Many months ago, I was travelling extensively by train to meet my team of distributors spread across Tamil Nadu. On one such journey, I saw something that has stayed with me. A youngish woman sat with a little girl of about five years, on the dirty floor of the train compartment. They shuffled close to where I sat stretching my lazy self. I instantly moved away. I watched them scurry about a little. They seemed to get in everybody’s way.
After about half an hour, when I was blissfully reading a book and munching on a packet of potato chips, I looked up to find them crouched under the wash basin, almost close to the stinking lavatories. I felt guilty about my initial reaction. The woman wore a faded sari that was probably a vibrant pink in its good days, with a mismatched brown blouse that had torn at its shoulder seams. The little girl, who I presumed was her daughter, wore a frock that was probably handed down to her from a more affluent family. It had some frills and fancy buttons, albeit chipped in places. She sat beside her mother, clutching her knees, gazing between passengers who stood by the door for a smoke.
Somebody nearby commented loudly about their disposition- ‘These lowly people always board trains without tickets for free rides. They should be kicked out!’ If the woman heard the remark, she showed no signs of it. She sat quietly looking away into the distance, perhaps thinking of a happier time, for a wistful smile came on her face momentarily. Her daughter then asked a question that has been haunting me to this day. She said- ‘Amma, why are we treated like this? Didn’t you always say we were born on the tracks, will live our lives on the tracks and bid farewell too on the tracks? I thought these railway tracks were ours because thatha* laid them with his own hands.’
The ticket collector just came around then and looked at the duo like they’d stolen the Kohinoor. The woman wiped a stray tear on her cheek and dug out a crumpled 20 Rupees note from a knot at the end of her once beautiful pink sari. The ticket collector still looked at her like he would a thief, even though her face shone with a sense of pride at being able to provide for her family. She paid for their tickets and got off at the next station.
I realized that she was in no way a lowly person. She was a woman who faced judgement by onlookers everyday, yet lived an honest life by paying for her ticket even if she didn’t enjoy the comfort of a seat on the train. In the aftermath of the incident, I stared at the now vacant spot under the wash basin and thought about what the child had said. Her grandfather had laid parts of the track with his very own hands. He contributed to the Railways, to the State and in a way, to India’s development. His daughter probably grew up proud of her father’s work, imagining traveling by the railroads to distant lands that promised adventure and a better life. That fleeting smile on her face made me wonder about the life she lived as a child and the life ahead of her own daughter.
I’ve never seen either of them since that day on the train. But I wonder- whose tracks are those? Can the man who laid them, not claim them at all?
(*thatha- grandfather in Tamil)
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