From the moment we are capable of instruction and remembrance, we are taught a universal moral principle – be good unto others, be kind. Parents and relatives apart, schools and other institutions have their own subjects to teach morality to children. Some call it Moral Science, DAV’s in India call it Ved Path. Tales of Panch Tantra and other folklore are replete with depictions of the kindness of great sages and kings, and the goodness of creatures as trivial as ants.
Like everyone else, I too grew up on these notions of goodness and kindness. I was taught that if you see an animal hurt – be good to it, be kind. If you find someone needs your help, lend a hand because you ought to be good, you ought to be kind. Or if you fight with your siblings over trivial things like who will get the last piece of cake, or who will get the new toy, set your rivalry aside and…be good, be kind.
I write today because I think I failed those teachings. I write today because even after years of this occurrence I can’t shake the feeling off that I could have done something, no matter how minuscule, but I didn’t. Those of you who have watched the Keira Knightley and James McAvoy starrer Atonement (or read the book) would know how the narrator wrote the story of the two lovers different from the reality just so she could atone for the sin of having separated them in real life. For the narrator, her book reuniting the wretched lovers became a vehicle of atonement. And so, this post is mine. To some of you it may seem like a vacant expression and indeed I don’t delude myself into believing that by writing here I will have absolved myself of the shame I feel for what I did, but it’s the only thing I can do because the woman I write about does not even have a home to call her own, let alone an email address. Or did not. I don’t even know what became of her. So no, this is (again) purely for my gratification, so that I can lighten up the load I’ve been carrying on my conscience for so long… and share with you the pathos of the apathy that has seeped into our lives.
It was a long many summers ago when this happened. I must have been nineteen or twenty at most. I was on my way back from vacation from Delhi to college in Pune and was travelling by train, I think it was Jhellum express, and the train had taken its usual stop in some town in Madhya Pradesh, I forget which. The train still had about five or ten minutes before it would push off to another one of its innumerable stops (the Jhellum Express was infamous for its stops and was nicknamed the Snail Mail in my circle). I was lazing on my seat, staring vacuously out of the window and hoping that the train would just leave. The heat in the compartment was insufferable.
Just when I was about to look away, I noticed something, someone – a woman, heavily pregnant (I know what heavily pregnant looks like now because I’ve been there myself), dressed in rags, and I mean rags¸ because her shirt was a patch up job, two sizes too large for her shoulders yet stretched taut over her belly, clearly donated by someone who had been kind to her (unlike me). Her pants were too big for her otherwise frail structure and her hair was a shock of grey and white, yet she looked young, maybe just above twenty-five. Needless to say, she was homeless, she was grubby… And she was mentally unsound.
How do I know she was of unsound mind? Where do I begin? No sane woman would be eating food off the garbage bins, especially one who was with child. No sane woman would be cavorting in dirt, making faces at other people and laughing at nothing in particular. No sane woman would be on a busy platform, evidently not waiting for a train, unless she had nowhere else to be. Sometimes I wonder why most of the homeless wind up living in train stations and on busy platforms. I guess it must be because no one cares why they’re living there… nobody has the time to enquire.
So who was she? I don’t know. I didn’t even try to know. I will never know. I just kept staring at her, as if she was a wonder, questions whizzing through my brain. Why was she like this? Who put her in this situation? Why was she heavily pregnant and rambling crazily on a busy platform? What will become of her and her baby once its born? Who will take care of them? Crazier still were the scenarios I conjured up in my mind about her condition. Perhaps, someone outraged her modesty (I hate to use the word rape) and left her. Perhaps she was someone’s wife who was abandoned and she had lost her mind. Perhaps she had been of unsound mind to begin with, and someone took advantage of her condition. One crazy possibility after the other kept flitting through my brain and yet, all I did was sit and think. And pity her.
She approached one of the stall-keepers from whom she asked for something to eat and he batted her away like one bats away a stray dog. Then she pulled a face at him, laughed raucously and ran back to her spot where she would sit down, then stand up, make faces, sit back down, make faces, stand up, and the cycle went on and on till her bleak mind noticed something different. No one offered her food, or alms, or a look. She didn’t even ask for them. I was no different. I just kept looking. She was the embodiment of how nebulous and transitory our lives are, how cruel and selfish, we as a race, have become. I’ve seen other shocking things in life – beggars with amputated limbs begging, eunuchs living on pittance, emaciated refugees living in hovels. Yet this one incident left an indelible mark on me and at the same time, irrevocably left me a worse person.
Some minutes passed and I rummaged in my overnight bag for food or anything I could give her, but I stopped. And then I resumed staring. And then… and then the train started moving and I kept staring out till she slipped away from my vision.
I don’t know why I stopped back then! Was it because I was afraid I’d miss my train? Was it because I thought beggary should be discouraged (did I mention she wasn’t begging)? Was it because I thought she would do something to me (I mean what could she do, besides laugh at me, like she did with others)? To this day I question my actions but deep down I know why I didn’t do it – apathy, sheer apathy. I won’t even attempt to mask my indifference by offering that no one else seemed to even look at her, much less provide for her. The fact is I did nothing.
Some of you may say yes, you should have done something; how very shameful of you not to. Yet some will say, like my then-boyfriend-now-husband told me, there isn’t anything you can do for such people. I know all that already and I know all of you are right in your opinion of what I ought to have done that day. What I want to know is can I now do something for her? I know the answer to that too – I can’t. Because for all I know she may be dead; she and that poor baby she was carrying. Or either of them may have survived, or both of them may have survived and may have had their happily ever afters, an unlikely thing, but it doesn’t hurt to dream or to hope.
I know it doesn’t matter now what I write or how I feel, or even if I try to be good and kind to someone else as penance. I know that that day I should have gotten off that train and given her food or alms, even if they would end up being stolen from her, even if I had missed my train, even if she mocked me and pulled faces at me. As a lawyer in training, I had an even bigger responsibility to alert the authorities to get her removed from the platform, or at the very least enquire about her wherewithal. None of which I did.
So, did I cease being good, being kind? Did all those hours in Ved-Path classes at school amount to nothing? Does this one act of desistence make me a sinner, or a bad person?
Maybe, maybe not. But I think there comes a time in everyone’s life when they ought to take these moral principles out of their heads and convert them into actions. While no one can be good and kind all the time, there are times when one must be. It’s the human thing to do. Today I may write an Atonement dedicated to her, I may help others in need constantly, I may even partake in social work, but nothing will change the fact that that day somewhere a woman needed me to be good, be kind.
And I was neither. And that’s the albatross I’ll forever have to carry around my neck.