Train journeys are the best place to find stories, especially in India. It might be because of the strangers you brush your teeth next to near the rattling toilet. Or perhaps it’s those lovely fat aunties who are kind enough to offer you their Tupperware full of ghar ka khana (homemade food) that they catch you ogling at from the corner of your eye. But there will always be a stronger intimacy with those you travel with by train than on any flight or bus trip.
I always looked forward to long train journeys as a kid. The whole family in one compartment – travelling, eating, sleeping and waking up together. Even the food reminded us of home as we bonded over rolls and pickle that had been lovingly packed by my mother in disposable boxes. My yearnings for chai (tea) every time the chaiwalla (tea seller) passed by, attracting easy bait like me with his shrill call.
But for over a decade, I haven’t had the pleasure of travelling as a pack. It’s always been just me, or perhaps a single companion, like my boyfriend who sleeps for hours in his own berth for most of the journey and hardly bothers me. That arrangement suits me just fine. There’s no better time to read or write – two activities that I enjoy in excess during these long periods in transit.
This particular story took place on one of my not-so-exciting solo travels. My mother always told me not to talk to strangers. But I’ve been a journalist for many years; I know a good story when I see one. So when the young man who was supposed to sleep on the berth above mine walked in and threw his knapsack over me onto the bunk, I was mildly afraid but mostly intrigued. This annoyed me, as I was just getting to the part in Gerald Durrell’s Menagerie Manor where a baby orangutan playfully attacks the zookeeper as a show of strength and affection.
I examined my newfound distraction closely. Something seemed off about this not-so-tall man; his eyes made him look like he was either terribly sleep-deprived or completely stoned. I groaned to myself, disappointed that he was not the regular boring co-passenger that would spend the day looking out of the window. Nor was he one of those lovesick Romeos who spent the majority of the journey on his phone talking to some faraway girlfriend.
For the first twenty minutes, I refused to acknowledge his presence. Yet the minute he came and occupied the seat opposite me, I found myself saying hello.
“Hi,” he replied awkwardly. “I’m Prashant. And you?”
“So what do you do, Rohini?”
“Well, I’m essentially a writer. A journalist, actually.”
“Nice to meet you. Are you from Calcutta?”
“I am, but I haven’t lived there for 8 years. I just went to visit my mother. What…”
He cut me off repeatedly, and after being interrogated for a good thirty minutes, I realised that there was no point in my asking about him.
Though I was growing tired of his inquisitive nature, I found myself opening up to Prashant. If that was even his real name. I told him that I was heading to a community farm in Kodaikanal for the next month. I would be locking myself in a cabin in the woods – a home that would be mine for a mere 300 rupees a night – to read excessively and write down every thought that passed through my mind.
I even mentioned that I was so uninspired of late that the only remotely interesting idea I had had for months was a mental typewriter.
“What’s that?” he cut me off yet again. I found myself explaining that this would be a chip implanted into my brain that transcribed every thought, every idea in my head. He was not particularly convinced, but did promise, albeit nervously, to contribute if there ever was a crowdfunding campaign for this imagined technology.
We sipped on some chai and I proudly declared that this was my fifth cup since morning. “That’s good. There’s nothing like a good conversation over a cup of tea and cigarettes,” he said.
I narrowed my eyes and replied, “For me, that perfect combination is actually coffee and cigarettes. Speaking of which, have you seen the film by that name?” He had, much to my surprise and delight, and we went on to debate whether the real star of the film had been Cate Blanchett or Iggy Pop.
It took Prashant quite a few rounds of small talk to get over his initial shyness. But an hour into the conversation, he had started to prolong his awkward smiles, turning them into occasional grins.
Prashant, as I soon discovered, had a much better story to tell than I did.
He was going back home after a month of rehab, unfazed and eager to do more drugs. He had already scored his stash from one of the ward boys at the correctional facility, he informed me with a misplaced sense of pride. This should have been my first warning of the conversation to follow. But I paid no heed.
For whatever reason, I didn’t get a sense of danger or ill intentions from this stranger. Sure, he said unusual things like “all the fun lies in the grey areas” and made statements like “I buried my grandmother’s cat alive to see if cats really have nine lives”. But I found this turning into fodder for the empty pages of the notebook in my bag – an Andy Warhol-themed parting gift from a former lover.
It was then that Prashant told me that he was bipolar. And everything else fell into place.
“I remember being an innocent and ignorant kid,” he began, paving the way for a confession it seemed he had kept inside for too long. “But grief struck me at an early age. The loss of too many loved ones. Perhaps as a way of coping with this sudden loss, I shielded myself from society. Years later, when I’d finally overcome this grief, I realized I wasn’t as keen on returning to society, and that society wasn’t built to accept me either.” Each word seemed heavy as it left his mouth.
I couldn’t help but make mental notes of the changes in his body movements as he opened up to me. His hands were now moving closer to my side of the berth, his eyes now piercingly focused on mine, almost looking for pity. Was he making this up to impress me, hoping for a pity fuck? Could he tell that my limited knowledge about bipolarity made me even more curious about him?
He spoke to me like he had known me all his life, indifferent to any judgments I may have been passing about him. Surprisingly though, as much as I wanted to feel shocked, all I felt was awe, and perhaps even empathy. Probably just some deep unexplainable sense of camaraderie and understanding that all misfits of society bond over.
