On a full bus to my parents’ house, I gave up my seat for an older lady. Standing in the swaying aisle and trying to finish a book; a girl taps my elbow; gestures at my bag, ‘Shall I hold it for you?’
I shook my head and thanked her, marvelling at how little suspicion there is here, how this is the norm.
I held a stranger’s daughter in my lap the other day. She slept in my arms without a second thought and I tried to remember if I had ever witnessed this before. A full bus, a woman cradling her newborn; without an empty seat for her four year old- but laps aplenty.
I was loath to wake the girl as my stop approached. I wasn’t sure which to language to even attempt to speak to the mother in and say my regrets. I didn’t even have to speak- she smiled at me and hauled her child out of my lap and into someone else’s.
She patted my hand in thanks as I got up to leave.
Schoolgirls with heavy bags boarded the bus. I was finishing a book by the window; a lady cradling her sleeping baby- half on my elbow, and half in the crook of her arm.
She gestured to the schoolgirl; my broken Kannada grasping her suggestion.
I nodded at the girl, her heavy schoolbag handed over to sit in my lap for the rest of the journey.
I didn’t remember carrying such a heavy schoolbag.
She straightened her ribboned plaits before asking for her bag, and yelling out, ‘Thank you!’ before jumping off the bus.
I am always unsure of the hows and wheres of behaving on public transportation, no matter the country. But in India, where everyone is an extension of family and friend, where your lap is not beyond the realm of possibility, and words like ‘imposition’, ‘comfort’, ‘inconvenience’ don’t come into being; I follow examples and do as I’m told.
I’m marked out as ‘new’, as ‘unbelonging’ by how I dress, my accent, and my hesitation before speaking in a mixture of Hindi-Telugu- Kannada. Older ladies take me under their wing, prodding me and grabbing my arm as a seat frees up, urging me to sit before someone else claims it for themselves. Bus conductors watch me give up my seat for pregnant women and grey-haired ladies; and reward me by asking if I want to get off at the bus stop or at the corner after to save me a walk.
Young girls stare at my scaffold, giggle and whisper into their companion’s ear. Once, one reached out to touch it, unsure of what it was and if it was real.
Her eyes rounded, she asked, ‘Does it hurt?’
I shook my head at her, smiling.
I don’t mind these liberties that people take here. Where touch and words and depositing bags and children into your lap are not seen as encroaching on you or your person. It’s an expected part of being here, being Indian.
This is what we, in the Global South, mean about being a community-based culture, not individual. It’s that this is part of who you are, and who you are is part of something bigger. That its claim on you is as valid as your claim on it- and there is enough for everyone; there is space and time enough for everything.
And somehow, it makes my heart fill up a little and makes me breathe a little easier. A shoulder and a lap is always there for a weary head or a heavy load.