Updated: Oct 16, 2021
The ladies compartment was unusually crowded for that time of the day. Especially for a Sunday. The mid-day sweat soaked the skin and an acrid smell filled the spaces between breathes. The train dragged along without reproach. From station to station, retching out crowds that never ceased to infest its innards. Carrying travellers without definite destinations. People with habits that became routines, routines that spilled over to Sundays.
I managed to corner a seat by the window. I preferred window seats to others. I could rest my head against the metal hardness of the train and the poisoned waft of city breeze would lull me to a sleep. I slept, oblivious to the human substitution around me. In the midst of women who babbled and squabbled.
The cacophony waned as the train chugged into the fringes of the city. Vendors took charge of the vacant spaces left behind by the clattering chunk of women.
Little boys and girls vending inexpensive things from their baskets. Ribbons, bindis, hairgrips and fancy beauty aids of inferior quality. Some carried a wooden crate full of small eats - snacks that the crowds munched on their way. They tapped me out of my sleep every five minutes, nagging me with their persistence to sell. They all looked the same, the unhealthy tan of their skin, the pallor of their face and an innocence usurped by poverty. I despised them for the reality they portrayed. I disliked them for the sense of helplessness their plight evoked in me.
Street children, or at best, slum children. Adults who lived in little bodies. Navigating through the hideous lanes of sustenance. Selling odds and ends to travellers.
“Didi, hand kerchief…” the thin voice accompanied by a tender touch stirred me out of my delicate slumber.
“Want kerchiefs?” he asked, encouraged by my fleeting glance over his cardboard box of ladies hankies.
I shook my head. “No. I don’t,” I said hurriedly in an attempt to shoo him away.
But he stood there waiting for me to reconsider my decision, as though he knew that I would eventually pick something out of the assortment of things he carried.
“No, I don’t want anything”, I said again.
But he refused to go. He smiled at me. It was a smile that was unlikely on a face wrought by destitution. It surprised me that privations could initiate smiles. But he continued to smile and it made me feel uneasy. It reflected an obscure hope. A bona fide appeal. It was a commentary on their lives that bore the toxicity of the sewage running along their shanty’s courtyards.
I wondered why he had picked on me for his sell. Did he know that I dropped my handkerchiefs too often?
He continued to stand in front of me, his head now tilted to the left, in anticipation. An obligatory stretch of my lips made him grin once again. He felt encouraged.
“Three for ten rupees, didi” he said holding out the handkerchiefs.
“Give me five for ten” I haggled. A bargain for no reason.
He shook his head.
“Then go away”, I said defiantly. The rudeness in my tone embarrassed me.
“Four for ten, didi”, he offered.
Like a persistent sales man he tried all his wheedling tactics on me.
“You won’t find this quality at this price anywhere, didi. It is made of fine cotton. It won’t shrink or fade.”
I was unmoved.
“Didi, I am yet to make my first sale for the day. Please buy some.” He was close to pleading.