Whatever pays the Bill

No sooner had I settled down in my compartment that the engine blew its horn and the train started to move out of the platform. No sooner had the train started moving that I got down to the business of adjusting my bags in the tight luggage space of an Indian Railway passenger coach. That was probably the reason I didn’t see her on my immediate arrival into the coach. After numerous failed attempts to adjust my overstuffed bag below the seat I finally settled down, only to notice that there was a woman sitting in front of me who had her face buried in a copy of an Agatha Christie book, trying not laugh.

“I’m sorry, it’s just that…your efforts were a little hilarious.” she spoke after I kept staring at her for some time.

“Oh.” I suddenly realized that my mouth was wide open. “I didn’t realize that.” I quickly regained my composure, but the damage had already been done. There was an uncomfortable pause before I realized she was expecting me to continue. “It’s a good book.” It was the best I could come up with.

“I know.” she went back to it.

‘God I am bad at this’ I was once again reminded of my inability to have a meaningful conversation with the opposite sex. I connected my earphones in silence and settled down into the chuff of the train with John Mayer’s voice telling me to get stoned. I tried my best not to linger over her, but it was hard not to. She didn’t seem much older than me, with dark open hairs outlining the sharply defined features of her face. A set of dark eyes partially hidden behind the round black reading glasses were completely engrossed in the novel, and I couldn’t see her lips because she kept biting on her nails all the time. She didn’t seem to wear any makeup and although you wouldn’t outright call her gorgeous, there was a certain charm about her that fixated my gaze on her.

She suddenly looked away from the book, and my reflexes were slow enough for her to catch me stealing looks. A smile flashed across her face for the briefest of the instances.

“What are you listening to?” she asked after some time.

“John Mayer.”

“Hey, I love John Mayer. But I always prefer to listen to him in the wee hours.”

“Well, I like to listen to slow songs during a train journey.”

“Yeah, that’s true. By the way, you can call me Nat.” she extended her hand in my direction.

“Hello Nat.” Her hands had a childish tenderness. “Chander. Nice to meet you too.”

“Well Chander, where are you headed to?”

“Guwahati. You?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know your destination?”

“No.” She burst into laughter on seeing my puzzled expression. “I do it all the time. Whenever I want to travel by train, my dad just books my ticket till the last station of the route and then I get down at whichever one I feel like.”

“Strange. It’s the first time I have ever heard of such a..”

“Lunacy.” she cut me off before I could finish.

“I was gonna say odd, but never mind.”

“Everyone has their guilty pleasures.”

Now it was my turn to have a laugh. “My guilty pleasure is listening to Taylor Swift, not getting off the train at random places.”

“Oh you normal, normal humans. Your tiny normal brains can never fathom the euphoria of being a weirdo, can they?.” She made an over dramatic, grand gesture while speaking these lines, which again made me smile. “I am sorry if you think I am overacting. I am bound by a habit of profession.”

“You work in the TV industry?” I hoped she did.

She did a mock vomiting gesture. “I would never prostitute my art on something like that. I am an artist, I work in the only medium which appreciates my talent. I work in the theater.” This time I sensed some voice modulation to go along with the grandiose hand movements. She was clearly enjoying this conversation.

“Theater for fuck’s sake.” I sighed weakly under my breath.

“What?”

“What?” She had good ears.

“Nothing. I thought you said…never mind. So, what do you do?”

“Me? I work in a news channel.”

“Dear God. The epitome of hypocrisy if there ever was. Do you realize that your whole industry is rotten to hell?” She made no attempt to hide the bitterness of her voice.

Before I could respond the train pulled into a platform and came to a sudden halt. I looked outside my window, it was a small station with just two platforms on either side. There was no overhead bridge connecting them and it had a small shed which housed the station master’s cabin, the guards’ rooms, a small government food stall, lavatories and a ticket counter. The station was almost deserted except for a few people sitting under a large neem tree planted right outside the shed, next to the counter. The faces of those poor, old farmers were painted with helplessness of a broken soul. In all my travels through the backwaters of this country, this helplessness had been omnipresent.

It was mid afternoon but the clouded sky and the southern gale brought the smell of rain with them, filling my head with a sudden rush of euphoric nostalgia. I turned and spoke but she probably never heard me in the first place. Her face was an intense mix of horror, a train could cross right in front of her and she would not have blinked.

It was only after our train had departed that she finally spoke. “Why is the world like this?”

“Why is the world like what?”

“Did you see those people on the platform Chander? Living at the bottom, trying to make their ends meet, hoping that their kids never have to suffer the same fate. It’s pathetic.”

“What’s pathetic about dreaming a future for their kids?”

“What’s pathetic is the sad reality that those dreams will never come true. Their kids will remain poor if they stay in that small town, and will become a criminal if they go to big city.”

“You can’t generalize such a statement.” I smirked weekly at her sudden agitation.

“Oh I can. And I do. Because that is how the world works Chander. If you are born a destitute in this country, you will inevitably die a destitute. And the same can be said for your kids.”

