Thursday, January 15, 2009

Second Class

It was mid-summer, and the second-class compartment was crowded when I got in. I put my bag on the top berth and squeezed myself in between a young girl and a large woman who took up an enormous amount of space. No window seat this time. Already the heat was oppressive, starting to fray tempers and hairdos. I could feel my face begin to itch with the dust and the sweat. Opposite me sat an old beggar woman with her feet up on the seat, her clothes tattered, shoulders hunched as she hugged her knees. The young men sitting beside her carefully maintained a distance, and I knew no one would sit in that empty space. But she did not beg, and I wondered at that.

The whistle sounded. The train started to move and relief was palpable as air streamed in through the windows. I settled in for a long ride. The inevitable stream of peddlers and those unfortunates who always seem to be present on trains started filtering past. I looked up from my book as a greasy plastic packet of murrukku was thrust under my nose, and shook my head no at the vendor. The fat lady beside me bought a packet, however, and soon began noisily appreciating the contents. I hate the noise of human mastication! Swallowing my distaste, I started to read again when I noticed the old woman looking through rheumy eyes at Elephant-Bottom devouring her oily snack.Something hot and red twisted in my gut and I wanted to ignore the voices inside me screaming to ask that greedy woman to share, so loud that I was almost sure she would hear me. I wanted her to.

Two little children came up the corridor then, singing 'Tujhe Dekha To Ye Jaana Sanam' to an unrecognizable tune the younger one beat out with a clapper. I hurriedly took out a coin - my last - and put it into a demanding little hand. Anything to send them on their way as soon as possible.One of the young men opposite me donated a coin as well and earned forever my goodwill.

I've seen people get angry at beggars - and I've always thought that it was because they made people feel guilty - no reason to feel so, but when you know that you have a warm home to return to and hot food on the table, you don't want a half-starved old man to appear and remind you that he has no such fortune in the near future. Some pay to assuage the guilt, and sit back satisfied - until the next pleading little child or poor woman comes along. Others pretend they haven't seen the dirty, outstretched hand, and affect an unjustifiable interest in the scenery outside the window or in their newspapers. A very few of the truly impenetrable ones tell them to be off - and these people are the lucky ones, for they have no qualms or pricks of conscience, whether from a hardened heart, or self-righteous indignation, I cannot tell.

Along that never-ending corridor came another hand outstretched for alms - this belonging to a pitiable blind man, bent, emaciated with age and clutching a staff. This time it was me, eyes downcast burning with guilt and shame, pretending to read my book while the letters went blurry. I did not have any more coins, and at that time 10 rupees seemed too much to give. I wished fervently for someone to give him something, as if the mere strength of that prayer could make it happen. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a movement, and looked up.

The old beggar woman sitting opposite reached out a quivering gnarled hand and dropped a coin into his older palm. Lips mumbled thanks and he shuffled along the passage slowly, leaning on his staff. Her eyes resumed their vacant stare at a point above my head.

I was conscious of a stinging behind my eyes. It was dark by then and the train whistle sounded as the engine sped through the night. I stared outside into the darkness and thought longingly of home...home where safety and warmth and comfort lay, and blissful haven from the sadness of the world.

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