Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Encounters of the Touchable Kind

 I was travelling for some work in the morning crushing rush hour in Mumbai's Central Railway. Typically , no place to stand, forget sit. I was squeezed in, in a weird position somewhere near the door to one side, and even if I wanted to scratch my forehead, I was probably going to injure 3-4 people with my elbow.

It is a truth , at least acknowledged in Mumbai, that even if there is absolutely no space in a train, sheer and blatant willpower combined with a not so gentle shove creates, along with several unpleasant things, some space.

Someone wanted to get off at the next station, and typically requested me to try and make some space for them to advance. I sort of moved maybe 1/100th of a centimetre to the right, only to sense that I had stepped on some one's 1-cm-squared portion of a hand or foot, The doubt arose because this person was sitting right in the doorway , and human anatomy combined with the assorted passenger height distribution made it impossible to see who was where.

What followed was a thump of a wrist on my ankle, along with some high decibel abuse in an unnaturally bass voice completely out of sync with the fact that this was a second class ladies compartment. I got about full three minutes of abuse in a completely alien language, possibly with special choice expletives thrown in, cursing me and probably my future five or six generations to some untold bad tidings. This was accomplished by a tentative waving of hands , and an animated shaking viscera, while maintaining precarious balance in the doorway, as the ever expanding crowd in the central passage of the compartment ensured that involuntary exits from the doorway were entirely in the realm of the possible.

With some previous practice,in the handling of folks causing trouble in local trains, and oblivious to everyone else, I asked this person to suggest how people could get off at stations, unless we moved. Wasn't it clear that some tolerance was required, and no one was fond of stepping on other folks limbs as a hobby? I got an answer back, in some language I didn't understand, with further wild gesticulation, jutting out of chins, and a distinct show of attitude.

Nobody paid much attention. These things happen several times every half hour. Some non-believers in non-violence even get into action, which is a distinctly dangerous activity given the location and the crowd. By and by , communication between me and this person, kind of exponentially decreased, everyone got a bored look on their faces, possibly implying what else was to be expected given folks like "us".....

The train was a minute away from reaching the half way junction Dadar. Probably the world's only example of how travellers literally "pour" out of compartments and "attack" compartment entrances to climb in , in a way that makes you wonder if the capacity of the compartment is infinite.

Anyway, here I was , trying to advance to the door, along with several others. Working young girls, winding their hair curls just so, hoisting their bags with their lunch, water bottles and all. Mothers with children, clutching school bags, that sometimes , give rough-and-tough anti-scoliosis treatment at the wrong age to young vertebrae. Vegetable seller ladies with their supreme disdain for faltu fashion, sarees firmly tucked in, huge baskets, looming over everyone, and two such ladies having a loud conversation across several passengers, on how someone was in trouble for not "paying up" someone. A chikoo vendor lady, trying to transport, with supreme confidence, hitherto never noticed in even our cricket team, several kilos of chikoos, unsmashed , from Thane to Dadar.

Normally folks sitting in the door get up , way before the train glides into the station, to avoid being trampled to death by the masses. I suddenly noticed my aforementioned "adversary", trying to get up, unsuccessful at putting weight on the hands , and unable to get a grip on something firm to lever ones self up. Without any thought and as if in reflex action, I extended my hand, which was gripped by a strong, almost masculine hand. Half a minute later this figure in a saree loomed up in the doorway, still holding my hand. Then it was let go.

Why ?

A grandly made-up face wreathed in grateful smiles, one hand was waved about my face (the other was clutching the entrance rod for dear life) , and this person touched both fists to the sides of the head, all the while again saying something , again, in a language I didn't understand. With lateral nodding of a slim neck, bedecked with false jewellery, heavy makeup, and a saree pallu carelessly thrown over the left shoulder, I was the recipient of smiles, blessings, good wishes , for god knows what life events,

A complete transformation from an "enemy" to a friend. For unexpectedly helping.

The person sitting in the doorway was a hermaphrodite, known in Mumbai local parlance as a hijda or , chchakka. An example of nature gone wrong during some process, but consequently, a life, completely changed for ever.

The reaction for inadvertently stepping on toes was an understandable enhancement over an already seething anger , against constant facing up to derision
from the general populace. An in-you-face answer to a population, (that shirks and shies away, treating these folks as untouchables), revelling in their own goodluck at being born completely of a single sex.

The helping hand was a purely involuntary affair. In the chock-a-block sardine like packing of humans in the compartment, thinking never occurred to me. Someone obviously needed help. Maybe there was a muscle condition or problem. Maybe a fatigue problem. Who knows. But we were taught always to go in there and help, and not worry over who it was ,how sick, how different, and how angry. Discrimination on the basis of caste.religion, sex, or age , by us , would have , always ensured gross parental non-approval. My parents were no more, but my reaction was almost automatic.

We got off at Dadar. Flowed out of the compartment is more like it. This person, still muttering something, which I hope were good wishes, got off, smiled at me and turned to wait for friends emerging from other compartments. I got several looks from folks who thought all this was too much. Some people just went shaking their heads, trying to ensure nil bodily contact with my friend as everyone pushed everyone else to reach the bottom of the stairs leading to the over bridge.

I waited , adjusted my dupatta, checked my purse to see if everything was in place. (You never know who has been active with single minded devotion to purses, in the exiting crowd). Hiked my bag over my shoulder. The density on the stairs was reducing and it was time to get going. As I angled myself to tackle the eerily sloped long ramp to the over bridge, I glanced over to my right. My friend was in the midst of more friends. Talking nineteen to the dozen in the same language in which I had been first cursed roundly and then blessed, even more roundly. A shake of the hip, a flip of the paloo, a wee thrusting out of the abdomen, and they were on their way.

I waved and the entire lot waved back at me. I felt good. I hope they felt good. The only folks who didn't know what to feel, were those watching us from the platform, still debating whether to display their sense of disgust, incomprehension, or wonder at what the world was coming too.

The Father of the Nation was probably chuckling to himself somewhere UP There.

60 years and these folks still have not learnt a thing ?


  1. grrrrrrrr you made me cry.

    this is way too good. the best i have read from you. as usual u saved the best for last.

    "I felt good. I hope they felt good. The only folks who didn't know what to feel, were those watching us from the platform, still debating whether to display their sense of disgust, incomprehension, or wonder at what the world was coming too."

    and the purse checking was practical but still very funny:)

    super duper post:) had just what i like, exactly way i liked.

  2. Hi greetings! I have lived in Mumbai and can relate to what you wrote; It is not very usual thing to do what you did. Good to see compassion in this uncompassionate city, after all its the only city with such blaring contrasts.

  3. Congratulations :) This post in one of the winners of 'Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards - 2011' (TRBA 2011). We would like to create an ebook with all the winning entries in 47 categories on Feminism and Gender Issues in India (and one category on Animals Rights). Please do let us know if you are fine with your winning post/s being included in this ebook. ( Please click here to let us know).

  4. Hey Suranga, that was a wonderful post. We certainly don't look at the person's caste and creed or even sexual orientation when we involuntarily extend our hands in times of need, just as you did. The Father of the Nation observation was pertinent :)

    (I couldn't post this comment that day since blogger created problems for me)

  5. I have become a fan of your writing!

  6. आपके द्वारा दी गई जानकारी बहुत ही लाभदायक है. जाने Manav Garima Yojanaजो अनुसूचित जाति ,अनुसूचित जनजाति और पिछड़े वर्गों से संबंधित हैं। राज्य में निचले वर्ग के लोगों को रोजगार में शामिल होने और सुधारने के लिए प्रोत्साहित करने के लिए योजना शुरू की गई