Apathy

“When is this country ever going to change?” lamented Vidya’s mother. “First they dropped out of schools because schools didn’t have toilets. Now the girls can’t use the fields too.”
“Every street has a temple. Can’t they spend that money on building toilets? Our priorities need to change”, Vidya replied.
Vidya and her mom were talking about the rape of two young girls who went to the fields to relieve themselves. The second rape in less than two years, that had earned national ire.

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“Amma, can we have something to drink? I am very thirsty”, Vidya asked her mom. The two ladies walked out of the travels office to see if any juice shop was around. Madurai heat was sucking the sweat of their bodies like never before.Although they would be home in Bangalore in a couple of hours, they had to find ways to beat the heat atleast until they boarded their bus. They found a woman selling tender coconuts on the pavement at a distance of a few metres from the travels office. They ordered two tender coconuts at twenty five rupees each. Having had their fill of that cool, sweet fluid, they quickly went back inside the travels office, in a desperate effort to escape the sun.
About thirty minutes later, the Bangalore bus arrived. Vidya and her mom got into the bus with their luggage and made themselves comfortable. Vidya took the window seat as usual and closed the curtains. She made sure the AC vents at her end were directed at herself. While her mother had started flipping through Tamil magazines, Vidya tried to catch up on her Anna Karenina. The bus, in the meanwhile, had started moving.
Not less than twenty minutes since the bus had started on its journey,Vidya realized that the tender coconut had done what it was supposed to do. It was almost a litre of fluid after all. But Vidya didn’t care much. In another eight hours she’d be in Bangalore. And the driver shall surely stop the bus at a fuel station on the way. So she let Tolstoy continue to mesmerize her. How an entire chapter dedicated to the simple act of mowing, could make her feel so elated, was incomprehensible to her. To Vidya, the protagonist in Anna Kareninawas not Anna. Not Alexei. Not Levin. Not Kitty. But Tolstoy himself.
However, no love for good story telling can contain the most pressing, fundamental, physical urges.
“When do you think these guys will stop the bus?”,Vidya asked her mother. “Why do you ask?”, her mother looked at her suspiciously. “I badly need to use a toilet”, replied Vidya as her face flushed in embarrassment. “You’ll have to wait. They’ll only stop the bus at Salem, which is atleast four hours from now.”
Vidya felt troubled. She didn’t think she could wait that long. The journey, the AC, all of it seemed to only make things worse for her.

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“Amma, I don’t think I can wait that long. Will you ask the conductor to stop the bus at a fuel station on the way? They’ll surely have toilets.”
“Even if I ask, they won’t stop the bus. Last time when your grand-dad came home, he had to face the same situation. They didn’t care that he was a 75-year old man. Please try to control for a while.”
“But there is no harm in asking. Please?” , Vidya begged.
Her mother was visibly embarrassed. The two women were travelling alone after all. She had to walk up to the conductor and driver, both of who were men, amidst thirty odd passengers who were also mostly men, and ask them to stop at a place with a toilet. Though the driver obliged, he told her clearly that he will not be able to stop the bus for another two hours. The mother nodded and returned to her seat, thoroughly upset. “You are not going to have anything to drink, the next time we travel by bus”, she told Vidya sternly.
Vidya herself was quite perplexed at how her body was behaving. Even as a child, Vidya never had to face such a situation. Her body had never troubled her with what until today she had considered so petty. Yet, here she was, struggling to remain still. She opened the curtains so she could quickly spot a place she could use and stop the driver.
Almost immediately after her mom spoke to the driver, the bus went past a fuel station. “There’s one. Why isn’t he stopping?”, Vidya whispered urgently to her mom. She got no answer from her mother. Her mother, after all didn’t know what to do. In the next twenty minutes, the bus had crossed three fuel stations and the driver never stopped. Vidya grew restless by the minute. She was using the nastiest of words in the English language to scold the driver in her head.
“That’s it. The next place he stops the bus at, I am getting down to find a place myself”, she told her mother.
Fifteen minutes later, the bus stopped at what looked like a pick-up point. Vidya asked her mom to move. “What will you find here?”, her mother asked, worried.
“I don’t know. But I’ll find out.”

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She got down from the bus and asked the man at, what looked like a hotel, if there was a toilet around that she could use. The response was negative. Meanwhile, the conductor who saw Vidya get down from the bus, assured her that he’d stop the bus again soon. Vidya, by now, didn’t care what the men around her thought of her anymore. She went back in the bus. Her mother still wore that worried, helpless expression on her face. The bus started again. Vidya began to pray that the bus stops soon.
She couldn’t relax her back anymore. She had to lean forward to be able to be able to hold it in. This action made it impossible for her to occupy anymore than the tip of the seat. She held on to the handle at the back of the seat in front of her. Her facial muscles and jaws went tight. Her restlessness, which once increased by the minute, now turned into stillness. Stillness – the only thing that made it possible for her to control herself. But this stillness was painful. What seemed to be a discomfort earlier, now turned slowly into an excruciating pain in her pelvic region, which strangely made her knees quiver. She felt her temperature rising. A mild sort of tightness set into her lower abdomen.

