Cell PhonesThat cheerful March morning, boarding Utkal express, Bunu (my wife) and I found ourselves in a very dark and lifeless compartment. Behind drawn curtains, it seemed to be almost deserted. Yet there were used bedrolls lying on nearly every berth. It was quite eerie, as if all the passengers had in a rush of panic, suddenly deserted the compartment. I felt alarmed, thinking of the long journey without the company of co-passengers, whom, of course, I generally wished to remain out of my way.

Reaching our berths, I felt a little relieved to find an unkempt man on the lower berth opposite ours, who was in the process of waking up. In his late thirties, he was corpulent beyond what most well off young people of his age tend to be now a days. He wore a pair of very soiled shorts, and a half-sleeve shirt, which with its synthetic material and inadequate girth, obviously made him very hot. An oily sheen of dried up perspiration glowed on his face. His clothes were rumpled, as it happens with portly people who wriggle and fidget too much in their sleep. He smiled at us and spoke a few words, with a gesture that appeared halfway between a greeting and an apology for the surrounding mess, without seeming to accept or deny any responsibility. I nodded, and shoving our small suitcase under our berth, and keeping the backpack overhead, sat down. Bunu went over to sit by the window.

Righting himself, he sat up and kick-started a conversation, asking on the expected lines, ‘So, you live in Jamshedpur?’, and then revving to warm-up with, ‘Then you must know so_and_so?’ ‘No? Well, how about so_and_so?’

Soon, notwithstanding the shave and wash that he so urgently needed, and probably a breakfast, he had tacitly undertaken to keep the conversation going. He seemed quite comfortable with putting off such corporeal distractions. We did not mind, considering that he would soon get down somewhere.

He went on to introduce himself as Mr. Sarangi, an entrepreneur, and the owner cum managing director of some IT firm in Mumbai, with branches in a few major cities of India. He also had various other business interests in Bhubaneswar, Puri, Sambalpur and Rourkela. Some of them were schools, which drew Bunu to join the conversation. In fact, he said, he was going to Rourkela for a school function. He informed that he was quite familiar with Jamshedpur and its ‘Who’s Who’ circles. When given a chance, I was able to contribute modestly by telling him that I had retired from service, and Bunu taught biology at a high school. He responded warmly to madam’s métier, and very enthusiastically said that all this opened excellent opportunities for some business collaboration. He talked on the emerging business opportunities, some particularly suitable for our impoverished Jharkhand state. One of those was going to be marketing farm products. Wondering how I could fit in the logistics of marketing farm products that also might involve some pisciculture, I returned his benevolent grin with equally accommodating smile.

For a change, Bunu, who generally treats my conversation with strangers with feigned disinterest, conspicuously began to be drawn to the conversation. One reason was that, among the various affairs that our companion mentioned he ran, there were schools, and Bunu sniffed into that wind to chase some promising interest. The other, of course, was that the stream of talking relieved the dreariness of the empty and shabby compartment.

The scenery was beginning to distract, with the dry rocky landscape of Jamshedpur changing into lush green forestry of Odisha, with occasional rivers of ochre banks, pristine cream-white sand beds and seal like rocks, around which thin serpentine water streams snaked with indolent lassitude. I got up from time to time to take pictures. When I returned to my seat, he picked up the conversation, as if no interruption had taken place. By this time, his business enterprises had expanded beyond imagination. The two cell phones he was carrying had begun to ring. Apparently, devoted subordinates, keen to demonstrate the laudable habit of starting work before breakfast, were calling up for first-hour consultation. Initially he responded earnestly, with important sounding instructions. Obviously, his organizations depended very much on his minute control. But, in a short while he started looking at the cell phones when they rang, and letting them ring. I presumed they were the second rung subordinates who wanted to crosscheck with him what the first rung subordinates had conveyed to them after calling the boss. Now, putting aside his business interests, he began to tell about his family, his undemanding wife and two adorable children, who were very good at studies, very intelligent, and very independent. He did not insist that they follow in their father’s footsteps, he clarified. Evidently, the children took his advice seriously, because no call came from them.

