The childhood adventures of train travel now remind me of a dark nightmare

28-May-2016: The Udyan express was en-route from Mumbai to Bangalore. Every compartment was brimming with passengers from the initial stop- CST. Within an hour, stowaways and general class commuters hitched every spot available in the nooks and corners of the train. Few cheeky passengers squeezed their way into the already occupied seats of the sleeper class, under a sense of righteousness which is used and abused with the line ‘Thoda adjust karlo’ (Adjust a little)- the unsaid slogan, burned on the back of the minds of every Indian.

Delayed timings, lack of safety for women, revolting toilets, overcrowded compartments, and stowaways- loitering by the passages and open stairs, are probably the five significantly depressing and well-known facts about our popular mode of transport- the Indian railways, which is responsible for the daily commute of 18 million people. It’s also why rail tr`ansport has been made the butt of several jokes.

A month early booking had served me with a last-minute RAC seat, by the door. The likes of which were shared between my mother and I, along with the innumerous strangers who snuck up on the vacant spaces of our 190 cm long berth. The silver lining to the day was that we got the chance to bond with the three families traveling in our compartment, who were kind enough to let us use the upper berths to rest, as it was impossible to stretch our legs in air, amidst the hullaballoo.

Things were mighty fine, until an enormous group of people hoarded our bogey at Dudhani, turning the sleeper class into a general compartment of a Mumbai local train at peak hour. It was 6 in the evening and people hopped onboard as though it were the last train on the planet, whilst they hung onto window railings, door frames and handles- A regular day in the Indian railways.

A family of 20-so Muslims treaded into the fairly breathable environment, after most of the day commuters got off at the next station- Ganagapur. The RAC seat now bore an additional passenger- our upper seat neighbor, who’d stepped down to temporarily offer his berth to a woman from our compartment who was travelling with her daughter, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law: Bhakti. During the two-minute break at the station, he swiftly darted away to grab some food. At which point, a lady in hijab, belonging to the fresh-onboard-gigantic-family, approached the vacant spot next to me. Out of instinct, I patted the seat with an empty bottle cradled in my hand, and plainly informed her that the seat was taken. Imagine those simple words tumult the situation out of hand in the next hour, so much so, that it almost sealed my fate on one of the three: Death, rape or both.

What I’d failed to notice during my honest revelation, was the bulk of a man, towering over me. He apparently was the husband of that woman, who’d somehow perceived my statement as uncouth, insulting, and demeaning. In the next five minutes, whilst he lectured me on how educated, civilized, and well off- he was, and reminded me how people such as himself should be treated, I simply reminded him that I’d merely informed the lady about the availability of the seat. How those words had offended and wounded his flimsy ego- was beyond me.

His eyes grew deeply red; his voice growled over several decibels, and his face appeared threateningly close to exploding. Out of nowhere, the man started barking on me to shut up. I’d had enough of his chauvinism. Yet, carrying on an unpleasant one-sided argument was pointless, as it was clearly a numbers game. Against the 20-so family of the immature meat-sack of a man, I was a twig. Within the fraction of a second, Bhakti jumped to my defense, and growled back at him. His fury had switched towards her, as they fell into a yelling fit. Each demanding the other to shut up, as their faces inched terrifyingly closer- every passing second. The fit ended with the intervention of his family, who frantically pulled him away like a meat sack, when he’d raised his fist at Bhakti- a girl who wasn’t nearly half his size.

The matter turned from bad to craptastically worse, after that exchange. Meat sack sneered at me from the doorway, whilst his ‘brothers’ persuaded me to apologize to his wife- who’d been watching the meaningless back and forth with unfaltering curiosity. The ground breaking argument being: Meat sack was only enraged, because I’d made his wife cry. Yes, yes, seeing an empty bottle and hearing someone say, ‘this seat is taken’, can be quite a traumatic experience. That’s why writers use such dialogues in movies, to make people cry. Apparently, he wouldn’t back down unless someone apologized. Flimsy ego, see? I wasn’t about to grovel and beg for mercy, with no fault of mine.

