Sunday, December 28, 2008

side - middul

Blatantly staring at my face is the fact that I am getting closer and closer to being yesterday's generation. I share my parents' shock when I see high school kids walking around with cell phones. Parents give it to them to know where they are, I'm told. And I wonder- if not at home, school, if not at school, home, or maybe at a friend's home. Where else could they be ? Coffee day ? When I was at high school, coffee day outlets were a thing of the future. Iyengar's bakeries were a plenty. And there were only a few things one could do at those bakeries before getting irritated with the stray dogs and the copiously copulating flies. I must admit that I like the mochas and the coffee days and the pizza huts of the world. But the iyengar's apple cakes and the honey cakes are to-die-for even if their greatness is completely lost in their cheap prices. As for the argument about hygiene and immunity, I have that in plenty too. If I'm going to live till a 100 if I stay away from fly-kissed apple cakes as opposed to living till 70 if I do not, I'll take the latter thank you very much.

Be that as it may ( translates to : Oh I actually wanted to elaborate on point a. But point b and c were clamouring for a hear ye hear ye. So I did not want to do points b and c any injustice. Nonetheless points b and c are in no way related to point a. And it just turns out to be that way. And so... on to point a)

I am not sure if kids these days are taught to make a big deal about the Indian independence. When I grew up it was always a rather big deal. At least, I appreciated it enough to know that that it was in poor taste to treat it as just another holiday. That's what it is these days. When true tales of bravery are replaced with smartly marketed cinemas whose copyright sales to broadcasting channels are timed perfectly for this holiday. While it is questionable if we have progressed enough, it is clear to me that we haven't altogether regressed. If one pauses to consider how large and heterogeneous the Indian population is, it is remarkable that we have managed to stay together for so long instead of crumbling into our constituent states. If one pauses to understand how different each state is from the neighbouring state with respect to food, to customs, to which god to follow and which "other-god-follower" to ridicule, to which language needs to be spoken so as to get the best bargain on the potatoes, it is impossible not to ask what makes us stick together. For my part, I feel truly, bluely bangalorean, and I get a culture shock when I travel to some other city. They think, act, and eat differently. They even love a different subset of SRK films than I do, and I cannot see reason in it. Yet we're moving along or stagnating as a whole country. We expect governance, while constantly electing the wrong people to govern us. We expect clean roads while never flinching to pay off the policeman when he catches us without a current emission test. We think of the seat belt as some kind of crippling device and refuse to prevent ourselves against accidents while zooming and fuming across the potholes. As a nation we love our double standards and we are tolerant of everyone else's double standards. And we discuss it loudly and lovingly. And these are ties that bind and make us one.

My grandparents had lived in the era of winning independence, and my parents have lived at a time when there were days when such independence was even regretted. Whether the indian parliament was doing any kind of good job at all was still highly suspect. My parents seemed to think that manmohan's singh's liberal politics of the 1990s (in my mind, that is marked as the time when we got cable TV at home. We had this 8 channel remote orson TV till then. The buttons for 5 and 7 wouldnt work. But it had never mattered until then because there was only 4 channels you could see anyway. When we got cable TV, it became supremely important to get a remote that would work. So we got another TV, with a remote that would work. Such was the cascade effect of liberalization. Cable TV connection necessitated a TV necessitated good TV watching furniture necessitated good TV watching food necessitated a 4 burner stove ad infinatum. It was affordable opulence at last.)

It is generally agreed that we did a good thing by sending back the British. It is also agreed that during their extended stay they did a few good things for us. Notable among them are the railway system and cricket. Both happen to be our lifeblood. We can never have too much cricket. And with india's growing economy, and increasing foreign reserves and increased air travel, we still love our trains. They take you everywhere. They take you all the time. And they run like clockwork. This once-upon-a-time loss making organization is today profitable enough for snooty IIM's to invite Lalloo to give a talk. With reservation booths and e-reservation and i-tickets, you can plan your trip, choose your class of choice, and your favourite berth. Confirmation, RAC, waiting list - they're all words of the indian vocabularly universally understood.

During exam time, with entrance exams in a thousand states, and having to ferry students and their respective families insisting on giving moral support ( or alternatively, simply pressurizing the poor kid to no good), they'd introduce special routes. And then during summer for children to go visit and be pampered by grandparents and relatives.

Those black, steam spewing trains surface everywhere. In movies, as the lover pleads for mercy, while being surrounded by those lush green fields. In movies, as the hero jumps from coach to coach in giant leaps as he chases the villain, this time being surrounded by deserts all around. And here again, they appear, as he tries to commit suicide as the train crosses a giant bridge over a huge river. They're picturesque. Of course, we probably copied those ideas from David Lean and the westerns, they're exceedingly well employed directorial touches that move indian audiences.