Three hours to the dot, the train entered Rourkela station. He got up, and at once one person appeared from an adjoining cubicle to carry his bag. Mr. Sarangi put on his shoes without the formality of socks, and collecting his cell phones, stood up. Taking out his visiting card, he handed us one each as a parting gift. Then he took leave saying that he would be returning to Jamshedpur the same afternoon, to attend some meeting, after which he would travel to Calcutta to catch a flight to Mumbai. I could almost close my eyes and see the blazing trail of his itinerary.

After Mr. Sarangi departed, we found the quietness of the train not so depressing. Some passengers had boarded at Rourkela, and life was beginning to murmur, at far away berths down the aisle, subdued by the terrible racket the old bogie made. A tall boy, who had descended from the upper berth opposite ours, when we had boarded the train, came back to roost there, with headphones of his mobile plugged into his ears. The large lad soon went to sleep, heavily laden by his own body weight.

At Raigarh, two thin men boarded and occupied the berth opposite ours. One appeared to be in his late thirties, and the other, in his early twenties. The one looked relaxed, while the other was quite shy and diffident. Between them, in spite of their restrained body language, I perceived an apparent kinship that I could not immediately put my finger to. The senior man pushed his luggage – a bulging duffel bag and a red shopping bag – under the seat. The junior man sat at the aisle end of the berth on its edge, keeping his duffel bag near his feet. When the TTE (travelling ticket examiner) came, senior produced his printed ticket, and the TTE tallied it against his passenger list. Then motioning junior to produce his ticket, senior hurriedly told the TTE in a low tone that junior was on the RAC (reservation against cancellation) waiting list, and so, he must be allotted a berth. The TTE examined the small piece of paper junior had produced, and observed that the ticket had been bought against student concession! This perplexed me to wonder whether that made the ticket a smaller piece of paper, and, thus, junior ineligible for a berth. However, saying he would see about the berth, the TTE moved on.

The two men sat in silence. I observed that the two had the same thin and long facial bone structure. Junior had a very narrow face, which with a trickle of a French beard made him look very unreal, like a grotesque mannequin that had had its head flattened between the two ears. He wore a vivid red shirt of very tight fit, with a pair of narrow jeans that begged to be allowed to slide down the thin frame of his body. Senior, who bore a striking similarity of facial features with junior, had a severely dry visage, with skin darkened by age, a small but sharp nose, and thin lips, the two joined by a deep philtrum. Instead of all this making up a grim face, because of his dark eyes with long eyelashes, senior actually looked quite soft and relaxed. When the attendant came around with fresh bedrolls, senior took one set, spread the sheet on the berth, and sat down drawing up his feet. Junior, who more and more looked rather like a teenager, sat with his head turned, staring vacuously into the aisle where the TTE had disappeared. Senior broke the silence. Taking out a thick wad of notes, he peeled off a few for junior, and asked him to go and check with the TTE, and then go and sit with his cousins in the other compartment, if he liked.

After junior had left, pushing his bag under the seat, I asked senior if there was a problem. He told me that junior did not have a reservation, having bought his ticket too late. I did not understand why they had bought their tickets separately. Obviously, I was missing something that I could not be probe.

At noon, a young man boarded and occupied the side berth near ours. Almost, immediately he took out his cell phone and started an earnest conversation with someone, speaking with the intimate tone, and tenderness of address reserved for one’s wife. He spoke quite loudly, and I could follow his subject. It concerned a girl he kept referring to, merely as ‘woh’ (her), without ever calling her by name. Apparently, she had run away due to some situation no fault of hers, leaving her child behind with the woman my neighbour spoke to. Therefore, he begged and pleaded that while her running away was inexcusable, the girl needed to be treated with empathy. After a lengthy call, he hung up for a moment, then made another call, and began to submit his arguments again. It seemed to me that probably the listener of his near monologue was not a part of either of the scenes – the one from which the girl had disappeared, and the one in which she had reappeared – but he or she was in a position to influence what now happened to the girl. As a party wielding the power to influence the climax of the unfolding drama, without being affected by it, the listener let my neighbor go on without pause. I kept mulling over the scene of this invisible drama, until I noticed that my neighbour had hung up. Immediately, he was calling again, repeating himself with more or less the same plea. He obviously feared some mishap was about to befall the girl, and was in a hurry to prevent it by roping in as many saviors as possible. In fact, one of them seemed to be a woman, from the inflection of verbs my neighbour used with respect to her. After some time, this loud and incessant one-sided plea of commiseration, with the repetition of the words, and the urgency in the tone, became unbearable and started disturbing me. Invoking my faith that nothing is permanent in life, I began to pray for the caller to stop,

