A Policeman Reflects on Accidents, Careless Women, and Infanticide
Between nine o’clock and midnight, this man rides in the first-class twenty-four-hour ladies’ coach on the Western line.
Fourteen years in the railway police and he never thought of his uniform as any kind of armour but ever since he was deputed to guard duty in the ladies’ coach, he feels that it is one. His rifle sits on the cushioned teal blue of the first-class seat, as if it has nothing to do with him. A plop of foam sticks out of the rexine seat cover. He notices that it matches the khaki of his uniform trousers. His fingers pick at the foam and he wonders if the ladies have been ripping up seat covers on purpose. No, he decides.
It must be the urchins who clamber in off the tracks and ride ticketless. But if the ladies did want to rip up seat covers, what would they use? Knives?
They carry knives, some of them. He has seen them squatting on the train floor, chopping up beans and shelling peas into plastic bags while on their way home. It is more likely one of these ladies who carry a knife while travelling than an urchin who doesn’t even have a bag to hide it in.
What else could a woman use? A hairpin, possibly. A thin, black metal hairpin. He had scratched his forearm against one such pin and had been startled at the sliver of blood it drew, for he hadn’t noticed any sharp objects on the cluster of heads surrounding him. Or perhaps it was a needle. Those are quite sharp too and the ladies do knit and crochet in the train. Or a safety pin. Yes. That is just the sort of thing a lady might do if she was sitting by herself in an empty coach. Her restless fingers would take a safety pin to the teal-blue rexine. Stick it in. Gouge. Rip it up with a wrench and a twist of her wrist.
He settles into a deep groove in the seat created by the pressure of a heavy bottom. Day and night, hundreds of bottoms have vied for this particular seat. It is right under the fan and across from the doorway where someone is always standing, hugging 3 the smooth metal pole. College girls, urchins, vendors of combs and plastic mobile phone covers. His own bottom fits snugly into the groove that’s right under the fan.
There was a time he dwelt upon the bottom that might have created such a groove. He had been assigned by the nation to shield this bottom from harm. Covered in nylon, polycot, denim, 100 per cent cotton, a blooming garden of colourful bottoms. Bottoms highlighted by silver and red embroidered patterns on the rear pockets of jeans. Bottoms raised up, quarrelsome or querulous.
The urge to stare has worn off now. These days he enters the first-class ladies’ coach at Churchgate and kicks off his shoes, first thing. Then he peels off his socks and stuffs them into his trouser pockets. He puts his feet up on the empty seat across, takes the rifle off his shoulder, resting it on the seat beside him.
For fifteen minutes he travels thus, as though he were one of them. Weary soul on his way home, staring out of the barred window at neatly stacked boxes of light. Up, up, up the ladder of night. Up, until they’re scraping the cracked heels of the sky.
He almost believes it, that he is one of them. The spell breaks at ten minutes to eleven when the 4 crowd swells and grows urgent, and he is overwhelmed, again, by kohl glances and thick perfumes. He takes his feet off the seat, slides them into his shoes, and keeps his eyes trained on the floor. Yellow soles with blue straps, red with golden heels, painted toes. Once all the seats have been filled, he picks up his rifle and moves towards the open doors of the train. The ladies shuffle, moving a few inches this way and that to make room for him.
He feels better once he is standing on the footboard, perched halfway between their world and his own. He stands his rifle upright, tucked between his left knee and the train door. Then he tunes the radio on his phone and plugs up his ears. The wind is in his hair now and the crackling radio in his blood.
This is the tender hour. Today a woman with a heavy northeastern accent has called in. She is asking Love Guru what to do about a boyfriend who refuses to accept that he is, indeed, her boyfriend. He spits Saala! into the wind and braces himself as the train thuds past the stink of Mahim creek. Love Guru lectures the girl a trifle too long. He switches to another station.
At this hour, all the radio jockeys get throaty and mellow, swaddling listeners with the innocence of the fifties and sixties. They play Come into my arms, for this night may never return, and his blood grows sluggish with maudlin sentiment. Clustered around him, purses and bags pinched under armpits, each of the ladies is wearing her own music. Heavy lids over thorn bush eyes. He is careful not to brush up against them.
A crochet lace of slum tenements runs along the track, single points of light serenading homecomers. Once, as the train slows down, he sees a man in a red vest bent over a kerosene stove, stirring a pot. The ash of night flies into his eyes. All their eyes. The trundle of wheels softens his ears. All their ears.
He nearly forgets his khaki uniform, his government issue belt and shoes. He forgets he is only here to guard them against men. In his head, he lectures the ladies. How careless you’ll are! Why hang out here when the coach isn’t even all that crowded? Is the breeze so very cool? Is it worth your life? And why did you cross the railway tracks? I saw you! Are you so weak that you cannot climb a flight of stairs? Why do you not wait until the train stops fully before you step off? Waitwaitwait!
He thinks of telling them that shiny slippers and heels are not suited to this daily balancing act on the footboard of fast trains. One little slip. One could roll for several metres on the platform, crash into iron pillars and food stalls with sharp metallic edges.
Excerpted with permission from City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts, Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company.