by Josephine Gonsalves
Last night I watched an old film. The title was 'Tea with Mussolini'. The story was about a group of English women during the time of Mussolini – 1933 to 1944 who decide to stay back in Florence in spite of the threats to their safety and numerous hardships imposed on them by the fascist. In it Mary Wallace disguises Lady Hestor's son, Wilfred as Lucy so he can stay with his Mother and the other women, who have been all housed together in a school dorm by the Italian authorities. The film bought back an incident to my mind.
The date was 30th October, 1984 the day the Indian Prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated. I was traveling to Delhi on business. The train was running behind schedule by a few hours. It had stopped just outside the outskirts of Delhi, for more than an hour. My fellow first class passengers and I were all getting restless and kept on pestering the attendant with queries as to why the train was stopped, so close to Delhi.
Suddenly a railway guard appeared and announced that the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi had been shot fatally by one of her own guards, a sikh. The news was greeted with stunned silence. Then he added that bands of angry men had taken to the streets looting sikh business and houses and fatally beating up Sikh men. The incoming trains to Delhi had been stopped and sikh male passengers had been dragged outside stabbed and beaten up, as their female family members looked helplessly on. There was mob waiting at the next station for this train to pull in. He warned sikh passengers to run for their lives as the train would be starting up in a short time. The second part was received with mixed reactions. I looked at my group of fellow passengers. There were two sikh boys, in their early teens traveling along with their mother. They had arrived only a week ago in Bombay from Canada and were visiting Delhi for the first time The mother at once panicked and started muttering prayers under her breath. The boys looked scared and held on to their mother. The other passengers started telling her to get off and make a run for it as her sons would be hurt.
Sikh men are easily recognized by their turbans, bushy moustaches and beards. Even without their turbans they are easy to spot by their typical hairstyle of tying their long hair in a ball at the top of the head. The older boys had a turban whereas the younger wore his hair tied up in a ball at the top of his head. The advice of the concerned passengers was making the women even more confused. While she was still deciding what to do the train suddenly started up, slowly entering into Delhi.
All of a sudden Mrs. Dinah pushed all the others and told them to return to their berths and seats. She and I had shared the same stall and had spent a large portion of the trip making small talk. She was a happy and carefree middle aged Parsi woman, on her way to Delhi to visit her friend. The others retreated to their respective stalls and seats. This left the sikh boys and their mother, Vanita a young woman, Dinah and me in that section of the compartment. She told me to close the door at this end of the compartment and to stand guard there. She told Vanita to help her. She sized her up with the younger boy and asked her if she had a spare salwar kameez set. Vanita caught on and took charge of the younger boy as Dinah started on the older boy.
Fortunately, both the boys faces were fair, chubby and still hairless. They older boy was about 5' 7'' tall whereas the younger was about 5' 3''. The older boy was a little fat and plump and so Dinah pulled out her suitcase from under the seat and removed some items from it. The young woman had also done the same. They stood both the boys up and told them to remove their hair coverings and male clothes. In a few minutes the boys were transformed into young women. The older boy was now dressed in one of Dinah's sarees with his hair styled in a neat bun at the nape of his hair. His face was also touched up with lipstick, kajal, eyeliner and a bindi. The younger boy was dressed in one of Vanita's salwar kameez with the dupatta covering his head loosely.
Soon the mother and other women too understood and joined in with bangles, earrings, chains, slippers etc. making the two boys look more feminine. Before the train could pull into the next stop the boys had been transformed into two well dressed women. Dinah instructed them as to how to sit and made them sit between her Vanita.. From my vantage point I had witnessed this quick transformation and was surprised with the speed and smoothness with which it was done. No one would guess that the plump young lady, dressed in a dark blue saree was the older boy and the shy, young woman, in a dark brown salwar kameez was the younger one.
