I was a student, studying in far away Ahmedabad that summer. The term ended, and I boarded the train home to Delhi. That summer, instead of the fast, overnight train, I chose to take the long slow train that wound its way leisurely through Gujarat and the deserts of Rajasthan for a night and a day before reaching Delhi. It was the middle of the afternoon. The compartment I was in was packed with people – men, women and children, talking desultorily amongst themselves or nodding drowsily in the heat. We had sitting room only – it was impossible to stretch out or lie down. And if you made the mistake of getting up from your seat on the hard wooden berths, chances were you wouldn’t get your place back when you tried to sit down again.
I was sandwiched between the window (mercifully) and a tall, silent, middle-aged man dressed smartly in trousers and shirt, the only person in Western attire in that compartment. Opposite me sat a woman, who couldn’t have been much older than I, but who was accompanied by two small children – a little girl with large, dark eyes and tightly plaited hair, who sat demurely by her side, and a baby boy who slept peacefully in her lap. The woman wore her sari draped the traditional way, the aanchal covering her head, and falling in front across her right shoulder. She smiled at me, with the pleasant happy smile of a person content with her life.
Now, I am not much given to making conversation with strangers on a train, and so I buried myself in a book, and shut out the world as best I could. Suddenly I became aware that the tall, silent man was trying to look sideways into my book. That made me uncomfortable, but not willing to make a fuss, I ignored him. I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring; not a book that interests many people, I knew, and definitely not the kind of book that would interest this man I decided. It was after all a fairy-tale, a satire. Not the traditional good read at all. But I was mistaken. The man was interested in my book, very interested.
‘Look, she is reading a book,’ he announced suddenly to the other passengers. His voice was derisive, taunting. I realized that he was talking about me. I looked up, but not wishing to draw any more attention to myself, I said nothing. The others looked at him for a moment, then at me, nodded politely and resumed their various conversations. The woman across smiled at me again.
‘Are you reading an angrezi book?’ he tried again after a while.
‘Jee, haan, yes, I am reading an English book,’ I replied. (We had, of course, been speaking all this while in Hindi.)
A look of incredulity, indignation and anger passed across his face.
‘Are you sure you can read that book?’ he asked again, still in Hindi, glaring at me disapprovingly.
‘Yes, I can read it,’ I replied. I was now feeling puzzled as well as uncomfortable.
He leant back, his arms crossed, a look of grim annoyance on his face. For a while he said nothing, and I hoped that he would now let me be. I once again buried myself in my book.
A little later, ‘Can I see your book?’ he demanded, holding out a peremptory hand. Intimidated by his tone, and now more than a little frightened, I silently shut the book and handed it to him. The other passengers ignored this exchange, all except the woman sitting across. She was watching and listening with great interest.
The man scowled at the cover, and opened the book at random. He glared at the illustrations (cartoon-style, black-and-white line drawings) and began reading. He read silently, slowly, with difficulty, his expression angry and disapproving. A few sentences later, the anger was replaced by surprised disbelief. He turned the page, and then several more. ‘Par yeh to bakwaas hai! This is nonsense!’ he cried.
Then, holding the book up and waving it about so that all and sundry may see and hear, he announced, ‘This book is rubbish! It is not possible to understand a word that is written in here! She is lying! She can’t read! She is only pretending!’ He handed the book back to me, and settled back into his seat triumphantly.
I was too stunned to respond. I was also close to tears by this time. What was he saying? Of course I could read! Why would I lie? I could see no reason for his accusations or his attack.
The woman opposite had continued to watch and to listen. ‘Don’t listen to him!’ she cried fiercely. ‘Men like him know no better. They don’t want women to read. If women could read, how would these men subjugate us, dominate us?’
I understood what had happened – I realized that I had, quite unwittingly, upset the man’s world completely. Here I was, a woman, comfortable enough with the written word to read a book, and that too in English! In his world, I saw, he was used to being the dominant male, a great part of his dominance deriving from his knowledge of English, and his ability to read and write in that language, as well as from the fact that the women in his world, even if literate, did not read, not even in their own language.
The woman glared angrily at the man. ‘Leave her alone! What do you know of books or learning? Only because you wear a shirt and trousers does not make you wise!’ she cried.
The man ignored her and me – he was leaning back, his eyes shut, a smile of great satisfaction on his face. He had managed to prove to himself and the entire railway compartment that women couldn’t read English after all!! He had restored order in his world. It was ironic that it had been his own failure to understand the book that I had been reading that had given him the assurance of my inability to read.
The woman turned back to me. ‘I can’t read,’ she continued, ‘but I know that you are not lying. You can read. And you can read English. It makes me proud that a woman can do all that you are doing. You must study, you must read, and you must make us women proud.’ She smiled at me again, that lovely, happy smile, and patted me reassuringly on the knee.
I smiled back at her, and wiping my tears, settled back into my seat.
More than twenty years have passed since this incident. Over the years, I have thought often of that woman, I can still see her smile, and hear the belief she had in me. She couldn’t read, but she had the courage to speak out against what she believed was wrong. I could read, I was equipped to take on the world, but I had given in to fear – of the man’s hostility and aggression, and had been unable to defend myself against his accusations. I am much wiser in the ways of the world today, less sheltered, less protected. I know that men and women carry their own insecurities with them, and that their fears often make them attack others, much as the man attacked me. I don’t know where the woman is now, I hadn’t even asked her her name … but her smile and her words are still with me.