She purred mockingly, standing close enough to him so that he could hear and Ali cringed as if the train had just passed a garbage dump.
He had grown up in a house where the women wore the veil and talked only about religion, jewelry and what to cook for the next meal. For a moment he thought about arresting her for obscenity but there was no way of proving the words were meant for him. He fidgeted with his belt and looked the other way where a couple of girls in bright make-up were listening to music from a common mobile sharing one ear-phone each, their tight skirts revealing the beginnings of stockinged thighs. He immediately looked away, but in the ladies compartment of the cramped Mumbai local there was no way to look away from women.
She saw all of this and smiled not wanting to let go of this rare opportunity to put a man at discomfort.
“Can you give me a different job, Sir?”
Ali stood at the desk of his Head Constable; a tall, heavily built man with huge thick moustaches who Ali suspected got his job done by sheer presence. The Head Constable had wanted to be a wrestler but his father felt a police job would get better respect and money. He had succeeded in putting his son into the uniform but couldn’t take away the wrestler inside.
“Why do you want a different job? People are willing to pay me to do duty in the ladies compartment at night. Ogling at women on government expense,” he guffawed loudly as if he had cracked a joke. He had this strange habit of speaking in seeming ironies and then laughing out loud as if he had unraveled some great contradiction of life. Ali likened him to those judges on the television comedy shows, paid to laugh at every statement, no matter how silly.
“But sir, I cannot…” Ali hesitated, trying to find a different word for ogle, the sheer thought of ogling at women was impossible for his mind to entertain, “…I cannot look at women. It is against my religion”
“You mean to say your religion doesn’t allow you to do your duty?” the Head Constable guffawed again happy with himself over the smart way in which he had managed to turn the conversation around.
“No, no Sir, I want to do my duty sincerely, that is what my religion says.”
“Then what is the problem?”
“That is the problem. To do my duty sincerely I have to look at women and I… I find it difficult to look at women. That is not right.” Ali had never thought it would be so difficult to defend something that he felt was so basically correct.
The Head Constable drove home his advantage, “Look Ali, you have been given this duty only because you are sincere. I have received complaints from women regarding some of the other constables. It is a sensitive matter and I cannot trust anyone else. So you will have to do the ladies compartment duty for sometime at least.”
Ali stood there fidgeting with his baton. When he had walked in he was so confident about his side of the argument.
The Head Constable went around and patted Ali on the back, the human being inside the wrestler making a rare appearance. “Doing your duty sincerely is not
And then he chuckled loudly, unable to contain his exuberance, “Otherwise everyone would have done it.”
The wrestler had the last laugh.
Shamshad Ali walked away confused. The problem was not about doing your duty sincerely, he had wanted to explain to the Head Constable. That was easy for him. The problem was to know what exactly was ones duty?
His duty as a constable in the Railway Police Force was to stand guard in the ladies compartment. But his religious duty told him not to look at women. Should he give up his lawful duty to protect his religious one?
“Why don’t you just look outside the compartment,” Samir said to him as they were having tea in the railway canteen.
“I do, between stations,” Ali said, and added under his breath “and I can hear some of them making fun of me.”
Samir laughed loudly. “I agree with them. What kind of a man would look outside when there is a compartment full of ladies to look at, that too officially,” and he continued to laugh.
“Do you want my job?” Ali was vexed. He couldn’t understand how an issue which so tormented him could be a laughing matter for others.
“I would love to, but I know that wrestler wants only you. Isn’t it an irony that your sincerity gets you a job which your sincerity will not allow you to do sincerely?” He wanted to laugh again at his clever use of words but restrained himself.
“Go on, laugh,” Ali said with resignation, knowing that Samir was right. What was the point in stopping people from laughing at your plight when you couldn’t stop your plight from becoming laughable?
“Look here,” Samir said, “Is it immoral to protect women?”
“Then what is the problem? With your
“I don’t look at women in the streets,” Ali seemed to be hurt, as if it was an insinuation. “You don’t understand. When you see a woman
Samir was quiet for a while, trying to find an answer, but he was lost. “You have a problem my friend,” he said finally, as he took the last sip of tea. “You will have to compromise either with your job or your religion. There is no way out.”
“There is no way out,” Ali repeated slowly, contemplating the consequence of that statement. “But I can not compromise,” he said with innocent stubbornness, like a child asked to part with his favorite toy making one last fruitless effort to stand firm. “And I don’t know any other job. My father and grand father have been with the Railway police.”
“And they didn’t have to man the ladies compartment.”
Ali looked up angrily.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean that as a joke.” Ali saw that Samir was serious.