“But there are countless examples…”

“Damn it there aren’t.” I was taken aback not by the swear but rather by the sudden anger in her voice. “You can count those examples on your fingertips. Nobody cares for these poor souls. They labor their lives away on tiny pieces of land with barely enough to eat, while our politicians and businessmen and celebrities get stinking rich sitting on their asses all day long. And our self absorbed middle class has become completely apathetic to their agony, preferring to engage in meaningless debates and provocative lies spread around by people like you.”

“Excuse me?” I was barely paying attention to her ranting till I heard the accusatory finger pointed in my direction.

“Tell me, why did you become a journalist?” She remained unfazed by the rising tension in my voice.

“Because that is what I wanted to be, I guess.” I lied.

“To stop the lies from spreading and bringing forward the truth, am I right?”

“Uhh…yeah…something on those lines…uh..” I was not going to make a fool out of me by telling the truth.

“To be the voice of the voiceless. Right?”

“Yes. Right.” I hesitatingly agreed.

“Good. You should ideally work to fulfill the noble values of journalism and need not be bothered with office politics and job description, right?”

“Someone help me.” I prayed under by breath. I merely nodded in agreement.

“So tell me, what was the last story that you covered?”

“Oh, it was a huge thing.” That was my biggest assignment to date. One could say that I was almost proud of it too. “You know the wedding which took place between the heirs of the two famous business houses.”

“Oh, then you can relate to my thoughts even more easily.” The sarcasm was too harsh not to notice. It was getting a little on my nerves now. ‘Just stop with the nonverbal cues already.’ I didn’t reply in hope that she would leave me alone. Yet she persisted, “Please tell me that it was you who covered the ‘first night after wedding’ story?”

This time though, I was quick to reply. “No, it wasn’t me.” That was bad journalism even by my standards, furthermore my channel was the one which had aired it. Twice. Two days in a row. The thrashing which we suffered from the social media platforms after that was brutal, to put it mildly. That whole team was fired the next Monday itself. I was glad that they never got me involved in that project, my rookie career would have never recovered from that blunder.

“I would have loved to meet the genius behind that farce. Farmers are dying, youth is jobless, technology is destroying society at the expense of our economy, but it is the honeymoon itinerary of two rich brats that deserves be on the prime time.” She smiled a huge grin, “Isn’t it so?”

“I agree that it was a lousy story. But you cannot judge me and my job based on just that one incident.”

“I am not judging you Chander. I already have. You are nothing but the product of a market, which only thinks about making money for themselves. That is all you are.”

She had started getting on my nerves at this point, “Really? And what are you? Isn’t theater a commercial art form? Or do you put up your shows for free?”

She remained unabashed by my criticism “Our company puts up socially conscious plays. We don’t delve in mindless entertainment. But what is more important that we don’t mask ourselves as upholder of free speech and values while we sell bullshit to our audience. The kind which people like you…”

I could no longer contain my irritation. “You know what?” it took me a moment to gather my thoughts, “You are right. It is business. There are people whose salaries have to be paid, investors who want return, financial to be maintained. It is not journalism, it is a machine which only prints money by grabbing attention. And that’s the bottom line.”

She had a look of utter disappointment on her face. “You should be ashamed for what you do.”

My outburst was hard to contain. “Oh fuck off Nat. Just fuck off. I am not working in an NGO. And I don’t intend too. Stories which you ‘despise’ are the ones which provide food on my table. I lied. I don’t hold any lofty ideals about my job. I wasn’t born rich, so maybe I am in a better position to tell you about the real issues. Here is it. The reality is that sex sells. And thankfully it sells easy. Stories about dying farmers don’t exactly put food on the table. Plain and simple. Audience lap up sex like hungry dogs on seeing a bone. And I am okay if my company gives them what they want. I am an engineer, got a 9-6 job from college which sucked, and I never had any talent other than clicking some decent pictures. Was working freelancer when this news channel send an offer. Decent salary, easy work hours, free travel. I closed my eyes and signed the contract. All I need in my life right now is a job which pays my bills, and this one does it fine enough. But you, with your Gucci bag and your Jimmy Choo’s, have you ever had to work for anything in your life? Guess your dad took care of that, didn’t he? So you are free to deliver your speeches and your monologues and get recognition in your circle of intellectual friends for being ‘socially conscious’. But guess what? it doesn’t give you the right to belittle my profession. So fuck off with your ideals and your values and your morality and let people like me do our jobs. I work my ass off to make a living and you know what, maybe one day when I am rich I will do more good for this country than people like you, all talk and no action.”

I had never expected her to respond as calmly as she did, “Once you are rich, will you even care to?”

She didn’t wait for my reply and presently returned to her novel. After lingering on her last comment for a few seconds, I too went back to John Mayer. A deathly silence hung between us for as long as I can remember. As I continued looking mindlessly at the trees passing by my window, sleep soon got hold of me. By the time I woke up, there was a middle aged guy with his family of four staring right at my face.

“Oh hello Ji.” He spoke with a fake smile plastered on his face.

“Hello.” I replied nervously.

“Where are you going? Guwahati?”

“Uh, yes. Excuse me, but was there was a woman sitting here before you came?”

“Oh no, no. When we came this seat was empty. She must have got down at New Jalpaiguri. Did you know her?” He eyed me suspiciously.

“I wish I did Uncle. I wish I did.”

Vikram

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