It was a Tuesday afternoon and the indicator at the platform predicted that I was to travel to office in a 3.44pm Churchgate slow that would reach Andheri in three minutes. So be it.
So there I was, next to the now defunct toilet on platform number three (which had managed to retain its precious odour and had a red condom vending machine hanging precariously next to one entrance), staring into space. The crowd prepared to get into the train that made its entry known with a loud honk thanks to some idiot standing dangerously close to the platform’s edge. Recovering from that temporary loss of hearing, I gathered my gear and took a war-like stance (Elbows out, bag brought to the front and mobile clutched firmly in one hand).
The train stopped; wait, slowed down. In Andheri, you never make the mistake of waiting for the train to stop, and try to get in. You never will get in, if you do. A multitude, pushing, shoving and cursing, fell out of what-seemed-then a narrow exit way. Thanks to my years of training and deftness, I made it in, safely. No toenail broken; no rib damaged; clothes intact; mobile in hand.
Now, moving on to my swimmer/ scavenger mode, I navigated through the crowd to reach the other side. Well, I intended to get off at Mahim, not anywhere else so I had to ensure I reached the other side. In time.
I found my spot close to the door. Not too close as to get wet in the light shower but not so far as to look at the fan begging it to blow some wind in your direction. I looked peaceful. Well, one has to find their own peace in the midst of a Gujarati aunty explaining why everyone except her is responsible for this crowded train; a Marathi government employee bitching about her colleagues; two Malayalee nurses staring at random girls and passing comments or discussing their IELTS coaching; or college girls discussing boyfriends.
All of a sudden, two women next to me wear a disgusted expression and cover their noses; Gujarati aunty finds something new to complain about and the place around me gets vacant. I put on my defensive face and convince myself that I smell great. I had used lavender-perfumed bath salts that were lying ignored in my bathroom for a month. So these women can go *&^$ themselves. I returned their stares. But, they seemed to be staring at something or someone right behind me.
A faint smell made my nostrils tingle but I couldn’t place it. I peeked outside the train. Wait, we had clearly not reached the railway-track-side-open-air- defecation-corridor yet. I wasn’t in the luggage compartment of the Virar fast either. I turned my neck (in a local train, that’s the only thing you can turn without being yelled at) to see the one responsible for this change. Suddenly, fish scales and the sea-smell (that’s what I call it) brought me back.
A middle-aged Virar fisher-woman (forgive my stereotyping) had entered the compartment with her fish basket dangerously resting on her head. How she managed to enter is still a mystery but she did and how. Random unseen faces rudely spoke about how certain people do not have the sense cannot use the luggage compartment, some stared at her as if she was covered in boils, and some started chanting some almost inaudible prayers for being near non-vegetarian soon-to-be food.
The woman was aware of all the taunts and disapproving looks and just asked people to move and made her way in front of me. I had one goal; to make sure I don’t fall on her, despite the crowd, lest the fish juice falls all over me. I was still to reach office, the bad part of my day was a good ten minutes away and I intended it to stay that way.
However, I couldn’t resist looking at her face. Marred with wrinkles and sunburnt, her face still had a deep satisfied look. I tend to have that look for a split second after I enter a crowded train before the pushing and shoving resumes. But, hers seemed to come from somewhere deep within.
My eyes went to her basket again and it looked empty save the fish scales sticking to its outsides. One hand holding the basket in place, the other hand dug out some notes from inside her blouse. A smile broke out on her face. She seemed to be in a different world altogether, by now, oblivious to the looks she had brought on to her co-travellers faces.
That’s when it struck me. She had sold her fishes, every one of them and this was the satisfied look of a hard day’s labour. Oh, and it struck me hard.
I had never managed to feel this kind of satisfaction after my work ended. I would never be able to stand in a compartment full of people, hating my existence. I could never stand tall in the midst of people knowing what truly mattered was only my own efforts, not their opinions about me.
Lost in my thoughts, I got off at Mahim station. As I walked along the platform, I saw the fisher-woman keep her basket down. She wiped her face with a faded cloth and re-adjusted her saree. I could still see that faint satisfied smile and it lifted my spirits.
That day, the frail fisher-woman from Virar taught me the importance of finding peace in the midst of resentment that comes only after you push yourself and do a decent job at whatever you do.