On a recent trip to India, I travelled by train — a distance of 100 kilometres — to meet a childhood friend. The train was a Fast Passenger. “What’s the difference between a fast passenger and a slow passenger train,” I asked another friend before setting out. Not a lot, I was informed. “Both stop at all stations only the slow passenger stops longer.” Not entirely true, because my fast passenger actually did zip through a few wayside stations.
A passenger train, however, I realise, is the best way of seeing everyday life unfold through a variety of people who get on and off. Vendors make their way from carriage to carriage with their wares going ‘for a song’: Key chains, hairclips, elasticised belts, safety chains, toy flutes blown melodiously before one’s very eyes, packs of cards. It is a pack of cards that eventually becomes the focus of my attention for the rest of the journey.
When I embarked, I had the cubicle to myself, but at the very next station, seven men and a briefcase entered and shared space with me for the rest of the way. Straightaway, I could tell they were a group of regular fellow travellers. The way they arranged themselves — three on one side, three opposite, knees touching — spoke of an everyday routine. The black leather briefcase placed in the centre of their touching knees was transformed instantly into a card table. Not before it was flipped open briefly and made to produce three packs of cards. The seventh man sitting slightly apart extracted a small writing pad and pencil from a plastic plaited bag at his side. He, I discovered, was the designated ‘scorer’.
It’s fascinating to observe card players in action. Each has his own way of holding the cards: Grouped really close; fanned out wide. Each has a way of picking a card from the deck while keeping the cards in his hand shielded.
From the general conversation, I gathered that he — the scorer — stayed away from any form of gambling, even if it was only playing for points, because of a hard lesson learned in his younger life: His father, addicted to card-playing, gambled away (and lost) one of their two houses and (luckily for the family, he says) died before he could gamble the other one away, too. It’s hard to say if this was a joke or not. Nobody laughed, maybe out of respect, or because they’d heard it so often.
With the scorer and his equipment ready, the card games began in earnest. All chatter ceased. It’s fascinating to observe card players in action. Each has his own way of holding the cards: Grouped really close; fanned out wide. Each has a way of picking a card from the deck while keeping the cards in his hand shielded. One leans forward cautiously, straight backed, card hand pressed carefully to chest; another makes a quick lunge, swooping on the deck like a bird of prey, before plucking a card and sitting back. Yet another man is in the habit of placing his hand on the deck for two seconds, almost meditatively, before flicking the top card up with an audible ‘flick’ and quickly sitting back.
One of the six is both playing and speaking about work on his mobile, tucked under his neck. The scorer, meanwhile, is lending his non-playing advice to the card player nearest to him. Like they are partners. It is the only conversation taking place and it’s somewhat coded. Pointing to specific cards that they hold, they say things like, “Keep this one; let that one go.”
A sixth player has little or no mannerism to speak of. Nothing overt, nothing showy. At the end of their journey — just before they all disembark after playing nearly nine or ten games — it is revealed that this man is the winner; the one with the low profile. I wonder to myself if maybe that’s a lesson on how one should go about life to stay on top.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.