Dec 11, 2017

Bystander

During a visit to Delhi during the last winters, Naman got a recommendation to try the "Garam Doodh Malai" at a small shop in South Delhi.

He went there with a friend. The setting was perfect - 11:30 in the night, cool breeze, minimal traffic and a warm crowd.

There's something about winter that makes the presence of vapor look beautiful. The shop's light was reflected off the vapor from the hot milk. A huge chunk of vapor came from the kadhai in which the milk was being continuously stirred, add to that the tiny contributions from around 20 people's kulhad.

Naman and his friend rose that count to 22. They decided to sit on the stools kept close to the road.

After a while, a swanky SUV entered the lane, driven by a tall and nicely built man. There were four more people in the car - two men and two women.

From the opposite direction, came a man on his motorbike with his wife and 2 kids. One boy (probably 9) sat in between his mother and father and the other, shorter one, sat on the bike's tank right in the front.

The moment he saw the SUV, the younger one shouted its name out loud from the front. The elder brother peeked out to the right of his father's back and repeated the name in recognition.

If their father's tummy was any smaller, they would've surely hi-fived, I thought, just like I used to, when I played this guess-the-car game with my school friends on the bus rides to school everyday.

The lane was narrow and some of the customers had parked their cars and bikes haphazardly. There wasn't enough space left for both vehicles to pass through simultaneously. They came near each other. The kids started admiring the car from up close. Their father tried to wriggle out from the leftover areas but he couldn't find enough space. He tried for about 20 seconds while the SUV just stood there.

The SUV owner lowered his window then and shouted "peeche ho ja." The man replied "bhai sahab tameez se baat kijiye."

This courteous retaliation was enough to make the SUV owner angry. He came out of his car, stood in front of the motorbike and asked the man to remove his helmet.

"Helmet utaar," he said.

The moment the man removed his helmet, the SUV owner slapped him.

Twice.

In full public view.

The family man got scared, pulled his motorbike back to let the SUV pass.

The other people in the SUV - men and women, did not come out or showed any empathy.

The onlookers, the bystanders, witnessed the turn of events and did nothing about it. Naman discussed with his friend how horrible it felt and they both moved on. The discussion quickly turned to how tasty the milk was.

Naman didn't do anything. He did not stand in front of the spoilt rich brat. He did not ask people to stand in support of the family. He did not even click pictures of the car or the car owner. He could have done something.

--

It's almost a year later now. One of Naman's school friend visited him. They drove around in their hometown and ended up playing their childhood favorite, the guessing-the-car game.

It's about spotting the cars coming from the opposite direction. The one who guesses the brand and the car name first gets a point. It's always easier to identify cars with unique designs faster.

Naman's friend gave him a tough competition. He guessed a few cars from very far away.

And then Naman got a chance, he saw a car take a turn from far away. Only a small part of the car was visible from that angle. But he knew which one it was. He shouted the name first and scored a point.

And then he went silent.

"What happened," his friend asked.

He was staring blankly in to the windscreen, as his subconscious mind took care of the driving. He got reminded of that incident in Delhi. It was the same SUV.

He forgot he was driving a car. He felt he was on a bike, sitting on the tank his father's bike - wind brushing through his hair - sitting all proudly, giving unsolicited directions to his father and pretending to be the real rider of the bike. Sitting in front of the bike was among the most cherished memories of his childhood.

The bike moved towards that SUV. Day turned in to night. The big road turned in to a small crowded lane.

He re-lived a repeat of last year's incident through the eyes of that kid whose father was assaulted.

He imagined how it would have felt if someone had slapped his father like that. The shame, the injustice, the helplessness and the anger which he would have had to hide deep inside him. A toxic memory which would have become a part of his existence henceforth.

He forgot that he was just playing a game a few seconds ago. He forgot his friend was sitting right next to him.

He let his blood boil for a while.

And then he made a promise to himself, to not just be a bystander the next time.