At Platform 3 of the Chennai Central railway station, Madhu hugged her parents and stepped aboard the Tamil Nadu Express. The train started to pull away and her mother was predictably tearful as she waved goodbye. Her father adopted a brave expression, although Madhu knew that he was sick with worry, and placed his arm around his wife’s shoulders. She stood at the door waving until her parents were mere spots on the horizon, and then entered the compartment to find her seat.
The hypnotic rhythm of the train comforted her with its familiarity. She allowed herself to drift into thoughts of a childhood filled with train journeys, the images flooding her brain in quick succession: reading Enid Blyton all night on the top berth by the glow of the little lamp; pretending, along with her little sister, to be Lawrence-of-Arabia-style adventurers on a quest to explore every nook and cranny of the compartment; watching her parents befriend and share food with the other passengers. And, of course, the toilet, which she still couldn’t bear entering until she was at the point of almost bursting.
She was all grown up now, off to the capital on her own to pursue a postgraduate degree in Political Science at Delhi University. It was immense consolation to her parents that their close friends, the Ahluwalias, had offered to take her in until she was well enough acquainted with the city to venture out on her own. She shook her head – by her age, most girls in other parts of the world were already living on their own, making independent decisions and learning to be self-sufficient.
She was shaken out of her reverie when the family on the opposite berth – a Tamilian couple with two small children – began speaking to her.
“Taniya poriya ma? (Are you travelling alone?)”, the man enquired.
She answered in the affirmative, adding that she was going to Delhi to attend university. The couple offered Madhu idlis to eat and, after enquiring some more, shared their contact details with her, telling her to reach out if she needed anything.
Thanking them, Madhu placed the man’s business card in her shirt pocket and looked out of the window, polishing off the remaining idlis on her plate. What a bundle of contradictions India is, she thought. It is a country where you are casually groped by men on the street but also taken in by kind strangers as one of their own. A land where people unrepentantly kill a girl child in the womb, while piously worshipping goddesses and showering garlands on female politicians.
In the middle of the night, when she could hold it in no longer, Madhu heaved herself out of bed. An involuntary shiver overtook her as she entered the dimly-lit toilet. Suddenly she was twelve again, naïve and lost, lured into the train toilet by an old man who claimed to have trouble standing up, only to have him grab her between her legs.
Presently, she washed her hands slowly, and walked back to her berth. The thought of finding herself alone in Delhi, which had lately been in the news for all the wrong reasons, terrified her. But she had her own reasons for embarking on this journey alone. What did they call it? Ah yes, she was grabbing the bull by the horns.