Monday, January 26, 2004

Gentleman Pandu

One of the advantages of me living in the far-flung suburbs is that it brings out the chivalrous side of ‘gentlemen’ colleagues and friends. “How are you planning to go home?,” they ask, solicitously, after a long evening at work or a late night movie.

“By train,” is my unvarying answer.

Eyebrows shoot up. “But is it safe to go alone?!”

“Who’s alone?,” I counter. “Pandu will keep me company.”

Pandu, of course, has been my dutiful travelling companion for a few years now. The moment I spot his reassuring khakhi presence in the near empty ladies compartment, I immediately feel secure. And knowing that he’s keeping watch, I lose myself in a book, and on occasion, even grab some shut-eye.

Pandu has given me the freedom and confidence to travel on my own. But I can’t help wondering: Does Pandu really relish his role as ‘Protector of the Non-Peak Hour Female Traveller’?

For starters, he has to travel the entire rail strip thrice every night, in a compartment that says, ‘LADIES ONLY FOR ALL 24 HOURS”. Secondly, he has a ringside view of ladies at their un-ladylike best. He has to helplessly watch their graceless lunging and clambering, clawing and fighting, shoving and shrieking… Why, if he isn’t nimble enough, he might just get steamrolled by the juggernaut at each station!

Pandu’s presence serves as a deterrent for urchins, vagrants and other dubious sorts. But exceeding his role as an impassive guardian can sometimes prove awkward. I once watched Pandu help a ticketless traveller with two small children and two large suitcases into an already cramped compartment. The resentful women unleashed such a tirade that a lesser man would have flung himself in front of a passing train. But not Pandu! Despite their venomous looks and vicious taunts, he stood by the lady and even helped her alight at her stop.

Recently, I got into a conversation with Pandu. I had dozed off and when I awoke I found Pandu observing me nervously.

“Where are you getting off?”, he asked politely. When I told him, at the last stop, he looked relieved and said, “I didn’t want you to miss your station.”

To my surprise, he then apologised for asking that question. “Some women think I’m being nosy and snap at me. But I only don’t want them to go beyond their stop.”

We got talking and the different facets of a railway constable’s life tumbled out. I learned that he had to do 15 days railway duty in a month. And that after an entire evening of shepherding women home safely, he had to spend the night on the platform.

Sensing my interest, Pandu went on to tell me about his life, his training, even of the time he single-handedly nabbed a notorious, elusive criminal. The train pulled in at my station just as he finished his account.

As I thanked him and got ready to leave, he politely asked me, “Can I have your number?”

I was dumbstruck for a moment, but then old conditioning set in. I mumbled a hasty apology and retreated, feeling vaguely guilty for suspecting the motives of someone I regularly trusted to escort me home. Better safe than sorry, I reassured myself feebly. Perhaps Pandu would understand after all…

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