It was a long journey by the Grant Trunk Express from New Delhi to Chennai Central. That not so spacious second class compartment got almost full before the scheduled time of its departure. As the train was about to move a lean, lanky man undoubtedly corvine by complexion got in with a suitcase in one hand and a stuffed hold-all in the other. His olive-green uniform with three white stripes on one of his shirt-sleeves was proof enough to show that he was a havildar in the army.
No sooner did he step in, than the train began inching. After placing his luggage on the floor he took a panoramic view around, looking for a seat as he seemed not to have reserved a ticket for the journey. Finding no space to park himself, he began to travel as a strap-hanger. Appearing run down, he humbly gestured to one of the sitting passengers to move a bit and let him share the seat. The person he requested grimaced at him as a sign of his inability to oblige him. Finding a gap between two other passengers the man in uniform appealed to them to favour him with a little space to sit in. They were equally loath. “You should have got your accommodation reserved well before deciding to travel in such long-distance trains rather than disturbing the other passengers”, remarked brusquely, one of the passengers.
At this abrupt remark the army man, instead of losing his cool and shouting, replied politely, “I am travelling home from an army unit contiguous to the border area to meet some emergent domestic situation; hence I had little time to get my accommodation reserved”.
In response one of those reclining on a lower berth sprang up and made a riposte, “Don’t talk about your service in the army; my uncle was in Burma during the British reign”. Another one joined, “My grandpa, a captain in the navy during the Great War had been to Japan and other foreign lands, do you know?” Yet another one chipped in boasting that his eldest brother, a major in the army had taken part in active combat at Honolulu”. A volley of caustic remarks was made on a pitiable person who stood reticent with the barrage of virulent remarks in English, a language all Greek to him.
A regular from the Air Force, I kept watching with mixed feelings of disgust arising from the uncalled for account by the audacious men of what their forbears were in the military and contempt towards a distraught co-passenger in utter disregard of humanitarian considerations. Watching the predicament of the man, I gently squeezed the passengers sitting next to me, with a request to accommodate him. Thus he rode a bodkin between me and another passenger but for the night he could not help spreading a bed sheet on the floor and lie on it.
What was striking was the hostility many had towards sharing, with someone in distress, an edge of their seat. The fact that here was a person who represents a larger force that keeps round-the-clock vigil at our borders so that we can go about with our work peacefully should have made the passengers happy to share space. Unfortunately such pride is reserved for ‘celebrities’.