One can feel the wind warming up as the train cuts across the plains of Gujarat and forests of Dang to the salt pans and hillocks of Konkan. It was somewhere midway between both, where the view through the window becomes a visual boredom that Dhaman felt the need to open a book.
You see, travel and books are inseparable. Books make you want to travel and explore; and travel pulls you closer to books for its wisdom and knowledge. While the ever-changing landscapes and lack of repetition and familiarity in travel might be imposing, reading during travel provides a sense of continuity through its characters and groundedness through its story. Dhaman was silently purging through his new book, found in the rusty old streets of Dariyaganj in Chandni Chowk.
It was when the muscles inside his stomach started to growl that he realised he hadn’t eaten anything since last night. While he was waiting for some vendor to pass by, three clean shaven men with trimmed hair and dull green bottoms came in the compartment to occupy free seats. Their looks were distinctively army-like and their camouflaged backpacks and sleeping bags would further make it obvious. When a train hawker did arrive finally, they all ordered for the last pieces of idli left with him.
* * *
The fight last night was vivid and sadistically comical.Dhaman was lying on the upper berth, browsing the initial few pages of the book in the light from the neighbouring compartment. Just below him came a flash of a hand and on a beardy cheek it was landed.
Books make you want to travel and explore; and travel pulls you closer to books for its wisdom and knowledge
A fight broke out with loud shouting and distinct slaps on the face and the compartment in no time woke to this entertainment. Our villain misbehaved with a girl, touching her inappropriately and our hero, the girl’s brother, was seeking vengeance.
It took time for every uninvolved witness to comprehend, but soon it was clear that the warring camps were both from the hero’s fold. One group was seeking righteousness by further having a piece of the villain, while the other was asking for calm, but in a way that will wake those in the next compartment up. Our responsible, disciplined army-men then stepped into (though rather late) calm the proceedings and settle the dispute. But being outsiders they were booed away by worried aunties who jumped in to the battle to protect their children who were hurling graphic abuses.
* * *
‘You should drink water after eating,’ the oldest among three suggested to Dhaman and even pulled a bottle from the junior and offered it to him. Dhaman could not think of anything and silently took a sip from it. He even dropped his plan to wash his hands and settled by cleaning with the plate itself. He was convinced that something unexpected is going to happen.
‘So what is your caste?’ the oldest asked in a south Indian Hindi accent.
Embarrassed as to what made this man ask his caste, he slyly replied that they wouldn’t know the name, but said that their profession was agriculture.
‘What,’ Dhaman shouted, but only in his mind.
‘Can a Muslim not be a farmer?’ again inside.
‘Wait, don’t Muslims have caste? NO!’ again there.
‘Do I look like a Muslim? My beard!’still inside.
‘No. But why?’now aloud.
‘See even those who are not Muslims read such books,’ the oldest instructed the other. ‘It was you who said he was a Musalman right?’Imran Khan Pakistan was the book in Dhaman’s hands and it said it all.
‘Not me Sir’, said the other guiltily, taking the blame of his senior.
He then turned to Dhaman and asked politely, ‘then why are you reading this book?’
Though enraged inside he calmly said, ‘just wanted to know about Imran Khan and do a quick history lesson on Pakistan.’
‘Good. You should try for services then,’ referring to civil services. ‘Study well in Bangalore or Delhi and get into IAS’he suggested with an innocent fatherly tone.
He could not take it anymore and quickly said, ‘Sure. I am actually thinking of doing that. Thanks a lot!’and jumped back in to his book. He did not want to further embarrass the soldiers in his eyes, whom he had utmost respect for. After being left mid-way they scrambled to find a way out, which they eventually did by leaving to charge their mobile phones.
The anger inside him, quickly found its solace in the military generals and self-serving politicians of our disturbed neighbour. He did not care to see the strangers now occupying the left out seats.
Two women with their heads covered, in bright yellow sarees with red embroidery all across sat on the side lower berths. One of them had a child in her arms and was swinging her up and down, while the other was looking at the now clear Konkan mountains and coconut trees through the window. Looking at the men sitting beside Dhaman, you might think that they would mostly be from UP. But the women would make you settle at Rajasthan. For Dhaman it was simply, completely out of place.
Dhaman felt home, looking at the local trains buzzing besides the express. It just crossed Virar and the guy opposite him started jumping on his seat. He was definitely the youngest among them, but seemed too old for the kind of excitement he had by discovering locals. ‘Look, Look,’ he shouted to the women probably his sisters and the middle aged man beside Dhaman who looked like his uncle.
Dhaman could not contain his happiness at someone delighted at seeing the crowds hanging loose on the doors. ‘Soo .. many people …,’ the young guy continued.
He asked the uncle if it’s their first time to Mumbai to which he replied yes in a distinct Rajasthani accent. ‘We have come here for sight-seeing.’ He pulled his legs up on the seat with knees facing upwards and continued, ‘We are a big group of 30 people and are here for a week.’
Dhaman introduced himself as an engineering student in Mumbai, but originally from a city near Hyderabad. He informed them that as a part of his travel he was in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer for the last 3 days.The uncle pulled out his Nokia Xpress Music and asked ‘Have you ever met Amitabh or Shahrukh?’
‘Where exactly are you from?’
He looked to the side as though he was pointing his fingers to those sitting in the other compartment,‘Everyone is from Jodhpur, but we are not from there
More than satisfied with Dhaman’s embarrassed nodding of head he said, ‘Not an issue. Not an issue at all. See,’ he said showing some images in his phone, ‘I met Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi,’ in what looked like an Airport. He pointed to a man in checked shirt, far behind the crowd surrounding the stars, standing on his heels in an attempt to glance at the stars. ‘This photo was taken by my brother,’ he said proudly.
‘This is amazing. Wonderful!’ Dhaman replied.
‘So, what do you do?’ he asked with a new found interest in his neighbour.
‘Me? I work in a factory,’ the uncle replied laying bare his rough hands.
‘Where exactly are you from?’
He looked to the side as though he was pointing his fingers to those sitting in the other compartment,‘Everyone is from Jodhpur, but we are not from there.’
‘Oh. Then where are you from?’
‘No. We are not from here,’ he again repeated.
Confused, Dhaman changed the topic and spoke about places they could visit in Mumbai and asked about their plans for stay and touring. They shared a couple of personal experiences about Bombay and the uncle even told about the women whom he has a crush on and that she was uncomfortable with him being there.
This explains her almost child-like interest in the view outside the window. ‘Not an issue at all. I will still sit here,’ he justified. Though Dhaman could not understand why the uncle kept mentioning that he was not from here, but never said anything about where he was from, he soon forgot about it. He later got back to his book.
The uncle inched closed and nudged Dhaman. He pointed his finger to the top of the page Dhaman was reading, ‘What is this?’he asked.
‘What is he asking? Can he not read? May be he doesn’t understand English.’Dhaman thought.
‘Pakistan?’ he said quizzically.
‘Since you are very good and kind, I am telling this to you. Please do not tell this to anyone or else we all will be in trouble,’the uncle said in a calm, serious tone.
‘Do not worry. I have no one to tell,’ assuring.
‘We are from Pakistan and I work in Hyderabad over there.’
Dhaman did not know what to respond or even what to think. Should he ask how they are here? Or rather why they are here? Should he ask their religion? Should he wonder about the sinister plot he was pulled into?
Before he could proceed, the three army men came back to occupy their seats.