Taking advantage of the extraordinary Indian Railways is a regular component of my life in Kerala. Being a hardworking Technopark salaryman I have to catch the train to and from work most days, which in and of itself is not all that remarkable; people do that all over the world, from Tokyo to London to New York. What makes my journey unusual, as I’ve mentioned before, is the fact that I’m the only regular who is a white man – the saip in their midst. How much I should interact is a constant dilemma as I try to balance the expectations of whoever it is I talk to, the many others watching, and indeed, the expectations I have of them.
A typical morning’s train jaunt begins first with the students. There are always hundreds of young males commuting to their Thiruvananthapuram schools in the morning, constantly on the alert in case there’s a cute girl, another friend, or a person who looks strange. I fall into the latter category, and as such, one of their cliques will always notice me before anybody else. Their standard modus operandi is for one of them to spot me, turn to all his friends with a huge smile on his face, and speak two or three sentences in Malayalam including the word ’saip’ five or six times; they then all look to me, taking turns to train their gazes and grins on my face.
Occasionally they call to me – “Hello Saip!” – to which I usually respond with a smile and a muted “Hi” before putting my headphones in. There are a number of reasons why I rarely engage in conversation. It’s not that I’m particularly anti-social, or even that the attention makes me feel uncomfortable. There are just times that I like to keep for myself, and the hour-long journey into work at 7 in the morning is one of those times. In any case, if I do allow conversation, it normally takes 15 minutes to get anywhere remotely interesting: that’s how long it takes for me to convince them that I’m not a tourist and actually, I’ve probably been taking this morning train for longer than you have. So there.
Whatever happens, I know my lot can’t possibly be as bad as what the habitual fish-carting ladies of Carriage 3 are going through. One look at their embittered, weathered faces tells you all you need to know: you do NOT mess with these women. They have been through more than you and they are stronger than you. One morning, someone managed to open the door to their closed-off compartment and let the masses in, including a friend and I. Their ensuing tirades were apparently as foulmouthed as they were impassioned, my friend turning to me and whispering, “phew, thank God you don’t know Malayalam”.
My level of engagement also depends on my mood, of course: if I’ve done some yoga that morning, for example, or my girlfriend made a great cup of coffee, I might very well shake an outstretched hand and let its owner quiz me to their hearts’ content. If, however, I missed my alarm and had to run out the door to get to the station on time, the stares make me feel like an animal in a zoo and, for a moment, I truly resent them. In that moment, I feel like the concept of the word saip completely overrides the concept of the word human. Even though I know that I would haved done the same had I been in these folks’ position, had I lived their lives, it irks me to the point that I would prefer to close my eyes and have Kings of Leon or The Field keep me company until I’m sat at my workstation.
Before you queue up to take shots at my supposed holier-than-thou Western perspective, let me say again: not every day is like that. Living as a very obvious outsider in a foreign country bears all kinds of challenges, and just as regular people do in those cities I mentioned at the top of the article, I sometimes have a bad day. Much more often, those morning train expeditions are a reminder of my good fortune at having such a free pass in a culture that is not my own. In the end the frustrations will fade, and the beaming smiles, peals of high-pitched laughter and earnest curiosity will remain.