Whilst all this happened, the train had moved past Gulbarga where his family was supposed to get off. He hadn’t allowed a single soul from his family off the door. Clearly, they didn’t have a choice, since their Klazomaniac was on the loose, plotting his revenge by phoning up his gang-buddies (Rickshaw drivers) to pull me off at the next station. He wanted revenge. He wanted to teach me a lesson. He wanted me to know, what kind of a man he was, and why people should NOT mess with him. His words were loud and clear, backed with the dirty looks that he threw me from the passageway.

I was afraid for myself, yet disgusted by the whole lot of self-proclaimed, civilized bozos. Sadly, education doesn’t guarantee basic human civility. One glance at his wife, and it was clear to me that the nonchalance on her face was an attempt to veil the shame that she felt underneath. She was bound to a man, who terrorized and picked fights with girls half his size; whose acts were nothing but a travesty of his concerns for her. In that very moment, I felt sorry for her, because of what she was married to. There was a chance I could get out of this mess, but she was stuck with it for life. No wife should’ve to live with that.

I apologized to her, clarifying, that my intention wasn’t to insult her. It was the only way to put an end to the charade, considering the fact that I was traveling in a train with my frail mother. Deep down, I knew that if something were to happen to me, there wouldn’t be a lot of people who’d jump to my defense. It is after all a world, where each one fends for oneself.

My apology made no difference to the situation. In turn, it only stroked his ego, further convincing him of his power in the situation. Two armed guards passed us by, which temporarily stifled the situation, and his blatant threats. A second after they’d left, it dawned on me to seek their help. But they were far gone, by then.

I was six feet away from the maniac- plotting my assault right in front of my eyes. The only thing stopping him was the mixed resolve of a few women from his family, who’d blocked his way by the passage, so he couldn’t approach me. This nightmare had gone on for an hour. For an hour- I was afraid I wouldn’t live to see the morning. For an hour- I felt helpless, powerless, and regretful for taking the train in the first place. For the first time in my life, I was furious for being a girl. I was disturbed, to be a part of a pathetic society where the safety of a woman is disposed at the mercy of her assaulter.

A few minutes before the next stop- Shahabad, his mother stood guard in front of me and begged me to quickly close the shutters and windows behind me. Another woman sealed the door beside me. All this to protect me, while the men in his family, forced him out the other door. A mother had to protect an absolute stranger from her own son’s monstrosities; No mother should’ve to face that.

By the time the curtains had fallen, we’d rallied a minister of the state government and a politician of the district on our side (which was futile, as I knew nothing about the freak or his family). I refused to sleep for the rest of the night, aware of the unnerving truth that losing my dignity, freedom and life could come down to just that- an unavailable seat.

‘But thank god. Nothing happened to you’- was the consolation I received, every time I narrated this incident. Do death threats, Verbal assaults, cat-calling, ogling, and rape threats mean nothing? Why are women conditioned to believe that until the man lays a hand on her, every other obnoxious behavior of his can be tolerated and swept under the rug? Why are we okay, being not okay? Why do we adjust and compromise our aspirations, dreams and self-respect for crap-bags? Why is the society worried about women staying in toxic relationships rather than fixing the ones creating the toxicity? Why does the society slut shame women who can stand up for themselves and others?

We’ve been taught and reminded to be careful and alert all our lives. We keep pepper sprays and Swiss knives in our bags to defend ourselves, or clutch onto the keys while returning home late at night, we grow a thick skin to ignore all the lewd comments, wear unfeminine clothes to escape the bawdy looks, mold and break ourselves to fit in- into the ridiculous image that the society has perceived for us, for centuries. There are rules for us: Who should we talk to, and who we shouldn’t talk to. Who can be our friend, what kind of clothes are we allowed to wear, what kind of places can we go to, what kind of things are we allowed to drink, what kind of experiences we’re allowed to have, what time we should get home, what kind of things we’re allowed to speak in front to others. Every bloody double standard in this society is bestowed upon us.

It has been 5317 years, since the first civilization on earth was formed. But how civilized is this society, if almost half the population of this world has to fight and explain their need for equality, every step of the way?

I’d like to meet a woman who has never once faced sexual assault of any kind. If you’re wondering what classifies as one, here’s your poison.

Treat people the way you want to be treated. Perhaps, five thousand years wasn’t enough for that basic principle to evolve.

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