What startled me is that the lady was a college principal at the time. Yet why should that alone have startled me? And since it did, am I also thinking in terms of people like and not like us?
But first, a quick rundown of what happened. The lady was in a local going to Churchgate, to work. Women's compartment, first class. Young girl of about ten got on at some station selling knick-knacks -- safety-pins, hairpins, combs, needles, that sort of thing. One of the passengers got into an argument with her, saying she should not be in the first class compartment.
Routine so far. Until the passenger suddenly reached out, grabbed the girl's basket of goods and flung it off the train. The girl was stunned, then began to weep. Her entire livelihood, gone just like that.
Our college principal friend told us this tale, saying she thought of confronting the woman. She said, and this is as close to verbatim as I can manage: "I felt sorry for the kid, I felt this was so unfair! But then I thought, this woman and I are the same kind. So I should not say anything to her, at least in front of the girl."
So she never did say anything.
The girl, didn't you know, was some unspecified other "kind". Even if she had been so sadly wronged, that "kind"-ness meant she got no support from the principal. Instead, it required the principal to show solidarity with the passenger who did the flinging.
This happened some years ago; I still remember how stunned I was to hear it. How could this empty idea of solidarity trump ordinary human feeling? Yet here, it had. I hope I never feel a bond, solely by virtue of belonging to an economic stratum, with a woman who demonstrates such cruelty to a kid. Yet here, our principal friend had felt just such a bond.
They are not like us, so they don't deserve sympathy. They are our kind, so we should keep mum about their crass ways.
This story has always seemed to me to be a small, but instructive lesson in the ways of this country. (Maybe other countries as well). Some things are so fundamentally ingrained in us that we may never rid ourselves of them. The idea of "them" -- those other people, different from us in some way -- is one of those.
And yet, it seems to me that a little thought is all you need to see the absurdity of these notions. For example, what really made these two women the same "kind"? They didn't know each other, they had never met and would never meet again. They were fellow-commuters for one morning train ride, that's all. What did they have in common? Nothing except that train ride and the easy assumptions that come from travelling first class.
But dig a little deeper, make the more difficult assumptions, and let's see what happens. Suppose the passenger looked like a woman off the street, as the little girl probably did. Would the principal have berated the passenger then? Suppose the principal and the girl were of one faith, and the passenger professed another. Would the religious "kind"-ness override the class variety? Suppose the passenger had been a male. Would the shared gender now win?
And that may put back in your mind the real question: should such dilemmas distract us from what happened to that little girl?
Surely not. Yet it does, and with other issues too. Sample these:
"What startled me is that she was a college principal." Would I have been less startled had she been a sweeper?
"We don't want his kind in here." Said by a ticket-checker at a school fundraiser I attended, while trying to turn away a street urchin carrying a valid ticket someone had bought him.
"Their kind deserve to be taught a lesson." Said after caste violence in Bihar, or religious killing in Bombay and Gujarat, or bomb blasts in Bombay.
"Yeh hamare khandaan ki izzat ka savaal hai!" ("This is about the honour of our clan!") Said by community leaders as justification for hounding and often killing young couples who marry across caste or religious lines.
Lost in all such exclusionary feeling: the cruelty, or injustice, or unfairness of too many events that happen around us. Result: the cruelty and injustice continue, whether in local trains or in the killing fields of Godhra and Naroda Patiya.
What will it take for us to turn this inside out? I mean, I look forward to the time when we might easily say to ourselves: she's not like me. Therefore she deserves my respect. What will it take to get there?
That question, I often think, may just qualify as one of the great dilemmas of our time.