The nosy co-passenger

It was going to be a long journey to Mumbai, I told myself, as I surveyed my co-passengers in the train compartment. A family of four, comprising an elderly woman, a young man, a young woman, and a toddler (along with 4 large suitcases and 5 bags), were struggling to adjust their luggage under the seats and themselves on the seats. The elderly woman was the boss. No argument there. She decided how and where the luggage was to be placed, the seating and sleeping arrangements for her family, etc. She bullied the man (her son), was quite nasty to the woman (her daughter-in-law), and kept calling the child (her granddaughter) an idiot. She picked a fight with the coolie and shouted him down with the choicest abuse and sheer volume. She had a “Lalita Pawar” (for information on who she was, click here) kind of look about her with a screechy voice to match, and it didn’t take me long to name her that.

Yes, it was going to be a long journey to Mumbai in a Sleeper Class coach of the Mumbai-bound Madras Express. It was the year 1997 and a beautiful November morning in Chennai and a perfect day for travel. But somehow with the arrival of my Lalita Pawar,  the day just didn’t seem so beautiful any more.

Once settled, Lalita Pawar turned her attention to her co-passengers. And that was my cue to hastily bury my nose in a book. It was a look that I had seen many-a-times during my travels. It was a look that promised to dig out personal information from a co- passenger, particularly a young woman travelling alone. In fact, I could almost see Lalita Pawar rubbing her hands with gleeful anticipation when she saw me. Though I could feel her eyes boring into me, I did not look up from my book.

The train soon departed and the passengers settled down for the long journey ahead. Lalita Pawar spoke non-stop at the top of her screechy voice. She spoke about her dislike for people who drank, smoked, gambled, lied, disrespected the elderly, those who re-married, and so on. She would stop now and then to berate her daughter-in-law for something or the other, or complain about the quality of the food and tea served in trains, shout at her granddaughter, blah blah blah. My dislike for her kept increasing with every passing minute, and I just hoped that I did not have to speak with her.

Well, as they say, if wishes were horses I would be a very rich woman today !

When more passengers entered the coach at the train’s next halt, I looked up from my book to see who they were. And that was my Big mistake. Lalita Pawar, who was just waiting for an opportunity like this, began her “interrogation session”.

“Hello”, she smiled.

I replied with a namaste.

“So, where are you going?” she asked.

“Mumbai”, I said and went back to my book.

Not that it deterred her. She leaned across from her seat and poked me on the knee forcing me to look up. “Are you married?”

Here it comes, I sighed inwardly. This was going to be a long journey indeed, and a painful one too if I didn’t do something about it. And in an instant, I made up my mind to spin a story far removed from reality and give my Lalita Pawar a life story that would, hopefully, make her stop talking to me.

“Yes, I am.”

“How many children?”

“Three.”

“Three?” Lalita Pawar looked incredulously at me and gave me a once over. “You must have been very young when you got married.”

“Er… I was 18,” I said rather coyly.

“Sons or daughters?”

“All sons.”

“What was the need of 3 children? You already had two sons. Surely, you could have done family planning?”

“Well,” I said bashfully, “We wanted a daughter.”

“A daughter? When you have sons ! How old are your sons?”

“The oldest is 6, the second 4 and the youngest 2 years.”

“They are too young to be left without a mother at this age”, she declared imperiously.”And who is taking care of them while you are away? Must be your mother!”

“No actually, it is my mother-in-law who is taking care of them.” And for added measure, I said, “She is the best mother-in-law in the world.”

Lalita Pawar did not look very pleased, as if my “mother-in-law” was a disgrace to that community. “Hmm… And what does your husband do?”

Here I paused and said delicately and morosely, “He is no more.”

This silenced Lalita Pawar to such an extent that she went quiet and looked away. I heaved a sigh of relief and went back to my book, hoping for the silence to last. Unfortunately, this only lasted for about an hour or so, when suddenly, my leg was poked again and Phase II of the interrogation resumed.

“So, how did he die?”

“Who?” For a minute, I had forgotten the story I had spun.

“Your husband ! Who else?” came the sharp retort.

“Oh him ! Well, he drank himself to death,” I told her in a matter-of-fact tone.

She pursed up her lips and looked at me with deep disapproval as if I was responsible for my “husband’s” death. She fell into a brooding silence once again and I went back to my book. This time the silence lasted through lunch and the afternoon nap. She must have been thinking about my “life story” because as soon as she got up from her nap, Phase III of the interrogation commenced.

“Where are you from? Mumbai or Madras?

“I’m from Mumbai.”

“Then what were you doing in Madras?”

