It was raining here today as I sat down to write this post. So, I stopped writing and watched the rain. And thought. About the long days and the long nights and the incredibly short days and nights that are not long enough. I thought about people who live through these days and who are sometimes sustained by the memories of some wonderful days and nights. Who are encouraged by these memories to remain standing for another day. Thoughts about standing led me to think about two women I saw nearly twenty six years ago on a crowded local train in Mumbai. (Well, there is no other sort of local train in Mumbai). It was that time of the day when people wanted nothing more than to get home and the metal walls of the train bulged with the sheer volume of people inside it. Yet, miraculously, there would be place for more people at the next station. Getting into or out of these trains is an art that no amount of rugby training can teach you. You have to be born into it. We who are from Mumbai can hustle with the best of them. These compartments have a life and ecosystem of their own. Men get in with briefcases and vegetables bought at the overhead walkways of the railway stations and proceed to dive for a seat, place the vegetables in the briefcase, pull out a knife and start chopping vegetables while having conversations with the other season ticket travelers. Women have capacious bags for the same purposes. And conversations flow all around you. Somehow, privacy is alien to these locomotive communities where everyone is an Ai, Tai, Didi, or simply, Arey…. 

It was during one such torrid journey that I spotted actress Sonali Bendre standing right next to me as we hurtled towards Mumbai CST! She was just starting out then, had made a few appearances in the inner pages of the movie magazines that my mother was very fond of purchasing on our trips to Mumbai as these were hard to come by in Oman. For a kid of ten, spotting a celebrity, however minor, was thrilling though I never went up to her and said anything. One has one’s dignity you know. After that, all through that summer, I scanned the railway compartments, looking to spot my next celebrity. On one such rush hour evening, in the ladies compartment of a local train in Mumbai, when women were chopping vegetables and going plunk plunk with their embroidery needles, and people were packed like sardines in a can,  I saw a woman place her arms around the woman in front of her and place her head on her shoulder and apparently go to sleep. I found it immensely interesting that someone could go to sleep standing up. Like a horse. On a stranger. Because both of them did not even have a conversation the whole time they were standing there. 

When the train reached her station, the sleeping woman withdrew her hands, but not before the one in front held her finger for a fraction of a second. And then the hand was gone, swallowed by the millions climbing the overhead bridge. In my compartment, the woman shaped vacuum was filled inside of three seconds. It was like they were never there. Years later, reading Lihaaf, I realised that, that was my Lihaaf moment. It was like discovering a tiny plant with purple flowers growing in between the cracks on your cemented front yard.  

And today, yet again, I thought about them. How would they keep meeting once they retired? Which they should have by now.  How would they meet if they had stopped working or had to take different trains to work or home? What became of them and why did they not care that there were all those people around? Did they know that a ten- year old was watching them with irrepressible curiosity and that they would be thought of decades later on a rainy day? Did they think they mattered? I don’t know. But I know what love looks like. 

Almost two decades later, while taking my PG students back to Kerala after their excursion to Bengaluru, we had office commuters taking up space in the sleeper compartments. A group of them settled themselves on our side berth as I sat curled up opposite my colleague. Like I said, on trains, my space is your space and all Indian are my brothers and sisters. So, these two men sat down and in an instant, began singing Kannada songs. Of them one would sing duets all by himself. What was really hilarious was that he would preface the female singer’s part (mid song) with the words, “ladies voice”, and then proceed. The non-duet singer’s station was fast approaching and he urged his friend to get down and sing some more and go later by another train. Not this time though. He had duets to sing elsewhere. 

The same train had two young men sitting just a few seats away from us. I interrupted their deep conversation to ask if they would mind switching their seats with some of our girls so we could have our group together. And one of them replied, “sorry, we had booked these seats by the window months ago so we could travel like this.” Returning to my seat, I fumed at useless men who gave vapid excuses and mentally suggested they buy a train for themselves. Sometime around ten or so at night, we heard some of the pilgrims traveling to Sabarimala yelling at these two to behave themselves and go to sleep. And was I snarkily satisfied. I hoped they slept by their windows. 

Again years, later, it came to me that perhaps, that journey was very precious to them. That months of planning might have been needed to coordinate vacations and book the perfect seats so they could have their personal space. Only to be interrupted by office commuters, women seeking to uproot them and men asking them to shut up and go to sleep. In this world made of ossified thoughts, some loves can exist only in a state of permanent transit. And they do. I wish they did not have to. I know I owe an apology to those young men and the singers. They were only trying to get by. In this vast world of intersecting trains, I will do so, if we meet somewhere. 

This post signals the end of the celebration of the Queer Pride Month here at SamyuktaPoetry. A month ago, when we started down this path, I did not imagine that it would fan out to 10 poets, 12 posts and have over 5600 visits. It is wonderful to receive so much of love. In the course of this month, we have travelled down a number of different roads, talked about issues of vintage and contemporary value and featured some tremendous art. It was hectic coordinating all of this, but with an excellent support team backing me, I barely felt a thing. To all our poets, thankyou for sharing the best of your work with us, for spending time discussing aspects of your life and your activism. For the way you shared our vision. Our artists, Sarah Saju Kallungal, Akshay A. S, Ruchi Sinha and Harikrishnan G who responded to our ideas with splendid works. Thanks to your enthusiasm, I know that this is not over. That we have more to come somewhere down the line. 

It is a fact that this is not the end of the road. It is not even a halfway mark. Because even as we speak, there are laws and regulating procedures that make life impossible for those who refuse to conform to a matrix. A country like India, which is the world’s largest constitutional democracy, is important in influencing the sexual democracies of countries in its immediate and cultural (post-colonial) vicinity. And this is not as simple as building walls to hide slums. We should be an example of how soft power must work. By enabling civil liberties for its citizens, India can ensure that it touches millions of people worldwide. 

I want to imagine.  That the two women on the train held each other, without having to avert their eyes. That the singers got down and went home together. That the young men gave up their seats for the girls because there is a lifetime of journeys they can take.

I want to imagine.  That the two women on the train held each other, without having to avert their eyes. That the singers got down and went home together. That the young men gave up their seats for the girls because there is a lifetime of journeys they can take.

Though I know it’s a solo, I imagine the duet singer singing the Kannada version of Johnny Mathis’ immortal words.

Sometimes we walk, hand in hand by the sea
And we breathe in the cool salty air
You turn to me, with a kiss in your eyes
And my heart feels a thrill beyond compare
Then your lips cling to mine, it’s wonderful, wonderful
Oh, so wonderful, my love
And I say to myself “It’s wonderful, wonderful
Oh, so wonderful, my love.’

(Ladies voice)

Sonya J. Nair

Featured today is the Google Doodle created by Rob Gilliam, that honours Marsha P. Johnson, the queer activist and drag queen who was at the forefront of the Stonewall movement, which was what we had started our first post with. She also set up shelter homes for homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Johnson was an inspiration for all people looking for their identity in a chaotic world. In 2019, New York City decided to honour her and her fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera with statues. Johnson, posthumously, was also the grand marshal at the 2019 New York City Pride March. 

Mumbai Trains, Queer Love, Johnny Mathis, Marsha P. Johnson, Samyukta Poetry