Updated: Apr 5, 2020
Picture Credit: Biswaranjan Rout/AP https://www.npr.org
The Mumbai local trains have always been a consistent fount of entertainment. The old man whining about why women wear either extremely low waist or extremely high waist pants, the middle-aged lady describing her son’s shenanigans in an irate manner, the innocent look of most 5-year-olds who stare at the exasperated gaze on every passenger’s face and wonder if this is how they are going to look when they grow up. There are stories galore spoken by this motley crowd, and there are stories galore observed too, by this motley crowd.
It was time I realized that there is someone else observing me too, is all geared to narrate my story suffused with all the space available in the world. Everyone who commutes by the local train ends up making a spectacle at least once in their lifetime. I reminisce the days when after a hectic day’s work I would go for a drink with my friends. While returning home I would prefer slouching to the support in the doorway, and inhale the breeze voraciously – the best antidote to stress. Let the cool air strike your face and you tend to forget what fatigue means. But today was different, I tried hard but nothing could calm me down, not even the soothing air. Tears trickling down my eyes, I reprimanded myself severely, “Listen, girl, stop being a weakling,” as if being a weakling was a matter of shame as if hiding vulnerabilities was a brave thing to do. Two girls whispering amongst themselves, a 10-year ‘something’ gaping at me as if he was seeing an adult crying for the first time, a woman frowning, but nothing could stop me from fighting those volley of tears. The crowd entered and exited and I desperately waited for my station to approach. Finally, it did and when I was just about to get off someone placed a hand on my shoulder. It comforted me instantly. It was a motherly touch and my emotions were deterred by the stroke of its fingers. I turned back and tried to peer through my watery vision. I had never seen her comforting anyone, I had never seen that emotional expression on his face, I had never seen her act so humanly, I had seen him as a mendicant, a thug, a person who seeks sympathy and hanker after money, but never had I seen her in the role of a consoler. I was extremely confused with the way I was supposed to address this entity but the way it made me feel today and replaced the soothing breeze with her comforting touch, I realised that it didn’t matter if the touch was by a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, in the large scheme of things and in the rickety state of everyday affairs, who cares what gender anybody belongs to, what matters is how people make you feel at the end of the day.
I was always intimidated by people of her ilk, perhaps it was sticky conditioning that takes a long time to un-glue itself from the insides of the mind or perhaps it was the rotten stereotypical culture which tries to suck everybody into its vortex. But why didn’t I fear today, what made me look at her eye to eye and convey that expression of gratitude? I couldn’t figure it out, which eventually became a reason of me staying up for the most part of that night. The break-off with my boyfriend was not hovering in my mind anymore. My tears were replaced with veritable cluelessness as if some strong force has interchanged the reason in your mind to mull over as if there are a lot of other things that surround you but you turn them a blind eye because of your own predicaments.
The next day, as I wrestled the crowd to enter the train and as usual late for work, I thought to myself – I’ll surely be mortified to teach my own kids about punctuality someday. The crowd lessened and I finally heaved a sigh of relief, but soon my relief swapped into anxiety. I saw her sitting with her legs crossed right at the entrance, making a cone out of her betel leaf and stuffing it into her mouth. For a moment I considered talking to her to be infra dug. What was this indecisiveness grappling me, especially when it’s something so important, especially when I felt it was so essential to thank her. “What’s your name”, I asked her with an undertone of reticence in my voice. She gave me an animated smile and responded without feeling the need to answer my question, “Take care of yourself and stop crying. Life’s too short to be so sad and you are too young. You must have fun – loads of it.” and got off the train, thereby tying me up in knots again. Years of education, experience in organizations now seemed diminutive all of a sudden. Did I ever care about some stranger so selflessly, and even if I did, did I manage to sound so earnest and wise? Sharing pleasantries with her became a part of my daily commuting routine. I’d even chastised her a couple of times to get rid of her incorrigible habits, such as her addiction to betel leaf, spitting in the train and intimidating people with that loud voice, and I did pat on my back for the partial mind makeover I’d given her. Months elapsed, the ritual of meeting and talking continued. She became that familiar face ingrained in my everyday routine.
But as I said, when you are in the local train, you never go unnoticed. Someone’s always observing you, ready to spark rumours, vicious yarns and all sorts of nonsensical things. These days I was eyed with suspicion, surreptitious glances and hush-hush conversations gestating behind my back. One of my family friends reported my kin about the intimacy I shared with the so-called ‘third sex’ (as people addressed them) in the train. Confronted and mocked by friends, family, acquaintances, I decided to change my route. Choosing to change the course of my direction wasn’t easy. I felt ashamed, but always found ways to elude that feeling, and pre-occupied my mind with an escapist attitude. My boyfriend called me up the other day and we patched up, but it didn’t seem like a celebratory event anymore. I got an opportunity to shut people’s mouth but I opted to run away from all those self-righteous monsters, making them emerge as the winners.
I remained an invariable coward, but I'm sure ‘she/he/heshe’ is still out there somewhere, alleviating the pain of a lot of other disheartened souls with that ‘comforting touch’.