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Two more hours passed. The bus never stopped. Vidya didn’t talk, or laugh, or read, or watch the movie playing in the bus. All her efforts went into enduring that terrible pain in the lower part of her body, while simultaneously postponing her physical need.
It had been more than three hours since she had asked the driver to stop the bus. The entire route had no toilets whatsoever. The few places that did have toilets, neither the driver nor the conductor had the sense or sensitivity to stop the bus for the suffering woman.
Vidya felt utterly humiliated and punished. Like the whole of mankind had perpetrated unspeakable violence against her. She needed to relieve herself. A basic need, of which, everybody in the bus was aware. Yet she was being tortured like this. She was afraid she would lose control. She was afraid she would humiliate herself before strangers even though she was not to blame. Tears filled her eyes.
Finally, the bus stopped at a toll gate and the conductor showed the female passengers the way to the toilet. Vidya, obviously, was the first one to get down.
All those long hours of controlling made her genitals hurt as she relieved herself. How could anybody be so insensitive? A woman may have a hundred reasons to use a toilet. Yet, nobody wants to pay heed to her even after she makes her needs very clear. And this sort of behavior came from older men. The government didn’t make it any easier either. Again, she blamed a group of older men for the lack of toilets along the route. She witnessed, for the first time, the apathy and insensitivity her countrymen had towards her kind.
“Do they even deserve us?’, she thought to herself, as she walked her way back to the bus, relieved physically, but her woman’s pride hurt.

The Cry of Innocence

There was no one around at the time near the building, just like every other day. The cool breeze rustled a few leaves and kissed a feeling of tranquility into anyone who passed by. The darkness and isolation made one of the two girls seated on the bench more courageous than usual. “Appdi podu podu podu…….” , the mobile sang. Devi sprang to her feet and started dancing merrily, unable to hide the bounce the song gave her very soul. Just then a middle-aged couple passed by and smiled gently at the young girl who was dancing joyously. Devi blushed upon being caught and all of a sudden, didn’t know what she was supposed to do with her hands or legs that seemed so disobedient now.

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Having walked further away from the girls, the husband said to his wife, “Now that is what you call innocence. Her dad is in deathbed and yet this kid is here dancing with no worries whatsoever. What a pity!”

Devi’s father had been suffering from throat cancer for eight months now. Her mother was forced to admit him in a well-known hospital in Chennai after all the hospitals in Bangalore turned out to be way too expensive. Devi and her younger sister were left behind in Bangalore under the care of trusted neighbours, so they wouldn’t have to miss school. Devi’s father was a driver and a gardener at the colony they lived in, while her mother was a domestic helper. Both of them were hard-working and their only dream was to give their daughters an education. Devi too was a smart and responsible girl and studied well.

Having taken care of her husband day and night for months together, Devi’s mother had to return to her girls to make all the necessary arrangements for the groceries that had run out at home. She left her husband with close family relatives and came to Bangalore. On returning, none of the neighbours needed to ask her about the status of her husband’s health. The poor woman’s face communicated all the suffering that cancer brought with it, which she had been a witness to, for eight months. Enquiry, to these concerned neighbours was not a necessity. But a mere formality. That one and only night, when she was away from her husband for the first time in eight months, she got a call from her relatives in Chennai. Her husband had passed away.

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Devi’s mother cried. She cried. She fell. She hit herself frantically. Her only support, her only partner, a man she always thought would be a part of her life, was gone. But more importantly, the father of her two young daughters was gone. And poverty never does much to comfort a soul in such a desperate situation. She didn’t know what she was going to do alone. So she cried. And cried till everyone heard her. Till she would faint.

Devi and her sister couldn’t comprehend what was going on. They were told that their dad had passed away. They saw their mother cry in pain. They felt sorry for her. But they didn’t know what it all meant really. The tenderness of their age wouldn’t let their innocence disappear. Not yet. So the two girls just looked on as the adults went about doing what had to be done.

Devi’s father was given his last rites. The two girls played hopscotch at the funeral home. Relatives and family friends could only pity the little ones.