Meanwhile junior had returned to report that the TTE had temporarily given him berth number twelve, but he had preferred to sit with his cousins. Senior told him, he should still keep following up with the TTE so that he could get a proper berth before nightfall. I perceived that junior was applying feeble and futile pressure on senior to precipitate the berth allotment, but senior was reversing the pressure back to him. Just then, the TTE came and sat nearby to work on his list. Senior approached him, and dropped some name. The TTE said that immediately he could not find any vacant berth. Junior then asked senior to speak to ‘Tauji’ (father’s elder brother). Senior took out his cell phone and made a call, surprising me a little that he had not used the phone much since he had boarded. He explained that ‘Mannu’ (that apparently was the name of junior) was travelling with him, and was waitlisted. Senior asked him to speak to the TTE. Satisfied, Junior returned to where he had come from.

Late in the afternoon, senior opened his red bag and took out some neatly packed food. Then he called up junior to come down for lunch. The two ate silently, with the senior asking the junior once to have some more. I felt they were not just quiet but tense, and put it to junior not having reservation. It was at that quiet moment that I realized that my other neighbour, pleading on behalf of the runaway mother, had become silent. It did not take long to find the reason. Parting the modesty curtains of our cubicle, he peeped in and asked apologetically, “Does anyone have a Nokia charger? My cell phone battery has got discharged, and I don’t have my charger.” We all shook our heads without speaking a word. I felt relieved by such reaffirmation of my faith in the transience of life’s most trying situations.

After lunch, junior asked senior to call up Tauji (father’s elder brother) again. I was still not clear how the two related, and my guess was that they were cousins. Senior called up someone, and after exchange of some pleasantries, explained the situation with junior. Senior asked him to intervene and speak to the TTE for a berth. Something obviously happened. A little later, the TTE reappeared at his favourite perch, the side-berth in the next cubicle, and beckoned junior. I could see money changing hands, and the TTE making notes in his passenger list. The matter thus settled, senior made a call to tell someone, “Yes, Mannu has got a berth. We paid Rs 1600. The fare was Rs 1350. That should take care of everything.”

Junior took his bag and left. He did not reappear until after dark. He then informed that he had stayed at his berth. The two sat side-by-side, remaining silent; until senior said, it was time to eat dinner. Again, the same food packets came out, they ate in silence, and then junior went back to his berth.

Next morning I woke up early and Bunu stirred awake almost simultaneously. Soon the train stopped at Jhansi. We went out on the platform. The sun was rising and spreading the promise of a bright day. I ran up the over bridge stairs to take pictures. When we returned to the compartment, our neighbour still slept. He slept until late. He got up, when junior came down, to make room for junior to sit. We smiled at each other. We were getting used to each other.

As the morning wore on, we gradually started talking. I recall Bunu, having read something in junior’s boyish mien, broke the ice by asking him what he did. Very shyly, he replied that he went to college to study commerce. Thereafter, between bouts of staring out of the window, and going over to the door to take pictures when the scenery attracted me, in small steps I learned about them. Senior ran a ‘Mithai Dukan’ (sweetmeat shop) at Raigarh, which was a business of several generations. Famous for its Samosa (a three-cornered deep fried potato filled crisp), the business did rather well (making me recall the thick wad of notes senior had taken out). He invited me to come to Raigarh and check out by asking anyone for the Samosa shop. I told him I used to pass Raigarh when studying in South, at which time Raigarh was a small place. He said the place had changed since then, and now even had a few malls. At the mention of malls, junior became alive and started to rattle the names of the malls. I asked senior why he was going to Delhi. He said he was not going just up to Delhi, but beyond, to some village in Haryana. At this point junior got up and went away.

