Author’s Note : A memoir (essay format) about an unlikely bond between two
women poles apart. Themes: Major: Bonding/Friendship, Minor: Nostalgia,
Sadness, Feminism, Mental health
‘Pagli’ is a strange word, or should I say a multifaceted word, used in multitudes of contexts each time displaying a new versatility. It can be used by a friend lovingly to call one naïve, or by an upset mother to point at your silly mistake, but mostly it is used colloquially in most parts of India, as a synonym for someone who is insane. To me, this word reminds of a special stranger or rather a strange acquaintance. I would often see her on the streets of the South district of Delhi, near my residence in Malviya Nagar. A home that I left too soon for the States for ‘better opportunities’ as my father would have said.
I first took cognisance of her, when I visited Delhi in the summer of 2015 after a gap of 3 years. I was presented with an opportunity for a summer internship with one of the prestigious government agencies; an offer I couldn’t refuse. My father, like any protective Indian father of an adolescent daughter, picked me up from the airport. Fortunately, our house was quite near to the airport and within minutes, our car was as at the roundabout junction that led to our block. I was busy examining the beauty of a few well-kept Bougainvillea bushes, when my view was put on a damper by a middle-aged woman sitting on the entrance of the park at the roundabout, with her makeshift bag of clothes and several scandalous poly-bags with I guess what was food, lying next to her.
Her eyes met mine and she smiled, a quick sheepish smile as if embarrassed on me catching her in this state. Almost instantly, her expression changed when she took notice of my father in the driver’s seat. From sheepish to violent, she changed her demeanour in a flash and was now hurling obscene abuses at my father in Punjabi. The whole scenario was disturbing for me, but my father who was probably attuned to this did not even bother to turn his head in her direction. It all lasted a few seconds and then we were on our block, leaving the lady at the park behind, but I heard someone in the background shout “Shut up Pagli”. On the rest of our way home, I did not ask papa about her. My brain, conditioned since childhood to instantly make perceptions, did its work well; I instantly passed a mental remark about her ‘What a dangerous and insane woman!’.
Then another old habit of blaming others chimed in, with another mental remark, ‘Municipal cooperation should take note of such dangerous creatures lurking around the streets’. Not realising that in an instant my privileged self brutally equated her entire identity to that of a street dog. As soon as I reached the confines of home sweet home, I gave no second thoughts to her and let myself bask in the bonhomie of my folks. Days passed and the start date of my internship arrived. Like any independent ‘new NRI’, I declared that I don’t want the driver to drop me to office, I would rather go by public transport. “We do it all the time in the States,” I said, to add an extra boost to my declaration. My boastings vanished into thin air, as soon as I entered the crowded bus the next
day, that was pacing up dangerously fast on a lesser-known route. All that news of rape and molestation started coming out from the Pandora of my sub-conscience on their own.
I finally felt relief when my stop arrived, but it was short-lived as for the rest of the day I could not focus on anything else but a thought that I would have to travel again by bus in the evening. Later that evening, I waited for the bus stop, carefully looking and waiting for memorised ‘number’ bus that would take me home. After what seemed like an eternity, it arrived, and the moment I boarded I realised that the crowded bus of the morning was much better than this evening deserted one with hardly any female passengers. Irrational doubts started to creep in my mind, the most prominent being whether it is the bus to my route?
And then, as if a breath of relief, I saw her board the bus at the next stop. It was
undoubtedly she; Pagli, with her Jholas & potlis, still clutched to her breast, she
asked for a ticket to Malviya Nagar and sat on a corner seat. She did not notice me, but her presence instilled an unexplained sense of relief in me. I was on the right route. With my mind assured of the route, my thoughts now drifted to her. Undeniably, for someone who could travel on their own and are cognisant enough to even ask for a ticket, it was hard to believe that the people proclaimed her as mad. There was something more to her story. Days passed, and enigmatic Pagli was soon forgotten and replaced by the mundaneness of my internship. I never saw much of her till the day of my last stay in Delhi. I had an early morning fllight the next day and a cousin of mine visited me a night before. Both of us were the sole child of our respective parents and hence were quite close to each other. Being younger to me, I was especially protective of him, partly also because I wanted to feel what it is like to be an elder sister; one of the longings when you are the only child. My last evening at Delhi came to an end and my cousin prepared to leave for his house on foot, which was nearby. As soon as he left, I received a call from him and he made a strange request. “Didi, you know of this beggar woman entire neighbourhood call Pagli?” he asked. I felt a sudden pang of pain for the usage of this specific word for her, I had formed an unseemly camaraderie with her but I still replied “yes, what happened?” “She is there at the roundabout, pointing a slipper at me, apparently she is no harm to women so I was wondering if you can escort me to home?” he stumbled at the last line.
I could not have said no to him, so I told him to be on call with me as I reach him. As soon as I crossed my lane, I could see from a distance Pagli pointing a broken slipper at my cowering cousin. This time I did not get angry on her or formed any opinion about her rather a few thoughts hit my conscience, ‘what could have led to a seemingly considerate woman like her to this stage’, ‘what could have led to such hatred for men?’. I shuddered, thinking of possibilities. Thankfully, my cousin called me out of my reverie. As she saw me approaching, Pagli silently went back to fidgeting with her meagre belongings. The few minutes to my cousin’s house passed in silence, as my thoughts were still on
this enigmatic woman, however, this whole role –reversal of power was quite
intoxicating so I enjoyed it quietly. While coming back, I once again saw her but this time her face softened and with the consideration that of an elderly sister she asked me “Kudiye, should I accompany you to your house?” Sometimes an unexpected love or concern from someone can be overwhelming, and that’s what happened with me. I felt my eyes tearing up and my voice became coarse with emotions but I managed to say “No, it is okay”. I left for the States next morning, and did not come back to Delhi thereafter but to date whenever I hear this word ‘Pagli’ in a Hindi movie or a song, her jaded yet once beautiful face comes to my mind. Which is followed by the perpetual thoughts of what she must have faced that led her out on the streets of Delhi and worse what battles she must be facing there every day? And it always culminates in the same way, I reciting a quick prayer for her.