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The following quote is from the story "Fellow-Feeling" in R. K. Narayan's short story collection Malgudi Days (I've been reading it online, and this story is only 5 pages long). Emphasis added by me.

Rajam Iyer found a seat and made himself comfortable opposite a sallow, meek passenger, who suddenly removed his coat, folded it and placed it under his head and lay down, shrinking himself to the area he had occupied while he was sitting. With his knees drawn up almost to his chin, he rolled himself into a ball. Rajam Iyer threw at him an indulgent, compassionate look. He then fumbled for his glasses and pulled out of his pocket a small book, which set forth in clear Tamil the significance of the obscure Sandhi rites that every Brahmin worth the name performs thrice daily.

He was startled out of this pleasant languor by a series of growls coming from a passenger who had got in at Katpadi. The newcomer, looking for a seat, had been irritated by the spectacle of the meek passenger asleep and had enforced the law of the third-class. He then encroached on most of the meek passenger’s legitimate space and began to deliver home-truths which passed by easy stages from impudence to impertinence and finally to ribaldry.

  1. What is "the law of the third-class"? (The context is a crowded train named the Madras-Bangalore Express, between Katpadi and Jalarpet, and the story was published in 1943 and set certainly some time during the British rule in India.)
  2. What is meant by "home-truths" here? To me this term means true facts about oneself, often unwelcome but useful to know. In this case it seems to mean pointless insults against a stranger? It doesn't say who the newcomer is speaking to, but it seems he's just mindlessly insulting the meek passenger?
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The "law of the third-class" (well, second class now, since the third class has long since been abolished) is that as many people can sit on a space as is (in)humanly possible. That's to say, while seating may actually be for n people per bench, in a crowded train (occasionally even when it's not crowded) n+k people will be sitting, for some k > 0. Usually k is 1, but I have seen it go up to n for small values of n (~3). (Something like this image.) This does happen rather rarely in first class compartments (usually when a person who rarely rides in first class somehow manages to get a ride there).

A bit earlier in the text:

At the next halt, Mandhakam, most of the passengers got down. The compartment built to ‘seat 8 passengers; 4 British Troops, or 6 Indian Troops’ now carried only nine.

While it's possible some people might have been standing, I think it's more likely that Rajam himself found a place to sit thanks to the law of the third-class.


Now-a-days, you're more likely to find references to this using the term "adjust". For example, take this article from Faking News (Indian equivalent of The Onion): 'Thoda adjust karlo' declared national tagline of India. ("Thoda adjust karlo" ~ literally "adjust a little" in Hindi, meaning "scoot over".)

He sat on the third seat in a second class compartment.

An army of commuters blasted in at Dadar station and before he could realise what was happening, 3 people walked in the seating area murmuring ‘Thoda adjust karlo’. To add to this, one guy told him to shift a little to the inside saying ‘Thoda adjust karlo’.

For context, a second class compartment in suburban local trains has benches facing each other, each supposed to seat three passengers. So we have three passengers sitting on a bench, and then three more coming to stand in the space between that bench and the one facing it, and yet another guy asking a sitting person to scoot over (to make room for him to sit). The article is satire, but this does happen countless times every day on Mumbai local trains (and on trains elsewhere in India, but with different layouts and language).


What is meant by "home-truths" here? To me this term means true facts about oneself, often unwelcome but useful to know. In this case it seems to mean pointless insults against a stranger?

Meh, I wouldn't find it surprising if a boisterous passenger were to loudly comment on passing strangers.

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Just to complement the nice answer by @muru, you're right that "home-truths" are unpleasant facts about oneself, so when RK Narayan writes that

[the newcomer] began to deliver home-truths which passed by easy stages from impudence to impertinence and finally to ribaldry

he means that the "newcomer" began loudly pointing out faults in the character of the "meek passenger", continuously increasing in his rudeness. One can very well imagine the "newcomer" saying things along the following lines, mostly directed to his co-passengers to indirectly mock the "meek passenger":

  • "Some people think the entire seat is for their use."

  • Commentary on the kind of upbringing leads to such thoughtless behaviour.

  • Assigning blame for all evils in society to the existence of such people.

  • Easy speculation about the "manhood" of such persons.

  • Etc. etc.

It is quite common for noisy, packed train compartments in India to feature a couple of passengers who pompously impart their deep wisdom, never mind that no one asked for it. Not everyone is a pest like the "newcomer"—think of benevolent grandpas with somewhat outdated views—but it is still a common feature of travel by train in India for it to be relatable.

Also note that Rajam Iyer himself is not above such impulses!

‘What is all this?’ Rajam Iyer asked suddenly, in a hard tone.

‘What is what?’ growled back the newcomer, turning sharply on Rajam Iyer.

‘Moderate your style a bit,’ Rajam Iyer said firmly.

‘You moderate yours first,’ replied the other.

A pause.

‘My man,’ Rajam Iyer began endearingly, ‘this sort of thing will never do.’

The newcomer received this in silence. Rajam Iyer felt encouraged and drove home his moral: ‘Just try and be more courteous, it is your duty.’

‘You mind your business,’ replied the newcomer.

Rajam Iyer shook his head disapprovingly and drawled out a ‘No.’

Of course, in his defence Rajam Iyer engages the "newcomer" because of the latter's rude behaviour, and not to inflate his own ego.

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