After junior had left, senior said, gesturing toward where junior had sat, “Yeh mera beta hai (This is my son).” Suddenly, in a lightning flash I felt how I had failed to perceive the connection between them, due to some palpable awkward distance between them, the reason for which became partly clear in what senior said next. He had planned to travel alone, he said, and Junior had tagged himself along at the very last minute. That is why he did not have a reservation.

‘Well, he did not probably have a proper ticket too,’ I thought, ‘or at least, a ticket for the full journey!’

Meanwhile, a crisis was developing with another passenger nearby. He was calling up people to tell them that his sister, who was alone at home, had rung up to inform him that the electricity people had called at the house to disconnect the power supply. She did not know how to deal with them. Would someone please go help her? One of those called probably wanted to know some names. Our caller informed him that there was one Rakesh among the electricity people. How this name came to his knowledge, and why it mattered, puzzled me. Nevertheless, the crisis was grave for my co-passenger, and obviously, every bit of information helped.

The train was running late. Junior came back, timing himself well to just avoid the embarrassing discussions regarding him that he had anticipated. He asked his father what they should do if the train became too late. I learned that upon reaching Delhi, they had to go to the ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminus) to catch a bus. The last one left around 4 PM, reaching their village in Haryana around 7 PM, after which the place became deserted, and no one stirred out of home. Senior feared that the train would reach Delhi past 3 PM, and in the heavy traffic of that time, he would require at least an hour to reach ISBT. I tried to cheer him up by saying that they would certainly get the bus. Senior said, otherwise, they had people in Delhi with whom spending a night would not be a problem. But, that might affect them later on. He made certain calls to check with his people. Then he said his son was going to this place after several years, though as a child he used to go often. I came to understand that the Haryana village was a place where father and son would congregate with people coming from other places. Their ultimate destination remained unstated. Was it some pilgrimage senior made every year?

My other perplexing curiosity remained – why had senior planned to come alone.

I do not know if father and son made it to the ISBT in time, since the train reached Delhi at 3:15 PM. We let them disembark before us, and lost sight of them soon.

The next few days at Delhi were busy and I all but forgot about them until something happened during our return journey, and Bunu reminded me about them.

For our return journey, we had two side-berths close to the door. I dreaded traveling like that, being knocked by the continuous stream of passengers passing by us. Boarding the train just before bedtime, I found one more cause for dissatisfaction. The lower berth made by lowering the backrests of two side-seats, which did not meet at the same level, made an uneven bed. I asked the TTE to see if he could give us alternate berths. Bunu was more accommodating, and tried to cheer me up, saying, let us look at Delhi at night. This gave me no relief, and an hour into the journey, before turning in I sought the TTE. By that time, he had finished tallying the passengers. He said he could give us berths 19 and 20. I told him to mark the new seat numbers on my ticket, but he just revised his passenger list. We moved and went to sleep, feeling lucky.

Next morning, I got up early after a good sleep. It was close to the time of arriving at Allahabad, where my co-father-in-law was coming to meet us. I immediately woke up Bunu, but the train reached late by more than two hours, keeping the poor man waiting. We got down, waited for him and finally saw him coming rushing. We exchanged greetings, and he apologized saying that the train’s platform had been changed at the last minute. Then, like old people who have little to say, we talked desultorily about our children and few other things. He was tired from waiting, and the people getting in and out of our compartment were distracting me. I went over to our window, and found two men had occupied our berth. I signaled across the glass that the berth was mine. Still, when we reentered the train I found them sitting on our bed. I asked them to leave, but they insisted that the TTE had allotted the seats to them. I called the TTE. He, different from the previous night’s TTE, asked me what my berth numbers were. I told him that I had got them changed the previous night, but he refused to believe me. I asked him for the passenger list, and showed the notes made by the previous TTE. He then asked the two men to come with him. Within his earshot, the passenger on the lower side-berth remarked, speaking loudly, “They know everything, and still harass genuine passengers.” This caught my attention, and I nodded gratefully, happy to have sympathy.

