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.