Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bangles all the way....

This happened in November last year. It was one of those days when I had to take a late train and not the empty, early morning train I am used to. A late train means rush hour. Rush hour means crowd. Crowded trains mean not getting a seat. It was exam time {shudder}. As usual the huge swarm of office going women who were scattered around the platform a few seconds back made a dash to the edge of the platform when the indicator indicated time left for arrival of train as 1 minute.

They looked like warriors: dressed in multi-coloured uniforms that ranged from jeans, t –shirts, skirts and formals to saris and salwar kameezes, armed with huge handbags, glares shading their eyes against the mid morning sun and earphones plugged right into their inner ears as though the music was the command from headquarters that’d help them survive this war. Entering local trains in Mumbai during rush hour IS mortal combat. Two rules to remember are: do or die {push the other person or jump into the running train}.
       We were waiting, crouched to spring and claw our way in when the chugging train would come: blaring its horn in announcement of its arrival. The moment of push came and I successfully squeezed my self into the train, overcoming life threatening hurdles of manicured and un-manicured nails, boulder sized bags and hands, watches and bracelets that would most likely get caught in my hair. I got stuck against the pole that has been very considerately placed right in the middle of the entry so that the aged and disabled can hang on it to it to make their way in and unsuspecting students like me can get caught with one arm around the pole.
 A huge mass of human bodies were ramming their way in and when one of them realised that I was the reason for the hold up, a mighty shove and a heartfelt expletive were hurled my way. Thanks to the same I made my way in and scampered towards the seats as if sitting atop one was the only thing I lived for. After I had successfully perched my self comfortably with my bag on my lap I realised I was sitting in the direction opposite to the motion of the train. One might think about what difference the direction my seat faces makes since after all I got a seat.
                        Matter of fact is that it does: sitting opposite to the direction in which the train moves means that when people hop in at other stations and cram themselves into the bogie up to the point where every inch of floor space is occupied by human feet and no room is left for air passage {since all space is blocked by various body parts of various human beings} results in my resembling a dish towel used to wipe the water off the cutlery used in a seven course meal during a wedding. It also means that the efforts I took in the morning to look like a human would all be in vain. 

With a sigh I decided to make the best of at least having a seat to sit on and got my text book out to do some last minute revision.
Luckily for me it was a relatively crowd-free train and my toes which were curled inwards anticipating some serious trampling relaxed and I decided I needed a break from half an hour of mugging up political theories relentlessly. I let the book rest on my lap and started idling away time staring at my co- passengers and listening to some interesting conversation that floated past me. I’d occasionally turn towards the window closest to me to take a look outside at Mother Nature but the lack of nature and more of garbage dumps urged me to look back into the compartment. I was busy looking at the hoard of people that blocked both the doorways at either side. I was secretly thanking God for only having to get down at the last stop which meant no rush at all. People getting down at places in the middle were brave and I respected them but I had no inclination whatsoever to exchange places with them, ever.
The train jolted to a halt at some station and suddenly the book on my lap slithered forward risking a fall on to the dust, leftovers and peanut shell infested train floor. A quick bend and swift hand movements saved my treasure trove of constitutional knowledge from becoming the germ hot spot of the century. After I straightened my self up and placed the book back on my lap I heard someone heave a great sigh of relief. I turned to my left only to realise it was the lady sitting next to me who had been holding her breath for the entire few seconds it took me to save my book. She looked so ecstatic at the save I had made I wouldn’t have been shocked had she stood up and done a victory jig because that’s how dirty the train floors are. A group of old ladies in front of me nodded their approval and some college going girls flashed me a smile that went ‘Go girl!’
The college going girls had their hands hennaed; right from the tip of their finger to their elbows. The intricate designs and the rich red-brown of the henna against their skin had me looking with envy at their hands for a considerable amount of time. Gradually I noticed that a number of women around me, some clutching on to the handles on top some smothered in a sea of human bodies, some chatting on their cell phones and some just sleeping off the 1 and a half hour journey had their hands hennaed. Few of them had their hennaed arms covered with red and white glass bangles with stone work on it. I smiled in realisation; it was November, the wedding season and most newly wedded brides from the North of India would sport red bangles for at least a month after their wedding and bangle free women with hennaed hands were the ones who must have attended a wedding in their family. Some were dressed in power suits and some in traditional saris and salwars. There were also the occasional jeans and t-shirt clad bride. It wasn’t atypical because you could find some of these women in little black dresses in discotheques and the bangles would still be there. That’s tradition for you.