He told me he too was going to Jamshedpur. He was a small man, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. His companion, who came down from the upper berth some time later was tall and heavy. They ordered breakfast and then sat chatting on this and that. As they freely interjected their dialogue with abusive words in a manner peculiar to the city’s working class, I had no doubt both were from Jamshedpur. But, these two men – apparently related, because they talked of people they knew – speaking with equal facility in Hindi and English, and discussing topics that were not mundane, seemed to be educated.

Bunu started to read. The day was bright. We were passing cultivated fields checkered with the myriad hues of spring, from a spectrum ranging from the bright green of young crop to the ripe golden brown harvest, dotted with trees bedecked with new leaves shimmering in the sun-soaked warm breeze. I kept going to the door to take pictures. Once when I returned to my seat, Bunu told me that the short fellow had started playing music on his cell phone, and she had had to ask him to lower the sound. Right then Shorty was silent. His companion had gone up to his berth. The lazy afternoon passed peaceably, with Shorty playing music occasionally at low volume. The two had lunch together and followed it with siesta.

By late afternoon, the train had become late by almost four hours, and was likely to reach Jamshedpur close to midnight. This made Shorty very disturbed, and as the evening progressed, he started listening to music, making it louder and louder, and switching it off and on too often. Then he started calling up people. First, he called his son, and then his wife, several times, to tell them about his probable time of arrival. He began to talk excitedly to his companion, and the talk soon veered from the people they knew to Shorty himself. In a lugubrious, repentant tone, he started telling his companion, whom he called ‘bhaiya’ (elder brother) about his humble life without any challenge. Slowly, over a long time, I gathered that he was a chef of some sort, though probably without formal training. For long, he had not had a proper job, and had been working as an odd job cook. Then he came across someone who had purchased an old hotel at Ghatshila, a place 30 odd miles from Jamshedpur, thronged by tourists in winter. The owner gave him the job of a cook at the hotel, which he still has, now for several years. He started taking interest in other aspects of the hotel, revived it, and made it successful. Then the owner purchased some resorts, close by, and gave Shorty their charge. He had been able to turn each into good business. But, while his role had expanded, his career had not progressed much. He had remained too complacent with what he made, and had never asked for a raise, though enjoying complete trust and respect of the owner. It had made his wife unhappy. So, after many years he had finally thought of changing his job. He had responded to an ad for a chef in Delhi, and gone for an interview. He did not know if he had performed well. But he was desperate for a change.

Bhaiya listened to all this with patience, asking simple questions from time to time, to let Shorty open up. When dinner came, Shorty tapered off. After dinner, leaving him to his gloomy brooding, Bhaiya went up to catch some sleep. With a few hours to kill, Bunu and I too lay down. I could not sleep, though. Shorty started fiddling with his cell phone. Music did not lift his gloom. He called his son to tell him to go to bed. Following that, he called his wife to ask her to put their son to sleep. Then he called her to ask her to have dinner. I noticed that he spoke to his wife bossily, in bad English. Shortly, he called her to know if she had eaten dinner. He became excited upon hearing what she said, and asked her, “Why are you crying?” I could faintly hear his wife. Though I could not make out what she said, her tone sounded normal and even merry. Shorty got more and more agitated, and repeatedly asked the same question. I could not understand by ‘crying’ whether he meant shouting or sobbing. Dissatisfied with her reply, he went back to asking what she had eaten. It was eggs. He asked what else she had eaten. He was becoming more and more shrill, and speaking terrible English. Then he started scolding her, and finally he hung up.

I must have dozed off. I woke up to excited activity, and saw that it was past eleven-thirty. Bunu was up and asking me to climb down and pack up. There was not much to pack. Peering out of the window, I saw we were passing the industries at Kandra, and were certainly a good half-hour away from Jamshedpur. But, Bhaiya had already put on his shoes and taken out his bag from under the seat. Both were again calling up people. Shorty called someone to come with his motorbike, and wait for him at the place where he had dropped Shorty going to Delhi.

