BY ALKA SHUKLA
Time machines they said were things of fantasy books… or science fiction films at best. But then they also said facts were often stranger than fiction. And it’s probably this realization that awoke me to the presence of the time machine right in front of my eyes.
I had spent 29 years of my life seeing it… staring at it… making timely use of it… but almost always taking it for granted. After all, in an era of ipads, iphones, foldable phones, convertible cars, domestic chore-performing robots and with quirky experiments like balloon powered cars, James Bond’s Aston Martin style amphibian sedans and of course the fabled time machine still on, a few good old gargantuan machines are the hardly the ones you’d even consider science marvels any more.
It was not until the 29th year of my life that I realized what I had chanced upon. It was the time machine. And it was not until I had returned from the bygone era and slipped back into the comfort of my torn shorts and unkempt T-shirt that I realized what had hit me. I had time-traveled! Just like the Michael J Fox of the cult Back to the Future. Or giving a more desi example, Aditya Roy Kapoor of the Akshay-Ash starrer Action Replay.
Just that my machine had neither the dozen-odd flickering disco lights that Aditya’s did nor the much classier vintage DaLorean of Dr Emmett Brown. Neither did it come in whimsical shapes and sizes. A standard crimson — reddened with sporadic ‘pichkaris’ of pan, tobacco (frequency depending on generosity of its travelers) covered the boring box-ish steel/ aluminum interiors. With the only little variation of its length, depending on the distance and time zones it was expected to travel, it was probably the most boring creation in the aesthetic sense. Hardly the super-sonic sexy time machine I had grown up imagining.
But functionally, even our adorable Doc Brown’s flying car could get a run for its money. After all, it had the capacity of transporting a good 1500-odd people back in time by half a century. Well, it did take 18 hours instead of fractions, but what the heck… it still did its job! And considering that none of the snazzier ones took me aboard, guess this one gets my vote…
Admittedly, there was nothing exclusive about this one. I was huddled along with another thousand and a half… But the difference? Well, the others were too consumed in their own little worlds to realize they were time-traveling.
To be honest, at first even I didn’t. But then, here we were. Landed without realizing we were in a different time zone. It was time to disembark. I looked around… There were no cars… forget their honking away to glory, no skyscrapers competing to make a bigger intrusion in the sky… no pin-striped men, no women in stilettos, no multiplexes, no bars, no pubs, no restaurants, no pandu hawaldars, no traffic mamas… and no 20-somethings lighting up– as if making a statement of their liberation.
Well, I knew rural India didn’t have most of those. But then I was pretty certain this wasn’t a gaon of my century. For one, there was no sight of cemented roads, just rocky path-ways… Do fine horses gallop here? Probably. (No, not the ones which run on Juhu beach, but the much classier stallions from Hollywood movies)… There were no buildings, just sprawling row houses, which could easily devour Mumbai’s dozen-odd match-box houses. And well-fed cows and buffaloes happily loitering in the backyard of each house – a site that would make Shashi Tharoor revisit this cattle class comment.
And the stereotypical rural poverty? Well, there wasn’t a sign of it. Go to think, the inhabitants weren’t exactly what I would call well-dressed but may be that had more to do with the general definition of style and class rather than a reflection of their economic status.
And yet something in the air made me queasy. It was probably the presence of throes of women whose faces I couldn’t see… I wasn’t supposed to see. That’s how it was meant to be.
The sharp contradiction of economic progression versus social regression hit me hard. Books had always taught me that with money comes education, with education comes progress and progress paves the way for more money. My entire academic universe – the books, the papers, et al – had convinced me into believing that this law was as infallible as the law of gravity. So if something broke the norm, it clearly had no business being in my world. The only plausible explanation hence was that this place belonged to a different era… a different time zone… Yes, I had traveled back in time.
But then what era was it? Could it have been 1947? Maybe. After all, I did hear numerous voices crying for freedom. But then didn’t the independence struggle have masses taking to the streets, men and women alike shouting, rallying, protesting till their vocal chords shriveled? This scenario was hardly as colourful as that.
And then, since there weren’t any white ladies in hats touring the town in fine carts — which my history textbooks and Hindi films would like me to believe, dotted every third bi-lane of the nation – the pre-independence era had to be ruled out.
So what era was it? With a lot of rumination and regurgitation (yes, the cows are coming!), I settle on somewhere in the 1960s… the era when abolition of privy purses was a ten year old story, feudal lords had also long been stripped off their powers, and by far it was settled that Article 21 (exhorting equality) of the Indian Constitution was not a myth but a reality. Yet for those who believe that time flies, ten years was too short a flight for the memories of lost glory to fade away. The huge loss of extra-constitutional authority and the struggle to hold on to the shards of power couldn’t be missed.
