Personal experience is always a milestone to reminisce in life as its memories evoke mixed feelings of euphoria or exasperation, depending upon the incident that wrought that at the first instance. Though this one occurred a couple of years ago, it flashes in my mind quite often, pushing me to set my thoughts on paper so that I could relieve the feelings I sustained and shift the same to readers for them to partake of the pleasure or pain such narratives impart. With this preliminary let me begin at the beginning.
On a sultry forenoon I boarded a suburban train at the Park Town traversing between Beach Station to Thiruvanmiyur a couple of years ago in the summer when I visited Chennai, Tamil Nadu from Delhi. For a person given to enlivening the evening of existence from the fragrantly sweet blast of the past to derive simple pleasure in such journeys, this trip too was nostalgic and reminiscent of the days I used to travel decades ago between Egmore to Tambaram in the suburban train. I would go to meet a faculty member in the Madras Christian College (MCC) once a fortnight in my pursuit of a post-graduation in English. I would also meet and catch up with friends and relatives who were dispersed across the city in those halcyon days with a little income but a long laundry list of expenses.
The generous academic volunteered to give me wrinkles on how to prepare for the examination untutored as I was then working as a state government employee gathering statistics on the small scale industries in Chennai and its outskirts. He had also been unacquainted with me till my former head of the English Department in Madura College, from where I graduated, introduced us. Throughout my more than three scores of years, I was always a beneficiary of the kindness of strangers, though they are a fast vanishing breed under the blue domed umbrella.
In the current day, most have no time to talk face to face. They are content with selfies, besides chatting online and, occasionally, talking on their smart-phones. Well, this digression from the main track of my journey in the suburban train aside, what transpired subsequently during my less than half-an-hour trip that it remained memorable?
As I had a small handbag and the train was not over-crowded enough to intimidate passengers entering the carriage, I got in. I spotted the last row where a few tech-savvy young fellows going to their shift-duty somewhere in Taramani (the IT hub) area, were in the process of settling themselves. I found a seat vacant between two gentlemen. I went to occupy it but one person on the right side told me that the seat was reserved for his friend who would be there soon!
Other seats in the compartment were occupied and a few people were still pouring in when I thought that the common practice of the first-come-first served commuter was being turned topsy-turvy by this chap who was making a reservation for his own crony. But he was unrelenting in not letting me occupy the vacant seat, obdurately obstreperous in his rage and resentment Exasperated, I coolly asked him ‘empa ni oru ambilaya?’ (In just common parlance in the vernacular, it meant ‘are you a man?).
This set off a flutter in the dovecot and the person so addressed got enraged enough to threateningly question if I could bear even one blow from him for having questioned his manhood? If a youngman is asked whether he is a man, the immediate inference perceived by an impressionable youth is a direct assault on his virility!
Even as the verbal punch and counterpunch got under way in the humid weather, I sat sedately between the two gentlemen and occupied the treasured seat. But not before asking the youth (who challenged me that I could not bear one blow from him) whether he would stomach his dad to be treated in the fashion they were treating me. This made every one aghast and the person who threatened to thrash me was left speechless.
When I was a news agency journalist in the early 1990s in Delhi, I told him how the top official of the Election Commission was peremptorily asked by a journalist at a news conference whether the chief election commissioner was “a man or a Congressman?” Since he put a pause between man and a Congressman, the official was livid with anger as he misconstrued it. That was the last question in the press conference and the matter did not assume any uglier shape to the detriment of all the ones assembled there.
I purposefully recounted this to the intimidating youths. Probably, they would have have misunderstood that famous verse of the Scottish bard, Robert Burns, “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” (a man is a man for all that). Burns spoke of egalitarianism as the hallmark of manhood but modern man equates that to his being virile and robust to fight anyone who cocks a snook at him sans any second-thought!
Then I placidly put before him and his friends the issue in perspective of what I meant when I questioned his being a man, it was a comment on his basic civic responsibility to be gentle, kind and generous in spirit to show respect to people who had transited towards the more ancient stage of existence. They deserved and get reserved seats as senior citizens in public carriers, supported by the government itself.
Heroism is not only any act of bravery but also about being affable, gentle and generous in spirit and in demeanor especially when you are strong. I also told him that I was no match for him; leave aside the combined heft of his muscular chums who could make mincemeat of me. None of the youth went into an offensive mode but kept silent on my plain-speaking. I apologised to the young man but advised him not to hurt elders in public places when civility is an option.
As I reached the end of my journey, the person who threatened to beat me himself, apologised with others in his orchestra and bid me goodbye. I felt relieved that nothing untoward happened in the heat of arguments, compounded by the hot and humid weather!
Did not the oldest philosopher Aristotle say ages ago aptly, “it is the characteristic of the magnanimous man to ask no favor but to be ready to do kindness to others?” Let us not dry up the milk of human kindness in simple gestures to the old without recognizing that youth is but evanescent and human values are eternal.
G Srinivasan is a free-lance journalist from Delhi.
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