Reluctantly, I packed up a few loose things and put on my shoes. It took another twenty minutes before we started approaching Jamshedpur and its lights were upon us. By then Shorty and Bhaiya had moved to the door. I noticed then that Bhaiya had one bag but Shorty was without any luggage. I wondered how he could have managed with just the set of clothes he wore. Or, had he lost his luggage? There had been no talk of any such incident! Shorty was again calling his wife telling her to expect him in a few more minutes. Then he called the person he had asked to bring his motorbike. Bhaiya had already opened the left side door. Unsure which side the platform would be, we stood between the two doors.

Finally, looking out, Bhaiya said the platform was on the right side. I allowed the two to reach the right side door. Then in a flash, something happened for which I was not prepared. The train was still moving with good speed. We had just passed the start of the platform with the station’s name board. Shorty, who stood at the door with Bhaiya behind him, probably saw something passing swiftly, and following it, swung his head toward the rear-end of the train. At once, he leapt out, and hit the platform face down and all sprawled, with a thud I could almost hear. Bunu saw him too, and shrieked in horror. Before we could see more, the scene had swiftly passed. Bhaiya, slowly turning to us, said in the most nonchalant tone, “He had jumped in the wrong direction.”

The train slowly came to a stop a few hundred yards later. Bhaiya got down and we followed. Pushing through the melee of passengers, I lost sight of him moving unhurriedly, betraying no emotion about what had just happened to his friend. On our way out, we walked down to the end of the platform, where Shorty had fallen. There was no sign of him, just the usual crowd of passengers. Bunu said, “You know, these people, who talk too much on the cell phone …”, and then fell behind me before finishing the sentence.

We reached the car parking, walking in silence, still deeply shocked by the incident. After I had dusted the car, we started for home. Leaving the station, I remembered her last words, and asked Bunu, “You were saying something then, about the people who talk too much on the cell phone.”
Recalling, Bunu said, “Yes. Have you noticed how such people are invariably disturbed about something?”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
Bunu said, “Did you see how the man who jumped, was disturbed? There was something between him and his wife. Did you hear all that he was saying to her on the phone?”
I said, yes I had noticed his agitation. However, that had not prepared me for what he did finally, nor did it explain why he did that. Was he too eager to reach home as soon as possible, and had jumped, seeing the man who was to come to take him home?

After a pause, Bunu said, “Similarly, you remember the father and son going to Delhi with us?”
I asked, “What about them?”

Bunu then narrated this. It had happened just before we reached Delhi. I had gone to take pictures from the door of our compartment. She had stretched herself to catch some rest, closing her eyes. Probably thinking her to be asleep, in a very soft and affectionate tone that she had not heard him use before, the father had asked his son “Is your mother going to attend the marriage?” Son had confirmed.
Father – “Who is she going with?”
Son – “With Taai (father’s elder brother’s wife).”
Father – “Are you going with her?”
Son – “Yes, I think so.”
Father had remained silent for a long time, and then asked his son to take good care of his mother.

I asked Bunu, “So? What did you make of that?”
Bunu said, “I don’t know … but I had a distinct feeling that the father is separated from his family. Probably his son is in touch with him. That would explain his joining his father for the trip.”
I said, “And …?”
Bunu concluded, “Don’t you see? These people … they are all disturbed. That is why they talk so loudly on their cell phones. As if they want the world to hear their unique sad stories. But, the tragedy is that they all tell a very common story, just with some differences in the manner of narration, and individual details.”
I asked, “What is that story?”
Bunu – “That, with all their obvious wealth of money, family, relatives and friends, and their cell phones to talk aloud about them, at heart they are all very unhappy people.”

I recalled the father. He had not used his cell phone much, except to speak for his son’s reservation. That did not fit Bunu’s theory.

Was he then temporarily happy, unexpectedly having his son with him, on his way to somewhere that the his son as a child used to visit with him?

Indroneer / 10 April 2014