“I don’t know how to help,” Samir said after a long time, “but if there is anything I can do just let me know.” He got up to leave and then suddenly stopped.
“You know what your problem is Ali?” he said, as if he had an insight.
Ali looked up with hope.
“You are too simple.”
Ali offered his namaaz and sat quietly in a corner of the mosque waiting for Imaam Sahab, the Head Priest, to say the final prayers. He couldn’t understand how being sincere and simple could be difficult, how people felt there was any other way of living life. He at least couldn’t imagine any.
The mosque was his refuge whenever he had doubts. It was said to be a 300 year old structure built before the British and while a lot of new construction had been built to supplement it, the main prayer hall still retained its old stone architecture. Sitting in that old prayer hall Ali would feel calm and protected, as if he was back in his mother’s womb. History and tradition provided the comfort of the known and Ali didn’t see any problem in being a conformist. Religion prescribed a way of living, specified clearly what was good and what was bad and he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be different just for the sake of being different. Rebellion, for him was disobedience.
“What is the problem Ali?” Imaam Sahab had walked up to where he was sitting.
Ali immediately got up and kissed the back of the head priest’s right palm and touched it with his eyes in reverence. Did learned men always knew when things were not right?
“I have a problem Imaam Sahab and I don’t know what to do?”
“You should ask Allah then,” the head priest replied simply and Ali was amazed at how wise men always knew the right thing to say with such clarity and conviction. Does wisdom come with learning and age or was it a blessing that few chosen ones get gifted with?
“I want to seek your advice Imaam Sahab, I am in a serious dilemma.”
“Not here,” said
He walked Ali to his room on the right side of the old structure, a dimly lit space with religious books lying on multiple shelves, a gas stove with few utensils and a single bed in a corner on the far end; everything one needed to live.
They sat on the bed and Ali blurted out, not able to contain his predicament.
“I have been given the duty of the ladies compartment,” he said with the graveness of someone given the executioners job.
The head priest obviously didn’t get the import of that statement and looked expectedly at Ali to speak out the problem, and Ali
“So what is the problem?” the head priest finally asked realizing it was he who was expected to speak.
“In the ladies compartment I have to watch over the women,” Ali said with slight exasperation, “And you know our religion forbids us from looking at women deliberately.”
“Then why don’t you ask for a change of job?” Imaam Sahab still couldn’t get the issue at hand.
“I asked but my boss says he trusts me because of my sincerity.”
“He is right.”
“But Imaam Sahab, I cannot go against my religion and I cannot leave my job.” The sense of helplessness and frustration that had subsided when Ali was in the mosque came rushing back as he reiterated the facts. “My friend tells me to compromise, but I cannot do that either.” His voice was now almost close to breaking down. “I don’t know what to do.”
The head priest had finally realized the intricacy of the situation but still failed to see what made it so difficult to resolve.
“You will have to take a decision, Ali. You cannot live with this dilemma bothering you all the time.”
“But how can I decide? I don’t have the knowledge.” Ali looked around at the books lying in the room. “You read so many books. Can you tell me what I should do?”
The head priest smiled and picked up a book lying beside and pressed it to his heart for a moment, then kissed it with his eyes and kept it down, his face glowing with love and reverence. When he spoke it was with the serenity of a man who while speaking to the world was only speaking to himself.
“We only know what we read. How would we know what was written?”
Ali did not understand. The wise had this strange habit of speaking in simple words that sometimes were difficult to comprehend. Imaam Sahab understood his confusion.
“You will have to take your decision
“But I don’t know how to decide,” Ali said with desperation, tears swelling in his big eyes. “I need your help.”
Imaam Sahab put a hand on Ali’s forehead and ran it through his hair and Ali felt a sense of comfort returning back.
“You have a pure heart Ali, and Allah loves those with a pure heart. Wake up in the night and pray at His doorstep. He will guide you.”
There was a certainty in the Imaam’s voice as if he knew and tears trickled down Ali’s face. Imaam Sahab stood up and hugged Ali.
“Do not worry. Allah loves the tears of the pious.”
he said viciously and the spite in her voice was unconcealed.
Ali couldn’t control his anger this time. It was a Mumbai bandh and they were the only two people in the ladies compartment of the last Karjat bound fast train as it left the CST terminus. He thought he had got her finally.
“How can you hurl abuses at a police man,” he shouted.
She looked at him with no fear, for fear comes only to those who have something to lose. For a woman who walked after dark in the back alleys where respectable people were afraid to roam, a man was only a prospect. By robbing her of her womanhood he had given up his power to intimidate.
