Man or mouse?
Creature comforts

During times like these, when it’s the woman against the world, even the smallest of choices are a little harder to make. Take for example, the situation I was in, while returning to Chennai after a short holiday in Kerala. The Alleppey-Chennai Express was sparsely populated from Alleppey to Kochi, which is where most passengers get in. I was looking forward to the 75 minutes of being queen of my compartment, but the family was understandably anxious.

Woman vs World

You see, in ‘Woman versus World’ scenario, an empty train carriage is teeming with morbid eventualities for Woman. Woman could get mugged, Woman could get raped, and if Woman’s lucky, she can get away with just some run-off-the-mill objectification. It’s necessary for any girl to be aware of all this, and to some degree unemotional about it because otherwise you can’t really get much work done.

In my case, I was not very concerned because there was a family about three compartments away who I was counting on to help me if the need arose. Still, I was on my guard, careful not to make unnecessary eye contact with vendors, and other railway staff who walked by now and then.

That bit bothers me. In all this self-preservation we’re probably missing out on so much of good conversation, and so many chances to talk to people from drastically different backgrounds. But we’re also escaping possible unpleasant encounters with sick men, so we’re taught to accept this as a fair deal. It’s unfair that we, females especially, are forced to choose between good conversations and remaining unassaulted. To give your own safety so much of importance is kind of embarrassing, but what can you do.

When you’re as conflicted as I am, the best you can do is trust your instincts. Occasionally, if I do indulge in conversations with nice-seeming strangers, I usually have an escape plan ready in my mind if the stranger turns suddenly hostile (eg. Open window, sharp object, cell phone).

Making friends

I was sitting on my side berth that evening, breathing in the last few hours of Kerala air, when a little mouse scurrying on the opposite seat shook me out of my reverie.

Now I’ve travelled by railway often enough to know of its… creature comforts, but this happened to be the first time I’ve actually seen a mouse in a train. Alarmed, I decided to tackle the situation rationally. I tried my best to romanticize it. It was kind of cute, I forced myself to observe. And if eight-year-old Sarah Crewe could make friends with a family of rats, then surely a 24-year-old journalist can handle one little mouse?

It was while I was in this state of mind that a new character entered the scene. A middle aged man, wearing the railways uniform walked by, smiled at me and asked me where I was headed. I replied and smiled back sensing that if I let him hang around long enough, he might see the mouse and shoo it away or something.

I told him I’d seen a mouse, and his weary laugh was kind of reassuring. He lamented that maintenance was particularly pathetic because of inadequate manpower. He was the coach in-charge, he said when I asked him, pointing at his badge. What followed was an engaging fifteen minutes of chat during at the end of which I was quite amazed. Turned out the man was quite a do-gooder. Every other year he gives out awards to the toppers from his village in Tamil Nadu as encouragement. The last time he did it was two years back when he gave shields to 60 students.

He had a lot of questions about entrance exams, coaching centres and colleges for his elder daughter who is in twelfth grade, aspiring for an MBBS seat. He had evidently done his research since he seemed to know most of what I told him already.

Some interesting topics later, he excused himself for a coffee break. I saw him again only later in the night when he stopped by to check on me. He saw that my co-passengers were a couple and their noisy kids, and we exchanged relieved smiles.

That night, as I tossed and turned feeling imaginary mice crawling up my shirt, I thought about how unwise it was to have participated in a conversation with a strange man in a deserted train. I probably wouldn’t do it again, and would certainly not advise anybody to. I hated the fact that I am supposed to feel really lucky that my coach-in-charge turned out to be not a rapist, but a decent man.

As was dozing off, I thought I saw a shuffling movement on the floor, but it wasn’t a mouse that was worrying me anymore so I let it be.

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