We reached Bandra {a station} and majority of the crowd got off and a matronly lady in a purple sari entered the compartment. She had a few red glass bangles on either hand. I guessed her to be from one of the Northern states of India since it was typical for married woman from these parts to wear at least 1 red glass bangle on each wrist. During my train travels a useful bit of information I gleaned was that if you wanted to make a wild guess at which state a particular lady originated from you should check out the colour of the bangles{if she has any} on her arms. Maharashtrian ladies would wear green glass bangles. Bengali women would have a mix of maroon and white bangles and this entire theory held true only if the said ladies were of the Hindu faith.
The train jolted back into movement and a young woman in formal office attire of black trousers and a pale blue blouse standing near this lady in purple lost her balance toppled forward. The purple lady clutched the young girl’s arm and helped her regain her balance thus preventing her from falling face down on the train floor {shudder}. The young woman thanked her profusely and the lady in purple feeling satisfied wit her good deed for the day decided to lecture the young woman on train safety. ‘What a way to say welcome!’ I wondered. The woman began with how we must always clutch onto something like the handles on top or at least the walls and young people don’t understand how dangerous it is to stand on the doorway etc, etc, etc.  The poor young girl had no idea I supposed, that losing her balance and stumbling would result in receiving an earful till the very end of her journey. She had a look of forced interest and attention on her face because she didn’t want to upset the lady who saved her from being infected by a thousand pathogens.

I assumed the lady in purple to be one of those aunties you meet in the train; who’d go out of their way to make you comfortable and then lecture you on nothing in particular and my assumption was proved right. I empathised with the young woman but at the same time I was enjoying their one- sided exchange. Suddenly the old lady realised she had nothing more to talk about  after having ranted out all the safety rules the railway officials must have ever dreamed of .The lady in purple kept mum and I could almost hear the young woman mentally let out a profound sigh of relief. Her body language which was rigid until then became relaxed. After a blissful fifteen minutes of peace that she gifted the young woman, the purple lady realised that the young woman had her hands hennaed. A knowing smile came upon her lips and I clutched my book in fearful anticipation all the while thinking ‘Poor girl! She’s in for it again.’
The purple lady turned up to the young woman and said “It’s difficult to go back to work so soon, right? Almost too soon isn’t it? And what with all the dress codes you young corporate girls have to adhere too! How did your in-laws feel about you not wearing any bangles???? What can they say when office doesn’t allow, right? You need job for food to come home, na? At least you can keep the mehendi {henna}! They can’t ask you to remove that now, can they?” 
And she cackled in delight as if it was her personal victory over big firms across the nations who according to her weren’t respecting the traditions that this woman couldn’t get rid off the henna on her hands. The young lady looked stunned at the little verbal Niagara Falls that had flooded her a few seconds back.
     Once she regained composure she quietly asked “What bangles?”
 The lady in purple tutted disapproval at the young woman’s irreverence and said “Your wedding bangles Beta! How can you forget them?”
The girl looked like someone had accused her of being a kleptomaniac. 
“Married? Me! I haven’t finished my graduation yet!” she declared with indignation. It turned out that she was a management student who had a seminar that day and so she was dressed in formals.
  The purple lady was purplexed but concealed her confusion with an awkward smile and said “Your hands have henna and it’s the wedding season so….”
The girl who had had enough of the purple lady’s inquisition by now replied in a matter of fact manner “It was Eid yesterday and I hennaed my hands like most Muslim girls do on Eid.”
 I was trying to laugh quietly and it hurt. It hurt because I wanted to laugh out loud but couldn’t. Bottling up animated laughter within a human body results in bruised ribs and holding your sides tight with your arms in an attempt to stifle laughter only adds to the soreness. Only in India could you confuse yourself with a Hindu North Indian bride and a Muslim student. Talk about unity in diversity. I didn’t hear a squeak from the purple lady till the end of the journey. But I did hear a squeak from the alarm in my mobile which informed me I had exactly an hour till my political science paper and I still had half my portion to revise.

Yours, from Mumbai - the melting pot of cultures in Incredible India