Every evening at 3.30 dozens and dozens of young girls walked out of the convent school gate in T.Nagar, turned right, walked 5 minutes down the road to the bus stop* at the edge of the busy Pondy Bazaar. A handful of bus routes stopped there.
In the mid 1980s, I was one of those girls for a few years, taking the 11A bus back home.
There sat the flower vendor (who also sold lottery tickets) on a small plastic stool, her derrière spilling out from all sides, her saree tucked under her thighs, revealing turmeric stained feet to match her turmeric stained face. A one rupee coin-sized pottu covered most of her forehead. Large ‘rolled’ gold earrings framed her cheeks.
On a tall stool in front of her was a large coir tray piled high with strands of flowers. Malli and saamandhi, roja and kannagabaram. Her hands were always busy stringing more, even as her eyes darted back and forth, keeping a watch on the kids lining up waiting for their bus. I rarely saw her make a sale, and while we registered her as an omnipotent figure none of us engaged with her.
She was genial in general. Until she wasn’t.
She would gently shoo away young school boys who were trying to make an impression. But when the older boys and the troublemakers decided to stop by she would spring up from her seat with an unexpected grace and speed and threaten to thrash them with her large calloused palms.
It was all fun as we stood there watching this drama.
Now I see it as an act of love and kindness, of bravery and ethics. That no little girl should be harassed. I wonder where that Amma is now. For me then she appeared old, but she must have been far younger than I am now.
*(On those buses these young girls would undergo a right of passage, and be subject to ‘eve-teasing’ – that benign label given to sexual harassment. More than just catcalls, but being groped and hurt in more ways than one can express coherently here. For the few minutes before we boarded the bus, we had the luxury of a safe space at the bus stop.)
Some years later…
In 1995, every few days, after my friend finished her CA classes and I my journalism classes, we would meet up late in the evening at my home and go for a walk along Cathedral Road catching up on the trivial excitements of our lives.
One night, well past 9, we decided to have dinner at Gangotree and were walking back when a gang of men on motorcycles slowed down to trash-talk us, laughing aloud as if it were all just a joke, even when it was obvious we were uncomfortable. We tried walking away quickly, as there were too many of them for us to stand our ground and push back. That’s when we heard a few women swear loudly.
Right opposite Stella Maris college was a shop under construction. There were a group of construction workers having their dinner by the pile of gravel, including these women. Having noticed the boys harass us they chased them away threatening to throw bricks at them.
As the harassers took flight, the women turned to us and instructed us sternly to enjoy our walk and not be scared. That moment of solidarity was a warm hug.
Couple of years later, this time out of Madras…
I was covering the election campaign of 1999 and was travelling by buses and trains around TN. I was not covering a party, which would have meant I had access to the official convoy. I was covering the stories around the campaign from the villages and constituencies for the Indian Express. One evening I had to take a train back to Madras from near Dharmapuri. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept well the previous night as the door of the lodge room was not secure.
I arrived early at the station, which was empty but for a few vendors. I bought a ticket and found a free bench near a lady selling peanuts. I bought two packets of nuts, washed it down with some soda and requested the lady to tell me when the train arrived. Backpack under my head and my scarf wrapped around my face I decided to rest a bit, but fell asleep. I woke up to a gentle tug of my arm. The lady had shifted her basket near the bench and was seated on the floor by the head of the bench, keeping watch. I remember clearly wiping the drool off my cheek as she laughed. And in the tenderest Tamil she told me she didn’t want people to know I was alone as that would have invited undue attention. So she had sat next to me as I took a nap.
The train was pulling into the platform and all I could do was thank her hurriedly and repeatedly before running into the nearest bogie.
I think so often of these women. Not just kind, but so wise to the ways of the world, so eager not to crowd little girls and young women out of public spaces, instead trying to make it as safe as they could.
Everyday heroes in sarees and with calloused hands.