With a sky that’s greyer than Mulayam’s mood and pollutants dancing in the air, the doctors’ chambers in Delhi are overflowing. Nursing a cold, I’m warming a bench at a neighbourhood clinic, when something odd occurs. It’s a small room, ringed by benches. There’s an attendant here usually, handing out slips to patients, alerting them when their turn comes. But he’s on holiday. It’s the first day that he’s away, but an alternate system has already come into play. New patients enter, find out who came before them and settle down to wait till their predecessor exits the inner chamber.
It’s all very civilized… till a middle-aged man comes in. Apparently, he’d come by earlier to ‘book his spot in the queue’, and then gone off to do some chores. Back now to stay, he recognises a couple, and announces loudly, “I’m after you.’ Seeing that all the seats are taken, he goes and stands over a man sitting in a corner. He’s alone. Quiet, clean, simply dressed. He doesn’t have the Puma shoes of the other gent, or his trench coat with a checkered lining. What he has is an old jacket and a muffler wrapped around his face, like someone who cycles long distances in the cold.
Since he’s there in the clinic, he’s obviously unwell; as or more unwell than the gent with the fancy threads. But that doesn’t concern the newcomer. He keeps looking pointedly at the other man till the latter gets up and gives him his seat. No one utters a word. No one seems to notice. Till, abruptly, the person next to me gets up and leaves the room and the mufflered man takes his seat. I’m kicking myself for not saying anything, for not protesting the unfairness of it when I remember a scene from decades ago.
It was the late Eighties, and Calcutta Metro was still a new phenomenon. With not much to boast about, we Calcuttans were terribly proud to have India’s only underground railway. The system had taken decades to build and had ruined the roads; still we loved everything about it, from the way the coaches were lowered underground at night to Tagore’s doodles at Rabindra Sadan station. Riding the subway was a huge treat; kids begged to go.
There was a bunch of small boys travelling with me one day. Excited to be on the train, they knelt on the seat and looked out of the window, beaming with anticipation. The grey wall outside could have been the Alps, going by their reaction. The train reached a station, and some housewives got on. They took one look at the boys and ordered them to quit their seats. The boys—who had probably saved for their ride for months—didn’t demur. The laughter went out of their faces but they didn’t utter a word as, one by one, they stood up. It was almost as if they felt they didn’t deserve to be there; that they were the encroachers, and the women the rightful inhabitants. I could have cried; instead I chose to fight.
Back then I got the boys their seats back. I just wish I’d done the same at the clinic the other day.