My metro rides are often accompanied by books or music.
Reading about a woman’s struggle against an oppressive society within the comforts of an air-conditioned Ladies coach in the train or listening to Manna Dey’s ‘Zindagi Kaisi hai Paheli Hai’ while the surrounding crowd grooves to the beats of ‘Yeh Saali Zindagi ’ , I often find myself lagging behind in the race. A race where this sudden transition of life from a riddle (Paheli) to an expletive (Saali) has left me baffled and I fail to come to terms with this truth of the changing times… or may be I am biased to Manna Dey!
I look forward to my metro rides every morning. The scene inside the compartment resembles a painting on the canvas that assumes a distinct picture every day with me, the beholder, as its constant subject. Like a slide show, these moments get captured through the lens of my eyes. The daily journey brings me close to some extraordinary facets of human life I am thrilled to discover first hand.
I had prayed all night that her father postpones the marriage and allows Ismat* to pursue her BA, lest she threatened to run away from home and convert into a Christian. This is the book that I am reading… ‘woman’s struggle’ I aforementioned…The verdict is going to be out today, will she be forced to marry against her wishes or would her family prove a pillar of strength to her? My fingers trembled as I turned to the ‘defining’ page. I had almost reached the judgement table when a reflection of a twinkling jewellery distracted my vision and disturbed my concentration. Quickly recovering from this temporary interruption I prepared to resume with my reading. I was about to return to my page when again I was successfully deviated.
It was probably the most exquisite pair of feet I’d ever seen, somewhat like Ismat’s description of Manto’s** delicate and elegant feet (apologies for audaciously citing references from the book now and then). Here, I was confident the owner was a woman; no man could walk with a dangling anklet (men limit themselves to sporting ear studs or I have a limited knowledge about men’s fashion!)
Coming back to the point….
She had painted all her toe nails in striking shades of blue, red, green and yellow. How well they complimented the sparkling silver anklet she’d worn on one foot. By now, I had completely shifted my loyalties from reading about a momentous decision in a woman’s (belonging to an Islamic household) life to fixing my eyes on a pair of feet. What can I say…they were beautiful!
Colours danced on her toe nails like people rejoice in a marriage party. While the colours chatted away to glory, the silver trinket sat morose without a company to call its own.
Why did she bereft her anklet of a partner I wanted to ask? As I lifted my head to see the face of the woman I had been admiring the feet till now, a belt around her waist with its swaying shredded multi-coloured strings caught my notice. What could be her favourite colour I wondered for she did not seem to disappoint any? The bangles on her wrist laughed and indulged in merry making.
All hues lived in harmony. This was really interesting! I couldn’t resist and blurted out almost intruding her personal space, ‘Excuse me; I am fascinated by the way you carry off so many colours. Which one is your favourite?’
She was a little taken aback and I knew I should have moderated my level of excitement. She was contemplating and I had caught her off-guard. She however obliged to answer but looking elsewhere (that was my punishment I guess). “I do not have a favourite colour,” she said indignantly. “All colours are dear to me, wearing so many of them together make me feel alive. I cannot see them with my eyes but I can surely feel them”
Quite stunned, I wanted to clarify on the last sentence that she spoke but it was too late. The train halted with a soft jerk and it was time for her to de-board. Her friend sitting next to her helped her reach the door while she balanced her footsteps.
Words died on my lips and I sat there paralysed…
Incapable of overcoming the overwhelming feeling, I decided to find my remedy in the book I had deserted sometime ago.
Her father gave his daughter a go-ahead to study more and complete her BA from Aligarh University. It was happy news for Ismat and me too. Somehow, there was sadness that lingered as her swinging feet and the coloured toe nails continued to flash past…
Next was my station. I gathered my belongings and started to proceed to the exit.
Wait! There’s more…
My co-passenger’s phone rang and the ringtone was: ‘Zindagi Kaisi hai Paheli Hai, Kabhi toh Hasaye, Kabhi yeh Rulaye’
Yes, had to end on a dramatic note…
* Ismat Chughtai’s biography: Life in Words, A Translation. In one of the chapters, Ismat discusses her many tricks and plans that she employed in discouraging her family from marrying her off early.
** Sa’adat Hasan Manto: This was during the time when both Chughtai and Manto were tried in Lahore court. Their stories, Manto’s Bu and Chughtai’s ‘Lihaf’ were accused of obscenity. While exploring the marketplace in Lahore, Chughtai had complimented Manto on his ‘feminine’ feet. The latter had taken offence!