“I had some work here.”

“What work?”

This was the moment I was waiting for. I hesitated for effect. And Lalita Pawar cooed and said encouragingly, “Tell me, beta. What work did you have that you had to leave your 3 children behind?”

“Well, aunty, since you insist, I’ll tell you.” I told her sweetly. “I had come to Madras to meet a prospective groom.”

You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed. Well, actually you could not with the train rattling away. But you know what I mean, don’t you?

“B-but what about your family, your mother-in-law? How could she agree?” she stammered out after she got over the initial shock.

“My mother-in-law? She’s the one who arranged this match,” I purred.

This was the last straw. Lalita Pawar went nearly apoplectic with disapproval and looked away. And that was the end of our interaction. For the rest of the trip, she was the one avoiding eye contact and I was the one staring at her. :-D

 ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

In the course of my travels, I have met different kinds of people and have come away with pleasant and some not-so-pleasant memories. But none of the people were like my “Lalita Pawar”—so thoroughly obnoxious and so totally dislikeable. I could have been rude to her or ignored her questions, but in my experience I have found that this does not work with really persistent people. Anyway, Lalita Pawar would have poked me on my knee till I answered her !

Even though many years have passed since this incident, I had no trouble at all in recalling this encounter and reproducing it here. As I wrote this post, I wondered if I would have reacted differently had I met her now. Perhaps, I would have switched the conversation back to her and her family instead of spinning a yarn. At least, that is what I do these days when people ask me too many personal questions.

A popular saying goes that one cannot really choose one’s relatives. I’d like to add co-passengers to that list, as one cannot choose them either. Or can we?

Notes: (i) The usage of the name “Lalita Pawar” is not meant to be derogatory towards the late actress. It is a reference to the roles of the evil, scheming mother-in-law that she portrayed on the silver screen.

(ii) The original conversation with my “Lalita Pawar” took place in Hindi, which I translated  into English for this post. I must admit that the original conversation was far more earthy with her speaking in shuddh Hindi and I (deliberately) speaking in Bambaiya Hindi :-)

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This post has been submitted for the “Around the World with Expedia” contest organised by Indiblogger in association with, Expedia.

Do you have a similar story to share? If so I would love to hear about it here. And if you liked this post, and even if you didn’t, do stop by and leave a comment.

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104 thoughts on “The nosy co-passenger

  1. ha ha ha! spunky!

    I think that making up stories in response to the curiosity of obnoxious strangers is the only way to respond. not only does it shut people, it infuses humour in what would otherwise be a very hopeless situation for you.

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      • well, not to strangers but relatives can be annoying as well….when my grandmother started bugging me about getting married, I invented a whole new homosexual partner and convinced her that I wasn’t returning to heterosexuality any time soon. I think she aged those couple of years more than she ever had before.

        There was this one time when I was sitting in a cafe in Las Ramblas in Barcelona, enjoying a cold winters night, a man walked up and complimented me about my looks. Which I took graciously. And then he sat opposite me asking me if I would come and spend the night with him. I politely refused. But he didnt budge. So finally, I invented boorish Indian brothers who would kill me and him were they ever to find out that he had even suggested it. I totally played up the honour killing thing, playing right into all the western stereotypes about India. But sometimes, (very rarely), stereotypes come in useful.

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        • I never thought about stereotypes in that way, but you are quite right. I am reminded of some of the questions that my niece was asked when she spent a year in Belgium. Depending on her mood and the type of person asking the question, she would either conter the stereotype or play along with them. She was once asked if there were cars in India. And I am very proud to say, that without batting an eyelid, she said no, and that people travelled by their personal elephants ! :-)

          As for relatives, less said the better ! But still… your poor grandmother

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  2. ROFL Sudha. I could just see you answering that woman. I spin yarns to put off nosy people too, but never this interestingly. All the best for the contest. Psst. Does the prize include a trip for two? Can I come along, if it is? :D

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  3. what a wonderful story, Sudha!! loved every bit of it!! i read ur post yesterday, but wasnt able to comment, hence coming back today :D and this makes me realise that i have been much, much luckier in my travel companions on Indian Railways!

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  4. What a great story ! Simply loved this ! I did something like this amidst nosy relatives about 35 years ago, before someone’s wedding (not mine), and was promptly given glares and possibly declared persona non grata by the folks. I still laugh about it when i remember it.

    Wish you all the best for the contest …. you need to start a “waiting list” of all the folks who might want to join you on a trip for 2…. .

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    • Nosy relatives and nosy co-passengers :-) Quite a group they are, aren’t they. Would to hear what you told them.
      And as as of now your waiting list status is WL1/WL/1 :-), provided that my ticket gets confirmed !