So yes, transported to the early 60s I was – the very time zone my mother was being brought to life. As much as it would have been endearing to watch my baby mommy cry, I was a few thousand miles away from her.
There were no innocent babies crying here. But cries were of full-grown women who had no place in a world of men who ruled it not like visionary kings, but controlled it like little fiefdoms. But the men weren’t really at fault. For it was the women who refused to understand their role. They needed to understand that they weren’t supposed to have a voice. They needed to know they were given birth to serve a certain community… the community called men. They were meant to cook, clean, rare kids, and show willingness to serve the master at all times and under all circumstances. PS: this is strictly pro bono.
After all, this was the only sphere that the thousands of landlords who’d just lost large swathes of estate — the power and position thereof – could continue to dominate unchallenged. How… just how could they let this slip away too?
It was settled then. The time had come to forget all the fierce rallying the very women had done just a decade and a half back and lock them up in the four-walled cellars called ‘ghar’ again. The ‘ghunghat’ was back. After all, the erstwhile landlords knew just how personal property is to be protected. Little girls in the family were being sent to school, but only so that they could grow up to raring fine sons. Many of them even pursued higher education. But only so that they could be married off to better grooms.
Beyond that, what mattered were the lessons learnt within four walls of the house. The first lesson that cooking was akin to breathing. The second that servility to husbands, fathers, brothers (or just any man) was the second name for dignity.
That explains why when a sprightly woman on the wrong side of the 20s struts around rather recklessly striking a conversation with anyone crossing her path (read: the superior species), jokingly threatens to disown her husband over his uncool choice of hair colour, is unapologetic about her inability to walk without tripping in reams of cloth popularly called saree, and the most scandalous of them all: makes no bones admitting she can’t cook to save her life, they seem too baffled to orally articulate their feelings. (Thank God… my addiction to TGIFs and Red Boxes of the world found no mention!)
The only expression I remember is gaping mouths and widened eyes… as if they’d just seen an extra-terrestrial outside their window. After all, nothing I said or did, seemed to satiate their curiosity about my life, my functioning, my world… all things MINE!
The initial amusement their reactions aroused in me was gradually taking form of exasperation. I felt like running a few million light years away from there. Was I, Ms Well-Read, Well-Spoken, Well-Traveled being naïve? Probably. For, they were much quicker to realize what I still hadn’t. That I indeed belonged to another world…. A world that was at least 50 years ahead of theirs. After all, I had quickly leapt into 2013, while they were still languishing in the 1960s.
Well, this does partly explain all those moments when I could sense their bewilderment turning into disdain. But how am I to find an answer to the secret admiration I saw in their eyes each time they spoke to me, away from the roving eyes of their husbands? Was it was an appreciation for my boisterousness? Or was it something far beyond?
As I brood over the question, a barrage of fragmented conversations I had with groups of them assail my mind. But as I let out a deep breath, I can clearly see what their eyes mirrored. They showed chaste adulation for my courage to remain free-spirited… For the courage to let nothing in the world cast its shadow on all things that stood for me. Not even her brief visit to the feudal 60s, which made no exceptions in reducing its women to the shadows.
Today as I sit alternating between fidgeting with my keypad and a broken tube strap within the confines of my 21st century surroundings, I wish to go back to each of them. And tell them that the incessant fight against feudal mindsets is a constant feature in my world too. The forms may be different. The concerns may be varied. But only as varied as my time machine and Dr Brown’s. But then, for a change, I don’t feel jealous about not possessing the swanky flying car. I’m satisfied with mine. My time… as well as my machine…
As I conclude this piece, I think of nothing. The pretty houses… the prettier cows… and prettiest of them all: the women silently giving them perspective… all fade away into the background. The only thing conspicuous is the smile on my face as I boarded my time machine again. This time to zip back into my world — Yes it did maintain its reputation of being three hours late, leaving me stranded on an ill-equipped platform on a biting winter night… but this time I wasn’t complaining.
All I wanted was a quick transport back to my time zone… back to the world of deadlines, pressures, cut-throat competition and cynicism. But that is my world. That is where I belong. Something that wouldn’t have pierced me like a nail in the wall, had it not been for my time machine… the good old Rajendra Nagar Express…
Which has by the way also made me realize just how easy it is to chug into a different era each time I need a reality check!