I love to travel. Train, bus, ship, air - all kinds of travel gives me a thrill like no other. And as much as I love to travel with my better half, there are times when I prefer to travel alone too. Mainly because it gives me enough time to think and also lets me observe people. I’m also the sort of person who prefers (and secretly hopes) that the seat next to him remains empty. Except when travelling with my wife that is. Or when it is occupied by a really charming woman. The problem is that though I am not a great conversationalist, I am a pretty good listener. And I acknowledge. Which means, I am frequently hounded by talkative people who are happy to have got someone to listen to their rather “serious conditions”. And I’m just too nice to ask them to shut up. Over the years, I’ve had the unfortunate “pleasure” of travelling with a number of rather unique co-travellers. But nothing spoils your travelling experience like having a fellow-traveller who takes everything seriously, quite literally (Also now popularly known as people "jinki #ConditionSeriousHai") My chance encounter with this rather “serious aunt” happened two weeks ago, during one of my solo-trips from Bangalore to Chennai. I had just plugged in my headphones and was scrolling through my iPad looking for something to watch, when I noticed a rather large shadow loom over me. I glanced up and saw slightly elder lady glaring at me. Confused, I threw a questioning look, to which she responded with a pointed finger. I followed her finger and found that she was gesturing at one of the straps of my laptop bag, a tiny part of which, was lying on the seat next to me. Nodding my head in acknowledgement, I tugged at the strap firmly, so that no part of my bag (or me) was touching the adjacent seat. Apparently satisfied with this, the lady opened up her large handbag and procured a pack of facial tissues. And as I watched, she dusted the seat and the arm rest with a couple of these tissues and eventually sat down next to me. Ignoring her, I started to put my headphones back on, when I heard the gentle squeeze of a bottle next to me. Out of the corner of my eyes, I noticed that she was using one of those hand sanitisers to “cleanse” her hands. She then took out a small cannister and sprayed it a few times all around her. And then she covered her face completely with a cloth face-mask (yes, the kind that became popular when Swine Flu was doing its rounds). I grinned, as I went back to fiddling with my iPad trying to locate something to help me pass the time. But little did I then know, that all the "entertainment" that I would require for the six hours of travel, was sitting right next to me.
After about thirty minutes of flipping through the iPad, having been unable to find anything interesting, I glanced at the lady on my left once again. She had her tray table out and had laid out an A4 sized sheet of paper (which I assumed was her ticket printout) along with a laminated ID card. “Man, she’s so organised!” I thought, as I patted my shirt pocket to make sure I had a copy of my ticket. As the Ticket Inspector approached, she slowly put her hands into the depths of her handbag and dug out something that was neatly wrapped up in plastic. On closer inspection, I noticed that it was a pair of disposable sandwich gloves. She put them on and impatiently started tapping her fingers on tray table. When the inspector asked her for the ticket, she handed over the A4 sheet and quickly flashed her ID at the inspector. When he returned the ticket, she carefully wrapped up the ticket in the one of the gloves, put them together into another plastic bag and put this package into her handbag. She then pulled out her santiser spray again and gently cleaned the laminated ID card with a piece of tissue. Satisfied with her endeavour, she put the card back into her wallet and leaned back against her seat. Amused by the entire episode, I let out a slight snigger. She quickly looked at me and asked “So, you think this is funny? Do you know how many germs get passed merely through touching another person’s hand?” Too stunned to reply, I whispered a meek “Sorry” and quickly diverted my attention back to the iPad. As I scrolled through the iPad, I could sense that the lady was observing my actions. Not wanting to be at the receiving end of another outburst, I pretended not to notice her. After a little while, she said “Excuse me. It might not be my business, but I’ve been noticing that you have been scrolling through that machine for a while now. Do you want a tissue? I can see smudge marks all over the screen, even from here.” As much as I wanted to say “It’s none of your business!”, I quietly nodded, which prompted her to pass me a piece of tissue, using something that resembled a pair of tweezers. I mouthed a “Thank you” and in a bid to get her to look away, I slowly started vigorously rubbing my iPad screen in a circular motion, hoping that she wouldn’t construe my acceptance of her tissue as an invitation to chit-chat.
Unfortunately she did, and before long, she was going on about how her son had told her about an invention, a pair of gloves to be more specific, that would let everyone use touch-screens without the fear of “getting any germs transmitted”. Being an engineer and a techie, I really wanted to stop her at that point and tell her that the pair of gloves was meant to be an invention that would let you use your touchscreen without any problem even during really cold weather, and not meant to prevent the transfer of "hand-spread bacteria". But something told me that it wouldn’t be a good idea to start a technical conversation with her, and I remained silent, occasionally nodding my head. As the journey progressed, she continued to ramble on about seemingly trivial little topics that according to her, were “quite serious” in nature. These included but were not limited to how it was important to keep everything neat, the importance of being organised when travelling, how she was always concerned about health and getting infections from people, how she hated it if things were out of place and without any sense of order, be it a carpet that was slightly out of alignment with the floor tiles or a bookshelf that did not have the books arranged in the order of their height. She also added how it really drove her mad when “kids these days” (I’m quite sure she meant me) were always so engrossed in their little gadgets and not serious enough about their health, career and settling down in life.
