middle. But had that happened, I'd have missed the Whatsapp fun. You see, voyeuristic tendencies abound. Nevertheless, I made sure that Mamaji will have to sleep while sitting erect if he so desired. When he tried to push his seat back again, it didn't budge. My knees and the rest of my body were obstructing its movement while my heart was hula hooping with momentary triumph. He tried twice or thrice, then gave up. He slid down and sideways. On the next stop, I was back in the middle of the last seat.

When the driver pulled over for dinner, Mamaji asked him to leave dinner for they'd have dinner at home. The driver retorted that 'you might have dinner at home, but what I have of home is these restaurants, I've got to eat.' Quite a character, our driver was. But he said it quite clearly, and because I didn't feel like dining anymore, I chewed on what he had just said. That was quite an emotional statement, don't you think?

I had begun to suspect that I might not be able to catch even the last metro. We entered the borders of Delhi by 10:30, and the last metro leaves Kashmere gate at 11:15. If there would be traffic, I'd certainly miss it. I was planning to call Meru cabs or some other service, but then, the sense of adventure, or rather, the guilt of adventure took over - 'let's see what happens'. We reached Kashmere gate by 11:05 and after a few hasty and obligatory handshakes, I rushed across the overhang bridge towards the metro station through ISBT. From a distance, I saw people retreating from the place that used to have one of the exits from ISBT. 11 at night, it had been shut down. So, I changed direction, to find another way (I didn’t know if there was one). There was one, climb the stairs to the higher floor, and get out. I rushed. Thanks to the metro card, I didn't have to stand in line which was still long considering the time of the day, or rather night. The X Ray machine was out of order, so I had to open the suitcase I was carrying, apples, and clothes. The guards knew that it was closing time and were a little lax, asking people to hurry and catch the last train home. (I know, that is the song I had on my mind back then, ‘last train home’ by Lost Prophets). Anyhow, I rushed and made it with Metro's ETA of 3 minutes.

It is amazing how even the last metro was crowded. In normal times, I'd have let the train pass for the next one, but then, it was the last train. I don't know why, but people huddle around the gates. An elderly person asked me where was I headed. When I told him about it, he said, that is far, and that I should get a seat. I was like, 'why not, look at all these empty seats, if I can get these people to vacate it.' The other gate was feeling secluded, so I offered it some company. There was room for two, I and my Aristocrat occupied it. I finally reached my Delhi home at 12:15, when I called my mother, and she was still feeling quite guilty.

I started out at 10 in the morning, while the other times, I start at 10:30. I most certainly reach by 10:30 when traveling by train, and today I reached by 12. If I travel by bus, I start by 7:30 and reach by 6. In any case, my entire day is wasted anyhow, so I prefer the freedom of movement and the availability of a toilet in the train to the tiredness and soreness in my bums and legs and the need to drink less water to not want to pee as a result. But then look again, I did have an adventure of sorts. I met people living an entirely different life, a totally different angle. Funny thing to note is, which is also the observation I made in the cab, I was almost invisible to the group. I didn't offer any opinion, nor anyone inquired about me. I was comfortable in listening to their ways and methods. For them, I was a necessary burden, for I paid 600 rupee, making them profitable by at least a hundred bucks, so you could say that their beer was on me. For me, they are now, just 6 characters that fit in a temporary, makeshift story.

P.S. Here's the song, if you want to listen to it :)