It’s quite early in the morning, and I am waiting for the bus to go to a nearby village for some grocery shopping.
I prefer raiding the local store for the fresh produce early in the morning when they are still stocking up the shelves. Can’t say that the feeling is mutual as the store people always look at me in exasperation, dreading being followed by a stalker , row after row, hovering around their vegetable carts.
It isn’t even 10 a.m. yet and somehow, the bus stop is deserted except for a middle-aged lady sitting on a blanket at some distance, smoking a cigarette. The electronic sign shows my bus to be due in 16 minutes, and I fish out change from my wallet to set aside an exact amount for the ticket. After taking out the required change, I slide the wallet back in my bag and humming to myself, turn around and let out a yelp when I see the homeless lady right in front of my face. I jump back in fright and she smiles in amusement.
“I scared ya!” she says.
“Yeah, you did” I say, in a croaky voice.
There is no other person around and I am scared of this stranger. She looks tough and muscular. I quickly try to think of a plan if this turns into a robbery. I realise that if trouble occurs and she gets hold of me, I have no choice but to bite her and run as fast as I can. I swallow my gum and pull myself up to my full height, which is still not enough to prevent me from craning my neck up a little to look at her in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” she asks, peering at me. “You have been quiet for almost a full minute”
“I am fine,” I say, attempting to sound tough.
“Good!” she says, “I was wondering if you have some money you can help me with?”
“I am sorry!” I say, “I don’t”
She looks at my bag and I instantly know that she has seen the money in my hand.
“I need it for buying some stuff and taking the bus back,” I say.
Truth be told, I do have change to spare but I always refrain from giving money to healthy people who come begging. I can hear hubbyji’s voice in my head asking if a few Euros are worth getting into trouble.
“Okay,” she says and scurries back to her corner.
I let out a sigh of relief. Multiple thoughts run in my head challenging and defending my decision of not having given her money…
“She will just use it to buy herself another cigarette”
“..but you dont know that”
“What if she wants to buy herself some breakfast?”
Finally, I fish out a Euro and some cents from my wallet and walk to where she is sitting.
She stands up as she sees me approaching.
“Umm…Here you go!” I say, handing her the change.
“Thankyouuuuu,” she replies in a sing song voice, breaking into a grin which I return with a smile.
“What’s your name?” she asks, just as I am about to walk away.
“Umm..It’s Mallika,” I reply.
“MAE-LEEEE-KAAA,” she says “What does it mean?”
“Well, it means- ‘A Queen’ ” I say, feeling stupid.
“A queeeen!” She breaks into a broader smile. “That’s nice, eh? Doesn’t matter if you are one or not, your mama and old man made sure you can always think of yourself as one”
She slaps me on my back and I topple over two steps ahead. That’s gonna bruise.
“Hee Hee!” I say, meekly, “I doubt they put that much thought into it. I am not too fond of it. What’s your name?”
“Aaahh, nothing fancy as yours,” she says, “It’s Alice! Who the f*** is Alice, right?”
I desperately want to walk back to my spot now, but the wretched board still shows that there are eleven minutes left for my bus to arrive, and Alice seems to be in a mood for a nice long chat. She is harmless, I realise.
“Sooo..You live somewhere around here?” I ask her.
“Yeah, here and everywhere. I just spread this blankie of mine anywhere I find a good isolated space. During the day, I usually roam around. After dusk, I find myself a quiet corner and spend the night. Sometimes, I go to the shelter but most of the time it’s full and you can’t get a bed there. It’s a good thing that its summer now. It’s tricky during the winters….and when it rains”
“That sounds….unpleasant. Don’t you feel scared?” I ask her.
“Scared?” she looks surprised. “Of what?”
“Of crime, bad people!” I say .” There are so many bad things that can happen to you while living on the street”
“Crime!” she snorts. “Nah, people are nice here. It’s not them I am worried about. They are usually good to me. A few years ago, I would have thought that danger of any sort could never enter this little sleeping village. It has always been that safe, you know?..but you can’t think that no more. You been watching the news? With so much happening in the world, no place left which we can call safe. Anywhere you go, you can just get….”
She mimes getting shot. I nod gravely.
“That’s true,” I say, “past year has been ridden by terror attacks. Airports, cities, rallies, clubs..people are being targeted everywhere. It’s extremely scary and heart-breakin.“
“Yeah,” she says, leaning against the brick wall. “tragedies all around and of several kinds, mind ya. Shooting, bombings, stabbing, airplanes going missing, airplanes crashing into towers, airplanes getting blown up just because they were flying over a war ridden country. Shame ..shame.”
“How do you keep on top of all the news?” I ask her out of curiosity.
“I ask for the newspaper from someone or the other during the day, when it seems that they are done with it. ” she says.
“I am scared to read the news nowadays.” I confess “Earlier, we used to tell family and friends to avoid certain countries or destinations for holidays where things are sensitive and ‘unsafe’ but now, it seems there’s not a single corner of this world where you feel safe. We can just pray for everyone’s well being, nothing else!”
