For various reasons, I have to do quite a bit of travel on my own. Even though this travel often happens without much prior notice, there is a strange man who seems to get my itinerary even before I do and manages to buy a ticket to not only travel on the same plane or train or bus as me, but to also get assigned a seat very close to mine.
He is clever, this man. He looks different each time. Sometimes, he even becomes two men. And, very occasionally he has a wife or family in tow. But I have enough experience of him by now to not be fooled by these subterfuges. I know it is the same person each time, because whatever his physical disguise, I can predict exactly how he will behave on our joint journey. I don’t know his name, but I believe he is some kind of royalty. His sense of entitlement is total and not to be questioned by poor subjects like me.
The first give-away occurs as soon as we have found our seats on a plane. Barely have we sat down, that call bells are rung and harried staff imperiously asked to produce water and blankets and lozenges. Needless to say, there is never a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’ preceding or following these requests.
The second hint of royalty is dropped by his bejeweled hands. I notice the rings as these hands determinedly scoop up ten or twelve pieces of orange and caramel and tamarind candy in one fell swoop. But while there may be half a dozen rings on the fingers (five to each fight off a different category of misfortune that might dare to visit the owner of the rings and one last one for aesthetic reasons or to declare their owner’s wealth perhaps-- who knows), I have to say that there are no bells on the toes. I know this for a fact because, more often than not, shoes and socks have been taken off in preparation for a lordly journey, and I have been able to check and confirm that there will not be music wherever he goes.
At those (frequent) times when he miraculously becomes two men, one half of the duo is sometimes seated right in front of me. But he makes his presence felt soon enough by interrupting my morbid dreams of a plane crash with by a sharp knock to my knees as he suddenly decides, even though we might still be in the take-off or landing stage, to recline his seat, so that he can relax in the way is his birthright.
At other times, this split man manages to sandwich me between two seats. And what happens when I am thus sandwiched? For a start, I can be sure that the armrest on neither side of me will be available for me to rest my arm on for even a fraction of a minute. I might try to gingerly place my arm on one if the half of this man that is on my left has gone to perform some ablutions. But just as I use this pause to let my resting arm go limp and almost forget that this man needs both armrests to be comfortable, he is back and my elbow is rudely shoved aside by a damp arm that reclaims its right. The owner of that arm then proceeds to join his brother on my right in flipping through a newspaper, thus effectively obscuring from my view anything but two giant rustling sheets, accompanied by gymnastic elbow thrusts into my waist every time one or the other decides to turn a page; which happens very often since neither is actually interested in reading anything in the newspaper, all he seeks is interesting pictures to stare at. That is why, on international flights, the newspaper is usually replaced by the duty free shopping brochure -- which is much better for my eyes and my waist.
Given that there is no armrest and there are frequent elbow thrusts, all I can do to protect myself is sit ramrod straight in as narrow and as centred a space as possible, the attempt to do which reignites my determination to go on a diet so that this occupied space can be made narrower still.
As for other modes of transport, one recent example will suffice. Travelling with a female friend in a first class AC (no less) compartment from the nation’s capital to a nameless state’s capital, complacency set in because this time not only did the man look different, he even had a wife travelling with him. I told my friend (who, astonishingly, has had this man accompanying her on her solo trips as well) that we could therefore relax.
How foolish we were. As soon as we had had our ‘continental’ dinner, this man proceeded to attire himself for a comfortable night of rest by first producing his pajamas from his suitcase (to do which he jammed the suitcase between the two of us), then waving these pajamas in our faces as he unfolded and aired them, and lastly wrapping a towel around his waist and artfully wriggling out of his trousers and donning the pajamas. His wife kept her head buried in a magazine through the entire operation and did not seem to mind at all our fascinated observation of this ritual.
The reason this behavior seems tame in retrospect is that its effect could not compare at all with our experience the next morning when the whole operation was performed in reverse. Having clean pajamas shaken out in one’s face is one thing. But being fanned by pajamas that have spent the night ensconcing their owner is an altogether different shock. No wonder the wife this time gave us a brief apologetic smile before returning to her magazine.
If this ubiquitous being does not soon identify himself, I think the curiosity will kill me. My only consolation is that my delusions are not mine alone. Every female friend or relative I have talked to says she knows this man. Not his name or his address, but his royal antecedents and his cunning disguises.
Who on earth is this man? Is it, by any chance, you, dear reader?
PS: I am writing this in one frustrated shot from Frankfurt airport. I have just arrived here from Kolkata with a severe crick in my neck because the rolling head and shoving elbows of this man, this time in the seat next to me, meant that I was crouched at an odd angle in one corner of my own seat all night.
PPS: A last few lines written after a flight from Frankfurt to Florence a few hours later. This time I had an aisle seat, so my left armrest was mine. But the Italian man in the middle seat made sure I got no part of my anatomy anywhere near the right armrest -- throughout the flight, his arm covered the this entire rest and, being burlier than my usual Indian follower, the elbow hits were much more painful than I am used to.
Just as I was beginning to wonder if my man had the ability to morph into an Italian at will just to fool me, he reappeared in his Indian incarnation. I recognized him at once because he had been sitting a few rows ahead of me on the Kolkata-Frankfurt flight. He arrived panting to discover that he had been assigned the middle seat in the row in front of me. He requested the Italian in the aisle seat to switch places. Naturally the latter declined. He then proceeded to wring the Italian’s heartstrings by talking about his painful knee condition which made it impossible for him to sit in a middle seat. The Italian still demurred. My nationalism spurred, I silently wished my compatriot success without actually expecting it. But I need not have feared. Soon the blackmail turned to accusations of selfishness and to threats to stretch his leg across the Italian’s knee during the flight.
Sure enough, before we took off, there was one bemused Italian man in the middle seat and one triumphant Indian reclining in an aisle seat that repeatedly hit my knees.