Years ago I had visited London just after I quit my job and was still searching for what I wanted to be, how I wanted to define myself. That trip to Europe was how I spent most of the money in my bank account. On one leg of that mammoth trip I was making my way to Cornwall from London. I had booked my train tickets online from India—the paranoid me—a good month in advance! I was headed out to meet an old friend I had lost touch with over the years, so there was a certain excitement, coupled with nervousness at meeting her after so long. I even wondered if I was forcing myself on her… I had to catch my train from Paddington and was very excited about this little adventure of my own, though I just reached London by train from Paris, but a few days ago. You see, I really like train journeys. I like the slow travel experience they offer, instead of zipping you from one corner to another. And I like that silence and space, not having to talk to anyone for a journey because you are strangers and can afford to be ill-mannered and buried in your book or music.
I was booked in Second Class, and having figured out my coach, I made my way to the seat. I stowed my bags just above and settled in next to the window—yes, I ensured I got a window seat while booking, that’s the other reason I love train… large glass windows. Very shortly an old couple came by, they stumbled around looking for seats. Asked a few people ahead and then me, but there was no way to figure out their seat numbers. Only then we realised that they didn’t have a reservation, they had tickets to board the train, but no confirmed seats. I had been the-complete-paranoid-Indian with my booking, riding on the experience of our over-crowded trains, and had ensured I had a reserved/confirmed seat. I didn’t know that there was any other way to do it. The seat next to me was empty still, so the woman sat down, while her husband moved to the end of the train and stood patiently. I wondered how long he would last. I assumed the Ticket-Checker/Collector would sort it out so I went back to my window.
The TC was a large, no-nonsense woman who firmly told them there would be no place on this train almost till their destination. The train was unusually packed. Cajoling didn’t work, and the man went back to the doorway. The woman and I started talking and I learnt that she was Czech. The husband and wife kept exchanging glances, she not settling down uneasy by the thought that he was standing. And that’s when an idea struck me, and I knew I had to do it. I got up, told the woman I would leave by bags here and offered her husband my seat. He refused but after a little pushing, agreed, gratefully, and took my chair. The TC, on her rounds again, saw all of this. She told me to make my way to the refreshment area and wait there instead of at the door. There was no place to sit there either but I love people-watching. And there seemed to be a modern day Mrs. Bennett (Ref. Pride and Prejudice) standing right in front of me, so I settling into eaves-dropping mode for a while. But shortly their conversation got boring and I turned to the window and looked at the landscape lost in my own thoughts. It was a few more hours to my destination and I was wondering my legs would make it till there, I only had a backpack as it was short trip, so there was no suitcase to sit on either. But there were numerous people milling around and sometimes I find my strength in common circumstances and struggles. Yes, we would all make it.
Sometime later the TC came and called me, I was just about to buy myself something to eat but she told me to follow her. She leaned over the counter and told the woman behind it, with a large hand gesture towards me, “This young woman gave up her seat for an old couple, I’m getting her a seat now.”
What? Surprised, and elated, I followed her, with a little jump in my walk. I collected my bags and told the Czech couple that I had gotten a place to sit. They were both happy and we said our quick goodbyes. As I followed the TC, I realised that we weren’t in a Second class cabin and made my way into a First Class cabin. She pointed to a large single chair by the window and told me to sit there. I was travelling First Class, in England! The irony of it also struck me a bit, and the change in the world that I lived in. Indians had been kicked out of First class coaches in India by the British, and here I was being invited to sit at in First Class in England. Also, ironic that I should be ruminating about this on Gandhiji’s death anniversary. My dedication to Bapu?
As I settled in next to the large window, I refused to sleep or even read my book, scared that I would miss even a few minutes of this experience. The windows seemed larger and the chair infinitely more comfortable. I settled in… To my right were four women, all of whom could have been picked out of my bookish knowledge of Victorian England, and all it took was a couple of scones, some butter and some light tea to complete that picture. They chatted away for their journey, while I tried to listen in, politely (Without bending in their direction, or looking at them). In a short while, the lady from the refreshment counter came along with my all-vegetarian sandwich and a bag of chips or crisps. She placed in front of me and asked, “Would you want anything else?” Naah, nothing else, really.
Three days later, on my way back to London, I did think about giving up my seat again… to yet another old couple maybe, in the hope that I would be upgraded to style and luxury. But such luck doesn’t chance upon you so often, plus, the train wasn’t that crowded this time to justify such calculated generosity. So yeah, nice gals can finish first too, doesn’t always work the other way.