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An Empty Seat In The Metro Made Me Realise How Strongly Prejudice Poisons Our Lives

Posted on March 29, 2016 in Society, Taboos
Source: Flickr/Eric Parker (modified).

By Dipankar Trehan:

Delhi is a living system, it breathes, it eats, it walks and it sleeps, no, my bad, it doesn’t. It’s correct to say that the Metro is the circulatory system of this organism, connecting and transporting people from one spot to another. Just like our own, this circulatory system has its roots everywhere, reaching even the extremities of the city. Unlike our own, this circulatory system is interesting. No offence to cardiovascular doctors. Interesting, because every day, you come across a story that needs to be told. And, since I’m such a digger for stories, revelations and epiphanies, to my mind it’s enlightening as well.

Those who take the metro, and especially those who board the Yellow line know what mayhem–yes, I’d put it exactly that way–it is during office hours. Personally, I thank, I really thank my stars if I manage to find a seat and then manage to sit there at any point during my daily ride from Kashmere Gate to M.G. Road. Most days, like most commuters, I have pretty bad luck, but today, today was different.

Today, not one, not two, but all seven seats in a row were empty. It seemed that way, at least, through the window to my sleepy eyes and leather boot-hurt feet. Just as I walked, read darted, in, I was both confused and elated. Elated because I finally had a place to sit and confused because a lot of people were standing nearby. I checked to see if there was a bomb under the seat, or water on it, or if it was on fire and found nothing. Now, I was more confused than elated. If there’s absolutely nothing wrong and there’s place to sit, why on earth aren’t these people sitting down?

Anyway, without further ado or caring much about why people, who on other days would kill–not literally, but their heavy foot stomps on yours hurt as much–for a seat weren’t seated, I sat down. And at that precise moment, I looked as a middle aged aunty made a face at me, amazed, shocked, scandalised or disgusted I didn’t know. What I do know is that I never have got ‘that’ look before, not even in the theatre where all expressions get heightened.

Without thinking much of it, I looked to my left, at the empty seats and the people standing and then to the right at a father-daughter duo. The father was around 40 years or so, averagely dressed carrying a big polybag with folders in it, which kind of looked like diagnostic reports. And his daughter, around 10 years old, clad in a bright sunshine yellow frock and sports shoes. I still was unable to understand what the hell was wrong, why is nobody seated and why did that aunty give me that face?

Absorbed in my thoughts, I didn’t realise that I had been looking at the girl for almost two minutes. Except she now looked at me and passed a great smile. The next moment, she frowned, shut her eyes tight, turned her head away and grabbed her dad. This happened a few more times and it made me wonder, either there’s still a milk mustache on my face or there’s a story here because I was dressed fine.

I began with a casual “Hi” to the little girl and asked her what her name was. She turned away. The next moment she let out a million dollar laugh. Then she turned towards me and passed a smile again. I noticed that her smile was crooked and she had braces, but what caught my eye were hers – big, unblinking and red, as though she hadn’t slept for many days now. Trust me, I have some experience with sleepless nights. My record – eight in a row.

She kept staring above at the metro ceiling and kept making faces – hysterical, terrified, elated, depressed, laughter and tears. At one point she actually let out a shout. Things were becoming clearer now, the constant talk among the passengers, the bickering, the looks, and the taunts, and that look – everything made sense now.

I turned towards her dad and asked him, “Kya hua isko (what happened to her)?” The man looked offended but, then, suddenly he teared up. He told me the entire story. How the girl sees weird things everywhere; how she doesn’t sleep; doesn’t eat; how she visualises headless bodies walking around; and how she feels that a black cat is following her, 24×7. It sounded too dramatic, too ‘bad Bollywood’ to believe. He was going to AIIMS, to get his daughter checked.

I guess he was so used to ridicule that it took the tiniest tad of compassion to open up. His daughter, the girl, barely 10 years old was raped, by her own uncles, two years ago. And since then she has been shamed by people. Fear. Terror. Depression. Psychosis. And now, schizophrenia. This little girl has gone through every stage of what the typical Indian, including everyone in the metro, calls ‘pagalpan’ (madness). She is now HIV+ as well. I gave the man my number and asked him to give me a call in the evening so that I could look and ask around and get his girl a good doctor.

Anyhow, their destination was about to come and the duo stood up to deboard, and to my horror, the same aunty who had given me the look asked me to ‘shift’ to their place so that she could sit at mine. Is schizophrenia or AIDS or madness contagious? I’m an MBA, and all my knowledge says no. It isn’t cold, cough or flu that spreads through a sneeze. Just because I sat with them and talked, doesn’t make me vulnerable to the ‘buri aatma’ (evil soul) that lives in the girl’s body. This out of the world, crazy context, by the way, was provided by the same aunty who was keen to call up her friend and tell her everything in eeriest detail.

I mean seriously, we live in the 21st century, but have we really evolved to that bar per se? Somehow, with everything going on in our heads, we have definitely become heartless. I don’t know what it was about the girl – AIDS (which they didn’t know about until the girl’s father told me), rape (not her fault), schizophrenia (really, you’re the one who needs to be scared?) or the pandemonium of emotions that were eating her up inside – that prompted these ‘educated’ people to beat their feet standing. What I do know is that empathy and compassion, both are extinct. I still am clueless what my motive is behind writing this. What is it that I want to bring out? Just thought this story is one to be told, so, shared it. Needless to say, the entire metro ride after she got off at AIIMS, was a clash of thoughts in my head. My emotions were now in an affray, deciding whether I should love/hate/despise/shut up.