A few months later, Devi returned home at noon with an assistant from school. Her mother wondered why she was home so early. The assistant smiled and said, “It’s all good news. Your little girl has become a woman now.” The mother, overjoyed at what she had heard, held her daughter’s face. Seeing her husband in the eyes of her little girl, her eyes swelled with tears. “Her father would have been so happy had he been here now. He would have celebrated this in pomp”, she cried. Devi had just experienced womanhood for the first time in her life. She saw herself changing physically and it was not a pretty sight. She was confused if she was to cherish these changes or regret them. And for some reason, she felt insecure like never before. Insecure, scared, uncomfortable, confused. And the reminder about her dad’s absence by her mom at this hour, brought tears to Devi’s eyes.

Devi missed her dad.

 

It’s a dog’s life

Divya was finding it hard to breathe. She had been crying so hard for so long now, there was nothing she could do to stop this outpour of hers even if she wanted to. Everytime she passed through that road outside her house she was reminded of those two little pups she had fed, cared for and fought for ever since they were born. How she adored them. How she fought with random strangers on the road for annoying them in the name of cuteness. She had taken it upon herself to be their guardian. Now that they are gone, all she felt was pain. The pain that she felt was not hers. But the pain that she assumed her dear pups were probably going through. “They are kids!”, she cried to her mother. “They know nobody there. They must be so scared. What if they miss me?” she asked. And this last thought of them missing her struck a dagger through her heart. Not just as a verbal expression, but as an actual physical manifestation, she felt pain in her chest like something was stopping her from breathing. Life has always been cruel to the sensitive, for they perceive the emotions around them in overwhelming proportions. Image

The two orphaned pups had been the reason for her smile for five months now. They were also the reason why she could see the humane side of her not so social neighbours. With their charm, the two pups managed to get themselves fed by six out of the ten families living in the building everyday. It was like the entire building was bringing those pups up after their mother died. Divya could never stop smiling when she saw the two pups having it their way with almost everybody by simply wagging their tails. 

Those soft ears that she caressed with so much love each time she saw them, that adorable manner in which the black pup shook hands with her without being taught to do so, the way they would come running after her when they saw her…………… she missed all of it – mostly she just swallowed the pain than letting it out. But today, it was just too hard for her to take. “My babies – I hope they are fine.” she repeated to herself as she cried. 

“How are you going to survive in this world if you are going to be so sensitive?”, asked her mother. She had no answer. “Even humans are not given any importance in this country. It is no wonder that they treat dogs like this.” her mother continued.

Divya’s emotional state, however, was a lot more complex than the sorrow of it all. Just as she was crying, the girl felt so much anger inside of her, it wouldn’t be right to call it anger. It was fury. Fury that could make her burn everything there is to ashes. She was infuriated by the world and its ways. She loathed, what she called, the human arrogance.

“What gives them the right to abduct an animal like that and deprive it of its reproductive rights? Is equality only a privilige enjoyed by humans? Why is it so hard for everyone to simply respect? Why can’t they just live with nature?”, she asked her mom. Nobody in the building seemed to raise a hue and cry over the puppies like Divya did, despite all the dearness the residents showed towards the pups. But she also thought that it was one of the residents themselves who must have been responsible for the turn of events.

Mr.Roy was never fond of the pups. He smiled at the pups when Divya was around, but behaved like a barbarian with them when she was not around the pups. Divya was aware of this. An obvious result – she hated him and his wife. This, coupled with the uncertainty over the pups’ return multiplied the anger that sprang from her helplessness, manifold. It was after all a known fact that the people who are in charge of animal birth control never return the animals to their territory as per rules.

She wiped off her tears and finally made up her mind. “If the people here don’t know how to respect life, I shall teach them. I am not leaving this here” , she said and left the room.

At the Animal Birth Control centre, Imran, a 57 year old man was cleaning up the poop left behind by some dogs, when he was told by the vet to put the two new pups in their kennel. They were both unconscious when Imran came in. He handled them gently, one after the other and put them in their kennel. He just stood there, gazing at those two lovely angels, which were both males and he began reminescing an episode in the history of India, back when he was a young man full of dreams and teeming with energy.

Back in 1976, a time when India faced the same problem of over-population as it does today, a young leader in the national political scene, Sanjay Gandhi had come up with the ingenious idea of compulsory sterilisation to tackle the problem of over population. Scores of unwilling men were forced to undergo vasectomy. Learned men called it a blot on democracy. Common man was terrorised about family planning. The entire episode was such an embarrassment that governments ever since then made it a point to ensure that family planning was indeed voluntary.

Imran now had an indignant smile on his lips as he continued to look at those pups with pity. “You are not humans. You are dogs. You don’t count as votes. It is your fate to silently suffer.”, he said to the pups that still lay unconscious.

