Thursday, April 30, 2015

Girl in the Delhi Metro

“Ting. Sikanderpur station.”

The sound of rollers, and the doors parted. Two elbows propelled me forward; my messenger bag left my side and I was flung headlong into the train compartment. People were caught at the door, still trying to leave, sandwiching me between immovable objects and an irresistible force.

I managed to pull my bag closer. A large bearded man turned sideways to give me space to plant both my feet. I watched a frail boy being squeezed against the backside of his father. There was still much jostling and swearing; like everywhere else in India, space was in acute scarcity.

“Ting-ting, ting-ting,” the doors began to close. Another man leapt through the gap and, with his momentum, fashioned a corner for himself just as the door shut behind him. Like a tin of atta, there was always space to accommodate more with enough impact. The rubbers pressed against each other and the train gently jumped into motion.

The man in a striped shirt, wearing Beats headphones, stumbled backwards and stepped on my foot. I pushed back on him. He turned and grunted, as if demanding an explanation. I looked away and tried to breathe.

The air smelled of wet armpits and stale cigarette smoke. An oddly shaped canvas bag which poked me in the midriff was the only thing that bothered me more. The train decelerated, throwing the collective mass of humanity in the direction of its motion. “Oh be’ncho” – a sardar drowned my own oath.

I realized, in that moment, the stark absence of femininity in the compartment. Sweating, swearing, testosterone-driven stereotypes. Women permeated the world only through Facebook and Whatsapp. I wasn’t sure if the wetness on my skin was my sweat or another’s. The train stopped.

“Ting. Guru Dronacharya station.”

The sound of rollers, and the doors parted. There was a massive readjustment. I hoped people would rush out of the compartment. Ten people entered instead. I held the pole tightly. “Idiots,” said the grey-haired uncle next to me, “live like cockroaches.”

I looked towards the door. In front of the exit stood a young woman, with her streaked curls tumbling onto her forehead. Her black dress, which ended only a little over her knees, hugged her fragile body. Standing on bright red heels, she stared into the compartment. The compartment stared at her.

Stories of Delhi – no, of Gurgaon! – rushed through my head. I wondered why she would want to enter this world, instead of the first compartment marked pink with white flowers. Her right hand clasped the strap of her Hidesign bag. She held it tightly against her body, and stepped forth into our hell. The compartment breathed the outside air, and waited for her eagerly.

I thought I saw the old man next to me nod in apprehension. The two men nearest me barged into me, compressing me in the process; I dropped my shoulders, brought my feet together and became insignificant. Every man around me reacted the same way and transferred, to some extent, the lack of space to his immediate neighbours. I waited for someone to burst out in anger and frustration.

And then, I witnessed the most extraordinary scene. The lady walked in and turned her back towards the compartment. Two young fellows and a pudgy, middle-aged man formed a semi-circle around the lady, around half a foot in radius. Men backed away, giving her a whole foot of freedom in front of the sliding door. Every other man in the vicinity gave up a few inches to accommodate the lady – to ensure they stayed at a decent distance from her.

In a country known for rapes and crimes against women (in the rape-capital of that country), I could see how statistics could lie. This was a most brilliant and inconvenient depiction of the same culture which is being blamed for violence against women.

“Ting-ting, ting-ting,” and the doors closed.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Value of Human Death

I attended a safety meeting last week, to discuss operational hassles and reduction of health and safety risks. My presentation had two slides, mostly about minor spills and awareness about personal protective equipment (PPE). As I was the last presenter, I waited for my turn in the corner of the room, quietly sipping my Tetley dip-chai. The slides moved on.

I was being lulled to sleep by the quiet monotonous affair, when the slide switched again. The title of the slide: FATALITY

In black and white, with a few pictures and aerial maps, the grim incident unfolded before my eyes. There was a tractor, probably faulty, almost certainly devoid of critical maintenance, which had rolled over and fallen off the side of the road. As it was past sunset on a relatively unused road, response wasn't immediate. The driver of the vehicle, a poor man wearing a colourful turban, might have removed his seat-belt at the time of incident.

"The Injured Person or I.P. did not comply with policies," said the presenter. Without blinking, he explained the occurrence with an unwavering voice. "Since the previous accident, we have enforced strict driving rules. But compliance..."

The fact that a man had died grew upon me. A driver who I might have even seen on the road had suddenly ceased to exist. In front of me, people spoke of his death with academic interest. In the next slide, he appeared as a blip on a frequency chart and as a red block on a pyramid. The men accepted that their numbers didn't look pretty.

"He died," I said slowly to the man who sat next to me.
He looked at me and said, "Yes, they were better off last month."
"What do you mean?"
He pointed at the graph. No one had died in February. The other months had 1s, 2s and occasional 3s.

"Those are deaths?"
"Only the red ones."
"What about black? What's worse than red?" I asked, reading the colour-code.
"Oh, that's when many people die. Haven't had one in a long time."

The slides about the fatality had passed. They began to discuss an oil-spill. The man would remain as a point on a graph. And his family would get a six-figure sum as compensation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

A farmer jumped off a tree at an AAP rally. Maybe he wasn't really a farmer, maybe he was a land-owner. He was, perhaps, rich. Maybe he wanted to contest elections as an AAP candidate. It could all have been staged.

But as the story goes, a man died in public view. No one could do much about it. And while there was temporary disruption in activity, nothing really changed. The show went on. The media arrived on the scene, and they have minted money off a corpse ever since.

If this had happened away from public view (and an AAP rally), Gajendra Singh would not be missed. There are have been nearly 3,00,000 farmer suicides in the country since 1995. Each one of these deaths could potentially bring a family to a stand-still. In a country of a billion, perhaps they don't matter?

On an average, 30-40 people have killed themselves per day. Some of these get reported, in the inside-pages of national dailies. Most of them don't get mentioned; they are unrecognized in life and in death.

                             * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Did you know that 15-20 people are killed daily by Mumbai locals alone? 20 more people are maimed, crushed or left bruised and bleeding.

For every 1,00,000 vehicles on the road, nearly 210 people are killed on an annual basis. One person is killed for every 475 vehicles in this country. 2.5 lakh people are killed annually on Indian roads. Again, it is perhaps a small number and insignificant on an Excel sheet.

Nothing can be said about the accuracy of these figures, and statistics in developing nations are hardly reliable. In 2013, a medical research panel discovered that India was heavily under-reporting its Malaria fatalities. They found that the average number of deaths were in excess of 40,000 against a reported value of around 1,000.

We also report that around 6 children die out of every lakh simply because they don't get enough food. They die because there aren't enough grains of rice which enter their mouths, probably because they rot in remote godowns.

Each number represents the termination of as many human beings: humans who ought to be protected, nourished and allowed to grow in life, humans who should be mourned in death.

I still remember the boards on highways in the USA which sent shivers down my spine: "$100,000 FINE" (for hitting a pedestrian). Clearly, the value of life is vastly different in different parts of the globe. The Indian citizen isn't worth much. A poor Indian is worth nothing.

What are you worth?