I don’t remember her face but I remember what happened that day of the year 2005 or 2006. I took a train to college as usual. I sat next to a woman in a busy Mumbai local train. She smiled and I reciprocated. She ate an orange and dropped its peels outside the window onto the railway tracks. If you’ve traveled by a train in Mumbai, you might remember the distinct smell and look of the railway tracks covered with filth. Enraged by what she did I calmly observed her as I gathered my thoughts. She held a folder in her hand. It said the name of a college she was probably going to. She was young but seemed old enough to be a teacher so I asked, “Are you a teacher?” She smiled and affirmed. She seemed proud of the fact that she was a teacher. Why wouldn’t she be proud? Teachers build nations. She had no idea what I was going to say after.
“You shouldn’t have thrown the garbage out of the window. You shouldn’t have littered. You say you are a teacher. You should have known better,” I protested with the blood boiling inside me. What had I done? I did what I thought was the right thing to do. Irrespective of what children are usually taught, I disrespected a ‘respectable’ entity.
One of the things that my father taught me besides physics (LAUGHS), whether it’s correct or not, was a disrespect for respectable … for certain kinds of things. For example, when I was a little boy, and a rotogravure—that’s printed pictures in newspapers—first came out in the New York Times, he used to sit me again on his knee and he’d open a picture, and there was a picture of the Pope and everybody bowing in front of him. And he’d say, “Now look at these humans. Here is one human standing here, and all these others are bowing. Now what is the difference? This one is the Pope”—he hated the Pope anyway—and he’d say, “the difference is epaulettes”—of course not in the case of the Pope, but if he was a general—it was always the uniform, the position, “but this man has the same human problems, he eats dinner like anybody else, he goes to the bathroom, he has the same kind of problems as everybody, he’s a human being. Why are they all bowing to him? Only because of his name and his position, because of his uniform, not because of something special he did, or his honor, or something like that.” He, by the way, was in the uniform business, so he knew what the difference was between the man with the uniform off and the uniform on; it’s the same man for him. – Richard Feynman: Disrespect for Authority, Physics4all
There it was – a horror in her face. I had insulted her publicly. Chances were slim that she’d let this one go. She tried to pin something on me by saying that I had broken a rule. This rule was one of the many unwritten laws of train travel mutually agreed upon by those traveling daily – for maintaining peace and order. Breaking them do not usually attract such a wrath unless you do not obey even after being reminded of them, but she had an urge to vent, to come back at me.
Here we were, two strangers in a train nagging each other. I’d never know what happened after we parted ways. Did she take my activism seriously or did she brag about how I wasn’t lawful enough to start with. Probably the latter. Now I feel bad for my outrage. I was about 20 years of age, immature and downright arrogant even for something that I thought was justified. I tried to be a police that I wasn’t. Why should others face the consequences of someone else’s litter, I thought. I must have ruined her day for starters. I’m just glad she didn’t pull my hair out and throw me out of the train.
I’ll never forget this and I have a feeling that neither will she. I stand corrected. I have grown kinder at conveying the same thing to people. I hope she too feels bad for being a litterbug, for having contributed to the freely available garbage the rats must have feasted upon and the diseases they must have spread, for the costs incurred to the government to clean it up, for ruining the aesthetics of the city, and for encouraging more littering.
P.S.: After all these years, the Bombay High Court has now asked the Railways and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to carry out a special drive and remove piles of garbage along the railway tracks.