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  5. lol :D Train travels do open up interesting characters, i generally go and secure my sleeping berth to avoid such nosy people :D Really wonderful read, Sudhajee! Enjoyed it to the hilt! All the very best for the contest :)

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    • Thank you very much, Arti. It’s a LOL moment now, but at that time I wasn’t feeling like it. If only I had an upper berth during that trip (I had the lower berth), I could have escaped from her, and well there would have been a different incident narrated here. :-D

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  6. I loved it :) seems so realistic for the fact that this happened to me when I was in a relationship and had not confessed it to my relatives( relatives are above parents technically in the marriage scenario :D) and seen this happening to my cousin lately :) .. inquisitive souls … :D

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  7. i dont like co-passengers but at times they turn out to be very nice and sweet. and cooking up stories? we just get better with time :D

    enjoyed the read. all the best for that contest thing :)

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    • A warm welcome to my blog, Gardner at 60. I am so glad you liked it and that you were able to laugh. Do not forget to let me know what happens when you try out this tip :-)

      PS. Your name is very intriguing !!!

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  8. That was hilarious. Your lady sounds like an obnoxious character. Glad you gave her your yarn. The first time a co-passenger was nosy, I was stumped. He asked me my salary. The next time I was better prepared. I do enjoy the ones who talk about non-personal things and not all the time. Breaks the monotony of a long journey.

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  9. I actually saw every character in the scene and each and every expression of yours came live before my eyes …Still could not stop laughing….Also I remembered one of my rail journeys with Sheba years ago.

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  10. This journey reminded me of that Police wale uncle who took so much pain just to know my last name (caste) and I kept telling my and all my relatives first names. Superb was his expression when he finally been able to find my caste, asking directly obviously! I would have shared it on my post :P

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  11. You are right we cannot choose our co-passengers but it is easier getting down from a vehicle than cutting off the relationships LOL.

    I love the way you handled her…
    I at times give an angry stare when they ask questions to strike terror in their hearts that may be I am not mentally and should not be disturbed. Other times I weave various tales to mislead them. I enjoy even the miss calls if I am in a proper mood.. ;)

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  12. See, now I know how to respond to people who ask me extremely personal questions. Spin a yarn. I might even regurgitate the one here. Thanks, Sudha. :D

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  13. I love your writing! Lalita Pawar was right in front of my eyes… What an interesting and gripping narrative… Simply loved it! And must tell you, your tales are amazingly interesting! Hats off Bambaiya mulgi!

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  14. LOL. I never tell tales but I once spun a similar yarn for the benefit of a nosy Punjabi gentlemen travelling with me from Toronto to Delhi. Told him I was married with two kids (I am not married- but I wanted to avoid his queries on why I was not married) and that my husband lives in Toronto while poor me brings up two kids in Delhi. :P
    Almost got caught because then he claimed to know almost all of the Indian population in Toronto !

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    • Ah nosy co-passengers ! What would we do without them for such tales and entertainment ! I’m sure you would have come up with something with the Punjabi gentleman had insisted on knowing more details :-)

      Good to see you here Ruchira. A warm welcome to my blog and hope that you will keep visiting :-)

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  15. A delightful read Sudha…
    But my heart goes out to that lady’s family members. They have to put up with this insufferable woman everyday of their lives.

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    • Thanks, Purba. After the encounter with my Lalita Pawar, I was not surprised to see how lifeless and dull and defeated her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter looked. It was pathetic and depressing and part of the reason why I behaved the way I did !

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    • Welcome here Canary and thank you for stopping by and commenting. My Lalitha Pawar was quite a character, and she had abit of Shashikala too, in her screechy voice. :-) Glad you liked it.

      Now heading over to your post.

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  16. Came across your blog accidentally, while researching Satyendra Dubey. I bet this ‘Lalita Pawar’ must have had the weirdest look about her with you going about your ‘matter of factly’ responses!! Truly enjoyed your narrative!!

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    • Welcome here Shekhar and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      Oh yes, “my” Lalitha Pawar was royally scandalised with my responses. I still can’t forget her face or her expressions. :-D

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  17. Ha Ha I could imagine the lady’s expressions…and as Purba says I feel sorry for her family members and I am sure even though you were bristling with anger at the moment …you had thoroughly enjoyed yourself :)

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    • Oh ! I enjoyed myself all right. I am normally not so rude or wicked to absolute strangers, but my Lalita Pawar’s behaviour was obnoxious and she deserved every bit of the story I spun.

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