October 31, 2013

The Sleeper Class Protocol

The Sleeper Class Protocol
I was in a sleeper class compartment from Bangalore to Rajahmundry last week. I got an upper berth. A family of four occupied the two lowers and a middle – 4F (a little girl), 28F (her amma), and 55F (her ammamma) and 31M (her father). There was a 27M in the other middle berth and a 37M in the opposite upper.

The family of four, like any other family in a train, made themselves at home by occupying the entire place under the lower berths (3 large suitcases, 2 large bags, 3 small bags, 2 jute bags with bamboo handles, and a polythene bag), on the lower berths (hand bags, magazines, food, toys, stationery), and between the lower berths (footwear, 5L water can, stretched out legs, more food).

They didn’t just occupy physical place. They have created an emotional space around their two lower berths forcing the lone male passengers to the fringes. The 37M settled in his upper berth even though it was three in the afternoon and he was in no mood for a nap. The 27M with the middle berth occupied my upper berth and I sat on the side-lower with my legs stretched out.

29F, the side upper lady, got in at Whitefield. Her husband had a side upper in S5. We sat in our respective sides of the berth with our legs respectfully folded. I spent most of the afternoon and the evening staring out of the window looking at the rugged Rayalaseema landscape. The excellent monsoon this year has brought life to an otherwise barren Deccan landscape. It was nothing like the neatly manicured green of coastal Andhra or the wild greens further up north in Orissa but rather an inhibited green of wild grasses and semi-arid vegetation heroically growing out of the loose cracks in solid Deccan rock punctuated by large puddles of water in what used to be an excellent network of storage tanks. It was beautiful nonetheless.

The TTE came to check the tickets around dusk and that was when the side-upper lady realized that the side-lower berth was not mine. She immediately called her husband in S5 and told him that the side-lower is free even though I was sitting barely 2 feet away from her. I knew right away that she was planning to usurp me.

I went to the toilet, stood at the door for a little while and came back to see the side-upper lady encroach about six inches of my half of the berth, a subtle but noticeable assertion of territorial ambitions. I was cautious for the next one hour.

There was another joint family consisting of two brothers, their wives, kids, and a bachelor babai (chacha) having a nice family time in the next cabin playing Housie (Tambola) and munching on snacks. Their first few games were played just for fun but when they started playing for money, I felt like intruding. Now I couldn’t just go and ask them if I could join. It was a family thing. So I had to work my way into the game, first by teaching their little girl how to doodle Mickey Mouse, making an occasional eye contact with the players, smiling at their jokes once in a while until they got the point and invited me. Each ticket was 10 rupees.

For the next one and a half hours, I ate their food, played with their kids, made fun of the babai, and sucked at their game. I never thought it was possible to suck at Housie but now I know. I lost thirty rupees.

I returned to my seat to find the side-upper lady occupying almost three-fourths of the berth. I gestured the news of my arrival by clearing my throat and she responded to my gesture by reluctantly withdrawing into her half of the berth. The animosity was out in the open now. It’s funny how we knew nothing about each other except that the hatred is mutual.

Twenty minutes later, she called her husband and asked him to come for dinner. Her husband was not in the mood for dinner. He probably ate a few samosas at Kuppam. She asked him to "first come and then we can decide when we want to eat” in an impatient tone. Being an excellent eavesdropper, I knew right away what was happening and predictably her husband came and she requested me to sit somewhere else while they eat dinner. I could see the husband. I could smell the biryani. There was nothing I could do. I had to move.

I now sat on the side upper berth reading a book and they did not open the dinner for the next one hour. I knew it was unfair but what can I do. I can’t protest against a couple talking to each other. I read my book without being too worked up about it. Sometime later, the husband left and I thought I’ll go back to my side-lower. She was sitting with her legs stretched out comfortably and refused to move.

Me: Excuse me?
29F: What?
Me: I want to sit here
29F: Is this your berth?
Me: I was sitting here before you requested me to sit somewhere else while you had dinner. I notice that you have had dinner.
29F: Why don’t you sit in your place?
Me: The middle berth guy is sleeping in my berth. I’ve been sitting here since the beginning.
29F: This is not your berth.
Me: This is not your berth either.
29F: Mine is side-upper
The argument went back and forth for a few times. She claimed the right to the side-lower berth because she, as the side-upper berth passenger, already owns half the berth and it is logical that the other half belongs to her if it is free. I argued that someone was supposed to come to side-lower berth but did not. So the berth belongs to those who occupied it first, which in this case happens to be me. The side upper person only owns half the berth till 10PM after which the side-lower passenger has the right to ask the side-upper passenger to retire to her berth.

We agreed to disagree and sat on our respective halves of the berth intensely hating each other and plotting the next move. Half an hour later, she announced that she wants to sleep and that I should go to my berth. I told her I didn’t think so and took 45 minutes to eat 3 puris for the next 45 minutes while tweeting on my phone leisurely.

A gentleman from the next cabin who has been silently tracking the conflict since the beginning interfered. I reasoned with him my position that the Sleeper Class protocol states that an empty berth belongs to the first occupant. That is the rule in the general compartment. That is the rule with Waiting List tickets. Why would it be any different in this case? He agreed with me. A couple of guys from the Housie game also agreed with me. I was building the public opinion for me and was reasonably confident till she said, “Rules antha saray andi kaani ladies request chesthe koncam adjust avvaali kadha?” (Rules and all are fine but when “ladies” request, he should adjust a little don’t you think?)

The word “Ladies” has special status in Andhra culture. It’s a euphemism for respectable women and the plural is used even if it is just one woman. The rules of public behavior are very straight forward. “Ladies” should not be inconvenienced in anyway. 

I protested that she is a woman equal to me in all respects. She has no children traveling with her, she is not a senior citizen who has trouble getting to the upper berth, and she doesn’t have much luggage either but no one bought my feminism. There is no recovering from the L-bomb. My public support literally vanished and soon the public too.

I went to the wash basin to wash my hands and by the time I was back, the Evil side-upper lady has marked her territory by covering the side lower berth, my side lower berth, with a floral pattern bed sheet.

Less than ten minutes later the train stopped at Katpadi junction and the rightful owner of the side-lower, a lanky college student from Kakinada, showed his ticket and told the Evil side-upper lady that it is his berth. My lips automatically curled into a smirk which she noticed. The Katpadi junction college student from Kakinada had no chance. Some noble wars have inevitable collateral damage. He slept on side upper and I stole his side lower the moment she got down at Vijayawada.


Bonus (if you have come this far):

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don't be lazy