If memory serves me well, it was at Shahdol that a hobbling old man in rags and with dirty matted hair boarded the train. A Sikh couple with three small children sat on the berth opposite mine. I remember them because I could not smoke in their presence. Each time there came an urge, I went to the door. The year was probably 1986.

The old man was a beggar. He came from life’s hard ways. Life treats some very coarsely and one may never know why. I was travelling from Bilaspur to Katni and thence to Jabalpur. All three were part of Madhya Pradesh then. That was before the formation of Chhattisgarh in 2000. Bilaspur to Katni is one of the most picturesque stretches of rail travel through some of the thickest jungles. There come several wild rivers, waterfalls and endless thickets of dense vegetation beyond which rise many hills of ancient times. Denuded and weather-beaten, the hills have turned dark.

Hobbling from berth to berth, the old man went around imploring one and all for alms. Deftly clapping two small pieces of asbestos in his fingers with chipped nails, he was hoarsely singing a hymn to their beat. Some gave money, some ignored, some shooed him away. When he reached our berths at our end of the coach, the Sikh gentleman offered some coins. I, too, put a fifty paisa on his wrinkled and outstretched palm. He then sat down on the floor where our feet rested. We shuffled our feet to give space which he in any case would have taken possession of, such being the ways in our trains of lesser prestige and privilege. Also, generally, passengers in such trains do not take seriously the issues of reserved or unreserved journeys. Space to sit is more important. The unreserved intrude and occupy berths and places wherever and however they can.

Sometimes it involves a plain request (usually met out of a sense of consideration, albeit unwilling) and at other times there is some pushing and jostling. In some cases, there is a mild fisticuff wherein the passenger with a reservation may be physically dislodged from their seat. That the rightful owner holds a reserved ticket and claims to occupancy, and the intruder not even a journey ticket, is not always a legitimate argument. “Everyone has to travel to one’s village; it is as important for the unreserved or ticketless as it is for the reserved and ticketed.” That the coach is only for passengers holding reserved tickets is not always a moral basis for settling disputes. In their bureaucratic pragmatism, the railway’s ticket checkers usually keep away from these trains. People’s will prevails.

Frequently, goats, dogs, calves, fish and poultry travel with their owners to small and big markets in our villages and townships. Human or livestock, neither has a ticket. The smaller railway stations dotting the countryside often have a flavour of the village common space where people gather for chitchat and village gossip. Life adapts in different ways.

So, having collected alms, the elderly beggar came and sat between the family and me. By the looks of him, he was unmindful of either. While he sat, he kept scratching his beard or drinking water from a chipped ceramic bowl. Occasionally he looked around, but at no one in particular. Soon enough, he decided to lie down. His head went under my berth and feet under where the family sat. The torso that lay in between looked headless and legless. The family and I let him be.

Needing a smoke, I took out the cigarette packet from my shirt pocket. As I rose, out came a fifty-paisa coin. It fell, clinked and rested near where the old man’s knees were on the floor. As I bent down and picked it up he brought out his feet and head from under the berths, sat up and took out a tattered pouch from the waistband of his dirty rag of a half-dhoti. Counting the coins therein, he repeated the exercise a couple of times. Then tucking the pouch back into his waist, he looked at me and said, “Return the fifty-paisa coin. It came from my pouch. You have stolen my money. There are witnesses.”

It was an unexpected turn of both the event and the coin. I could let him have the lucre but his accusation, manner and tone were clearly an affront and ill-treatment. After all, I had let him sit, lie and feel comfortable in a space to which he was not entitled. Now he was accusing me of stealing. Since he was an old man of life’s harsh ways, I told him the coin was mine and had fallen from my shirt pocket. Disregarding that, he again asked for the coin and began calling me names. His voice was turning rough and harsh, and gesticulations threatening. There was a commotion and people from the nearby berths turned their heads and looked amused. The Sikh family stood by me and told the elderly man that the coin had indeed fallen out of my shirt pocket. He, however, would not relent. Whatever the error in his counting from the pouch, he was convinced that I had thieved him. The more time went by, the more dauntless and accusing he became.

Affronted when I did not relent, he lay down in the earlier fashion. This time, however, he clutched my ankle which was next to him on the floor. His mind made up, in no way would I be allowed to escape. Now he threatened, too, that when the next station came I would be handed over to the police. My ankle would remain in his grip till then. With a body part thus clasped, I couldn’t have a smoke. Since I did not want to create a spectacle more than what already was, I let the ankle and the grip be. Even though old and infirm, the clasp was resolute. By that time, I too had decided to call the police at the next station.

After about forty-five minutes, the countryside began opening up. From the thickets we were now out in open plains dotted by houses here and there. Upon seeing the limestone processing plant, I knew we would soon be at Katni. Known for lime production, Katni is a small town with a fine railway station. Torso in view, the old man was still under the berths. Apparently, he did not know that we would soon be reaching a station.

Spotting a policeman, I called out through the barred window. Before long he was next to us in the coach. Baton in hand, his khaki exuded the dominance servilely accepted in our lesser trains. By that time, the old man had come out from under the berths. I recounted the incident to the policeman and how I was being accused of stealing and how the old man was not releasing my ankle. The beggar gave his version of how the coin fell from his pouch and how I had pocketed it, and how he has been holding the ankle for the law to take custody of. Despite the Sikh gentleman’s arguing on my behalf, he was still adamant and saying I should be tonsured and paraded on the platform. He had now begun laying curses on me and the Sikh gentleman. At that point, some of the fellow passengers vouched for what I had recounted. Soon enough, the policeman picked him up by his arm and led him out to the platform. Only then was my captive ankle released more by the force of authority than a change of heart. The amused onlookers had sided with me, the Sikh family more actively.

I am certain the elderly beggar continued to believe I had thieved him and must have laid many an additional curse on me. But such were the circumstances both he and I found ourselves in inadvertently. One may never know why. Most of the times in life, people are blameless. Inexplicably, situations just conjure up.

But at no point did a fellow passenger accuse him of being ticketless (which he indeed was) and intruding into a reserved coach, that he had no business to unlawfully trespass there. The grievance was against his harassment, howsoever inadvertent and misplaced, of another fellow passenger. The grievance did not pertain to laws and rules of travel not even to the fact that he had encroached on a reserved space. Such are the ways in our trains of lesser prestige and privilege.

Something was owed by everyone to the old man in rags and dirty matted hair without a ticket, food or money. Coming to know our people and police so much as I have over the years, I felt assured that given his age and condition, he must have been let off almost immediately. Praise be to the policeman and the passengers of our lesser trains.

Excerpted with permission from Landscapes Of Wilderness, Narendra, HarperCollins India.