Through a combination of chance and circumstance, the following individuals came to occupy berths 1 to 6 of a II Class compartment of a train that left Chennai Central for New Delhi. These berths, as you are aware, are usually inside a separate, closed cubicle and the occupants found themselves in constant company of each other, right through the 36-hour journey.
‘A” was male, Tamil-speaking, Hindu, belonged to the so-called forward community and was a non-vegetarian (to use that quaint Indian expression)
‘B’ was male, Kannada-speaking, Hindu, came from a backward community and was a vegetarian
‘C’ was male, Marathi-speaking, Hindu of forward community and was a vegetarian
‘D’ was female, Bengali-speaking Muslim (minority community) and a non-vegetarian
‘E’ was female, Hindi-speaking, Catholic (minority community) and a non-vegetarian
‘F’ was male, Hindi-speaking, Muslim (minority community) and a non-vegetarian
Back to the II class compartment. In such long-distance trains, conversation tends to flourish and becomes quite animated at times. Heated arguments and fist blows are not uncommon.
When dinner was served at Sulurpet, B whispered to C, a fellow vegetarian, that he found the smell of non-veg food quite overpowering and wished that the Railways would serve only vegetarian food. Hearing which A, D, E and F exchanged glances that clearly indicated that B and C should keep their abnormal preferences to themselves and not try to pass judgement on the dietary habits of the majority.
When it was time to sleep, D who had been allotted an upper berth requested F if she could take his lower berth, obviously appealing to his sense of chivalry. F gave in reluctantly but commented that when women these days sought equality in all other fields, why did they seek special treatment when it came to queues, lower berths, etc? A, B and C nodded in approval. But E, the other female in the group, came to the support of D and rebuked C, A, B and F for lack of elementary consideration to a person who belonged to the same gender as their mothers and sisters.
When the train reached Kazipet, ‘A’ who knew no Hindi wanted to buy something from a vendor who knew no Tamil or English. This irked A who commented aloud that Hindi zealots were shoving Hindi down the throats of South Indians and wondered what had happened to Nehru’s assurance in Parliament that it would not happen. B and D supported this view, but E and F felt that this was ridiculous and that anybody who called himself an Indian should be proud of the national language which was Hindi.
Near Nagpur, the conversation turned to the over-crowding of Mumbai and C, who was a Shiv Sena supporter, observed that the only practical solution was to ask all non-Marathi people who came in after 1990, to leave Mumbai. A, B. D. E and F pounced on him for his parochial views and reminded him that Mumbai belonged to the whole nation.
At Bhopal, while buying a bottle of mineral water, A accused B of belonging to a state that unreasonably withheld Tamilnadu’s rightful share of the Cauvery water. C intervened and asked both to hold fire, stating that the whole issue was overblown by the politicians and enlightened citizens shouldn’t get carried away. D, E and F nodded approvingly. B, supported by A, then trained his gun on C and asked him to lay off, as the latter came from a state that was making a completely illegitimate demand on a territory (Belgaum) that had been an integral part of Karnataka for ages. D, E and F nodded approvingly, while C argued vehemently that Marathi being the dominant language in Belgaum, it was foolish to keep it in Karnataka.
At Gwalior, discussions turned to the recent comments made by the Pope on Muslims and D and F expressed their displeasure to E. Butting in, A, B and C felt that both the Pope and the Muslims should apologise to each other and take a few lessons in tolerance from Hinduism. This drew derisive sniggers from D, E and F united in their Abrahamic faiths.
At Agra, A was heard talking on his mobile phone to his son studying at Pilani. He kept down the phone and explained that because of the shameful policy of reservation in Tamilnadu, people belonging to the forward community were forced to admit their sons/daughters in institutions in far-off places. C was quite empathetic but B.D.E and F took umbrage at this statement and argued that unless affirmative action was taken, the minority would remain suppressed for ever.
So many different issues had been dissected during the journey. Each of them, A. B. C. D. E and F had taken up strong positions on each issue and found himself/herself forming part of or pitted against different groups comprising different individuals at different times, demonstrating yet again that India was a fascinating country which could be divided in so many different ways.
As the train neared Delhi, the TTE informed them that the train would be delayed by one more hour, due to a derailment that had happened a few miles ahead.
A. B, C, D, E and F were finally united and unanimous in their criticism of the Indian Railways, the Indian Govt and the Indian bureaucrats. “Will things never change?” they cried in unison.