I spend a bulk of my traveling time in trains..as readers of this blog must have figured by now. Thankfully my profession gives me the flexibility to travel off peak hours most of the time, which is why I find myself in stations and trains trying to figure out the many visages of this city that always seems to be on the run.
If you are not in tearing hurry to reach your destination and care to examine the faces of these people of the "daily passengers" they could tell you different tales…that are now entertaining and now full of pathos…. forty minutes odd minutes of solitude. If you look close enough you could almost watch many a thoughts fleeting across the faces of the millions that take the trains to work everyday.
But today I will shift focus from the train to the platform and tell you yet another tale…..
Daily passengers by virtue of stopping by the same station at least twice a day are most likely to be known to vendors of fruits or small household wares enroute.
These vendors park themselves on the footbridge overhead the platforms (albeit illegally). However the convenience of picking up one’s daily quota of fruits or other essentials keeps us lesser mortals from picking up a row. Since every living soul (at least the ones that travel in trains) is struggling to make ends meet in this city, nobody grudges a thing against these vendors.
I happen to know one such Nagamma whom I pick up my fruits from Goregaon station (my home station located in the western suburbs of Mumbai ) . A woman of generous proportion, she finds it uncomfortable to hunch over her big basket of seasonal fruits and is usually sprawling around till of course a customer comes around. On my way back home from work I stop by her almost everyday and without fail she greets me with a cheerful “kaisi hai madam?” helping me smile despite a woeful journey which more often than not sees me toppling out of an overcrowded ladies first class compartment in the evenings.
Nagamma is the most cheerful among the vendors around and is the undisputed leader of the pack. She chides when necessary and yet manages to see that the rest of her kin win their daily bread, for example she will persuade me to buy a “gajra” (as small garland of flowers) if Sridevi a young girl who sets shop next to her hasn’t made much sales during the day.
For the last few months I have noticed a younger woman who turns up at around 8 p.m which is the close of “bijness time” as Nagamma prefers to call it. This woman although young enough to be a daughter to a 50 something Nagamma looks older beyond her years…and is always dressed in a glitzy black outfit and garish makeup. Yet there is something about the woman beyond her clothes that will make you look at her twice. What it was…I found out much to my surprise.
Having asked the husband to pick me up from Goregaon station, one evening, I happened to reach earlier than I had assumed I would. As I waited for him to arrive, I saw Nagamma and Lata share a glass of cutting chai before a group of children gathered around these two women. While the older children chit-chatted the younger ones were making fuss around Nagamma.
“ Uff these little brats wont let me finish my tea!” grumbled Nagamma feigning anger as she asked Lata to take on! “ C’mon children..lets go to the platform I heard Lata say. “ Hang on Lata..that Raju is missing again…as she huffed and puffed and caught a little boy who was scurrying down the stairs.”
Thinking that Lata was taking these children down to the platform to beg for alms, the journalist in me toppled out of what had been a silent spectator.
“Wait!” I almost screamed…where do you think you are taking these children I asked with a tone of authority…as Lata and Nagamma looked backed in alarm! “To class” littled Raju chirped in..thinking I would come to his rescue! “Class??” I asked in a tone of disbelief. Nagamma a smart business woman had figured by then what was going on in my mind… “Yes madam..Lata teaches these children..why don’t you go with her” she said anticipating that I would not believe what she was saying. “Most certainly” I said..and marched along as if to prove that Nagmma was bluffing.
A small group of five or six children aged 5-10 scampered along as Lata walked a step behind me. I was led to a little makeshift room with asbestos sheet and plastic and I saw there took my breath away. There was a blackboard and some dog eared notebooks in once corner of the room. “ These children cannot afford night school, as they have to earn a living for their family.” said Lata. As I looked at her dumfounded with a million questions in my eyes Lata told me her tale of how her “husband” had brought her to Mumbai several years ago and sold her off to a filthy contractor for a few thousands. Though she had made her escape that day, she ended up in the flesh trade, just to earn a living “ I had studied till class seven” she said and I want to pass on whatever I have learnt to these children. “ It is a process of ablution for me. I teach these children till such time as my customers arrive around midnight. “ I wear black to work everyday, helps me merge with the darknees of the night.” She says with tear filled eyes. Raju having sensed something wrong comes and puts his arms lovingly around his Lata didi, as Nagamma arrives with hot vada pavs for the class! “Khali pet padhai thodi hogi” (as if you can study with an empty stomach!” this surrogate mother grins as Raju jumps on Nagamma. “Madam aap bhi lo naa…(madam why don’t you take one! ) she urges as genuinely as she sells her fruit. I bite into a greasy vada pav with a meek smile and before I can mumble an apology…Nagamma silences me…at least you came to our little classroom she says with a smile as I make an humbled exit, the scribe in me silenced. I walked away wth my head hung in shame and prayer in my heart for these two unlikely partners who were rendering social service in an obscure little corner of the world.