Strangers have always mistaken me for a holy or an army man. Something which has boggled me and not little – while one means soft eyes in a serene face the other mandates a severe one with stiff deportment. Save for my mother – who thinks I am the accumulation of all features nice and wonderful – the rest of my blood relations have likened me to wanted criminals and soft porn movie stars. When it comes to forming an opinion on looks, or most things for that matter, it is safe to go by numbers. Ladies requesting confessional, even when I was not in cassock, were thus gently dissuaded with once-overs; the persistent ones with skeezy sneers. The priests themselves were dealt with disquisitions on the need for the church to register divorces and same-sex love. Either way Sodom had it coming.
But when it comes to introductions on the road I am more or less faithful to those I meet as some of them stick around longer than the journey itself. So I have been a student, a journalist, filmmaker, footloose (heading for a divorce) and fancyfree (fresh out of divorce). In short, what I was at the time. I say ‘writer’ rarely as almost instantly I am endowed with an intellect I do not possess and am expected to have an opinion on everything on earth – which I do anyway, but which has this tendency to lay bare my lack of intellect. Saying ‘writer’ in the Kerala-bound Rajadhani Express hence can turn out to be more traumatic than a chance meeting with (Lalit) Modi in London: everyone on board not just has an opinion on the ISIS but knows how it can resolved, who killed Diana and the real price of (Narendra) Modi’s pinstripe suit. I can relax only at quaff-time – late evenings when everyone crowds the toilet area with pint bottles clearly outlining their shirt and side pockets. There, over the clackety clack, everyone just pretends to hear what the other is saying. So when the bespectacled aunty asked me as soon as we rolled out of Nizamuddin station if I was in the army I replied in the affirmative. Maybe she judged me a tad too early.
“But you don’t look like the typical army.” I knew what she meant – the killer looks.
“I’m not. I’m in the intelligence wing.” I claimed before anyone could take it away.
The aunty was happy in a ‘I-knew-it’ way and threw around a triumphant ‘Didn’t-I-say-so’ look. A newly married, stylish deal-snapping couple looked suitably impressed – more at the aunty’s divining powers than at my own licence to kill. The other passengers were a father and daughter returning after a national inter-school chess championship in Delhi. Busy settling his kid into her top berth who was busy setting up her chessboard, he turned around and smiled at me. I returned the pleasantry with an imperceptible nod. Usually gregarious and feeling quite punchy when making new friends, I felt sick at my newfound need for taciturnity and general solemnity.
“This uncle is in the army.” The father told the daughter. “Intelligence.” He added gravely.
She looked down from above with so much awe I felt sick to my pit and almost cried. I stared out through the window stoically at the gleaming asses that marked every granite coloured chaparral as we chugged out, gathering speed and momentum. Thankfully around lunchtime I felt better: the kid was looking at the guy distributing bread sticks with the same amazement. She was a real wonder kid.
One of the perks being in army intelligence is that you are privy to classified information with such cataclysmic consequences that your mind has steeled and you do not get excited at anything less than a personal phone call from Kim Jong-un. I’d be giving myself away if I was any of my usual self: this was one of the prettiest routes of the Railways and I am forever enamoured by it. So I had to glaze my eyes in order to stop them from lighting up as Arcadia rolled in soon after Rajasthan; with Ratlam along the Madhya Pradesh – Gujarat border, we were officially in viridian heaven.
The most gorgeously located school I had ever seen was in Bamnia – right in the middle of unending meadows and undulating knolls whose slopes I imagined would transform into slides when school was on. Cattle hurried home after a long day in the fields leaving little boys with goads fashioned from boughs far behind. A few agile ones tried to jump onto the harrow and bum a ride. An otherwise non-descript Panch Piplia stood out with the ghastly sight of hillsides adjoining the tracks daubed over with concrete. ‘Goldfinger’ was the first thought that crossed my mind. And origami seemed a much lesser depravity. Dark smoke clouds floated over a factory in Meghnagar announcing approaching night. Exodus began of the able and feeble-bodied males alike, loo-bound, with barely concealed brandy bottles.
Keralites are generally understanding of drinkers, sympathetic of drunks but are confounded if you are not any of these and claim to be in the army. The aunty was a gem when it came to this endearing trait of my state-people. She came over to me after dinner. The couple went about making bed and tucking each other in. The chess whiz peered intently at the black and white squares mulling some complex move against an imaginary opponent. Her father snored beneath her berth. The aunty leaned close to me over the din and queried after my housing arrangements in Delhi. Then she told me about her niece a doctor. I showed her an article in that day’s DNA ‘Unethical medical practice rampant in India’ written by a sprightly, upright doctor Himmatrao Bawaskar. A cursory glance at it and she was back to telling me more about her niece-doctor.
“Does your niece take commission for referring diagnostics and prescribing medicines?” I asked. I just wanted to go to sleep.
“I don’t know,” she replied with a sort of coy authority. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
Now this was yet another quality that marked a Keralite: they all knew someone you could marry. Actually somebody you should marry. It didn’t really matter how unsuitable you were. The next day passing through Maharashtra the tunnels became more frequent as we approached Ratnagiri. The juxtapositioning of pitch dark with bright, crispy sunlight made me bleary-eyed. I squinted and glanced in aunty’s direction. She sat staring stonily ahead behind oversized shades. At Madgaon in Goa I got out to get Bibinca, the gummy sweet with ‘cavity guarantee’ stamped on it.
“Why did you lie to me about being in the army?” The aunty who never got out at stations was right behind me.
“Who told you I wasn’t?”
I remembered years ago there was this old lady who greeted me ‘father’ who desired to confess to me. I gave her the go-ahead.
It was all coming back.