The current pervading moroseness in society, over women’s safety, tempts me to scan a recent memory; of a dark and sooty Kartika night when I stood stranded for two hours by a lone tea stall along the Bhubaneswar-Puri highway.
I had got off on the spot from a ramshackle bus the conductor was stuffing with passengers, from suffocation and nausea.
I had avoided driving my car because of the maddening afternoon traffic and had started from Bhubaneswar for Puri on that afternoon in a bus. I was desperate to avail the twin bonus of a sighting of Lord Jagannath, and in the holy month of Kartika; a state where sundry hurdles of a road journey to Puri was all about euphoric apathy.
An hour into the journey and I found myself shoving aside the choc-a-block crowd inside the bus and jump off through the bus door. A kind co-passenger slid off my suitcase and laptop through the window. The conductor, unsure of my intentions, whistled away the bus.
My eyes bore into the darkness; a dimly lit tea-n-snacks stall manifested, from where a few men were walking near me in measured moves. They spoke in broken whispers: perhaps I was a non-Odia tourist, alighted at the wrong place inadvertently, or unacquainted with a bus ride…and in an attempt to strike a conversation with me, grappled with the possible addresses: Madam, Lady, Our Girl, aap, tum…
I told them, in Odia, about my aborted trip to Puri for a 5-day Central Sahitya Academi sponsored literary workshop there and of my freshly acquired anxiety over my handbag, carrying my papers, camera, ATM cards etc forgotten in the bus. And lo, the group, swollen already to a proper crowd, and at a distance from me, looked genuinely concerned. Rapid deliberations ensued, bets struck and mobile phones fiddled with; no phone carried talk money and I offered my phone (thankfully secure in my denim pocket). And there we were, the bus was tracked, the driver and conductor trailed – courtesy, marriages among surrounding villages – both were sons-in-law of Teishipur, my chance destination now. Messages were hurled, my luggage was insured.
An auto-rickshaw was arranged, with a standby driver in tow, so that I was conferred an intimate farewell. A fond stricture from the crowd chief, a local mukhia, pronounced: ‘Do phone us after you reach Puri.’
It was about 10 pm when we left Teishipur. As the auto rattled into the darkness ahead, a million stars were already shining in a clear sky. The driver, a local boy pursuing engineering in adjacent Bhubaneswar, procured specifically for my safety, informed me: Puri was 43 kms away, and I realized for the first time that in those 2 hours by a muffled tea stall and among men, only, I had never felt intimidated even once! Streaming teardrops trailed down my cheeks where a cool breeze was already fanning, the tears of gratitude for an anonymous community that displayed character and élan of the most civilized rank!
Also, those were the tears that visit me each time I am standing before Lord Jagannath. I had had my darshan of the Lord! In that faceless hamlet, where innocent men in cheap rubber chappals and soiled vests and lungis did not grudge me my sophistry, privileged city life, and the wrong hour, and looked after me in the most touching way.
This could have happened across times, across places in India, like in Scriptures…little metaphors that reaffirm our faith in mankind.