There was a time when you could travel by local train, in Mumbai, during non-peak hours, without having to resort to dazzling devilry or to employ the speed, strength or agility of a long jumper to hurl yourself inside the compartment, before the train halted at the station. During one of my commutes to my college to attend afternoon lectures, I managed to find a seat near a window, the perfect setting to open a book and get sucked into an unknown world with the breeze teasing my hair. There were the usual distractions—the vendors peddling cheap goods, outshouting each other, their voices mingling to form an incomprehensible chorus. It was as if a street-side market had gate-crashed the urban serpent’s den, with its smells, wares, quarrels, colours and sounds in tow, and let loose its unrestrained disorder to test your endurance. Whether the peddlers sold oranges or clips or pins, they ended their pitch with a hiss that settled deep inside your ears. A lady selling hair pins would go, “Aa pinaa le bai…pinakssssssssss…” and the one selling oranges too would end her pitch with a similar fizz, “Santrakssssssssss…..” The hissing, I concluded, was a time-tested buyer magnet, applicable to all and sundry goods, irrespective of the concluding sound of their syllables. Then, there were the urchins, with their snot-filled noses, cracked bare feet and earth-caked faces, whose songs rose from their guts, and had lyrics which assured you that if you gave them a paisa, the Almighty would give you 10 lakh rupees. They also sang other devotional songs with their eyes glued to the fans whirring on the roof. With dexterity that comes from practice, their fingers tapped two flat pieces of stones on each other, producing a rat-a-tat-rat-a-tat sound that grated on the nerves. But, the hope on their faces made the rattling tolerable, if not pleasant.
Soon, the cacophony faded into the background as the book captured my attention. A page into the book, and I felt a shadow slide on the seat opposite, which had been empty till then. I continued reading, but had a distinct feeling of being watched. I was averse to any possibility of being lured away from the story. “Tai, pina legi? Will you buy my pins?” a voice disturbed my focus. I looked up, my face frozen, unwilling to respond. “Bahut padhai hai kya? Do you have a lot to study?” she probed. I would have looked away, had it not been for her smile. It was a warm, ear-to-ear stretch that could soften the sternest, and I proved no exception. She’d probably gauged that my reticence was a mask. “I don’t need hair pins,” I replied politely. “But, you have thick hair. Look how it’s flying all over. See how dishevelled it looks,” she remarked, as she opened the box that was placed on top of three other cardboard boxes, that rested on her lap. She was sitting cross-legged on the seat, her orange printed sari bunched up between her legs, and her pink plastic slippers lying at odd angles to each other on the floor. Her skin was chocolate brown, her lips were full, and her hair was twisted into a bun. Her eyes darted here and there looking for potential customers. Her wrists were filled with green glass bangles that made a jingling sound, as her hands moved. Rummaging in her box, she brought out three pairs of gaudy hair pins that I knew I wouldn’t wear. She insisted that I make her first purchase. “Bhavani karo na!” By then, I had shut my book. “How much?” I asked and bought a pair. She beamed and kissed the money. As she turned towards the window, I saw them—five earrings, tiny golden tops that lined her outer ear, from the earlobe to the helix, the largest one adorning her lobe and four identical ones, with different coloured surfaces, embellishing her outer ear, at intervals. The needles of light they flashed beckoned me to stare unblinkingly at them. “Acchche hai na? They’re lovely, aren’t they?” she asked. I looked away quickly, embarrassed at being caught. “They’re beautiful,” I replied. “But, your ears are punctured at so many spots! How did you bear the pain?” I asked, remembering that the possible agony had prevented me from following the multiple earring trend. “Yes, it did. But, I ate all the right things. I didn’t eat dal. So, the pain went away soon. Besides, I love wearing them. I wear them even though my ears bleed when my husband beats me up,” she revealed.
“Your husband beats you? How dare he? How do you allow it? Go to the police. They’ll lock him up,” I thundered. “Kuch faida nahi. It’s of no use,” she said with an air of resignation. “Where do you live?” I asked. “In Mulund, near the highway,” she answered. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Hira,” she replied, and flashed the smile that had ensnared me. As she got up, I noticed the soft swell of her stomach. “Pet se hoon. I’m pregnant,” she confided. By the time she moved along the aisle, luring other commuters, I had warmed up to her. ‘What if her husband beat her up again?’ I worried, wondering how to help her.
I met her on my subsequent train journeys to college, and ended up buying a dozen pairs of jazzy clips, which never held my hair together. Her stomach was growing and I cringed as I watched her squeeze herself through the sometimes crowded aisle. One fine day, she disappeared. I knew that she was three months away from her delivery date. ‘Where had she gone? Was she alive? Where would I look for her?’ I saw her after a month, her face gaunt, her skin robbed of its sap, her eyes large black wells, and her hair poky and dry like straw. She managed a weak smile. I reached out to hold her hand and invited her to sit next to me. She waddled towards me, the child-woman, her face lined by creases I hadn’t seen before. Something was very wrong. Then, it dawned on me. Hira’s earrings were gone. They had left bloody impressions of the screws that fastened them, behind the inner groove of her outer ears, where they had been embedded by brute force. Her husband had beaten her again. “I will find out where you live. I’ll lodge the police complaint myself,” I threatened. “Tai,” she said, sobbing. “I don’t care if he beats me. I‘m used to it now. But, my earlobe tore when he beat me, and I can’t live without my earrings,” she mumbled, breaking down. Her vanity, in the face of a threat to her very existence, stupefied me.
I didn’t meet Hira for months after that and managed to read a few books in the train. I thought of her often. One day, she walked in, her hands balancing the usual four boxes. Curled up inside a cloth sling carrier that she wore diagonally across her shoulder snuggled her new-born, its tiny feet with its ten perfect toes peeping out. On spotting me, she hurried towards me. “Careful,” I cautioned. I peered into the carrier to find a sleeping angel, oblivious to the hissing in the train. “Ladki hai, it’s a girl,” She informed me. Congratulations! She’s lovely,” I said. “He wasn’t happy, my mard. He wanted a boy. But, I’m happy. Laxmi… Her name is Laxmi,” she informed me, laughing. As she turned, there was the familiar flash. The earrings were back! That wasn’t the only reason for Hira’s joy. While gazing at Laxmi’s face, I had noticed two golden dots on her tiny earlobes. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.