(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 2 October, 2010)
It’s only when someone starts snoring, and a fellow-passenger glares at you, clearly holding you responsible for the somnolent transgressions of the other members of your party, that it dawns on you.
It crystallises when someone else puts his mobile on loudspeaker and a high-pitched, crackly version of the Gayatri Mantra begins to shake up the airwaves; the fellow-passenger’s look turns murderous.
You are officially on a pilgrimage.
I think it began when someone happened to mention the beauty of one particular idol during one particular darshan on one particular day of the year.
An Innova-load of people had piled on to each other and then hopped on an overbooked train. Two mamis had managed to wrangle ‘Second Class A/C’ tickets for themselves, leaving the rest of us to join a motley crew of mice, cockroaches, labourers and IT executives in what I called ‘Third Class’ till an offended fellow-pilgrim told me it was ‘Second Class Non-A/C’, thank-you-very-much, third class had died with the struggle for Independence.
Since the inception of the journey, my quest for inner peace had radiated outwards till I couldn’t quite decide whether I wanted the singer to drone out the snores or vice versa.
“The Versa was nice,” someone else said, startling me into looking up at what I initially misinterpreted as telepathy, “but too many scratches, saar. I sold it off. No rasi.” They both turned to me. “How many scratches on your car, madam? You bought only now, no?”
I smiled noncommittally.
“You will get three or four dents at least,” Mr. Ex-Versa assured me, “traffic-le you can’t do anything. That too, lady driver. Hahaha! Enna, saar, am I correct?”
“Cent percent,” his sympathiser assured him, and they shook hands.
“Madam, are they going to kill Jayalalithaa?” the wife of Mr. Sympathiser asked.
“Ssh!” her husband hissed, “do you want them to arrest you?”
“Aiyo, sorry,” she hissed back, “it seems she got a threat letter. I saw it on the news. She has filed a complaint and all. Will they kill her?”
“Madam, you are a journalist,” Mr. Ex-Versa hissed, “you should know these things!”
“If I did, I might be otherwise occupied,” I pointed out.
Mr. Ex-Versa and Mr. Sympathiser slapped their thighs in a perfectly synchronised move.
“Excellent sense of humour!” Mr. Ex-Versa said appreciatively, “but tell me, will they cancel the Commonwealth Games?”
I shrugged again.
“What do you know, madam?” Mr. Ex-Versa demanded, and then turned to his wife, “do you have Sriram’s Maths paper?”
She obligingly fished out a few pages from her handbag and passed it on to me.
“Read it. Thirty five questions. How are CBSE schools expecting children to finish it in half an hour?” he glared at me.
“Three and a half hours,” his wife corrected and he snapped, “be quiet!”
In a vague attempt not to seem completely apathetic to current events, I accepted the question paper and clucked my tongue in what I hoped was an appropriate response.
Mr. Ex-Versa thwarted my attempt to pass it back, “no, no, read it, madam, and kindly explain the justice in the timing.”
Four sleepless hours later, we dragged ourselves on to the platform.
“Where are the mamis?” Mr. Ex-Versa wondered, as the train trundled off. Suddenly his wife shouted, “there!”
The two mamis were looking sheepishly out of their windows.
“Chain! Pull the chain!” Mr. Ex-Versa screamed.
The train jerked to a stop. Five hours, a tête-à-tête with the police and a fine later, we reached the temple.
“Today, God granted one wish of mine,” one of the mamis beamed, closing her eyes in rapture, “I’ve always wanted to see whether the chain actually works.”