“I am not abusing you,” she said, making no attempt to hide her anger. “I am abusing the bloody politicians who sit in their houses and declare bandhs. What good are they doing by depriving people of their livelihood?”
“And what good are you doing by leading men astray for a livelihood?”
She burst into laughter, her anger dissipating at his innocent outburst. Smiling mischievously, she said “Oh yes, men are soo simple,” and then mollycoddled him, “Oh my little boy, come to aunty. Aunty will give you
Ali looked away in disgust. He knew this was not an argument for him. An express train was getting out of the adjacent
She sensed an opportunity. Walking up to him she said in a surreptitious tone.
“The next station is going to take 15 minutes at least. I will make you a special discount offer,” and she lowered her tone further as if proposing a clandestine bargain, “Fifty rupees only.”
“Fifty rupees for what?” Ali asked, genuinely surprised.
She sat on a vacant bench and said suggestively, letting each word out at a languid pace, “For anything you can do.”
Ali was revolted beyond anger. Is this what the world was coming to? He went to the other end of the compartment and looked out at the express train slowly gathering speed. He felt like jumping out of the compartment but there was no way he could abandon his duty.
She shouted behind him, “Okay only 20 rupees for a quickie. I will survive on dal rice tonight.”
“Here take this and eat whatever you want. But please shut up.”
She got up angrily and threw the fifty rupee note back on his face. “Who do you think I am? A beggar or a corrupt policeman who wants easy money? I only take money for services I give, otherwise I can sleep hungry. ”
She went to the window seat and sat looking outside. Ali picked up the fallen money and walked back to the compartment door. The train had started to pick up speed again and a cool breeze hit him where he stood, taking away the tension and bringing clarity to his thoughts. He decided that he would quit his job the next day. He didn’t know any other means of earning a livelihood but there was no way he could live through another night like this.
Imaam Sahab was right. Allah had shown him the way.
The train was slowing down as it reached Byculla station and Ali could see two girls running down the platform stairs to catch the train. They looked inside the men’s compartment where a few people sat dispersed. They ran to the ladies compartment, got in, saw the street woman sitting at the window and turned around to leave. Then suddenly they changed their mind and got inside and sat on the bench at the far end of the compartment.
The train picked up speed again as it left the station and the girls got busy on their respective mobile phones. Ali wondered whether in a few years time people would only talk through mobiles.
The train coursed through central Mumbai at
She got up from her window seat and came up to where Ali was standing. Her anger had subsided and without the mischievous, careless look she appeared like any other woman. It was interesting how only an attitude distinguished your identity.
“I am sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Ali was still looking outside at the well lit landscape.
“You know what hurts a prostitute most? It is not being used by men. You get used to that after some time.” She knew Ali may not be listening but she had to speak to someone. “It is being mistrusted by your own gender as if you have corrupted them with your being. The pain given by your own is the most difficult pain to overcome.”
The hurt in her voice forced Ali to look at her and he could see that her eyes were wet.
“Did you see what happened at Byculla station? The girls were ready to sit in the men’s compartment rather than share the same compartment with me. As if I was a threat to them. They felt they were safer with those bloody dick heads than with me.”
“And do you know why they finally came in?” she was slowly getting her control back as the train started slowing down at the Dadar station. “They came inside only because of you. You are a good man, a very good man and it is written on your face. Your intentions are pure.”
Ali didn’t know how to react. The train had stopped at Dadar station.
“And let me tell you one thing for sure,” she said as she got down. “No one can judge a man’s intention better than a woman.”
The mosque was filled completely with the Friday faithful and people spilled on to the street outside braving the hot sun; 15 minutes of indulgence to atone for a week’s abstinence. Ali was sitting in his corner inside the old mosque listening to the Imaam Sahab as he stood at the pulpit and delivered the traditional Friday sermon.
“It is said from the authority of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, who heard the Messenger of God say, ‘the actions are but judged according to intentions and to every man is due what he intended.’ So my brothers,” the Imaam elaborated, “only such deeds will be deemed good and carry merit in the sight of the Almighty, which is done with a good and virtuous intention.”
The loudspeakers blared for the benefit of those on the street outside and inside the
“Your intentions form the basis of all your action and God will reward only as per your intentions. So if you leave your house with the intention of offering prayers in the service of God, every step you take is worship.”
“Remember God is pure and good, and He accepts only what is pure and good.”
Imaam Sahab stepped down from the pulpit and the congregation got up to ensure the rows were straight and all empty spaces were filled. Ali dusted his white kurta and aligned his feet with that of his adjacent neighbors.
He wished Imaam Sahab would read a short prayer this Friday. It was getting late for the evening shift.