Friday, August 12, 2016

Identity Crisis

Forgetfulness is not uncommon when you deal with more than just what you can deal with. But it is not an excuse for forgetting. There are people who forget almost everything. From debit card to pan card, from ATM pin to email password, from current date to spouse’s date of birth, from own name to own child, forgetfulness is without boundaries. Remember the Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore romantic comedy of 2004, “50 First Dates” where Lucy played by Barrymore has short-term memory loss. We had Kollywood block-buster Gajini by Surya which also dealt with memory loss.

All of us have short or long memory loss in some way. Memory has three stages: encoding, storing and retrieval. Retrieval is the most difficult stage. Retrieving the right information in the right time characterises how brilliant a person is.

For me every travel is a nightmare. First of all, it is a forceful push to go against the momentum as proposed by Isaac Newton. Then comes the problem of adjustment such as seat, food, sleep, strangers etc. The best of travel I  enjoy is the anonymity. But the worst of a travel also comes with the opposite of anonymity, proving one’s own identity. We encounter people who ask us who we are. How can one explain to others who one is?  Are our names matter or our profession or our family or address? For a casual enquiry, anything is fine. But when it comes to the real issue of proving our identity with the help of an identity card, it is rather simple and at the same time complicated. Simple, if we have one. Complicated, else.

Years ago, I was travelling by train with my sister from our work place to another town for a function. It was an overnight journey and it was a tatkal ticket. About an hour after the journey began, the Ticket Examiner in glittering black blazers and necktie with violet and white stripes appeared with a writing pad with the list of the reserved passengers. I was cool as I had my ticket with me. When my turn came, I produced my ticket. After having ticked our names in the list, he asked for my identity card. After giving him a quizzical stare, I searched for my identity card in my wallet in vain. I continued my fruitless search in my carry bag. Observing my difficulty, the Ticket Examiner asked me to check with my sister whether she had her identity card. As I was the sole authority of the travel arrangements, her negative reply was an expected one.

The Ticket Examiner now turned a preacher. He, in a relatively louder voice, preached about seriousness in life, possessing identity card while travelling, obeying rules, respecting the Indian Railways, failure of the present generation and a host of other things. Humiliated, I asked him what he wanted for winding up the preaching. He then became irritated and declared that we were illegal passengers. But, I claimed that we had a valid ticket. He replied by reading the rule of the Railways printed on the e-ticket. That clearly mentioned that we were illegal passengers. Helpless, I surrendered to him and asked what I should do for becoming a legal passenger. He replied to me that he would settle the matter after all the checkings were over. To this, I told him that I could pay the penalty. He became very gentle and told me that he would settle the issue after some time. But I did not agree to this. I told him to impose fine on me and to make us legal passengers. He was still in the procrastinating mood. Then my sister joined me asking the Ticket Examiner to impose fine or face complaint to the higher authorities. We ended up paying full ticket charge and the penalty of Rs. 500 each with a valid receipt. The story did not end here. After the function was over, we had to travel back in the next evening. As we did not have the identity cards, we went straight to the Ticket Examiner, paid and obtained the receipt for the full tickets and the penalty without giving a chance to him to find fault with us.

Years passed. I travelled several times in the trains. I love trains for many reasons. The parallel rails, the connected buses, the ever adjusting meanderings of the chain of the buses etc. always amused me. Long or short, I always preferred trains. As I used to arrive only at the last minute, there are countless incidents that are associated with my travels. But this one which I experienced the other day was something very unique.