The guard had been right about the mob's reaction. A large angry mob armed with every kind of attacking instrument from knives, lathis, hockey sticks, chains etc. started jumping on to the train even before it stopped at the station. They were hurling abuses and shouting at the top of their voices. I saw them drag sikh men young and old and beat them mercilessly. I was forced to open the door and they shoved and pushed me out of the way as they entered looking for sikh males. The two young boys cowered and stayed put between Dinah and Vanita. The mob that entered our compartment did not find any sikh males but they recognized the mother as a sikh woman and started abusing her. Dinah told her to just keep control and not to speak. The abusing and shouting went on for some time till the signal was sounded and the train started slowly moving again.
After the terrible shouting and screaming it was a relief when the train pulled into New Delhi station. All the other passengers thanked Dinah for her quick thinking. But all was not over yet. The station was crowded with angry men here too and pandemonium reigned. Dinah asked me to get the luggage and organize some porters to help with her and the sikh families luggage. She took hold of the older boy's arm and guided him out from the train to the exit of the station, while the young woman with the younger boy followed. I quickly organized two porters to help me with the luggage and guided the mother behind Dinah. Dinah's friend was waiting for her at the gate but there was no sign of any of the sikh family's relatives. Dinah told her friend about the sikh family's plight and they agreed that it was safer for them to stay with Dinah and her friend and try and contact their relatives later. Vanita was offered a ride and squeezed in with mother and her two 'daughters'.
I helped them load their luggage in Dinah friend's car. Dinah thanked me we exchanged telephone numbers with promises to keep in contact. I waved as they drove off happy that I had been able to save the two boys from the mob.
The real heroine was Dinah, ably supported by Vanita and the other women. They had been quick witted and had used their womanly wiles to save the young boys. I had gone to my company's guest house for the night and telephoned Dinah, the next day. she told me everything was alright and that she was able to contact the sikh family's relatives.
My business meeting was postponed and so I returned to Bombay and put the incident behind me. However three month later I received a call from Dinah asking me to meet her at her Bandra Parsi colony flat. I went to meet her and inquired about the sikh family. She told me how her friend had been generous and accommodated them for nearly two weeks. The mother decided to go back to Canada, since her husband and relatives were worried about the boys. Dinah's and her friend had cut the boys long hair short so now they did not look like Sikhs. Then they were able to travel back to Bombay, from where they took off back to Canada. The mother was her good friend now and kept in touch every week. She had sent her two photo albums. Dinah tossed me a photo album. There were many snaps of the sikh family in Canada. The boys looked different now with short cropped hair. Then she tossed me another album. This was a surprise. It contained photos of the two boys dressed as woman, with Dinah, Vanita and Dinah's friend.
I asked how she came up with the idea to transform the boys into women. She laughed and said that when she saw the boys were still not having face hair an incident from her college days had struck her. She had a sikh boy in her class who was unlike other sikh boys she had seen. He was small built and still had no face hair. He was nick named mini sardar, by the other friends, as he wore a turban. He had boasted that he had longer and better hair than most of the girls in the class. But no one challenged his boast till the annual college day function and he had come dressed in a saree. No one recognized him and when he finally revealed his identity to some of the girls they confirmed that his hair was really very long and beautiful. Mini sardar had dressed as a woman many times during the college years for different functions and had always got away with it. This had inspired her to take a chance with the boys.
I asked her as to what was the mother's reaction to her sons being dressed up as women. She said that at first the mother was in a panic state and did not comprehend what was happening. When they were safe at her friends home and just before they cut off the boys hair she had asked that they be dressed again as they had dressed during their escapade. Dinah had invited Vanita too and obliged to dress the boys as women. Since there was more time this time and they were relaxed she had done a better transformation.
The boys had been reluctant this time but their mother said she wanted pics to show their father and friends back home. When the boys were once again dressed as women the mother had unpacked her camera and had clicked away. She had used up two entire rolls, with the boys posing with their mother, Vanita, Dinah and her friend. The pictures in the album were from that time.
Finally she said that…… when it came to survival…. Women always reacted creatively. I did not argue with that. I had witnessed it first hand.
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