Archive for » April, 2016 «

Property rights

Circumstances recently dictated that I take a night train from Anuradhapura to Colombo. The railways provided a compartment in which seats could be reserved. I got in past midnight, to find the compartment mostly empty. A sprinkling of men at window seats, one lady at a corner window. My seat, number 20, was an aisle but 19 too was free. Many other pairs of seats too were unoccupied.

I happily spread myself across two seats, looking forward to some semblance of sleep, semi-reclining – probably promoted rather than impeded by the rhythmic racket of the train. By the time we reached the next station, I was already quite pleasantly drowsy. No urge to open my eyes even though train had stopped and sleep not quite reached. Then came a tap on my shoulder. A man was prodding me to make room for him to occupy seat 19, beside me. This, while several pairs of seats were empty. I gestured vaguely at these and mumbled, ‘Do you like to take one of those?’ He didn’t. Holding close to my face the ticket he held, he said, ‘Booking seat, booking seat. My number is 19’. Even in dim train light, the voice could be seen to be emanating from an obvious tobacco face.

To make the point, I immediately stood up, transferred my bag to the rack on the other side and moved across to the pair of empty seats across the aisle – numbers 21 and 22. There I spread myself comfortably again and gave him what I thought were fair imitations of triumphant Mr. Bean looks – as much as to say, ‘So you thought you’d make me travel cramped next to you all the way to Colombo, huh? Well look at how well I am doing here. You didn’t want to sit here did you – well, see how fine I am able to recline here mate’. Whether he got the message I do not know.

As drowsiness returned, my not-yet-asleep mind was still dwelling on the unseating I had just experienced. Had I been in this man’s place, I thought, I’d simply have taken a seat from among the many unoccupied pairs. But here was a fool insistent on claiming pointless title rights. Since he had valid documentation to support, he chose to wedge himself next to me rather than sit comfortably elsewhere. And then came the idea that this little act illustrates our assertion of ‘real’ property rights too: the smug feeling of demonstrating ownership on the basis of holding a piece of paper.

I wondered too about my annoyance at being evicted – to a setting no different from what I had enjoyed until the goon got in. Was I upset that the seats I owned by virtue of prior occupancy were forcibly taken away? Did this annoy me more than the man’s crassness? The loss of my rights may have been more a source of my dwelling on this small matter than the actual trouble of moving seats.

A glorious sunrise was visible from seats 21/22 as we approached Colombo. This sight was not offered to people seated on the other side – as I too would have been had the bloke not pushed me out of 19/20.  Soon after, we both had to leave our seats and get off at Colombo Fort railway station.

How silly the assertion of rights over property that last only until the end of a brief journey!