It was yet another overnight journey. I had to deliver an invited talk. The tickets were booked by the organisers and the details were messaged. As usual, I left my room about forty minutes before the actual departure of the train. Fortunately, I could catch the third autorikshaw after stepping onto the road. The driver was very cordial. The meter was not for a short distance race. I felt relaxed. After sending a couple of important messages and making some calls, my attention turned towards the road. The road was relatively quiet. Visibly, there was no huge rush even though the office hours were still not over. I expected to get some fifteen minutes at the railway station. Once when I passed the Hudson circle, which was about three kilometres away from the station, I got a shooting pain up my spine reaching my heart. I started searching my bag. No, it was not there. I could not find my identity card in it. This was a small bag which I rarely used for travel.  I chose this because the travel was just for a day. As a precaution, I had kept the original-look-like copies of my identity card in my other bags. As I never used this one, I did not care to insert one in it. In the hurry of getting out of my room, the thought of identity card never flashed too.

The pain slowly spread to the other parts of the body. I was fatigued. I only had Rs. 550 in my pocket which I borrowed from my friend just before the coming out my room. I had to deliver the lecture the next day as the organisers chose that day after checking my convenience. I had no money to pay fine. A bus ticket to the destination, if at all it was available, would cost more than the amount I had. I had a moment of prayer. Instantly, I was back to normalcy. Within no time, the autorikshaw dropped me in front of the railway station. The meter just showed Rs. 98 which was much lower than the average rate in my city. (A couple of months early, I had travelled in an autorikshaw which displayed the Rs. 320 for the same distance). As I felt the driver was just, I paid him double and walked towards towards the train.  There were some 18 minutes left for the scheduled departure of the train.

All of a sudden, as if guided, I turned towards the ticket counter. The ticket counters were almost empty. I got a second class ticket for Rs. 150 quickly. I headed slowly towards the train. As I was about to reach the general compartment, I saw the man in glittering black blazers and necktie with violet and white stripes with a writing pad with the list of reserved passengers. Just suddenly, without much preparation, I greeted him. He reciprocated. I then told him that I did not carry an identity card but had a confirmed ticket. He replied to me that one must carry a valid identity card to travel with an online ticket. Though this was not a new information to me, I just passively listened to him. He then asked what I was. I replied. Having learnt that I was a teacher, he told me to take his seat in the three-tier compartment. I was in utter shock. I could not believe my ears.  I told him that I did not have enough money to pay for that. He replied me that it was not needed. He then took me to the three-tier compartment and made me seated  there in his seat. Without much wait, when it was time, the train began its routine race. I sat there not fully recovering from the shock and total disbelief. After an hour, the Ticket Examiner came to me and allotted me a vacant seat.

My surprises were not over. He started conversing with me. After having learnt that I neither carried supper nor ordered for it, he ordered some parcelled supper with someone who was at a station enroute. When we reached that station, the supper was brought in plus a banana and bottle of water.  After the supper, he asked how I planned to return. As I had to return the very next day in the same train when it would return, he sensed my difficulty. He then gave me his phone number and asked me to ring him when I would reach the station. Thanking him and thanking God, I went to sleep. The next day, I reached the station some half an hour before the departure. After finding him sitting in one of the concrete benches in the platform, I greeted him. Recognising me he told that it was a rush day and there were some RAC (Reservation Against Cancellation) ticket holders. I then told him that I could go to the general compartment. However, he turned me away from that attempt and guided me to his seat.  After forcing me seated there, he went for his checking round. Half an hour after the departure of the train he came back to the seat and shared with me the dinner I got packed by one of my students. When dinner was over, he went again for his duty. A couple of minutes later, he emerged again and took me to a vacant two-tier seat.  Surprise after surprise.   I slept comfortably well. In the next morning, I went to him and thanked him profusely. We then walked out together towards the exit. Before parting ways, I thanked that extremely gentle human being.  

Who was he? A good Samaritan? No. I was not wounded and left uncared on the rocky and thorny road. A good man.  A great man.  A noble man. Yes, all of them put together. Someone whom we rarely see in the society. Did he break rules? Probably, yes. But, he knew why rules were for. With his helping hand, he took the pages of the rule book and interpreted in a humane way. He helped me from my grief and from my brief identity crisis. He helped me to reassure the faith in the goodness of human beings.