Come to think of it, a “chivalrous existence”, however appealing it might appear, has deluded me throughout my life. Especially so when it came to my earnest desire to act Sir Knight to damsels in distress. Not that I had ever draped myself in mail chain armour a la Ivanhoe, having decided that the mca’s must be somewhat heavy even to crawl around in, leave alone to engage in tournaments on horseback to win over a lady’s favours. Nonetheless, in my own small way, I did try to master the art.
With somewhat dubious consequences, as you have surely guessed by now.
Without beating about the bush therefore, I shall travel back in time to a crowded Calcutta tramcar, which I had not only boarded, but in which I had even been favoured by Lady Luck with an empty seat to rest my bottom. Instead of standing that is, squeezed between people holding on to overhead handrails with their sweating armpits dangerously close to my somewhat sensitive olfactory organ. Not that sitting in an overcrowded tramcar is a pleasant experience either, but the dividing line between standing and sitting is not exactly fine either.
Well, there I sat, in a state of dubious happiness, as I remember, trying to lift up my spirits on a grueling summer evening, whistling out of tune, hoping to entertain my fellow passengers, a weak substitute for the much awaited monsoon drizzle. The man sitting next to me was not impressed as far as I could make out from the expression on his face, but the Bertie Wooster in me was not in a mood to pay heed to Jeeves-like wisdom.
I looked away from him in supreme disdain in the opposite direction, that is towards the mass of suffering humanity which was unlawfully denied the right to a seat. Unlawfully I say, since the price of a tram journey has, to this day, no bearing whatsoever on whether one sits or stands on way to one’s destination. And almost immediately, my eyes detected her. There she stood, hapless as well as helpless, trying desperately to reach up to the handrails. Given her height, she had only two choices. Hang by the handrails or stand on the floor and hold on to thin air a few inches below the rails. And to top it all, she had a somewhat heavy purse on her, which anyone could pick, given that her hands were engaged elsewhere playing with nothingness. Quite oblivious alas of the unprotected belongings inside the purse.
My heart melted. My chivalry howled in silent protest. Is there no man around to offer her a seat? Degeneration, I lamented, thy name is MAN. There was only one choice left to me and I exercised it. I left my seat and attempted to draw the attention of the harassed lady. But harassed though she was, she displayed absolutely no propensity to admire my magnanimity. As with all other women, she looked in every direction except mine. I pushed through the crowd therefore to alert her to the existence of an empty seat.
As I have observed, chivalry has never paid me my due. Partly on account of my stupidity I am sure. As I left my seat, I had no one other than the lady in mind. In particular, I forgot completely about the disgruntled travellers that stood in my close proximity and such people have one track minds as far as I can make out. In this particular case, they were singularly focused on the seat I was occupying, with the result that as soon as I left the seat, the man standing closest to me lowered himself on it with vulture like precision. Not only had the lady not noticed my gesture; worse, even if she had, there was no longer an empty seat inviting her take it. On the other hand, despite all my chivalry, I didn’t exactly know how to rebuke the trespasser for occupying the seat that I had not given up for him! In fact, as I realized, no lawyer on earth would be able to argue out a case in my favour.
The lady unboarded the tram soon enough, while I stood for the rest of the journey in the sardine-packed tramcar. And I did not fail to notice that the man was still sitting there when it was time for me to get down from the car! I can’t be sure, but I suspect he was whistling his own tune too, quite oblivious of the tragedy he had precipitated, pulverizing my chivalry into subatomic particles.
But these particles, it appears, held a confidential conference and managed to reassemble into their former self and all this happened, quite unknown to me, as I was travelling in a suburban train compartment on my way to office one fine morning in spring. The train compartment was reasonably empty as I boarded it at Sealdah Station, but it began to get filled up by the time the train had reached the second or the third stop. It was filling up, yes, but unlike the tramcar, there was an empty seat still available to be occupied by a passenger and this seat lay bang opposite to the one I was sitting in. And out of nowhere a young woman with a baby in arms appeared. She spotted the seat quite naturally and made a beeline for it. By the look of her, she belonged to what’s fashionably called a below poverty line individual these days. This meant that she had very few well-defined rights that our mighty Parliament had been able to devise over the forty years or so of independence that we had enjoyed by then.
The gentleman occupying the seat right next to the empty one growled as she was about to sit down. “This seat is not for you,” he screamed. “I have been holding it for a gentleman who will be boarding at the next station!” The woman was no fighter and appeared to have few quarrels with the gentleman’s absurd demand. So, she simply stood meekly, holding on to the back of one of the benches as the train began to move. As I told you, my chivalry never went to the extent of fighting tournaments and I failed to haul up the gentleman. Instead though, I merely got up from my seat and, not having forgotten the tramcar incident, made sure that there were no contenders for my vacated seat. Then I called out to the woman and requested her to take my seat. A request she gladly accepted, given the precarious state of balance in which she was holding the baby.
I came out of the enclosure and stood near the door leading out of the train. It was not over-crowded and standing there was not particularly uncomfortable.
It was then that the tournament began. I suddenly became conscious of a semi-scuffle between a few people inside the enclosure that I had just left. Two groups had formed, it appeared, one siding with the man who refused the seat to the woman and another that found his action unacceptable. I had no idea that this second group existed, since no one had shown much interest in her when she was receiving a rough deal.
Voices were rising and I heard repeated references to the man who had left his seat, who, I had little doubt, was no other than me. An informal court of law was in session it appeared trying to pass a judgement on my action. The bully himself was shouting the most in support of his action and everything that was being said ultimately ended with the ultimate motive underlying my action. To my horror, I even heard someone claim that I had left the seat because I was about to get down and then someone else shouting that this was false, since I was still observable where I was burrowing my head. They were all but ready to drag me in to testify!
My chivalry being at stake, I knew that I would not be able to participate in the riot that was about to ensue. Fortunately, however, my destination arrived soon and I left the train as invisibly as I could.
But as I disembarked, I tried to peep in through the window and discover, if I could, a smile of gratitude in the woman’s face. And what I found was that in the middle of all the commotion, she was sleeping as peacefully as the child on her lap.
As I said, my chivalry never earned applauds.
Unfairness! Thy name is WOMAN!