Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Just Another Commute

Sometime in October of 1998, I was transferred from Baroda to Anand. The two cities in Gujarat are about 40 kms apart. I had trouble locating a suitable place to stay at Anand. For about three months, I commuted between the two places taking the convenient 9 O’ clock train which dropped me off at Anand by ten.

The shuttle trains were a class apart. They are designed more on the lines of a cattle car, to pack in as many standing room passengers as the peak hour rush would require. You get in into this dull, dingy yellow paint all over the walls and roof. The floors are a muddied shade of worn out red. And the seats are wooden and uncompromisingly hard. They are available to those who can make it at least half an hour before the scheduled departure time. I was always in a race against time, so I never had the luxury of a seat. The idea then was to find a place to stand where, among other comforts, I would be able to breathe and where I would not be pushed around beyond tolerance and endurance. It meant that I had to stand away from the entrance where you get tossed around at all the intervening stations. The space between the seats were always the first to get filled up. That would leave me with the aisles. Not a bad place had it not been for the unending stream of vendors.

The vendors had done so much to make my commute painful. There were so many of them and they sold so many different things. I have seen them all. The bhelpuri and chaatwallahs, the fruits … bananas, apples, chikoos and guavas (when in season), followed by the waterman, the masala chaiwallah (always garam), the cold drinks man (always thanda), the peddler of keychains and cheap Chinese toys at Rs.10 each and the pan masala and cigarettes man.

The way they went on with their business negotiating an effortless way through the tightly packed spaces defied the laws of physics. They could squeeze their way though the narrowest of non-existent gaps. To someone like me standing in the aisle, they were a constant irritant. Hardly five minutes ago, you thought you had found for yourself a cosy space of your own. The next moment, you are leaning at this uncomfortable angle into the sweat soaked shoulder of your neighbour because the chaatwallah has to get his basket through. And on occasions, when he has drawn a customer in your vicinity, you have to hold your pose till the chaat is readied, delivered and payment collected.

One of the paan-masala vendors whom I saw regularly was blind. He always had a satchel slung over his shoulder and pouch-packets of various brands of paan masala worn around his neck, like garlands. His eyes were small and sunken and so light in colour that the eyeballs seemed to merge into the white giving it that vacant, empty look of the sightless. By the time I first ran into him, it was obvious he had become a practised, surefooted veteran who knew his way around. He could count notes and coins by touch and return the exact change to his customers. He had established up a rapport with some of the regular passengers who, having timed their travel to a clockwork precision, were always to be found at the same place in the same coach. I remember once hearing him call out cheerfully for a Leuva Patel only to have someone else tell him that he had not come that day.

Despite his handicap, I never had any sympathy for him. After all, sighted or blind, all of them make you go through contortions. And then, there was about him a smell of the unwashed. On occasions (I cringe my nose when I say this) it was a smell that suggested he had not washed well after the morning ablutions. This was particularly offensive to my finer sensibility.

I changed my opinion about him the day I first saw him get onto the coach. Until this moment, I had seen him as someone who came in from somewhere behind me and moved on to some place ahead after putting me to some bother. I never really thought about where he came from and where he went on to. His life, his troubles, his secret sorrows and hopes … none of these were ever my concern.

I was standing in the aisle somewhere near the door. I saw him get on to my coach at this station where the train had stopped for barely a minute. He was one among all the other passengers crowding to get in. A slender figure with those sunken light eyes that could see no light, dressed in loose untidy clothes, the satchel going over and across his shoulder and those absurd pouch-garlands around his neck. I saw him feeling his way along the sides of the coach, lightly but surely touching each window and possibly counting them, till he had come to the entrance. Here, without fuss, and without anyone else making way for him, I saw him await his turn for a foothold.

In a sense, what I saw had the impact of a revelation. A blind man takes on a career where his entire day is spent feeling his way in and out of crowded trains and working through gaps. And he does this day after day, without pause or break. He could so easily have chosen to become a beggar, staying rooted at one shady spot and earn probably as much as he did now with so much less pain and effort. Instead, he had chosen in his own resolute way to tread a path where he could earn his own respect, feel useful and good about himself.

History has recorded many heroes. I have a feeling there are far more who get left out.