Saturday, August 10, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Importance of being important
Khushwant Singh

IT is great fun watching important people trying to make sure that everyone around them knows they are important. The game is better watched while travelling by train. People who go by air are mostly of some importance because they pay a lot of money to get plane tickets and since they are strapped to their seats most of the time, they do not have many opportunities to show off their importance. Those who travel by bus are the lowest cast of travellers; they don’t bother about each other and like air travellers remain affixed to their seats or stand in the aisles. Rail travellers come from different sections of society, they are freer than air and bus travellers to move up and down the aisle and display trappings of importance. I had the opportunity to see some of them in action the last time I travelled from Kalka to New Delhi by Shatabdi Express.

Few people board the train at Kalka; all of them come from resorts sprinkled around Shimla. There was a strapping young man who helped me put my suitcase on the rack. I thought he had recognised me as somebody of importance. He had not; he was simply being kind to an old man. Then came a party of six, four men in flat, round turbans, a lady in black silk salwar-kameez loaded with gold bangles and rings and her daughter in jeans and a T-shirt with her head demurely covered with a dupatta-scarf.

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I recognised the leader of the group as I had often seen him on TV doing kirtan in gurdwaras. He carried a three-foot-long kirpan which he reverently placed on the rack above his seat. (Being an orthodox Khalsa he should have kept it in his hand). He is not a top-class raagi but is very popular because he maintains a rapport with his sangat by frequently exhorting them "Bolo saadh sangat" and they respond with loud cries of "Sri Waheguru". I was impressed that the saadh-sangat of the Shivalik hills had willingly paid six executive class fares to hear him sing. No sooner were they seated that several tiffin carriers were opened. Snacks were served on silver platters, tea in silver tumblers. It was a very upper-class guru-ka-langar. I noticed the young girl cross the aisle to speak to her father. She addressed him "papa", as any convent-bred girl would. It would have been more appropriate if she had called him "pitaji". Raagis however popular are not entitled to be papas or daddys.

The really important people board the Shatabdi Express at Chandigarh. They don't come rushing in like other hoi polloi looking for their seats and grabbing places for their luggage. Their lackeys precede them, find their seats and place their baggage. They make a state entry just as the train is about to leave. On this journey there were three such important personages. One was a full General. As he sat down, his orderly saluted him and departed. The General did not wish to talk to anyone. He opened a newspaper and appeared lost in its contents. The other was a portly sardarji with his paunch jutting out six inches beyond health limits. The first thing he did after he took his seat was to take out his mobile and ring up his home in Delhi. In a booming voice, he said: "We are leaving Chandigarh; tell the driver to bring the car to the VIP parking area." We all were in no doubt he was a VIP.

The third important person was the Governor of some state. He was accompanied by his shrimati, a personal servant in spotless white turban and coat and a tall young ADC in military uniform. All ADCs of governors look like handsome gigolos who add importance to their bosses. In addition, there was a railway police guard armed with an ancient carbine. He stood in the aisle questioning the credentials of everyone who wanted to go to the loo located at the end of the compartment. Neither the Governor nor his shrimati had to tell other passengers that they were important.

At New Delhi railway station, a small procession of important people marched out towards the VIP parking area. The members of the raagi jatha were not in this procession. But they scored over other VIPs by being received by admirers who garlanded them and raised their voices, "Boley so nihal! Sat Sri Akal!"

Bus shopping

I live close to a bus stop. Many times as I stroll out of my home, someone or the other asks me, "Sardarji, Panjabi Bagh kaunsi number bus jaatee hai (What number bus should I take for Punjabi Bagh?)" It can be Mehrauli, Kashmiri Gate, Rajouri Gardens or anywhere else. I do not know the answer because I have never sat in a bus in India. My ignorance is often taken as snobbery. That is not so because I have ridden in buses everywhere else I have been to from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Bangkok, Manila, Singapore and Australia to Europe, USA and Canada. In Delhi I have my own car; in other Indian cities, I am driven by friends or go by taxi. My daughter, grand-daughter and many of my friends travel by bus. I hear of their experiences. The jostling and bottom-pinching that city Romeos indulge in in crowded buses. I think I am better out of their way lest I should be foolhardy enough to punch one on the nose. However, there are other bus-users who travel long distances who have altogether different tales to tell. One such is Sheila Reddy of The Outlook who travels every working day from her home in Patparganj to her office in Safdarjang Enclave, a distance of some 30 kilometres, taking an hour each way. She tells me of singing beggars and salesmen who ply their trades in moving buses with the connivance of conductors, who no doubt get their commission by allowing them to do so. She writes: "It’s hard to sell anything, even a two-rupee ticket in a moving bus. But there is a breed of innocuous little men, thin and worn but neatly dressed, who are able to rouse up commuters from their habitual coma. Scarcely five minutes of their colourless sing-song patter, and travel-hardened bus veterans eagerly fish out their wallets to buy such fripperies as sewing kits, toothbrushes with detachable handles, combs of five sizes, pocket keychains with calculators and guide books on learning everything from pickle-making to English conversation."

She writes of a particular master of the art of bus salesmanship: "He begins: ‘All of you at sometime must have faced the problem of missing button/a pickle gone bad/not knowing English.’ Now passengers begin to stir from their pre-office snooze, others who had been staring straight ahead or out of the windows at nothing, turn their heads towards him, grateful for this small diversion on a dull, sweaty workday morning. ‘Whether you are a housewife or an office-goer, a missing button can create a problem. But we have a scheme.’ he bends down to unzip his airbag and pull out a packet of transparent shirt buttons in a see-through plastic pouch, which he holds aloft. ‘These buttons will cost you at least Rs 15 in the market, but we offer it to you at only Rs 10.’ The commuters are now wide awake and expectant. And he doesn’t disappoint them. ‘Everything you buy these days comes with a scheme. The scheme we are offering you is this.’ As all eyes fix on him, he calmly pulls out a pouch of hooks. ‘In the market this will cost you at least Rs 5, but it comes to you absolutely free.’ Still no takers, but the salesman is imperturbable. ‘Everybody needs a needle in the home.’ The commuters eye the packet of needles he pulls out with that curiously dispassionate interest that women usually display in a saree shop: ‘This too is free with the packet of buttons.’ One by one, as disinterestedly as a magician, he pulls out the other bonuses. Two reels of thread, one black and the other white, a socket for a sewing machine, a measuring tape are held up before the hypnotised audience. And in a fitting climax, as he reels out the words as if by rote, he pulls out a neat, narrow package, where all the items are held together in a single-tier of plastic. ‘All this for only ten rupees, ten rupees, ten rupees.’ He is coming to the difficult part: the kill. Sensing it, his customers stir uneasily, detaching their eyes from him. He goes down the aisle, urging his customers, ‘Ten rupees, ten rupees, costs nothing to look.’ One tentative hand reaches out for a packet, another, soon half a dozen potential buyers are scrutinising the plastic-wrapped contents. All it takes is for one or two to reach for their wallets, and soon the whole bus is in a frenzy of shopping, eager to lighten him of his load before he jumps off at the next bus stop with the air of a company trader."

Related by marriage

A couple had a quarrel just before going for a party. So they went in a very tense mood. While driving the car, the husband saw a donkey standing across the road. He thought of teasing the wife.

"See, your relative is standing there."

"Of course, she said, "he became my relative after marriage)

(Courtesy: Deepak Soi, Delhi)