The ubiquitous train comes in all our maths problems. The train's moving at this speed.The train is this length. The platform is this length. When will the train cross the platform. Kids all over india go mad while chewing natraj pencils flummoxed at figuring out if they're meant to add or subtact or divide.

And the train stations- the simple village train station, what with its one platform, and one supervisor, and those huge city stations with 8 platforms, and a thousand coffee stalls (today, manned by Coffee Day, who've gotten their marketing strategy bang on and are finally being sensible about selling coffee at rs 7 instead of rs 53.38 ), and many a black coat wearing, paunch bearing TTE.

All distances are measured by how long it takes the train to reach. Chennai is an overnight journey from Bangalore. Mumbai is a 2 day journey. Delhi is a 4 day journey.

And then of course everyone has their perfect choice of berth. Upper, lower, middle, side upper and side lower. 8 to every coupe. All sweet wives and young children and senior citizens invariably get the lower berth. Kids and teenagers and people such as I (who hate the upper berth because the cobwebbed fan is staring you at the face all night and won't ever let you sleep) prefer the middle berth. The upper berth always goes to the head of the family- the alpha male, or the young boys who want to show off to their peers, or people who prefer their privacy. We each have our own special place in the train. And we these berths as though our birthright. As soon as the coupe is full, there's a consensual process of berth swapping. Right from the thoroughly understandable " I have an old mother, would you mind taking the middle berth and giving your lower berth", to the amusing " it's my son's first time on the train, and he wants the middle berth". When air travel hit the middle class, we tried much of this seat swapping in the aeroplanes. Of course everyone wanted the window to see the clouds and to glimpse the heavens. Before long, everyone also realized that despite all their prettiness and their nice manners, stewards and stewardesses couldn't handle such chaotic re-organization. Watch the TTE as he approaches the coupe, and notice how calm he is as he registers all the berth swapping and the strange people handing him tickets from berths that were not originally theirs and in this mess still manages to find the ticketless rogue who gives him a sheepish grin. Sometimes, one has to wonder if the paunch has any magic in it.

And with the trains being as much in vogue now as before, and people wanting to go to places for all sorts of trivial reasons, they've introduced the side-middul.

The side-middul berth has sneaked up on the Indian public. There is now a 9th berth that we need to come to terms with. No one is sure what to make of it. We aren't sure if this berth should be our new favourite. What's worse, we don't even expect it in the trains when we get into them. In the last 2 times I've traveled with this uninvited berth, I've seen what seems to be bordering on panic. As families walk in authoritatively trying to claim their seats, they suddenly realize that they don't know where to look. My mom, who's a teacher, finds herself being drawn into this confusion and finds it impossible not to offer help. Of course, spending 6 hours each day full of unrelenting and impossible tenth standard students makes her what she is - persuasive. "Look here. Here's the ninth berth", she insists, as families upon families try and ignore her. "Look here, this is not the middle berth anymore. That is". Invariably, a shrewd kid soon realizes that this strange lady is in fact right and implores her father to listen and not look dumbstruck. There is such a thing as a melting heart. It's amazing how quickly a frustrated face turns into a visage of calm as he turns to my mother and says "what madam. I don't understand what the ticket says". My mom, in her ecstasy of having won this cold war, proceeds to help and explain with ample gusto. "They've introduced this new berth because there are far too many people that want to travel in the train right ?" She explains as though describing a weird english prose passage. "And the e-reservation system hasn't been updated properly, so it shows all the wrong berths" she says. And then she'll point her hand at the new numbers and will say "see. now that is the lower berth. and that is the side middul". And then she'll point at one of the side midduls, and say " see, that is the side middul". Tell me, when you need to lower it. I'll help she offers.

Of course, no self-respecting indian man will allow a woman to help him too much. Now that he's got his answer, he will quickly dismiss my mom with a blunt thank you. The child of course jumps up and down saying "see, I told you, you never listen". And then of course, mr alpha male must proceed to confirm what is there for everyone to see- this new "ninth berth". Is there really a new ninth berth, he will ask the TTE, as though the ones he currently sees are going to disappear once the train starts. Yes yes sir. Can't you see ? Says the TTE in exasperation. The TTE who, through years of experience can tell you with in less than a second where a seat is located the moment you told him the number, has to recalibrate his mental berthing chart, and is now responsible for 9 more baboons per coach. Eventually of course, everyone must settle down and get some sleep and get to where they want to go. And side middul can only mean more chances of doing that. Even though, what we'd really appreciate is for lalloo to be able to conjure a gazillion new trains out of thin air.

Meanwhile, the indian railways had found yet another way of getting all of us closer, and in a few months a new word will be absorbed in the indian vocabulary. Side middul. 5 years from now, when I have my nieces and nephews, I'll be telling them the story of how there once used to be only 8 berths a coupe, when there is now 9. And perhaps they will find me old and boring that I travel by train. Meanwhile hopefully, the TTE will have graduated from knowing the multiples of 8 to knowing the multiples of 9.

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