“Yep,” she says “so many poor chaps killed recently, Lord bless their soul. What the people who lose loved ones feel when such tragedies take place, I can’t imagine. Makes me sorta happy about the fact that I have no one. “
I nod again, pondering over the depth of that statement.
“You know,” she continues, “terrorism causes even a lot more harm than what we see. If this blood-shed isn’t bad enough, it also makes us turn on each other. I am always getting into debates with them racists back at the shelter on this issue. People are good and people are bad. That’s it. I tell them that it’s the killer, the rapist, the assailant who is bad and not his entire community. These extremist groups follow no religion, mind you. They are following their own sick minds and nothing else. We still have to be kind to one another. The number of terrorists is small compared with the number of people in the world. Return goodness with goodness irrespective of caste and creed. That’s the only way this world can go on. It’s the reason why it’s still going on. The reality is that our Lord calls us all to love one another. If we were more caring for one another, there would be less fear, less cause for offense, and less violence.”
Alice finishes her passionate speech and I can see how deeply she feels on this subject. We both remain quiet for a few seconds, lost into our own thoughts.
“Where are you heading to so early in the morning?” she asks finally, breaking into my reverie.
“Er..to the supermarket,” I say, “to buy some groceries”
“I see. You have one of those fancy salt-pepper thingies in your bag incase you ever run into trouble?” she asks, pointing towards my bag.
“A pepper spray?” I say, grinning “No, I don’t have one of those but maybe I should pick up one. I was scared when you came over to me and I also planned to bite you in case you cause trouble”
“HAHAHAHAHA!” Alice let out a booming laugh, “Little girl, I can pick you up like a pickle and rotate you over my head if I want to, but get yourself that spray thing. Can’t hurt. Here comes the bus, you don’t want to miss it. Nice talking to you. Go on. Mind ye’self!”
Waving at her, I hop onto the bus and as the driver processes my ticket, I see Alice settling back onto her blanket and lighting up another cigarette. As the bus starts moving, I stick out my head out of the window and yell, “Alice is a pretty cool name you know… and so are you!”
“I am the queen of this roaaaad!” she yells back, laughing and waving with the cigarette between her fingers.
Smiling, I sit back on my seat and think about the incredibly insightful conversation I have just had with a homeless person! What they say about first impressions, couldn’t be more wrong.
The whole world is under an unprecedented grip of violence today. Terrorist attacks are part of the new normal. Never in the history of mankind, has the very survival of human species been under such severe threat. The most recent attacks in the Istanbul airport and the Pulse Night Club Massacre in Orlando have rattled worldwide security. In the span of the last few months itself, hundreds have been killed or injured as a result of the rise of global terrorism. Earlier, terrorism was a phenomenon that was clustered in a handful of countries. Today, no place in the world is safe. Major areas like New York, London, Dhaka, Istanbul, Paris, Brussels, France have all been attacked. Turkey itself has suffered from four separate terrorist attacks this year. In India too, earlier this year there were attacks on Pathankot and now Kashmir has been turned into an inferno of anger and inflamed passions. Mass killings are happening so rapidly, that it is really difficult to keep up with them all. So what is going to happen and how will it affect personal security? Solutions are being considered, but an answer is still far out of reach.
Why do the terrorists do what they do? There are as many answers to this question as there are terrorist groups and everyone, from top-notch psychologists to cab drivers, seem to have a confident opinion on the subject. This confidence is often misplaced, given how little scholars actually know about terrorism and the people who are involved in it. I myself don’t have the slightest idea as to even begin answering this question of such momentous magnitude. I will, however say this-
Religion, attracts everyone – from illiterate laborers to university toppers. In a society blinded by religion, brainwashing starts right after birth. If you hear something all the time, it becomes part of your subconscious. Man has always preferred the easy solutions found in religion to science’s continuous research and complicated mathematical equations. The reason- understanding science is not as easy as understanding religion. Kids are being led into this pathway quite early in life so by the time they are fifteen, sixteen years of age, they have already been consistently exposed to a language rewarding martyrdom. This martyrdom is “bred in their bones” and it is being done in the name of a religion.
Terrorism does NOT have one religious address. I am not a Muslim. I can still say that killing people cannot be what Islam is about. No religion, in this entire world preaches bloodshed and hatred. No religious text teaches the followers to kill, rape and torture. It’s that simple. It is only less than one per cent of misguided minds, whose numbers are sadly swelling, that have become a threat to the very idea of humanity. These groups have misunderstood the true meaning of faith and gone beyond the boundaries of human behavior. Ninety nine per cent of human beings – cutting across religion, caste, creed, and nationality – are against this madness of violence. Because of a handful of such people, why must EVERY Muslim be put in the dock after every terror attack? It is almost as if the guilt of the terrorist must be shared by every person following Islam.
If not anything else, the militants have got one thing that they wanted. They have ensured that the world is now sharply divided on religious grounds. They wanted to shake the world, they did. They wanted to prove that brotherhood between different castes and creeds is nothing more than a romantic illusion, they did.
