My fourteen-year old daughter stood somewhere in the middle of the aisle. The bus conductor, a Rajnikant wannabe, punched his ticket puncher and urged her to move up to the front of the bus. “Move forward” he said archly in Marathi.
“She does not speak Marathi.” I said.
My daughter was holding on to a strap hanging from above while I held on to the seat head rest. One of the seated ladies in- vited my four-year-old daughter onto her lap. A light rain fell and the surrounding hills were covered with mist.
Even though the bus was filled beyond capacity, at every stop the bus conductor called out. “Are there any college stu- dents?” The bus is full! There is not even standing room, I thought. Students piled in hanging out of the door.
Rattling over potholes, the bus finally arrived in Bhiwandi. Some passengers alighted, and I finally secured a seat by the window, my younger daughter beside me. The older one found a seat further back. From the bus window I saw a family: a young father in a bush shirt, his wife, a boy of ten and an elderly woman in a black burqa. I noticed that her chappals were caked with mud. She was carrying a boy of four, his head resting on her shoulder. She came up the aisle to my seat. The boy whimpered. She motioned asking me to take my child on my lap, so she could take the adjoining seat.
Offended, I glanced at the child. He appeared sick to me. This was not the way it was done in the States. During my visit last year, my daughter had contracted dysentery, probably from the orange juice served on a domestic flight. I suspected that the orange juice had been diluted with tap water. Dehydrated, she’d had to go to a hospital. This year, I heard there was a cholera epidemic in the hinterland of Maharashtra. Bhiwandi appeared like a hinterland to me. I was an NRI after all. I stood up, scooping up my four-year-old.
“In that case, I will stand,” I said.
The Muslim family looked alarmed. “What happened? Please sit down!” the young father said.
“I don’t want to sit down,” I said, my mind made up.The lady in the burqua said, “Then, I also won’t sit down.”
We stood there paralyzed.
The people on the bus clamored. “Sit down! Sit down!”
“This lady has been standing all the way.” Someone said. “She just got a seat.” “Sit down!” another passenger urged. “Otherwise, an outsider will grab the seat.”
Several passengers looked at me, annoyed. We rode for a while in this manner. Finally, I was able to find a seat with both my daughters. The Muslim family found seats too.
The bus finally stopped in Thane. The glances of the passengers burned a hole through me as I dragged the oversize suitcase down the aisle, my daughters followed at my heels. My older daughter madeaface,asiftoshowshewasinno way related to me. A man with a big red tikka on his forehead helped me carry my suitcase down the steps. “You people carry such big suitcases!” he said reproachfully.
The conductor gave an exaggerated bow and smirked. At the taxi-stand, not one taxi driver was willing to transport a fare that was not far enough.
“I’ll report you!” I shouted. Finally one taxi driver agreed to take me home on a fixed fare.
“Didi,” the taxi-driver said. “Our Sarkar (government) are thieves, so we too have to indulge in thievery.”
Unlatching the front gate, we walked in to the house. “She’s come!” My parents seemed surprised. “We thought you’d take the afternoon bus, it’s less crowded.”
“But I told you I was returning in the morning.” I replied with some irritation. This was before convenient STD calls and well before the cell phone. I related my tale of woe.
“In that case you shouldn’t have tak- en public transportation.” My father said shaking his head. “Over here, when you take public transportation you are expect- ed to take your children in your lap. The conductor let you bring your suitcase on the bus! He could have insisted that you place it on the roof.” It was hopeless-my point of view seemed difficult to explain.
That night, as I turned on the Good Knight mosquito repellent I remembered the Muslim family. Perhaps they were tak- ing their child to a good hospital. I sent a silent prayer for the child’s well-being. I remembered the hostile looks of the people on the bus, as though I were a buf- falo in a china shop.
Then, when I was rubbing mosquito repellant on my limbs that night, it hit me like a bolt: the people on the bus almost 99% Hindu as well as the Muslim fam- ily thought that I had refused to sit next to the lady in the burqa because she was Muslim. They had taken me for a bigot.
It was no use regretting my behavior for the damage had been done. But at least, it showed me that secularism was well and alive among the majority of the majority community.
This happened in 1987. I hope it is still true in 2015!
Ravibala (Ravi) Shenoy lives in Naperville, IL. She has been published in Sugar Mule, The Copperfield Review, The Chicago Tribune and VOYA: Voice of Youth Advo- cates. A retired librarian, she is a book review editor for Jaggery.