Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Ticket Collector

The ticket collector tallied the names on the chart with the faces. Everything looked A-OK. He put away his clipboard and took the seat opposite mine.

I think he must have been around 30. I was 19 that year. His "route" lay between two stations in Madhya Pradesh. I am a fan of trains and anyone associated with them is a big deal for me. So I started talking to him about trains and stations. I think he enjoyed my questions and asked me if I smoked. I said sure, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. 19 and Charms, you know, 19 and cheap.

Not wanting to eradicate half of India's population with second-hand smoke, we decided to walk to the back of the carriage. It was nearly empty and we sat down. He pulled out a lunch-box and from it, some pakodas. We ate, summoned a chai-wallah, chain-smoked and happily shot the breeze.

I was a bit surprised when he started talking about literature. The discussion then turned to films and drama. Turned out the ticket collector worked with an amateur theatre group in his spare time. Mostly political stuff, he clarified. We kept up our smoking and talking. Everytime we lit a cigarette, he would say to me, "Don't lose your soul. Engineering, work, MBA, all that will go on, but you must hold on to what you have. Don't lose that spark". I thought it was just a conversation filler.

A couple of hours and two cigarette packs later, the flat, slow, dusty evening turned into a deep blue night with a kind of fluidity I've only seen from trains. The train pulled up at "his" station; we stubbed out our cigarettes on the side of the train, watched the abrupt shower of red sparks from the cigarette stubs, shook hands and wished each other luck. He went his way and I went back to my berth.

At 19, not only was it easy to be dimissive and suspicious of any advice, it was practically my modus operandi. What was the big deal, I remember thinking to myself that night. What spark, what soul? All that was so....effete, you know? At best, it sounded like a line out of "Karate Kid". I am just flabbergasted at how I lacked even the slightest ability to appreciate his words. I simply could not put myself in the ticket collector's shoes. At 19, how was I to know that pursuing any passion while keeping a day-job required serious commitment?

The reason I bring this up is because I am watching people around me and they are, like every living thing, growing old. Not old as in a number, but old as in "this is my job, this is my life". Old as in accepting a definition of life that has been handed down to them by someone else. Old as in "I am comfortable, why change?" Old as in "I have forgotten what it is I liked to do". Without exception, they are all caught between desire and fear. I am one of them, so I know.

There are times I can see the sparks dying out. That's when I panic and remember that train ride. Then I feel like I am stuck in a bad, inspirational movie - the kind critics call "uplifting" - based on a Kenny Rogers song.

Fade in. It is a train bound to nowhere. We are sitting and watching the vast, vacant, brown fields come and go. Sometimes we worry if we boarded the wrong train. But we are too afraid to jump off and correct our course. This sitting and watching is crushing our souls and the ticket collector's words come back to me. Fade to black.

I wonder if the ticket collector is still working that theatre gig and if he still rides the same train. I wonder if he held on to his soul. I wonder if he too felt the chill that I sometimes feel now. Maybe that's why he spoke to me.

So I am telling you now.

31 comments:

Tabula Rasa said...

great, great post.

and how extremely ironic in the timing. just yesterday after class, the second-last of the semester, i pulled this kid aside and said i wanted to chat with him. he's probably the brightest in the bunch, certainly the most mentally enthusiastic. i told him i saw a "spark" in him and asked him whether he'd ever considered a career in research. he told me he hadn't, but that he'd been thinking of his career and wondering whether his dream i-banking route might not go stale after a few years, and eventually sour. we agreed that there are some people for whom it never will -- the trick is in finding out whether you're that kind of person or not. i don't think he is. in fact, i don't think everyone has that spark; those that have it, it's a shame to let it die.

Alok said...

Then I feel like I am stuck in a bad, inspirational movie - the kind critics call "uplifting"

terrifying thought!! I get this feeling sometimes too.

wildflower seed said...

Lovely post, KM. I think the decision to change course is a very difficult one to make. The past holds us in a vice-like grip and squeezes and squeezes.

MAHARAJADHIRAJ said...

That's some cool travelling gyan.

Fingers said...

