last wednesday i took the goa express from madgaon to miraj. it was a short trip by india standards, only seven and a half hours. being the only female and the only english speaker in the sleeper class berth that seated eight, i brought out my guitar to pass the time and maybe break the ice with the shy fellows on the bunk across from me. i even gave them a little guitar lesson.
soon the berth had thirteen occupants, and the uninvited guest that plunked down next to me making four on a bunk that was clearly marked for three was a puffy bald guy in a shiny silver polyester track suit.
track suits are a rare sight here in india — let alone silver, and this guy thought he really had it going on. but for all that, he looked like a semi-deflated michelin man. his name was satya, he’s a building contractor, and he was only hanging out in sleeper class until his bribes convinced the porter to find him and his colleagues a place in 3rd air conditioned.
meanwhile, i was squished and thinking about bribing the conductor to give this silver fellow the heave-ho. but ultimately i’m glad he was there, because i learned a lot.
“tell me,” said satya, with a challenging air, “the difference between america and india.”
“well,” i said, not sure where to begin. “we have really nice roads. and –”
“i’ll tell you!” he said. “it is the family! the marriage! it is forever! it cannot be broken. the father and the mother and the children. we are together and cannot be broken.”
i’m single, never been married, no kids, and traveling alone on the opposite side of the world from my family. i didn’t have much to say other than, “ok.”
then one of the guys from the opposite bunk asked me how much gasoline costs in america. and i told him. he seemed very keen to continue the conversation, but didn’t have the english to do it. i suggested he might continue to learn english by finding an american movie he liked, one with subtitles, and watch it many times and to learn the dialogue backwards and forwards.
satya jumped in.
“they don’t need to learn english,” he said.
“well, it opens doors,” i said.
“they don’t have time to watch a movie many times!” then he added under his breath, “however, watching american movies is how i learned english.”
“the people who know english in this country are the ones who are getting the good jobs,” i said, and while i’m at it, “don’t you think india would be better off if the masses were educated? it seems like a great resource is not being tapped by having so many people who can’t read and write.”
“no! the masses do not need to know how to read and write! i don’t want my workers to be educated!” he said.
“educated people make better employees,” i said.
“no they don’t. if i say, ‘i will give you one hundred rupees’ to do a job, if you are educated, i have to give you one hundred rupees. if you are not, i say, ‘i will give you one hundred rupees’, and i give you fifty. see?”
“i see,” i said.
“and if you are educated, not only do i have to give you one hundred rupees, after six months you come to me and say now you want one hundred twenty rupees or you will leave!”
“well, ya, you have to treat good employees well to retain them.”
“no! if they are educated they get together and make demands! they do!”
“you’re a building contractor, right? what if you came up with a low cost house — and you paid your employees enough to purchase one of the homes you build? you could have many more customers — your own employees would have enough money to become your customers! you would be a hero and your business would grow and grow.”
“bah!” said satya.
i felt like george bailey trying to reason with mr. potter in it’s a wonderful life.
“well, some of the most successful american companies pay their employees very well, in fact they have profit sharing.”
“profit sharing! now you are starting to sound like gandhi! you know what he said?! he said that the owner of a company should own only fifty-five percent of his own company! and that the workers should own forty-five percent. forty-five percent! it’s ridiculous! absolutely not. it would never work.”
“hmm” i said.
i closed my eyes and wished he were somewhere else.
when i opened my eyes again he said, “are you on facebook?”
“ya, but i keep it for close friends only.”
“and special friends? like me?”
i shook my head.
“i’ll give you my email address, but you have to promise me you will send me a picture of you in all the places you visit.”
“that won’t happen,” i said.
“i’ll give you my number. call me when you come to delhi, and i will show you all the special places in the city.”
“I’m not looking for a boyfriend,” i said.
he wrote his number in the back of my notebook and underlined his name twice.
“this is a very special number,” he said.
“of course it is,” i said.
his work colleagues called him. apparently the bribes had worked. he was off to 3rd air conditioned. he got up to go.
“call me,” he said.
i watched his broad shiny silver polyester backside leave the berth. i stretched out my legs on the bunk and closed my eyes. soon i was asleep from the gentle rock and steady click-clack of the train.