Eight years ago, I was on a train, returning to Chennai from Bangalore after a school trip. The compartment was exactly how any compartment carrying teenagers studying in a Catholic Girls School would be – loud, noisy and filled with the most annoying giggles. I remember the seats very well. It was my first time on a Shatabdi, a day journey. I remember thinking it was unfair that I didn’t get a berth. I remember the distinguished old woman, with her regal white hair tied into a neat bun. I remember the glasses perched on her nose, her wrinkled hands and the newspaper she was reading. The Hindu before it became N. Ram’s personal diary.
A few minutes before the train started, a group of people walked into the train. They walked with a purpose, they knew exactly what they were doing and they looked serious. This was the world immediately after the media learnt it’s new favourite word. Terrorism. Even as fourteen year olds, we were well programmed by the television and forwards on the email (hotmail, which we checked once a week – Fridays, usually) to link purpose with malice. Every curious eyes watched them with fear and idle contempt. A lethal combination. They started handing out papers. More curiosity. Pamphlets were colourful papers with glossy text and make believe people. No white paper filled with text.
I don’t remember much of what it said. But I know that it spoke of things that I will wholeheartedly endorse if I read it today. And in some way it did resonate with me on some level back then. Till I read the bit about how women are misrepresented in media. Back then, I automatically categorized them with the right wing moralists idolized women enough to elevate them to a pedestal prison. The pamphlet ended with a very quiet dignified request for money, if you believed in the cause they supported. The highly indignant, newly unleashed feminist in me, empowered by Kalpana Sharma and open page articles didn’t.
Then he came. He was obviously the leader of the non organisation. Khadi kurta, longish hair, old bag, rubber slippers, moustache. Imagine the cliché of all clichés. The social justice activist. Any caricaturist could have captured his apparel. But nothing, no image, no work of man could capture that anger in his eyes. Anger that betrayed his despair, his desperate need to find in us, <i>us</i> something, anything to fuel his dying hope. He stared at me and asked me if I was interested in making a contribution. In probably one of the bravest moments of my life, I told him that I wouldn’t as I disagree with some of what he said. He looked at me for a few seconds. Part disbelief, part annoyance, part incredulous. He ranted about how we were the ones who had to take over now. We had to get involved and we were sitting here acting as if nothing was ever going to affect us. He took a deep breath and stared at me for a while. I stared back at him. Part fear, part shame, part defiance. And then he turned and walked. Out of the train, out of the station.
It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years. And for eight years, until I walked into this city, I forgot the man, who in the depth of his despair, gave me something. A memory, a moment I can’t define.
Today I saw that same anger in another man. Talking about a river, destroyed forever by the immortal greed of a few mortals. A river destroyed, a city scarred forever and democracy dies, slowly.
Everyday I feel the same anger. At myself, my world, my city, my friends, my family. We destroy. We plunder. We ravage. A city made by the river, destroys it – one concrete load after another.