Author | Lost & Found in India
This train story happened in 2002. A group of people I didn’t know so well, 5 of them, were traveling from Calcutta to Vrindavan, near Delhi. On Indian trains you generally get a coupe, or a small alcove, that sleeps 6: 2 bench seats face each other, and above, 2 pull down beds on each side makes up your coupe. The coupes are along the left side of the train off the corridor, which also has single seats on the right that face each other and above, a single bunk.
This group of 5 people heard I was planning to travel to the same place, and asked me if I wanted to join them, as they had bought a coupe and were looking for the 6th person to fill it. I agreed, though I didn’t like traveling in 6-sleeper coupes. But it was only once and I was going that way anyway, so I figured it was better to go with a group than on my own. On one of the seats in the corridor outside our coupe was an old man, around 70+, dressed in traditional dhoti and kurta. A kindly looking soul, he was quiet and very dignified and old-fashioned. Next to him was a portly older chap.
Around the halfway mark we passed through a university town in Bihar—well known for its violence. Although the carriage we were in was sleeper class, still some male students got on, even though they were only traveling one or two stops. Some of them passed through the carriage, one or two found empty seats, and that was it. The train started to move.
After a couple of minutes, the carriage door opened again and 5 or 6 of these young men entered. They were carrying some energy with them: obnoxious, show-off kind of energy. They stuck their head in our coupe and stared, then said something I couldn’t understand which made them all laugh. If you can’t tell from that I was ready for a fight you don’t know me well..
The leader of this grunty little pack then turned to the old man. He was speaking in rapid-fire Bengali and I didn’t understand anything except “I want to sit down,” “get up,” and a few swear words. No one did anything. His talking got louder and more aggressive. Still no one did anything. I was at the far side of the coupe, near the window, and said to a man I was traveling with, “Do something…” and he shook his head at me like a warning, “Don’t get involved.” I could understand his point: he was sitting a few inches from these guys, and he had a young child. The others with us were also rather timid foreigners not keen on getting involved in some local fracas, and I can’t say I blame them: these brainless idiots could have produced knives or something else.
The students were standing in the narrow corridor, so they couldn’t crowd around the old man, they were kind of single-file, but as crowded around him as they could get. Suddenly the guy in front slapped the old man around the head. I was out of my seat like a bolt of lightning and barked “HEY!” in my most commanding, authoritative voice. It stopped everyone in their tracks–for about 3 seconds. Once they’d sized me up as only a woman, and a foreigner at that, they laughed, turned back to the old man, and slapped him again.
I saw red. It wasn’t long since I’d seen the beloved Angelina in Lara Croft-action, so I may have been slightly influenced.
I told the man I was travelling with to get his kid on the floor and duck, and I stood on the seat; with my hands on the upper bunks for support, I swung out and round-kicked the leader in the head twice.
Suddenly it was chaos, with everyone screaming and yelling and these idiots going nuts at being attacked by a woman. I knew if I backed off I’d be history, so I jumped down off the seat and went for him, screaming, “You wanna fight? FIGHT ME!” and pushing at him. The look in his eyes said the last thing he wanted to do was fight me, not because I was a woman but because some instinct told him this woman was nuts and he was about to get his sorry arse kicked by her in front of all his buddies, and she’d have the whole train behind her.
I never let up, and I knew it was the key: I kept screaming at him the whole time, telling him he was a disgrace, scum of the earth, whatever. He either had to get out the train or I’d have to go for him again and I hadn’t really thought this through, but at the same time it was like the movies: you know how in those improbably ridiculous scenes when only one guy at a time attacks the leading man? Well, on the train is was really like that: only one guy at a time could come for you in that narrow train aisle. It was all so Hollywood
Then through the carriage door burst this guy who was obviously some kind of student body chief or something. He was angry like hell, but super efficient and polite. He pushed his way in, grabbed the idiot by the collar and dragged him out, threatening all the others and pushing them out the carriage too. He actually pushed them off the train, I swear…sure, we were coming into a station and slowing down, but he pushed them right off; some of them must have jumped out of fear of him, but he got them all off. Man, did that guy have some command!
He then came back and actually apologised profusely; he sat down and spoke to the old man quietly and gently for some minutes, and then he again apologized to me, saying this was not representative of his country or it’s residents, and to please forgive them. I thanked him for his help, told him I knew it wasn’t how Indians in general act, but that forgiveness would have to come from God, and good luck with that one, beating up on old people…
I started shaking then and realised how much adrenaline had been pumping through me. I react to fear with violence: if someone is threatening me, I get plain angry and could kill with my bare hands if I had to.
I didn’t embellish this story at all; it’s totally how it went down. Nor do I assess it: would I have done it differently, should I have thought more before I acted? The answer to both is “absolutely not.” It’s not “thought” that makes you act, but impulse; if your impulse is to run, then run. No problem. That’s one response and it’s completely legit. But if your impulse is to fight, then fight. It doesn’t matter if you get your arse kicked, or even if you die. If you don’t do something when you know you should, it would be hardly worth living knowing you’d sat there and let something happen. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees, and all that…