Tuesday, December 09, 2003


Woman on the train

It was the long, slow train from Karnataka to Bihar. When we got on, dawn
was still breaking, so the moment the attendant got our bedding, all of us made our
 beds and fell asleep. We were awoken by sibilant hissing. For a moment I 
wondered if a snake had crept into the A/C compartment. But no, it was the
 voice of the woman in the berth opposite mine.

It was a voice that was to haunt me, drive me to fascination and despair
 throughout the journey. It was a voice that went on and on, switching
tracks, tone and topics with alacrity, never once letting up. Even while
 meals were being served, the woman would fork some rice and dal into
her mouth, then launch into a fresh diatribe.

Yes, she did break for sleep at night but both the mornings I had the misfortune
 to travel alongside her, she was up by 6 am and had launched into another spiel.
Judging from the deafening silence that met her endless lectures, you would be
 forgiven in thinking she was talking to herself. But no, she was addressing her
 remarks to a hapless husband and a teenage daughter.

Initially, the daughter tried to say ‘Chup, Ma,’ but was given a shrill scolding
 for checking a parent. After which, the girl subsided, took out a magazine
 and later, some Math project. Of course, all of it was no shield against the
 battery of running commentary and I saw the books frequently being pulled
 aside so the woman could have the girl’s undivided attention.

The husband looked thoroughly cowed down. Initially, he did attempt
to tell his wife that most of the problems were of her own making and that
she just wouldn’t let past bygones be bygones. This was her cue to
attack him, telling him she was in this state because of his pusillanimity,
 his inability to protect her from her in-laws and suchlike. After a while,
 he too became a stupefied listener, as had become virtually the whole compartment.

By early evening on the fist day of our journey, my amazement at the
scene unfolding in the berth opposite had given way to irritation and
then, plain curiosity. Because the woman dropped several tantalising
references to some huge scene created in Bangalore the day before
they boarded the train. Apparently the police had been called in.
It was all Rani’s fault.

Then, there was mention of a court case against the man’s brothers,
 for property in Benaras. The woman offered her husband about
 fifty solutions to tackle the situation, including setting some goons
 (‘known to my bhayya’) on his people.

Then at some stage, she told her husband, ‘’I am this way because of
the terrible incident that happened twenty-five years ago.’’ By then, it wasn’t
 just me, all the passengers in the vicinity were agog. Alas, no details on
 that emerged.

And then, the family got off at Nagpur. As they got off, there was a chorus
 of voices from the compartment. ‘’Who is Rani?’’ ‘’Will you win the case?’’
 ‘’WHAT happened twenty-five years ago?’’

As the rain pulled away, my last glimpse of the woman was
 unforgettable: she was on the platform, her mouth open but struck
totally mute by the barrage of queries from inside the compartment!  
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