July 28, 2009

Train Journeys Teach Us

Last week I had to go somewhere by train, a journey of two hours. I had forgotten to make prior reservations and so had to get General Compartment passes at the last minute. Did you gasp? No? Then you should. Because anyone who lives in India or has traveled here knows that a “General Compartment Journey” is a feat all by itself, ranking right up there with “Enduring Classical Music To Be Cool” and “Conversing With People Who Collect Stamps or Coins”. Traveling in the General Compartment is serious business, dears. There are people who never heard of deodorant dangling from all corners, it's so bloody hot and most importantly I'm a young woman traveling alone. Obviously single, since I don't have the traditional sindoor on my forehead or an elaborate toe-ring to prove otherwise. I said several prayers and waited at the station.

The train rolled in forty minutes late, which made it worse because more people than usual were gathered to get on. There was a noise like that of a thousand thunderstorms as me and my fellow countrymen pushed and shoved to get through the door before it started off again. India scorns at sensors on doors or other luxuries like that, you see. Due to the fact that I spend most of my meager allowance on alcohol-containing products, I am usually broke and forced to travel a lot by public transport. Hence I can push and shove with utmost nonchalance. Except old ladies of course. Them I respect. My moves got nothin' on theirs and I don't want to end up looking silly keeling over on the platform with a broken rib-cage.

There was absolutely no room inside. I was squashed in the middle of a whole load of, luckily, women and it was so packed that, and I kid you not, I was lifted off my feet. There were humans above me, around me and below me. I could feel sweating stranger skins on every part of my body, except my chest area which I shielded with my arms, thrusting them at an angle from my torso. It was a trick I developed after too many “accidental” encounters between random male hands and that region. The next station was an hour away. I contented myself till then by trying not to breathe directly from the mouth of the woman opposite me. No easy task, as it was only two inches away and smelt of the paan she was chewing.

There is a panicked rushing around the compartment when the train pulls into a station, as the standing people try to occupy the seats that empty. The very lucky ones managed to find places. I wasn't so fortunate but I did find enough floor space in the middle of two seats to squeeze my ass into. I opened my backpack and started to read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” (an example of how, however good the movie is, the book is always better, no exception). After a while, I could feel someone staring down at me. I ignored it till it started to get annoying. As I looked up defiantly, I caught the eyes of an old hag burning her glare into my forehead. It was obvious she had just been waiting for me to notice her. “Why do you not have a cloth?” she asked loudly enough for the nearest seventy people to cran their necks to floor level and my reddening face. What do you mean?, I whispered. She gestured at my breasts with a disdainful flicker of her bloodshot eyes. Then I understood and a mixture of dismay and embarrassment flooded my soul.

You see, traditional Indian women wear either the sari, a long cloth wound around the body, or they wear a “salwar-kameez” set. This set consists of three things : loose pants, a long shirt-like “kurta” and a “dupatta”. A dupatta is a shawl worn over the breasts to supposedly prevent men from looking there. However, since I was wearing (baggy) jeans and a (loose) tee, the dupatta was missing from my outfit. My virginity-guarding “cloth”, the essential iron vest of good Indian girls, it was nowhere to be seen. And this woman obviously had a problem with it. “Your cloth”, she repeated again, just to be clear. “Where is your cloth?” There was a long moment of silence as the men around now realized they had reason to gaze openly at my chest and proceeded to do so with undiluted glee. I sat there miserably, feeling like the world's skankiest whore.

My mind tried but failed.

A voice spoke out then, cutting through my shame like a scapel into a tumor. “Aww come on” said this voice. She was a fat little lady, comfortably leaning her large backside against the wall. The sweet Sound of Redemption was coming from her precious vocal cords. I pleaded her not to stop with beggary eyes. “You, my dear, do not know fashion,”, she continued, addressing the Old Hag. “You won't understand young people nowadays. You don't watch TV, that's why. Everybody dresses like this, even my daughters. Even the Prime Minister's daughters.” She gave me a gentle wink. The Old Hag started to say something and then hesitated uncertainly. Finally she muttered something about how young women had no decency these days and how the country was going to the dogs, implying darkly that there was a direct connection. Then she fell silent.

I mouthed a “thank you” to the fat lady and moved my backpack to cover my chest. The men groaned in unison, abruptly woken up from their pleasant imaginings. Fortunately, within ten minutes the last station came into view so everyone clambered up. Old Hag was intensely gazing at me again as we were carried towards the door by the swirling mass around us.
“I hope you didn't feel bad, my dear. I don't know all these things. I said it for your own good, I swear.”
“No, no. It was quite all right, no problem”, I said as primly as I could and hastily stepped out into Oxygen and away from her eyes which were again fixed at thorax level.

Wondering vaguely about her orientation, I look around at my fellow Indians, my “brothers and sisters”. The railway platform of any country is a good place to see its people. Everyone is here, each type: the poor, the rich, even the nosy and the annoying, all presenting a fair cross-section of the population. I notice the man standing nearby, shouting into his mobile about some meeting he should have been at but for a fuckin' train delay. His pants are too tight and he's scratching his crotch with absolute abandon. A breeze blows, fluttering open his unbuttoned shirt to expose a large, black nipple. I stare at it and fall deep into thought.

What is the moral of this “cloth” incident?, I ask myself. I debate furiously in my head, back and forth, back and forth, questioning my appearance, my values, my ethics, my life views, my place in the world... I work myself into an absolutely paranoid frenzy of self-loathing.

There is a gentle tap on my shoulder. “The moral of the story”, said the fat lady sweetly, “is that you should make sure you reserve tickets next time. India is a democracy, and like in all countries where there is freedom of speech, some people can be assholes.” She pats my face reassuringly and walks away. The man on the phone was scratching his ass by now. That's when I realized. I fit in. Just like him, I belong because I am exactly who I'm supposed to be. A flawed but vital component of this motley crowd.

There is always redemption in my stories, however small.