What really astonished me was that until the age of 21, nobody had bothered getting him checked by doctors or seen his anti-social ways as a problem. The journalist in me was dying to verify the facts. How had it taken him 21 years to understand that he had had an aversion to intimacy, a detachment from family and love and everything else that a ‘normal’ person wants for himself? I couldn’t get my head around it.
I found myself distracted for a moment, imagining myself in his place, with an unusual condition that only I could make sense of.
He snapped me out of my reverie and continued, “I spent a good few years away from intimacy. I was in crowds but I could always feel this disconnect. For the longest time, I didn’t feel a need or urge to interact with anyone.”
“Never?” I prodded.
“Never,” he said. “The whole idea of friendship and love seemed futile throughout my teens. And when I found out, I decided that it was time to move out of my parents’ house. Of course, they didn’t even bother trying to stop me.”
This broke my heart a little. Instead of kissing girls or climbing trees or being adored by his parents, he had spent most of his life daydreaming and observing things around him. I almost envied him. I had grown up without really gauging anything, let alone the definition of who I was or what was fucked up in the society that I had always assumed I wanted to belong to. But having stayed on the fringes of society for so long, Prashant knew exactly how the herd worked. He could read people quickly, and this often disappointed him. Especially when it came to love.
“I haven’t had the best of relationships. Most of the time, I lied to the girls I was with. And these relationships often overlapped with each other, leading to their eventual, predictable downfalls,” he went on. I wanted to stop him here, not being particularly keen on the subject of men getting away with two-timing. But there was no stopping him.
“I’m not on speaking terms with most of my ex-girlfriends. If things weren’t working out, I made them hate me and dump me. They might not understand why I did this. But in the long run, I know that I’m letting them live happier lives.”
This was the most off-putting thing I had heard in a while, and I had to let him know it. “So let me get this straight. You basically can’t stand the idea of being happy? Or do you just get off on being a creep?”
I had crossed the line; the frown on his brow made that pretty clear. Maybe it was the fact that I had just finished watching a documentary about a Japanese cannibal named Issei Sagawa, who often feasted on the thighs and bums of foreign women, but I was regretting having told this strange man my name and travel plans, and was almost ready to excuse myself and jump off at the next station, wherever that was.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to another human being?” I braved.
“I emotionally crippled an ex when I left her. To the point where’s she’s accepted defeat in life. She’s not going to kill herself. But she’s become totally numb. And I don’t feel any remorse about it,” he answered. “It makes me not want to analyze anybody I love anymore, because love can really cloud judgment.”
That wasn’t as bad as I thought. But of course, Prashant was the not the kind of man who could stop there.
“Deep down, I’ve always been a sadist. But I don’t wish ill for others. I’ve realized that I could pretty much snap one fine day and self-destruct. I could go on a killing spree. I have all the tools to do that. But I’m not a monster. I’m a dangerous person who is aware that he is dangerous. Society has rules I have to adhere to. And I’m fine with playing by those rules.”
“Well, yeah. But I like power. I know I can manipulate people by making them feel good about themselves. I crave a life where I am king. And I am prepared to convince every single buffoon on this planet into loving me so that they aid me in my quest for success!”
I laughed at this master plan of taking over the world, proud of myself for having trusted my instinct and come to this point of the conversation.
“I’m not one of those buffoons, you know,” I told him.
“That’s fine! You’re a friend. You get premium seats to the movie,” he grinned, turning his gaze to the lightning show being conducted for us outside the spit-stained window.
Six months later, I noticed a strange message in the ‘Other’ folder of my Facebook inbox. It read:
I saw your face in a dream last night. Your face appeared like when you open your eyes in the morning and you’re suddenly blinded by white light. When you see a familiar face in a dream, you need to reflect on qualities that are common between the dreamer and the subject in the dream. Then, you are supposed to take that understanding and apply it to the emotions experienced at that point of the dream. Something like that would require much introspection. So I decided to let it be and write this message instead.
I know you probably don’t care about me nor give a shit about how I’m doing. But I’m actually doing better than ever before. The medicines I’ve been taking are working beautifully. My therapist thinks I’m on the right track and on some days, even the world at large seems bearable. I have cut down on smoking weed and started swimming regularly.
Three months ago, I bumped into a wonderful woman underwater when I was attempting to swim the full length in one breath but without goggles. I realize that that’s not the usual place to begin a love story but as you might remember, usual doesn’t quite cut it for me.
Her name is Janine and she is 4 feet 9 inches and doesn’t even reach my shoulder. She has the prettiest eyes and I trust her with myself. I haven’t been lying to her like the others. And apparently my bipolarity turns her on. I’ll never understand women.
I hope you are writing novels by now. And that no bison or ghost or drug overdose killed you in Kodaikanal. And that you’re still alive to be reading this email. I really hope you are, even though I had honestly forgotten your face until this morning’s dream.
Well, I just figured that I’d tell you about the dream and my life and Janine and go back to being just another weirdo you met on some train journey.
Attached to the message was a photograph of Oliver and his tiny girlfriend. The caption below, screaming out in ugly Comic Sans, read “My buffoon and I”.
I smiled, lit myself a cigarette and hit ‘Reply’.