Monday, February 13, 2012

Returning home from the Kala Ghoda festival on a Harbour line train, I felt light and content. I had had an enjoyable day. Plus, the fact that I got a train as soon as I got to VT, and got a good seat to boot, contributed in deepening my sense of contentment. If I had been a cat I would definitely have sat there purring. :)

And then something happened - an incident which I can only term as faintly disturbing, but nonetheless, something that refuses to leave my thoughts.

At Mankhurd, the crowd in the train had thinned considerably. A woman got in with a small girl of 7 years or so, and headed for the seat behind mine. "Shabbo, yahan aajao beta," she called to her daughter. Shabbo, obviously a bold girl with a mind of her own, came and stood near our seat instead, asking my neighbour at the window seat, "Aap kahan utrenge?". The woman said Sanpada, and Shabbo called out, "Ammi, main yahin baithoongi."

Her mother attempted a couple of more times to make her come and sit near her, but to no avail. I was starting to like the spirit of this girl!

Sanpada came, and Shabbo sat down next to me. She had a cute, expressive face, and as our eyes met, I smiled. She smiled right back, and we struck up a conversation. 

"Tumhara naam kya hai," I asked.

"Aapka naam kya hai?" she retorted.

"Shabbo," said I, with a mischievous look. An old trick, and one that never fails to amuse. I had attempted this ruse many a times to strike a friendship with a kid.

But in this case, it drew a reaction quite different from what I had expected. There was no dropped jaws and a surprised "Aapko kaise pata!", no indignant reaction saying "Nahi, woh toh mera naam hai!"... instead, she responded in a faintly pleased tone:

"Aap Musalman ho!?" 

To say I was taken aback totally with this response, would be an understatement. It felt like she had landed a juicy one on my solar plexus. I tried to think how to answer, and she repeated, in a slightly more pressing tone, "Musalman ho aap?"

I finally smiled rather lamely and said, "Nahi," in some strange way feeling I had disappointed her. "Aur mera naam Shabbo nahi hai - woh toh tumhara naam hai naa?"

We then continued the conversation for another 2-3 minutes, when suddenly she glanced back at her mother, who had obviously somehow called her to attention. From where I was sitting I could not see her mother or what she did, but it was obviously some kind of warning to stem the conversation. When I tried to continue talking, Shabbo put her finger on her lips to indicate to me that I should keep quiet.

For some strange reason, this little exchange derailed the sense of contentment and harmony I had felt at the beginning of the journey.

A little later, as I got up and stood near the exit, our eyes met again. I smiled and waved to her. After a glance back to assure herself that her mother was not looking, Shabbo raised her hand gently to her waist level (so as not to draw her mother's attention, presumably), and waved back, with a slight twitching of the corners of her mouth which was just barely recognizable as a smile.

We parted friends, and the sense of disquiet that had crept over me a little while ago abated a bit.

But the incident has stayed with me and raised many questions. Would Shabbo's mother have stopped her from talking to me if my answer to her question had been different? Why did Shabbo feel compelled to obey her mother in the matter of carrying on a conversation with me, but not in the matter of choosing a seat? But most importantly, how could the first question coming to the head of a 7-year old in that situation be that particular one?!

Is it that bigotry is a lesson that can be learnt a bit too easily and too early in life by a child if people around are not careful...?


  1. It is deeply moving and to a great extent a little shocking too. You written this so well Suchi. While i was buried under some 10 windows I still wanted to read the entire thing. I was actually hoping that there was nothing too grave at the end.

    I wish her more pleasant times and I am a little surprised that this is what she said in Mumbai. This would have been a very common thing in Ahmedabad though..

  2. The answer my friend is blowing in the wind the answer is blowing in the wind. Why did it surprise you is what is surprising. But I am in a strange way happy with your disquiet and the questions I hope they haunt you enough to make you seek your own answers. I am recalling Nandita Narain's oft challenge to us those days when we were not so easily "disquieted" (if there is such a word) that "if you are not a part of the solution, then you are a part of the problem". And this troubles me all the time everywhere about everything that is not fair, equitable and sustainable - including harmony in the society. Seriously - on all fronts we are a miracle - our society - how it is holding together under so much turbulence. There are many more questions that are keeping me awake, and am glad some will you too!