Wonderful post.
...some train journeys just linger on in your mind. Others, they leave an indelible mark on you.

kundalini said...

thanks for telling us now. been back for this more than once.

Swathi said...

that ting of nostalgia filled with life's greatest filosophy-wow!
i hope i never let that spark in me die...

dazedandconfused said...

its a beautiful beautiful post. Loved reading it and guess I relate a lot to it as well...

Hmmm...though i thought people were supposed to smoke in trains only at the exits...

Manish Bhatt said...

I could relate to that y'know. Beautifully written. Especially the way the dying sparks of cigarette cue the dying inner sparks later in the piece. My thoughts ride that train of thought at times. Caught in the the crososfire of our fears and desires, indeed.

Madhur said...

loved this, you have captured the feeling so well, and summarized it with the fade in, fade out. only if live had more jump cuts.

anurag said...

...they are all caught between desire and fear. I am one of them, so I know.

me too

Nice Post. Thanks.

The last time I had such discussion was with a man of 40+. He studied in Allahabad university with grandson (or son, I don't remember) of Premchand and told me lot of stories. He was reading Nirmala for the nth time. He was taking his son from Delhi to Hyderabad for an MBA admission. His son, of my age (younger by 5 years or so) didn't talk to me ( neither me to him). This son was reading "How to communicate effectively"

Deaths Head Roy said...

"There are times I can see the sparks dying out. That's when I panic and remember that train ride. Then I feel like I am stuck in a bad, inspirational movie - the kind critics call "uplifting" - based on a Kenny Rogers song."

Fuck. Intense man, INTENSE....

I look back at life and I know that my spark is slowly dying out...getting too comfortable...things not falling in place, but me moulding myself to be....moulding to society, not being myself.....

Damn, thanks a lot dude....u have made me think!!

karmic_jay said...

Great post. It's all about keeping that spark alive as you said. Being passionate about something other than your work.

But then reinventing oneself is a part of americana too isn't it?

Ph said...

I remember taking the train back from work, three years ago and thinking, is this IT? Is this it for the next thirty, forty years. Its a chilling moment, like you say. But so real. And I think the thirties really brings home that fact.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Hmmm. What's wrong with "comfortable"? I like "comfortable". Dammit, I love "comfortable"! The hell with sparks, pass the nachos dip.

"I want to break free ... " I do have that dream. Another train, this one clattering over an arched bridge in the Andes with a river visible far far below ...

J.A.P.

Anirudh said...

Good one.

km said...

Thank you all for the comments. And please keep that nachos dip hidden from JAP's sight.

zigzackly said...

km.

Inspiring. Thank you.

Now, I know where Ayn Rand ended up, but thought you might like this:

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all.
Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely
frustration for the life you deserved, but have never
been able to reach.
Check your road and the nature of your battle.
The world you desired can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.

-Ayn Rand

GhostOfTomJoad said...

Hey KM! I did a similar post some time ago, about having a dream and chasing it. But, you know what, when the going gets really tough, sometimes, chasing your dream suddenly doesn't feel like all it's cracked up to be. But, at most other times, it is.

TR talks about it in terms of having a 'spark'. Now, I don't know what he really means by that but, to me, having a dream (or, holding on to your soul, as you put it) is not about success or failure. It just means having the courage of your convictions and doing what you like doing.

Very nice post!

uma said...

thanks for this post.

km said...

Ghost, Zigzackly, Uma, thank you for reading.

Joy Forever said...

Amazing post...and I can identify exactly with the situation. I have been in the IT industry for the last six months, and I've seen people trying to convince themselves and others that what they are doing is what they like. But the truth comes out sometimes...
And people who let out the truth are usually penalised here... either you like what you do, or "it will affect you appraisal". Personal time? What's that? Hobbies? They are for children...
It is indeed wonderful that people like that ticket collector manage to cling to their passions despite having a full-time difficult job. You can check out this post on my blog... it's somewhat similar.
And keep posting such nice stuff!

Inkblot said...

sparks- they'll fly when you remove the cloud cover. careful they don't sting you though. sometimes comfortably numb is nicer..

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