Since there wasn’t a direct train to Ahmedabad from Lucknow, a break-journey was the only option left. I decided to travel via Delhi. I had enrolled myself for a PhD and was travelling to join the university in Ahmedabad. As the train gained speed, I stared out of the window at the falling dusk and fell asleep. It was about 6 in the morning when the Lal Quila Express passed through the Red Fort in Delhi. Along the tracks I saw hutments put up so close to the railway tracks that I could easily peek inside them. These shacks had walls for namesake but nothing seemed hidden. As I woke from my slumber, I saw people sleeping, fighting, defecating and even bathing in the open. This was the first time in my life that I saw such bare lives. It seemed like privacy were an unknown concept for them. There was no shame. Perhaps, their definition of shame was different from mine. It looked like shame for them was trivial compared to their passion, need or compulsion to live, whatever way you wish to put it.
Against the backdrop of children rummaging through garbage, the Red Fort lost all its magical grandeur. Standing on its ramparts and delivering chest-thumping speeches on Independence day, the prime minister must have never seen those images else they would have disappointed him as much as they disturbed me.
As the train slowly chugged ahead, I saw a group of young boys standing on a pile of garbage. In another world, children their age would be at school. But here they were standing atop a mountain of filth, their lives blotted with illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and drug-addiction. While I was still drowned in such thoughts, the train came to a halt at the Old Delhi Railway station.
Since the next train to Ahmedabad was eight hours later, I stepped out to explore the city. Just as I was getting out of the station, I saw a policeman abusing a 15-year-old who was with two middle-aged men. He snatched a crumpled 500-rupee-note from the boy’s fist and pushed him aside. I walked up to the boy and asked him what the fuss was about. He told me that he had come to Delhi with a few fellow villagers to find work after his father’s death. His mother had given him the money to survive till he found work. But now, the policeman had snatched it away from him. Even before the boy could finish narrating his ordeal, the policeman arrived there and hit the boy with his lathi, yelling, “Abey, will you bugger off now or should I lock you up?” The boy quickly turned and ran. Before I could understand anything, the policeman turned to me and ordered me to come along. “What is my crime?” I asked. He started yelling at me, “You drug-peddler, bastard, you sell drugs on the streets and now you are doing sweet talk,” and raised his lathi at me. It shouldn’t have scared me, yet it did. Everything from the definition of democracy to the preamble to the Constitution was floating in my head. “I, we, the people of India… of the people, by the people, for the people…” I wanted to say something on those lines and educate the rogue. But all I could muster was, “Sir, I am a journalist and am currently doing research on mass media. You’ve got it wrong.” Although that stopped him in his tracks, it did not keep him from swearing. He hurled abuses at me and asked me to leave. I did not want to leave. I wanted to set a precedent like Lincoln, Mandela, Gandhi and Anna. I wanted to hail the Constitution and democracy, and celebrate my freedom. But I left cowering.
A part of me has forever been imprisoned in the events that unfolded that day. That part of me still haunts me. It reminds me that a coward lives in me. I must kill it. We should all kill the coward in us.