by Prativa Sarker
I’ve been saved by a whisker from lynching, not once but twice. Saved meaning, saved from witnessing. One was on Thursday, in a train compartment, and the other, in distant childhood.
In the small town where I grew up a mad woman used to live in front of a house, naked and lost in her own world. I remember she used to be called Paniyal Pagli. She would charge at people with a brick whenever they came near her, and shower filthy abuse on them. Once, a brick she threw injured someone, whereupon people surrounded Paniyal and proceeded to punch and slap and kick her. It was such a painful sight that as a child I remember tugging at my father’s hand.
– Tell them to stop, Baba.
I was about to go up to them.
– Kaku, kaku, she’s mad, she’s doesn’t understand what she’s doing.
I might not have believed that even mad women have no respite unless I’d seen the viral video. Still, mob psychology had not yet turned as bestial as it is today, or perhaps it was thanks to the intervention of the elders, I don’t remember clearly, but the crowd dispersed quickly.
Before being led away by my father, I caught a glimpse of Paniyal, sprawled on the ground. Her face was bruised and swollen. It was difficult to say whether her right arm was broken, but it lay at an awkward angle on the end of her sari, which had slipped from her shoulder.
The more recent escape is pinned freshly in my head with all its twists and turns, like the crackling rage of a red-hot iron rod thrust into a mass of pork.
We’d been on the train since Wednesday – my companion, who was a 15-year-old girl, and I. A passenger boarded the train at around 8 PM from a station in Andhra Pradesh. He had a lot of luggage and a longish beard on his young chin. He was speaking a great deal on the phone, which is how I learnt that he was a teacher in a Madrassa. A deeply religious man. He was on his way back home to Katihar in Bihar because of some problems at his workplace.
The other eight co-passengers around us were men. I do not know which religions they belonged to. But the one who was to appear as a saviour had rings on each of his fingers. Two young men, under thirty, were speaking to each other in Hindi, their conversations suggesting that they were on their way back after some sort of test of physical prowess. All of them seemed decent people, polite, eager to help.
Let me tell you a bit about myself too. I have no material gains to make from Facebook. For those who ask on Messenger, let me state that I haven’t written a book. I doubt if I will ever write one. I do appear in court sometimes by virtue of some social work I am involved in, but nothing to write home about. The condition I have set with close friends is that no one must get to know of these. Those on my friends’ list who might be smiling are welcome to smile, but they too know that I have no renown, no fame, no beauty, that I’m an ordinary woman whose battles are entirely personal, and not worth recounting in detail. It would be an exaggeration to term me even one face in a million. I needed to say these things, or else what I am about to say now might be misinterpreted.
The trouble began when the teacher extracted an enormous packet wrapped in aluminium foil from a huge bag and proceeded to eat.
By then we had become acquainted. The Azaan could be heard on his phone. When he rued not being able to read the Namaz in this confined space, I told him in my usual style, that’s OK, read it in your head. I tell my mother the same thing whenever she expresses regret over not being able to make it to the prayer-room.
My fellow-passenger had asked me at least seven times how late the train was likely to be. For he would have to go from Howrah Station to Sealdah Station to take Haatebajare Express. He was explaining to me in a naïve, rustic way why air-conditioned compartments were better – cool, uncrowded, no fights over seats. What a comfortable journey.
I was enjoying listening to him. For I am not allergic to religiousness, so long as it doesn’t turn into terrorism and genocide. I do avoid the company of religious extremists and the pseudo-religious, but that is because I fear a difference of opinion and consequent disputes. I have travelled to different corners of this enormous country and observed the irresistible pressure of religion. I do not have the foolhardiness of disowning 70% or more of the human race. And so I am steadfast in my belief that religion is personal and the nation belongs to everyone. I have the same dispassionate attitude towards religious people of all faiths. I would converse the same way with someone in a monk’s robe and a ritual tuft of hair.
So the trouble began with the appearance of the packet wrapped in aluminium foil. The compartment was filled with the fragrance of rosewater and my brother began to eat. There was another attack of aromas when he took out small pieces of saffron-smeared meat from the enormous bag and sprinkled it over his food.
The two young men shifted in their seats, their eyes turning to daggers.
– What are you eating?
An idiotic, inane smile appeared on the teacher’s face. It’s true, if someone were to peep into my lunchbox and demand, what are you eating, I would be stupefied too. Two others were on their feet, deeply involved. They were Bengalis. With mischievously twinkling eyes, they egged on the short-tempered duo.
– Must be eating gosht, dada. No doubt about it. Arré, why are you eating it in public?
The two young men had other companions in the train. The grim lines on their faces reminded me of what had happened to Pagli Paniyal. The sound of punches and kicks reverberated from the meat.
Even before I knew what I was doing, my trembling fingers were holding a piece of meat. No taste registered in my head, but I said firmly:
– It’s chicken. Just chicken.
Now the businessman with the rings stepped up.
– You think people have to justify what they’re eating to you? Didn’t you just see the lady taste it and say it’s chicken? Go back to your seats.
His huge six-foot frame became a shield between the teacher and the young men.
I couldn’t sleep all night. Judging from the teacher’s fidgeting, I realised he didn’t, either. I did not know whether this man from a village read the papers. He wasn’t on the internet. He probably didn’t even know that the state was now watching what was on his dinner plate. Even without realising it, he was an ideal candidate for lynching.
The two young men got off the train somewhere in Odisha in the early hours of the morning. In the afternoon the teacher morosely ate only the rice, fragrant with the scent of roses, having abandoned the bag with the saffron-smeared meat in the dustbin outside the toilet.
The train arrived at Howrah two-and-a-half hours late. I told the visibly distressed man:
– I’m going past Sealdah Station, let me drop you.
He trusted me enough to travel with me. A thousand thank yous when he got out of the taxi, and a slight wetness in the corner of his yellow eyes. Because I didn’t take his permission, I’m posting a picture without his face showing.
And now a warning. A small one.
translated by Arunava Sinha from Bengali