March 03, 2006

Going one way

A few years ago, a woman I know -- approaching 70 then -- was returning home from the market in my Bombay suburb. The road led down a hill, with several buildings on either side. As she approached one, she heard a horn. It was a car, about to turn into the building.

As she describes it, she flattened herself against the wall. There was plenty of space for the car to enter the gate. Yet it actually scraped her hip as it went in.

Shaken by this, she walked in and spoke to the driver. Did you not see me, she asked. Do you know that you nearly ran me over? Was that necessary?

The driver said nothing, tried to hide a smirk.

Two young women were in the back. She turned and asked them the same question. Did you know your car came close to crushing me?

The young women said nothing either, only turned their faces away.

One evening a few days ago, the same woman -- now nearing 73 -- is walking down another street in our suburb. This is a one-way street, traffic officially allowed only in the direction opposite to how she was walking. Of course, nobody enforces this rule, and so nobody observes it. There is not a single time in my memory that I've been on that street and not seen cars careening the wrong way on it.

This evening, one such car comes up behind the woman and, much like that previous time, actually brushes her body as it passes. It turns into a building just ahead.

Shaken again, she walks up to the car and speaks to the driver. Do you know you came the wrong way, she asks, do you know nearly knocked me down?

This time, this driver, he replies. "So what are you," he snarls, "a traffic cop?"

Yes I am, she answers. We all are.

Two young girls who have got out of the back are listening to this exchange. The woman asks them, did you know you were driving the wrong way?

"We did," says one. "So what?" Then both walk away, into the building.

A reporter friend asked me idly the other day, what do I think has changed most in this city in the years I've lived here? Been thinking about it a lot, especially since I heard about this incident on the one-way street.

I could be wrong, and I wish I was, but I think we've lost a sense of feeling for the other guy. The utter indifference to what might have happened to this older woman in her sari, that leaves me shaking. In anger, in fright, in bewilderment.


Gary said...

I "vividly" recall a incident in the year 1995. A lady was crossing railway tracks at andheri station from platform 2 to 1.She had a heavy suitcase and was dragging it along.She was along with a teenage girl.Noticing that she was struggling with the baggage, i approached to help her.She was hesitant initially than she gave me the bag.I was just ahead of her and then i heard her speaking to the girl that she was hesistant as i 'looked' like a 'Kaafir'.
I don't know why but the words always stayed with me...although it did not change my habit of helping out strangers especially women,children and older folk.

Rishi said...

>but I think we've lost a sense of feeling for the other guy.

Did we ever have it? All the statements we hear about respecting women and "athithi devo bhava" have many unspoken premises: the targets of hospitality and respect should have status, be from the right social class and caste, should be of the right religion and right region. There is no universal culture of courtesy in India; courtesy operates within certain defined social circumstances. Add to that the dehumanising effect of urban life, and this pattern of indifference and contempt is inevitable. We are an incredibly violent society at every level and in every way.

Of course, the usual caveat about exceptions to the generalisation applies to my comments.

Puru said...

the sooner we realize "sab NAHI chalta hai" the better.

zap said...

I almost got beat up by a bunch of guys in a Tata Sumo, cuz I stopped them while they were driving the wrong way on a one way, since I wasn't a traffic cop.
The one girl in the car, though, apologized.