Sometimes, strangers teach you lessons you never thought you could learn.
It was 2015, somewhere in July. I was in the second year of my post-grad, coming back to Mumbai after a short stay at home. The placement season was fast approaching; I was as excited as I was apprehensive. I had travelled a few times via train, but had rarely ended up at CST station. One or two times when I did, I had taken a cab back to my hostel thirty-three kilometres away. That day, I was on a budget. The thought of hauling my luggage up and down the local stations made me sigh.
I found myself a seat in the lower berth and bought a watery cup of tea. I was in a sleeper coach. On a budget. With a huge suitcase. Grumpy. An elderly lady sat across me, frantically checking her watch. She was in a lavender, cotton burkha with floral embroidery. Heavy glasses dug into the bridge of her tiny nose. She saw my crabby face and looked away. I was happy to be left alone.
‘The train is late by an hour.’ She announced, suddenly, looking at me.
‘Yes…’ I nodded, sipping the tea.
‘Ye train aisi hi hai… (This train is like this).’ She said and began talking about train timings. The more she spoke, the grumpier I became. Why couldn’t she leave me alone in my grumpy world?
‘Are you married, beta?’ She asked, flaring up my irritation.
‘No, I’m studying.’ I told her respectfully, trying to bottle my feelings.
‘Where? What are you studying?
‘MBA in marketing.’
‘Oh, my son did MBA, now he’s working in Dubai…’ She went on to describe her son and his high paying job. Irritation turned to exasperation! My own anxiety about landing a good job was now at play.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Mansi…’ I told her, instinctively knowing what she would ask next.
‘Ohh..’ She nodded.
She asked about my family. I gave her vague monosyllables.This sharing of information was going too far! I faked about my hometown, my father’s work and even my brother’s name! I was scared and I don’t know why. She wanted to give me her son’s number to ask him about opportunities in Dubai. I politely refused. Then, another passenger joined in on the topic ‘job scenario in India vs Dubai’. I didn’t agree with anything they said but I kept shut, thanking God her attention was diverted. The train was about to arrive. I was ready to hop down minutes in advance.
‘You know where the local platform is?’ She asked. I said yes. Honestly, I didn’t. I was going to ask around. CST is a huge station with some eighteen platforms and connecting bridges!
‘Where are you going?’
‘Panvel.’ I faked again. I was stopping at Nerul, many stops before Panvel.
‘Come with me. I’m going to Cotton Green.’
Cotton Green is a few stations from CST on the Harbour Line that connects Panvel. I said nothing. When the train stopped, I got down hastily to lose her in the crowd.
I asked many people about the Harbour Line. They said I’d have to take a bridge but I couldn’t figure out which!
‘Don’t take the bridge. We can walk this way.’ The lady had caught on in minutes.
A part of me felt insecure but another part was willing to be shown the way! She walked briskly for a lady her age, looking back at me every minute as she led me towards the platform a kilometre away. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t lose her. When we reached the main station area I was familiar with, I felt relived. If she hadn’t shown me the way, I would’ve been miserably lost. We stood for a minute so I could catch my breath. She asked me to get something to eat, volunteering to look after my luggage. I was hungry and I was guilty for doubting her. As I went on to get a sandwich, I decided not to look back and check my luggage. Maybe, my guilt would subside? The stubby lady was standing in the same spot beside my suitcase when I returned. We continued towards the platform.
‘This coach won’t be crowded.’ She led me to the right spot at the platform and into the right coach. We sat across each other again. I opened the sandwich and offered her a half.
‘It’s ok, I’ll reach home in fifteen minutes. You have a long journey.’ My heart melted.
Why did she care for a prick of a youngster? She must’ve sensed my guard against her, and yet, she had helped. Five minutes later, she was standing in a line to get down at her station. I wondered how to say thanks. The station came. Suddenly, it got crowded. If you’ve ever been in a morning Mumbai Local, you’d know it is impossible to shout ‘thanks’ and be heard! She disappeared in a wave of people. I looked out of the window, my mind swirling with thoughts. I regretted not thanking her.
In the next two years, I took locals frequently from Cotton Green and CST while working, and every time I’d remember her. A feeling of regret still stumbles across me.
Today, I want to urge you to think. Why don’t we say ‘thank you’ to everyone who helps us? So many strangers support us in minuscule ways. It can be a friendly cab-driver who made your journey peaceful or a stranger who guided you towards your destination. Maybe someone who simply smiled at you. Are we thankful enough for all the little good things that happen to us? Our lives can be more fulfilled if we appreciate little acts of kindness.
I’m writing this article on the 70th Republic Day of India. Gratitude not only makes a good person, but also a great country! Let us thank everyone who’s making India better and everyone who had made India!
Originally published in: TOI Column, Perspicere