What I Learnt

I was traveling from what was then known as Calcutta to what is still known as Secunderabad on the slow train. The train was called East Coast Express, but in those days Indian express trains were still slow. This was more than twenty five years ago. R was on an official trip to Calcutta, and having visited him briefly with a whirlwind tour of the city thrown in, I was put on the train to rejoin my children who were in Secunderabad with my parents during their summer vacation.

It was hot weather and the vast Howrah station was crowded and noisy with traveling families who had excited children and heavy bags in tow. I got into my cattle class – the second class sleeper to the uninitiated – as the AC sleeper class was neither too prevalent nor affordable at that time. Maybe it was even non-existent then. I had a window seat but R kept my suitcases under the seat opposite though I thought it would be better to keep them under my seat, foreseeing objections from the occupant who had not yet arrived. But R in his usual way brushed aside my feeble objections and did what he does best – have his way. Expectedly two women got in and began to fight with us for having kept our boxes under their seat though R said the space beneath my seat was empty and they were welcome to it. As inducement he even said this would help them to keep an eye on their belongings. But they refused to listen to his voice of reason and claimed their space which they felt belonged to them. We were sitting in an unfriendly silence when a middle-aged man entered with a porter carrying large boxes. He asked the porter to move out the boxes belonging to the women because they were occupying the space under the third seat which apparently was to be occupied by a member of his family. The women were unwilling to give up though they might be thought to be the interlopers now but the newcomer was loud and rather obnoxious and won his point by brute force, leaving them to scramble to find a new place for their box. Let us say I was petty enough to snigger inwardly but maintained my calm and watched the goings-on. A few minutes later the man’s wife and teenaged daughter got into the compartment and hurriedly said their goodbyes to him as he got off and the train was on its unhurried way to Hyderabad. The latest women to board, who looked prosperous and well-cared for, turned to the rest of us, and smiled and asked, in the time-honored manner of travelers, if we were all going to Hyderabad, only to be greeted by stony looks. Even those of us who had not been in the direct line of fire of the uncouth and unpleasant person, now absent, were simmering in the angry aftermath of such behavior.

Instantly, the mother turned to her daughter and asked, “Did Papa say something?” and the daughter replied, “I am sure he must have”. How I wish the father and husband had been present to hear that! A telling commentary indeed. Then the mother began to apologize for her husband’s behavior and she was so pleasant that everyone effectively forgave her for his boorishness, after which the journey was very pleasant and companionable. The thirty six hours passed without a moment of boredom with everyone sharing food and conversation. Did I say that it was a women’s compartment? It was, and though diverse, the group chattered away happily, discussing family matters and public affairs alike without reservation. Seeing that I had brought no food with me and in the absence of anything being available on the train, the other passengers were concerned and offered to share what they had brought, but I wriggled out of that by claiming to be fasting. But a Bengali girl traveling alone would have none of that and persuaded me to eat some Sandesh at least. My reluctance to eat strange food on trains is a tale to be told on another day.

The Bengali girl came home with me at the end of the journey, which is another story. She was in her late twenties, and seemed an ingenue. On her way to an interview for a teacher’s job in Hyderabad, she was banking on finding dormitory accommodation in the railway station which I knew would be quite impossible. Her only alternative was to stay in a cheap lodge outside the the station, which made me fearful for her safety. She was naive and did not seem to realize the dangers facing her in a strange city late at night in the seedy area around the railway station. She had never been outside Bengal I think, or even outside Calcutta. In all conscience I could not leave her to it and walk away, so she came home with me trustingly that night. I was appalled that she was innocent enough even to trust me, a stranger. She spent the next two days in our house and I learnt that she and her widowed mother had been abandoned to their own devices by her married elder brother, and were both living in genteel poverty on her small salary as a teacher. I still worry about her, truth to tell, and can only hope that somehow things went right for her later.

S, who was only six at the time, happily came running out to greet me, and ran back in just as quickly, shocked that a strange woman got out of the auto-rickshaw instead of me. He was too shocked to look inside the rickshaw as I waited to get out.

To go back to the title, what I learnt on that journey was that rudeness can poison the well of relationships and I vowed that I would never be rude to anyone. It is all right to argue, even fight, because then you are both on equal terms, but when you are rude, you are belittling a person, who will have no answer.