Three years ago I was traveling to Mumbai in an AC three-tier coach of a super-fast express. The train had almost reached its destination with just one more stop to go. A well-dressed gentleman boarded the train and positioned himself at the most convenient spot as if he owned the train. A shoeshine boy, who had entered the coach along with him, offered to polish his shoes. The gentleman initially asked to be left alone but with a little persuasion he let the boy polish his shoes while he read the morning newspaper. Having done his job the boy asked to be paid for his services.
“How dare you ask for money?” roared our office going ‘gentleman’ “did I ask for you to polish my shoes? You impose yourself on me and have the audacity to ask for money! Who gave you permission to enter this coach in the first place? For all I know you could be a thief or a pickpocket. I’ll teach you scoundrels a lesson”
“Sir” the boy pleaded, “please do not deny me my hard earned money. I’m only asking to be paid for my job”
The scene that followed was appalling to say the least. The gentleman slapped the boy on his cheeks, back and wherever possible, twisted his arms and flung his bag out of the door along with his footrest, polish, brush and perhaps the little money he had managed to earn that morning. The gentleman then gave a long lecture on the danger posed by such people to society and about how the Railways should issue authorization slips to hawkers who entered the train to ensure passenger safety. Everyone present in the coach including the TTE nodded in agreement while the poor shoeshine boy beaten and bruised stood alone in a corner sobbing his heart out for all to hear.
I, who prided myself on being an upright and just citizen of the country, witnessed the unfortunate episode without having the courage to speak up for the boy. My heart went out in sympathy to the wronged shoeshine boy. A lot of questions popped up in my mind. I wanted to ask the man whether he was himself authorized to travel by that train and if he had a valid ticket in the first place. I wanted to console the boy and give him a little money towards his rehabilitation. I wanted to do a lot of things but did nothing except look away from the boy unable to meet his pathetic gaze.
The episode left me shattered. What was the reason for my silence I wondered? Why had I, along with other thinking citizens distanced myself from the incident that was an obvious injustice to the boy? Had society changed to such an extent? Or was I just being selfish and cowardly? Did I deserve to be called an educated person when I could not behave like one?
Just then something unexpected happened. A vegetable vendor had also got into the train along with the shoeshine boy and was standing near the entrance of the compartment to escape being noticed by the TTE. She came out of her hiding place like a thunderbolt.
“How do you plan to make up for his loss sahib?” she asked “it was very easy for you to throw his belongings out of the compartment. Do you realize that you have robbed him of his livelihood? You called him a thief! Now I call you a dacoit and that too in the presence of all these high-class people who cannot stand up for a just cause. If, with your suit and tie, you did not have the money to pay this poor fellow you could have asked him to waive his charges and he would have gladly obliged!”
Turning to the TTE she continued her tirade.
“Regarding you sahib let me not open my mouth! The less I say, the better for you! You hound poor people like us and extort money if we get in without a ticket. What about this ‘big shot’? Did you check his ticket and is he entitled to travel in this compartment?”
Having thus vented her displeasure, the lady squatted on the floor beside the shoeshine boy, offered him something to eat and consoled him in a manner that only a person who understood and shared his agony could do, while the rest of us sat looking out of the window waiting for the agonizing journey to end. Might is right or so they say but I wondered who was mighty in this case. The vegetable vendor who stood up for the boy despite being herself a ticket-less traveler and risked being fined or thrown out or the impudent ‘gentlemen’ who not only slapped the boy as payment for his services but also held the rest of us as mental hostages for a ransom paid not through currency notes but by the more valuable call of the conscience which we had willingly and conveniently pledged to him even without being asked.