The Mistake

Dalia was on her way home on a bus after a gruelling day at work. The city felt cooler than usual that night. Despite the long distance to be travelled, she had resolved not to listen to music during the journey. She was taking all those articles she had read about ear phones damaging one’s ears seriously. She opened her
window to feel the cold air caress her face, when the bus halted. It was yet another bus stop. Contrary to the regular chaos that happens at the entrance of the bus at this stop in the name of boarding, today everything was just peaceful and quiet, probably because there was only one woman waiting to board the bus. She got in. “Did someone just die?”, thought Dalia, on seeing the rather gloomy look the bus stop wore. She missed the bustle. But stopped missing it soon after she noticed the woman who had boarded the bus. She was a large, middle-aged woman with an average height that some might consider tall. She was dark skinned – the kind of complexion that Indians have grown an aversion to, in time. She wore her old pink saree in an unrefined style. She had no jewellery except a silver chain and no bindi either. Her appearance spoke poverty. Her eyes seemed like they had witnessed the vile and horrendous faces of the world too many times to let anyone mess with her. Anybody would think twice before getting into her bad books. Dalia, in her mind’s registers, instantly classified her as an outlaw who probably lived in the slums of the city.

It was then that Dalia noticed a bag in the woman’s hand. A black bag. The kind of bag that jewellery shops gave away to their customers for free, back in the 90’s. The woman was clutching the bag tightly in her hands.

Dalia continued to watch the woman. She didn’t seem to find a better subject of observation in the entire bus. She noticed that something was amiss with that woman. The woman was, in a subtle manner, probing the people around her to see if anyone was watching her. Dalia hadn’t caught her attention since her view of Dalia was blocked by two other people at the front. After some inspection of her immediate surroundings, the woman placed the bag right under her seat.  Two minutes later, the bus halted at the next stop. The woman quickly got off the bus –  without the bag. Dalia was confused. “Why would she do that? she did that on purpose, didn’t she? What did she have in that bag? Did she just kill someone and stuff their body parts into that bag? Or………. is it………….. a bomb….. like they show in the movies?” Dalia was way too intrigued by the woman and her bag to think straight. At one point she considered informing the conductor of the bag. What if it really did have a bomb? But she simply couldn’t get herself to get up and walk towards the conductor.

She lived alone in the city and didn’t want to get herself into unwanted trouble. But, “Innocent lives will be lost!!”, she thought. And that’s when her primordial instincts reminded her ” You shall also die!!”.
She couldn’t hold it in anymore. She walked towards the conductor and informed him of the bag. The conductor walked towards the seat under which the bag lay. He bent his knees and stretched his hands to reach out for the bag, but pulled them back when Dalia warned him ” You don’t know what is in the bag. I suggest you don’t open it yourself.”
An elderly man who was watching all that was happening, suggested the bus be directed to the nearest police station. The driver obliged.

At the police station, Dalia went with the driver and conductor to talk to the cops. Just when the conductor was about to finish saying that there lay an unclaimed bag in the bus, Dalia intervened, “It was left in the bus sir….. by a woman.” The sub inspector, conductor and driver looked at her intently, waiting to hear more from her. “She boarded the bus at Marathalli and got off at the next stop right after she placed the bag under the seat.”, she continued. The three men didn’t know what to say.
The driver gulped some air and felt like he was in a room with no ventilation. “What did she look like?”, he asked Dalia. “Remember that dark, fat woman in a pink saree? She was the one.” The driver was too worried to say anything.

The constable brought the bag from the bus and placed it on the SI’s table. The SI was just about to open it, when Dalia warned him to be careful. “Relax ma’am. It is my job.”, he said with a smile.
He gently pushed away the handles of the bag to open the zib. Everyone looked on anxiously. He opened it gently and with such patience like he was handling a new born baby, scared to upset whatever it is that is inside. And on opening it, everyone’s jaws just dropped. Not quite what anyone had expected.
The SI looked at Dalia with annoyance. “Really?? A bomb?”. The man didn’t know if he was to laugh or yell at the woman who caused so much panic to him and everyone else.

Dalia was visibly embarrassed. This was when she realised people would have been happier had it truly been a bomb. A bomb, after all, means excitement and action, even if it also meant fatal danger. But no. This was not a bomb. Just the regular pictures of Lord Rama, Krishna, Ganesha and Shiva that can be found in any hindu household in the world.

Disappointed at the turn of events, Dalia and the rest of the passengers got into the bus again to head to their destinations. Dalia felt like she had made a fool out of herself. She began thinking. Why would anyone do that? Trying to get rid of photos of gods? why?
In her mind’s eye, Dalia was picturing the woman who had been her subject of observation sometime ago, without realising she was doing so. She was after all the woman who illuminated her stupidity in front of a large crowd. She pictured every detail of her – her dark skin, her chubby cheeks, her broad forehead without the bindi, and the curly hair, her pink saree……” Just then it struck Dalia………. the single detail in that woman, which she had completely ignored and had forgotten all this while “The cross!!! she was wearing the cross!!!”