“Oh dear lord!” I thought, as I absent-mindedly scratched the remnants of an old, un-healed wound on one of my arms. After a few seconds, I realised that she had stopped talking. I looked at her and realised that she too was scratching one of her arms. Unsure how to react, I slowly stopped scratching and looked at her. She continued scratching, all the whilst recoiling at the scar on my hand which had turned slightly pinkish, due my scratching. “Have you gotten that checked? Do you have a dog? Maybe it’s an allergy. Do you know if it’s contagious?” she asked with a distressed look on her face. For a moment, I almost felt that she was going to whip out her sanitiser canister and spray it all over me. I smiled at her and said, “That’s just an old wound. It’s taking its own time to heal.” “Oh no!” she exclaimed loudly. "How long has it been? If it’s been more than a month and it hasn’t healed, it might be infected. When did you last see the doctor? Has it been more than a few months? Then you might be diabetic! How old are you? When did you last check your blood sugar?” I stared at the woman, surprised at her panic attack. “Ma’am” I said, unsure how else I could address her, “Please calm down. This is a wound from when I fell down a few weeks ago. Each time it almost heals, I inadvertently scratch and it opens up again. That’s the reason. It’s not because I’m diabetic or have an infection.”
That answer seemed to have satisfied her and she both stopped scratching as well as talking to me. Though a few minutes later, I did notice that she had pulled out a full-sleeved sweater from her bag and put it on, taking special care to ensure that no part of her hand ever touched mine. “What a nut-job!” I thought to myself as I looked at my watch. We would be pulling into Chennai in under an hour, and I couldn’t wait to get out of the train, away from this strange woman with her “serious obsession” with trivial things. As I sat there tapping my feet, I couldn’t help but notice a rustling sound beside me. Once again, curiosity got the better of me and I peeked out of the corner of my eye. The lady had taken out another one of her disposable sandwich gloves and was busy trying to fit her hands into these. From within the abyss of her large handbag, she brought out a rectangular bar which was enclosed in a shiny red wrapper with bits of white writing on it. A closer look revealed that it was the “four-fingered” version of a popular chocolate brand. As I watched, she patiently opened the red wrapper making sure that she had cut along the designated dotted line with a pair of small scissors. Once this was done, she carefully folded the wrapper up in precise, neat folds and put it into a tiny plastic bag she had. She carefully took the chocolate, which was still wrapped in a shiny aluminium foil and made three tiny cuts on the foil. At this point, I stopped peering out of the corner of my eyes and was quite literally staring at her, wondering what she was going to do. And then, as I watched, she pulled out a ruler and carefully marked three vertical lines on the aluminium foil with an architect’s precision. Satisfied with her work, she carefully “snapped” off one of these “fingers”, all the while making sure that it had broken off in a straight line. I continued to stare at her, in the hope that she would realise that she was taking this "obsessiveness for order" to a whole new level. Unfortunately, she didn’t notice and continued to carefully peel off the wrapper of this lone chocolate finger.
As the train pulled into the platform at Chennai Central railway station, I slowly got off my seat and moved into the aisle to pick up my back pack from the top shelf. As I swung my backpack around my shoulder, I was struck with a rather cheeky idea. Now, I’m not usually one to respond to people who irritate me, but over the course of the six hour journey, I had borne the brunt of the lady and "serious condition" and I wanted to desperately give her a piece of my mind. I fumbled through my back pack till I found what I was looking for. As the train came to slow halt, I looked at the lady and showed her what I had in my hand. And as she watched, I haphazardly stripped the golden yellow wrapper off (on purpose of course), and took a large, un-symmetrical bite of the chocolate. Wiping the oozing caramel away from my lips, I smiled and said “Take a chill pill, ma’am. Seriousness is a very serious disease!”. As I turned to walk away, I felt my backpack connect with her arm. I glanced over at her and said “I’m sorry about that ma’am. If I were you, I’d wash your hands right away. You’ve no idea where all my bag has been.”
As I walked away with a million dollar smile on my face, I could hear the now-familiar squeeze of the sanitiser bottle echo from a few yards behind me.
This post is written for the #ConditionSeriousHai contest, organised by the site IndiBlogger in association with Cadbury 5 Star. Check out the Cadbury 5 star Facebook page here, and live a little less seriously.
Disclaimer: Though the lady in this encounter was probably a really "rare and unique" example, and in all likelihood, be hell bent on hunting me down after this post gets published, I do acknowledge that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a serious concern. Why, somewhere deep down, I strongly believe that I too have OCD. Why else does a tangled wire drive me up the wall? Or constantly check under the seat when I go to a movie theatre? We all have traces of it. But the lighter we can make of a situation, the more we enjoy life. For now, have Cadbury 5 Star and enjoy yourself.