Their secret cheerleaders seem to have realized this, too. Omar Mateen, the attacker of June Orlando attacks and Nice attacker Mohamed Bouhel were neither meaningfully connected to known extremists or behaving like one. Many unconnected individuals or networks, who may or may not idolize the extremist groups, are now suddenly getting brave enough to focus on softer and more local targets. They are fulfilling their own personal agendas of hatred. The number of hate crimes, honor killings and racist crimes have risen dramatically in the past few years. Whether these assailants are mentally ill or motivated by hatred or religious extremist ideology, whether they are a part of the extremist groups or are simply isolated actors seeking a sense of belonging in a community of sorts, it all just doesn’t matter if we can’t see and stop the next attack. That’s what it all comes to and that is the scariest part. Terrorism targets us all, from some of the most powerful to the most vulnerable.
Reading the morning headlines these days makes one realize how very dear and precious life is and how very petty our day-to-day woes are. I am extremely grateful that I don’t live in a war-torn country, where I have to be under constant stress thinking that my life might end the next minute. I feel so grateful that I have the luxury of worrying about small, insignificant things, like what to make for dinner tonight or how to spend a boring afternoon. Everyday I say a prayer for the people who are no longer with us in this world because of such attacks, and for their families whose lives will forever be immersed in grief, even though they had nothing to do with conflict of any sort. Putting myself in their place for a fraction of moment gives me chills.
Having said that, I won’t let my freedom be diluted daily by a thousand fears. I refuse to be that person who sits in a house with windows nailed shut, scared that a terrorist will come and stab me while I am eating my lunch. If I live in constant fear of everyone I pass on the streets whenever I step out, it will be a life devoid of happiness even if I don’t face any attack all my life. I refuse to live that life.
Despite what is happening in this world, I will continue to hold a light in my heart, believe in the best in people and hope for peace on this beautiful planet.
Later in the day, I am in the kitchen, preparing dinner, when I hear the sound of footsteps coming from the balcony of our apartment. The kitchen and the balcony are at opposite ends of the living room and I always keep the door of the balcony open while I cook, in order to let the aroma escape the house. Hubbyji keeps warning me that someone can enter the house while the doors to the balcony are ajar but I insist that there are usually people and teenagers roaming the streets who will willingly come to my help if someone barges in. We are on the ground floor and the balcony faces a narrow street and a line of row-houses. The balcony has a cute wooden fence and a little door which forms a second exit to our house which we never use as the house can only be locked from the front door. Thus, the balcony door is kept closed all day except in the evenings.
I switch off the gas burner, and listen carefully. I can definitely hear footsteps on the balcony and after freezing momentarily, I grab the biggest frying-pan from the dishwasher. For the second time in a single day, I prepare to scream my lungs out. Holding the frying pan high above my head and with my heart thumping loudly in my chest, I slowly tip-toe towards the balcony. It’s raining outside and there’s no one to be seen on the street. Even if I die, I won’t go without a fight and one good thing about dying will be that hubbyji won’t be able to say, ‘I told you so’ about keeping the balcony door closed.
A black umbrella enters the room preceding a hooded figure and running towards it, I shout,
“GET OOOOOOUUUUUUTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!! WHO ARE YOU????????”
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!” the man screams.
After a noisy period of 10 seconds, the umbrella drops and hubbyji resurfaces, using his lunch-box as a shield. I lower the frying-pan and keeping it over my shoulder like Lord Hanuman’s weapon, I burst out laughing.
“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Hubbyji shouts, slamming the lunch-box down on the table.
“I thought you were an intruder,” I say, grinning, “how come you came through the back door today?”
“The glass of the building’s main door got cracked, so there are some guys out there fixing it up,” he says, “I saw them from some distance and decided not to disturb. Jeez, you scared me to death. With your hair open and that giant thing over your head, it seemed that the great Khali was charging towards me”
“Whose is this?” I ask, picking up the dripping umbrella from the floor.
“My colleague’s,” , Hubbyji replied sitting down on the couch. “It’s raining, so he lent it to me when he got down from the bus. His house is just two steps away from his stop. He knows that I have a ten minute walk between the house and my stop”
“That was nice of him!” I say, putting the pan back in its place and fetching hubbyji a glass of water from the kitchen.
Hubbyji gulps down the water and I flop down next to him.
“Now that I have got my breath back,” he says, turning to face me, “HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU TO KEEP THAT DOOR CLOSED? IT COULD HAVE EASILY BEEN A……”
“Wait, wait wait!” I stop his rant, “before you start with this, I have the most extra-ordinary story to tell you today. It’s about this woman I met at the bus-stop this morning. At first, when she came almost nose to nose with me, I thought she was going to rob me….”
Predictably, hubbyji’s jaw drops more and more with every word that comes out of my mouth and as was the plan, he forgets about reprimanding me. In great detail, I tell him all about my chance encounter with one of the nicest people I have met in a long time. A lovely, kind-hearted, compassionate person named Alice.