Walking towards the abra in Festival City, my mind was still wandering the complex alleyways of a speech I had just finished reading for the third time – Naveen Kishore’s welcome address for the Teaching History Conference by Seagull PeaceWorks (http://www.seagullindia.com/peace/peacehome.html) that was held in Kolkata over the last weekend. Where he spoke about culture – similarities and dissimilarities thereof. About tolerance and respect for the ‘different’. About choices, and about choosing tolerance and respect as a way of life. About the importance of teaching our children to choose well…
Things like that. Things that quietly nudge me to move out of that space, that complacent space, I have unconsciously chosen to occupy over the years. Cushioned as it is by layers of what he calls ‘dailyness’.
His words do that all too often. They force me to look at things, often uncomfortable things, in the eye. Things about the world as well as things about the self. And it’s never a simple, ‘So here’s what I think!’ Which, I guess, would have been easy to forget. With his words, however, it’s like unravelling a mystery. And as such they stay in the mind for a long time, quietly doing their job.
It was the vague sense of frustration and guilt over the collective responselessness to what is happening around us – things seen, heard and read – that I walked to the abra station for the second time last evening. Aditya and I had taken the boat a couple of hours earlier, and we were back again, this time with Shiva.
The creek front of the Festival City is now more or less abandoned for renovation, and there were just four young people who were sharing the abra with us, three girls and a boy who must all have been in their early twenties.
The young man at the entrance greeted us with a wide smile and a hearty, “Welcome back! I see you have brought Papa along!” There were a couple of others from his support team standing next to the boat, and they too smiled their welcome.
The ride was a short but pleasant one – a starless, not-quite-dark night sky, warm breeze and the bright blue light of Business Bay Bridge undulating on the water, reminding one of Monet’s impressionist brushstrokes. It was with a sigh that I got up from the seat.
The first one to get off the abra was one of the girls. The boat shook mildly in the breeze and she almost lost her balance while climbing out. A lady from the support staff who was standing on the shore caught her arm to steady her.
The girl’s demeanour changed in an instant. She twisted her arm out of her saviour’s steadying grip, and turned to face her, the look on her face one of pure contempt. Still staring at her, she brushed off the remains of the touch from her sleeves with a deliberateness that was unnerving. Then she turned to her companions, said something that was unintelligible to me; laughing, they got off the boat and walked away.
Maybe it was the words I read earlier that evening, maybe it was the fact that this was my first brush with such a blatant display of ‘intolerance of the different’ (to put it mildly), I don’t know. What I felt was an overwhelming sense of shame and outrage.
Followed by impotence.
The lady did not utter a word. Nor did she offer her hand again – in fact, she had taken a step back and her arms were firmly crossed against her heart. And her smile still stayed where it should. It was just her eyes that said it all. Eyes that carried the legacy of a millennium of oppression.
I could barely meet them, those eyes, as I mumbled a quick word of thanks and returned to the shore.