There used to be a time when everyone read something after entering a train. Persons who literally hate to find some words joined together to form anything meaningful also boarded trains with a magazine in their hands. One magazine or newspaper that entered the compartment ended up grazing the hands of everyone in it. I used to board trains with a book or two or three literary magazines. I remember adding books to my TBR list after finding someone reading them on trains. Those were the best of times.
Then came the era when everyone ditched book/magazines/newspapers and started staring at screens. People dreamed while hearing songs on headphones, gazed while watching movies/series/YouTube or just scrolled and scrolled for the entire journey. I cannot forget all the shocked looks and stares that I received and still receive when I open an actual book, a physical entity with actual weight, a thick cover, and a lot of pages that could be flipped physically.
One of the co-passengers invariably plays songs or a movie loudly. The entire world called them assholes. But they prevailed. Probably because of their sheer numbers. In the usual seating arrangement of a general compartment, on average, there will be ten people sitting together. Out of ten, one will play something loudly. Mathematically, on average, that makes one out of ten passengers in a train an asshole. If you try to superimpose this statistic on the entire humanity, of which train passengers are a very minor subset, purely based on my experience, the data holds pretty well.
Coming back into the train compartment, from where we took a detour, hearing loud sounds is evidently a major deterrent to reading. I even believe the train compartments of the Indian Railways are specially manufactured and tested for incredible acoustic abilities that facilitate the penetration of sound into all the ears present in them, even if pretty lousy speaker systems are used.
But nothing could prevent a persistent reader like me. Whatever song, movie/series/YouTube soundbite, or friendly banter of office-going colleagues, which, believe me, is as pervasive as the others listed before it, I managed to read. After a while, I was able to relegate these nuisances to the attic of my mind and steer ahead with my book.
Not the last day. Not with Instagram reels. Not with two people playing them continuously, sitting on my left and right. Not with the highly statistical impossibility of two gentlemen of the kind mentioned above sitting on either side and watching reels with blaring sounds.
To my credit, I tried. I tried hard to push it out of my mind. To pack it and shove it into the basement. But I realised the impossibility of the situation. I realised that this was a different beast. The cacophony of diverse sound clips, songs, and commentary, which abruptly changes into something completely different in seconds, makes it impossible to concentrate. I laid my arms down and completely surrendered, accepting my defeat.
I had almost stopped recounting this anecdote. But then, like the team that failed miserably in the semifinal, pulling up all the weapons in its arsenal to fight a loser's final match with another loser, I had a chance during the return journey to save a small part of my lost face.
On the return journey, I was determined to catch up on my missed reading. I sat near a family of three—parents and a kid. The kid did everything that kids usually do and then some more. He howled, cried, shouted, shrieked, jumped, ran around, and made himself an overall nuisance.
In normal times, I could tolerate all these and then some more and go ahead with my reading. But probably because of the taste of defeat and the resultant pressure, I was unable. I closed the book and looked at the parents, who were pretty satisfied with the performance of their little devil and the general wretchedness it caused for all.
"Did you know", I started, making sure that the rug rat picked up every word, "about the new scheme of the Indian Railways? You could send your kids through their parcel service. Just put a stamp of twenty rupees on their forehead, apply a bandage to their lips, and hand them over to the parcel department. They will put them in the parcel compartment of the train, and you can collect them at your destination. If there is no space in it, they will ship the kids on the next goods train, and they assure delivery in twenty-four hours. You can collect them the next day."
Such peace, such calm, such serenity! I read my book and heard the sound of good old times returning.