This is not a love story based on courtship. This is not a relationship story with someone I like most in my life, either. In contrast, this is a moment of love and concern that we all experience with strangers turned friends in our day-to-day life. It is about my bond with two strangers for a little moment of my life that I had developed in a railway journey from Ahmedabad to Pathankot.
Recently, I was at Tushita Meditation Centre for a Buddhist introduction course amidst a large crowd of western young men and women. During my 10days stay at Tushita, I was asked on many occasions about my perceptions and understanding on India. The reason for asking this was mostly due to their negative experiences of cheating and harassing by tour operators, roadside vendors and taxi drivers.
My reply to them was – it is not real India. It is a tiny part of Indian system. To experience real India, they must have to stay with a family for a few days to experience the depth of bond and sharing. Another aspect of Indian culture is that strangers become friends and address as brothers, sisters and so on. Sometimes the bonds become intense and turn into relationships.
At those moments I often reflected upon one of my recent experiences that had a subtle depth to what I was explaining to my western friends.
I boarded on a train in Ahmedabad for Pathankot. My co-passengers were a young Sikh woman named Mandeep Kaur and her mother, and a Muslim middle-aged man Mahmobbhai. While Mandeep and her mother were travelling to Kapurthala in Punjab, Mehbobbhai was travelling to Jodhpur in Rajasthan.
As we left Ahmedabad, initially we did not talk. But as the train crossed 2/3 hours of journey, we somehow began to talk. Mandeep and her mother hail from Kapurthala but most of their lives they had lived in Bhilai in Chhattisgharh, where in Bhilai Steel Plant, Mandeep’s father had worked as an employee. Mandeep’s father is no more. Her sister is married to a Gujarati and she lives with her husband and child in Ahmedabad. Mandeep works as a computer teacher in a school at Kapurthala, but she is not satisfied with her job due to low salary given to teachers in Punjab.
In the course of our chatting she asked me about the job prospect in Ahmedabad. As I said Gujarat is a better paying state she showed interest, but her mother had not much liking for Ahmedabad, because of its extreme weather, pollution and different food habit.
Mehbobbhai originally hails from Pali district in Rajasthan. He had come with his parents to Ahmedabad where they had no contact and money. However, the family and the community it belongs to have been enterprising. When they came to Ahmeadbad they camped on roads and often used to be chased by AMC (Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation) anti-encroachment drives. But the sheer determination, hard work and enterprising spirit together established him as a merchant of cloth business. He however has not stepped into a college for higher education.
Mehbobbhai as he revealed is a pious Muslim. He always likes to help the needy people and on Ramzans donates 2.5% of his earning.
It was indeed a live experience of secularism in an un-conventional setting, a Sikh woman, a Muslim and I a Hindu were so deeply engrossed and unknowingly creating spaces for each other. There was no talk on hatred but only love and concern for each other.
Mehbobbhai also like me addressed Mandeep as ‘sister’. He also promised that if she and her mother decide to come to Ahmeadbad, he would try through his contacts to get a job for her.
Mehbobbhai got down at Jodhpur after 8 hours of travel with a promise that he would be in contact with both of us.
On the next day it was me and Mandeep travelling together through Punjab Plains. As our train passed through towns and cities of Punjab, I kept asking Madeep’s mother on aspects of Punjab culture and partition stories. I was carrying parantha, but the vegetable had got over. Mandeep shared her vegetable with me.
They got down at their destination Kapurthala. Though my destination was Pathanakot, I got down in the next station Jalandhar as I wanted to visit Rangla Punjab, a museum cum restaurant on Punjabi culture.
As I was wandering in Jalandhar I saw a miss-call, which was unexpected. It was from Mandeep. I called her back. She told me that she wanted to know if I had reached safely at Pathankot and found a place to stay for the night. In her word ‘bhaiya, app thik thak phanch gaye?’
When I heard this I was deeply touched. Perhaps we need more such gestures of love and concern to strengthen our pluralistic identities, not conflicts on religions, castes and prejudice. And as long as these bonds continue we will never lose our Indian values and morality.