Day 73: On concern for strangers

A story from the train

The scene from the train

The guy in the compartment next to me has boarded the train without his ID; how can the conductor verify that it’s truly “his” seat if he doesn’t have an ID?

“We had to rush to the hospital,” he says, pointing with his eyes to a woman adjacent to him, whose outstretched leg is covered with a plaster cast.

“That’s now how it works! Either you pay a fine, or you get off the train!”

Some version of this dialogue goes back and forth, and back and forth, while the volume of their conversation moves to higher and higher decibels.

The train is incredibly empty, and yet, five people sudden appear from both ends of the train to see what’s happening. A few of them emerge as arbiters of the fight — partially self-appointed, and partially elected by both sides, who appeal to them to have their logic validated. In spite of the official number of judges in India, the actual number involved in hearing and settling disputes is several factors higher.

Without appointing myself or even leaving my seat to go to the next compartment, the tiff starts to spill out into my compartment, and one of the defendants appeals to me. “I forgot my ID — I had to go to the hospital and I left in a rush…”

I feel for him, but I’ve also been feeling for the conductor, and I feel for him, too. He seems to be doing his job honestly, without searching for a bribe, and yet, so many of his predecessors have done the job dishonestly that he feels compelled to follow the rules. And yet, in following the rules so strictly, he’s losing his ability to do it with the judgment and flexibility required to do it well.

While I’m listening to the defendant, a police officer comes — he turns to the guy, “why are you making your case to an angrez (English person / general name for a foreigner)? You think he can even understand you?”

Main Hindi samajhta hoon.” I understand Hindi.

“The policeman is intrigued, and seems to forget about the issue. He sits down next to me and asks with surprise, “You understand Hindi!?”

“Yes.”

And I proceed to explain to him my family background, my work, why I’m here, what I’m doing, and what I want to do in the future. Many of the hovering bystanders and judges have now moved into our compartment.

The conductor and the defendant come and sit down as well. It seems the ticket conflict has been solved via their sharing of this moment.

I wonder for a moment how such a scenario would’ve played out in the US; the conflict would’ve likely elicited one of two responses from bystanders. One would be a slight cranking of the neck to look back and see what was happening; and two, would be either a cranking up of the volume on your iPhone or putting on thenoise cancelling headphones. At least that’s the kind of reaction that my U.S. mind and body would have in that setting.

At risk of engaging in huge stereotypes, there often seems to be a real concern with any kind of real-time change or issue that happens in India. What happens to the complete stranger in the compartment next to me is of actual substance. Some may claim that it’s mere boredom, but then why do people take an actual interest in the issues?

And this interconnectedness seems to be magnified even more by trains, which, especially in the non AC classes, seem to be a great equalizer and neutralizing space that allows otherwise strange bedfellows to connect and share.

In the US, on the other hand, there’s a sense of “mind your own business,” a phrase I’ve heard in the US, but haven’t ever heard anyone use in India — not in Hindi or in English.

Of course, in such situations in India, it can be suffocating — it can lead to a mob mentality and a false sense of authority. And yet, in other situations, it can be beautiful to see a sense of interconnectedness — not service as a personal duty, like a child has fallen on the street and I should call 911, but a more subtle, ingrained sense that what happens to the person next to me is tied up with my own well-being.

The great irony, of course, is the seeming absence of concern for the extreme physical suffering and in-your-face inequality that one encounters all the time; somehow these seem to have been accepted as simply part of the social fold. That which endures in the overall environment or universe seems to elicit little response or concern in comparison to that which changes.

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