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 ?
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An article by Suranga Date aka Ugich Konitari who blogs at Gappa

comment 1 comments:

girlsguidetosurvival on November 30, 2010 at 2:27 AM said...

Hey that is my story. I do that all the time. Sit on the streets with homeless people, chatting and eating with my laptop on the side walk. One time a new batch of desi students who did not know me saw me on the side walk sitting with a homeless person and chatting our hearts, their jaws dropped and I have no clue when they lifted them up.
That was a look I alway like to remember.
Lets keep pushing the boundaries and bring in the margins to the center :) .

Peace,
Desi Girl

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