I am not a large woman. 5’3”, thinner than the atmosphere in Mars, and a face that betrays fear far too easily. If Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory really worked, I’d be the first in line for extinction. I might as well have a neon lighted sign pointing at me saying, “TROUBLE WELCOME HERE”.
But I live on, a perpetual “Fuck you” to Darwin.
My diminutive stature has not gone unnoticed, wherever I went, my family ensured I usually had an escort. I was to be picked up, dropped, accompanied and guided to every activity in my life by a “strong figure”, usually my father or brother. Today, though, was an exception. My personal security firm had failed to turn up and I faced the prospect of walking 5 kilometres back home alone, with Palampur, still deciding if it is a city or a town, looming large and menacing before me. The same buildings that were insignificant blurs and blotches on the landscape every other day, suddenly seemed to teem with possibilities of unspeakable horrors. My furtive eyes took in every detail, and my imaginative mind (I am of that artistic Bengali class) refused to calm down and played out every single scenario in gory detail before my eyes.
When a woman walks alone on a street in India, she is an instant celebrity. Every male in the vicinity gawks, nudges his partner, passes a comment which he sincerely believes to be witty and original, and then aloofly tries to get as close to her as possible. Those fortunate enough to be in her way suddenly feel an inexplicable reluctance to walk quickly or to give way for her to pass. They become stone like, almost under a spell, immobile until the wielder of sorcery has passed from their eye line.
I braced myself, heaved an unnecessarily melodramatic sigh, and set on my way. Past the coconut vendor with the dangerously sharp sickle, speeding up to cross the tea shop where a possible underworld meeting was taking place, hurriedly jogging past three middle aged women who were sure to judge my clothing in unabashedly loud voices. The first street had been negotiated. Victory!!!
When one leads a sheltered life, one must celebrate one’s accomplishments with embellished vigour.
I congratulated myself and beamed a smile at my reflection of a car window. I looked up and my happiness vanished quicker than a man’s when he hears the word “headache”. Before me stood a street with cars flying past and no pedestrian crossing in sight. Not that it made a huge difference. A pedestrian crossing is only effective when those in the vehicles understand that it is meant to ease the activity of crossing roads for pedestrians. Indian drivers seem to interpret it as the chequered markings that mark the starting point of a race. A person who has learnt the art of crossing roads in India is at least on par with a state level dodge ball player.
I, on the other hand, had never been athletically inclined. My frail frame ensured I was kept away from dangerous sports like basketball and football, in cricket I was graciously “selected” as the umpire, and dodge ball was as alien to me as diabetes. So crossing this main road seemed to me to be an unnecessarily sadistic test of faith by the Eternal Prankster seated up above.
I checked left and right to see if anyone else wished to cross this death-trap. In this matter of life and death, I was willing to put my trust in a complete stranger’s judgment rather than mine. But the sidewalk, full of milling passerby’s, failed to produce one single Christ figure that was willing to help me bear the cross. (See what I did there?)
A few minutes passed, the traffic did not thin out. The entire driving population of Palampur seemed to be racing for road position at this very junction. Finally, I spotted the exact sight I had been hoping for. An elderly lady driving a beat up Maruti 800 which had obviously seen many “lapses of judgment” from its owner, driving at a snail’s pace right in the centre of the road, blissfully ignorant of the procession forming behind her and obviously deaf to the cacophony of horns blaring at her. This provided me with the much needed gap in the traffic, I darted across, covering the ground in quick, short steps, fighting hard against the urge to close my eyes, and found myself on the other side of the road.
I checked carefully for any more obstacles and, seeing none, allowed myself to smile once more.
These unprecedented athletic demands on my body and problem solving demands on my brain were beginning to take their toll. The one slice of toast I had in the morning lay alone in my stomach and it sounded like it had begun to contemplate the meaning of life. And it didn’t seem to like whatever it contemplated. My wallet, almost empty from my ill advised splurging on needless luxuries at the start of the month, could now provide no relief to the moanings of my internal machinery.
I continued walking, ignoring the smells of frying chicken and boiled corn on the cob. A passerby seemed to recognize me and waved at me, but in times of crisis, one does not have time to exchange pleasantries and I hurried on, ignoring him as comprehensively as Canada is in matters of World Politics.
I later learned he was my uncle, and he took great offence at his treatment, but I felt guiltless given the dire, life threatening circumstances in which I had been placed.
Half an hour had passed since I left the booby trapped college road behind and I was beginning to approach familiar neighbourhoods and recognized the bakeries I was in the habit of frequenting. Home was not very far away now, and hope grew within me with every step. In the field of achievements, this would rank right up there with the time I managed to negotiate a whole night at a friend’s party without making a literary reference that no one understood. Those were fond memories of victorious days and I was keen to add to them. Finally my magnificent, sprawling apartment complex loomed large in front of me. I greeted the Nepali watchman with more than the usual amount of cheeriness and mentally admonished myself for all the racist jokes passing through my head. I almost, in a rush of blood to the head, decided to take the stairs two at a time, but then sanity prevailed and i abandoned the daredevil attitude and climbed them as usual, still managing to trip myself twice. My front door greeted me with a warm smile, i greeted it back, stepped inside my house and found a note lying on the dining table.
“Tanu, we have gone to Bubble Aunty’s house for dinner. Leave immediately and come, we are waiting for you before we start eating. Love, Papa.”
I was found lying unconscious four hours later, lying right next to the dining table with the note clutched in my hand, an expression of agony etched upon my face. The doctor told my parents I had fainted from severe shock and advised a week’s bed rest. My parents decided then and there never to let me walk anywhere alone again.
I listened in on all of this while pretending to be asleep. An imperceptible smile crept into my features.