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Commentary. Rights activist's experience of an unreserved compartment: India in diversity, pluralism

By Fr Cedric Prakash*
It has been a long and eventful day for me, culminating in a train journey. Although I still have a fever and feel rather exhausted, here I am putting this down as I promised a lady on the train that I would write and tell the world of her magnanimous gesture...
A rally had been organised by SOUL (Save Our Land) at the Azad Maidan in Mumbai to protest the Church land acquisitions. I was one of the speakers invited to address the people gathered. The crowds were much more than the organisers had expected. Speaker after speaker came down heavily on the Local Government, lambasting it for its nexus with the builders lobby and other vested interests. “You can no longer take Christians for granted!” “We want Justice!” “Enough is enough!” rent the air! It was truly a moving experience and I was touched that more and more Christians today come out for the cause of Justice.
However, I could not remain to the end of the programme, as I had to catch the 1710 Deccan Queen to Pune. I hurried to the CST Station and was looking forward to a relaxing 3-plus hour’s journey in the cool comfort of a Chair Car compartment. With a fever and a headache, I really needed it. I was relieved when I arrived at my “seat”. I showed my ticket to a guy who was seated on it. He checked it and very coolly told me, “Sir, your train has left this morning…your ticket is of the Deccan Express and NOT of Deccan Queen”. I couldn’t believe what he was saying, but on checking my ticket, realised he was right! A kind friend had helped me buy the ticket. I had clearly told him, “Deccan Queen” as I was scheduled to speak at the rally around 1530. I presumed he had got the ticket for the train I requested and did not bother to check it!!!
So what do I do now? It was almost 1655…..just fifteen minutes before the train’s departure. I ran out of the train…almost the full length of the platform to the ticket counter, only to be faced with a huge line. Some guys however had “mercy” on a Senior Citizen and in no time I had my ticket and ran back to the train (baggage and all) and entered an UNRESERVED compartment with just three minutes to spare!
To say that the compartment was like a “tin of sardines” is an understatement. It was jam-packed, with practically no room to even stand. I resigned myself to an uncomfortable trip. But the greatness of an Indian train journey is that once it begins, most of the travellers easily adjust and adapt. In no time I was asked to move ahead and some youth very generously beckoned me to sit at the edge of their seat. Not comfortable at all, but I was not complaining since the alternative was to stand for most part of the journey.
There were all kinds of people around me; of different faiths, languages and cultures! It was the beginning of HOLI (the Festival of Spring) and many seemed to be excited to be going back home or to spend the festival with friends and relatives. Several young ‘uns got down at Lonavla, perhaps for a great Holi revelry!
Suddenly a burqa-clad Muslim lady began pushing her way through; her three-year-old son desperately needed to use the toilet. All helped to make way and in no time they had reached the destination. Most did not know that the lady had left her baby daughter on the seat asking the neighbours to keep an eye on her. On realising that her mother was not around, the baby started bawling and shrieking to high heavens. Nobody knew what to do although the cries were deafening. Then from across my seat a young lady got up and spontaneously went to the baby and began cuddling and pacifying her. ‘The lady must surely be a friend of the family’, I thought to myself. The rocking calmed the baby who felt very soothed in the warm and loving hands. In awhile, the mother returned with her little son, took her baby from the arms of the lady and settled down. It was only then that I realised that this lady was a total stranger to the other and a Hindu!
My heart leapt with JOY! This is MY INDIA, I thought to myself! The India in which the stranger is just a friend we do not know; the India of diversity and pluralism; the India where we can transcend the narrow confines of religion and sectarianism. I could not help think of the trains in Nazi Germany…where people were pulled out and sent to concentration camps because they were “not one of us”. This INDIA I told myself should never die! We should not in any way allow the fascist and fundamentalist forces to destroy what is so precious to us! Let us not be fooled by their empty rhetoric of “development” (Hitler did the same) but let us be WARNED and ACT NOW before it is too late!
The Hindu lady was to alight at Shivajinagar. Before that, I plucked up courage and asked if I could speak to her. I told her that I would never forget her wonderful gesture! In great humility she replied, “Sir, I too have little children and I know what it means to be a mother.” Thanking her, I just told her to never let her concern and love, especially for the “the other”, to ever die. I asked her if she had seen the movie ‘DHARM’ in which Pankaj Kapur is the main actor.She had not.I requested her to see it if she could.And I promised that I would write about her great deed tonight itself….I do not know her name and who she is but I have just christened her BHARATMATA – women like her, are the soul of India!
I reached Pune, very tired and still with fever….but what an unforgettable journey it has been!I can’t help but hum to myself the JOURNEY song of Lea Salonga and specially these words:
“What a journey it has been
And the end is not in sight
But those stars are out tonight
And they're bound to guide my way”
---
* Written on 15th March, 2014. Fr. Cedric Prakash sj is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace

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