It was not racial prejudice that caused me dismay when he peered at his ticket number once again and beamingly eased himself into the seat next to mine which, I had rather hoped, would remain empty. I had settled comfortably into the corner and looked forward to sleeping off the exertions of the earlier part of my travels on this overnight journey from Johar Baru to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Train tickets had not been available, which made me feel right at home. In fact, the atmosphere at the JB railway station, replete with slow-moving queues and potholes on the road outside was almost purposely designed to invoke nostalgia for Bandra Station.
“Dinner!” he grinned toothily at me, opening a packet of what I vaguely identified (with some surprise) as banana chips, and offered me some in a friendly fashion. “You from America?” he inquired after crunching and chomping for a while.
This, I had learnt, was a popular query and single women travelling alone anywhere in the world were much subjected to it: fresh in memory, for instance, are the juddering yelps and shudders of a Punjab State Road Transport Ambala-Nabha commuter in the early 1980s. A kindly pajama-ed porter helped me struggle on, asking, “Aap forum se aye ho kya?” This was before ‘global village’ had become a household expression and so flattered was I by the polite query that I flash it about even now with great pride.
“India,” I replied briefly, but he was overjoyed. “My ancestors from India!” he exclaimed. His name was Mani, but without the cultural bearing which would have had him introduce himself, “Myself Mani,” or perhaps even “My good self Mani”.
Now that a strong bond had established itself, I was obliged to help myself to some banana chips – a favourite food at the best of times.
Mani was on his way home from Singapore to visit his family in KL. I asked him casually if he was a student, more to remain cordial than because I really wanted to know. “No,” he replied proudly, “I am a policeman.” So I had fallen victim to stereotyping, just as he had.
Well, I mused, there are policemen and policemen, and perhaps this chap was travelling incognito. But he was so fresh and innocent under all that bravado, and so proud of himself, as would any little boy be who had suddenly grown up to find that yes, he had become a policeman after all, that I was touched.
Being Tamil, he spoke the language like a native. Having grown up in Malaysia, Malay came with the territory. As for English, I could see that he spoke it as well as anyone else. Surprisingly, Mani could do Chinese as well. His parents, labour on a rubber plantation, had sent him to a Chinese school: “My mother say Chinese very clever!” he beamed. It struck me that his mother was very clever too, for now, equipped with the formidable qualifications of all four of Singapore’s national languages, he had acquired a plum job at the airport as a security policeman.
And now, when there’s any talk of Ships That Pass in the Night, I remember Mani – with whom I did, after all, spend the night though only on an AC bus.
First appeared as ‘Some things remain constant’ in The Metropolis on Saturday on 18-19 Jan 1997