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Fresh Air

December 2004
Fresh Air

By Suchi Rudra

The open-air train is on time, almost empty. You climb aboard the ladies compartment and lean against the wall by the place where sliding doors should be. The same, mysterious 9:05 siren howls briefly at the Mumbai morning just as the train leaves the station. At the next stop, a girl streaked with dirt jumps into the train with her bare feet and trained eyes. She begins collecting the litter by your feet and then throws it off the train to show you that she has worked for the money that she wants from you now. Until the next stop you are alone by the door, leaning to catch the fresh Indian air, full of pollution and freedom. Another stop comes, and in the morning rush, your body is now just one of many. You let yourself be pushed into a seat and take out your book.

The woman next to you reads over your shoulder with a frown and gives you a sidelong glance. She does not approve of Kurt Vonnegut. By now, all are awash with a smell of fish from the basket beside a small woman seated by the door. But she always gets off at Dadar where she will sell her fish in the market. And that same station is where the man in a sari boards your compartment. He/she is a eunuch, and not a single woman is staring. You are the only one who cannot get enough of the short greasy hair, the flat nose with a nose ring, the wide body draped in feminine fabric. Someone catches you looking, and you turn back to watch the tracks blur by. They are fascinating in the way they merge into each other and you can never tell how.

You don't panic anymore, trying to recognize the stations by the shape of their Hindi names. You know when your stop is arriving?a putrid smell of sewage hits you when you reach Bandra, the station before your stop. You accept it. There is still no need to excuse yourself as you hurry past the other seated ladies, because the scent of sweet, freshly made biscuits has not yet slipped into the compartment. But finally you sense it, and it makes you feel a little hungry after breakfasting on just one tiny Indian banana. The biscuit factory is the last landmark; now it's time to move to the door.

But most of the other women are also creeping toward the door on the left side, and almost touching your face are fresh jasmine flowers squeezed into neat braids and buns. No one's hair is down and loose like yours, one immediate give-away that you don't understand what hot really means. You are wearing a dry-clean-only skirt with a nylon top that is now glued to your skin with sweat. You think about blending in, draping yourself in bright cotton salwar suits like those around you. Yet you remember trying on several suits purchased from Kolkata; you were a bit lost in them; the sunshine hits your face and your black, absorbing hair but finds nothing else to warm and caress. Your legs are hidden in billowing pants and the dupatta hangs weightily at your neck. The long tunic top fits well, neatly, but there is just so much of it on your body. You cannot walk well dressed in this suit; you are someone else. You think of princesses and supermodels walking the way they are coached.

And then your mind and your foreign-clothed body are jarred with a shove onto the cement platform in a panic of tangling purses, sharp fingernails, and squashed toes. You are back in unpredictable territory, and you wait for the crowd to stream off the inching train before you mount the stairs, cross and exit the platforms.

You move to the edge of the steps without touching the handrail, praying that the men don't grab you like that night in the overcrowded suburban station. Sly, grinning eyes and wicked fingers that attack at the first stolen opportunity. You arrange your mid-sized purse to cover yourself from behind. You check with your fingers to make sure you are again wearing the bag with the zipper end toward your body, and look up in time to see a dirty bearded man leaning against the handrail to move himself down the stairs toward the trains. His slow, obstructive steps stir the impatient office-going crowd who cluck their tongues and give unnoticed scowls. There is not much room to the right of you but you do not want to touch him or smell him, so you twist away, gripping your bag more tightly against you.

And then you feel it, a hand sliding fast and smooth on your waist. A cold finger curls up under your nylon shirt, feeling your sweating skin. You cannot move now and people are beginning to yell behind you. The bony, dirty man on your left has also stopped. A fly circles around him. He is watching you, as that finger becomes two fingers, then three. Now it is a hand clenching your skin, but it doesn't feel like your skin. You feel the ragged fingernails scraping beneath your shirt and without thinking you are hurling yourself against the old man, clinging to his stench and torn clothes. There are women gasping, men shouting, everyone is moving upward but looking at you.

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