It was a typical mid-week day. I was ready for my first lecture and was waiting at the metro station. The summer sun was blinding my eyes and burning my skin like it did every summer. Being exhausted and not so willing to wake up at 6 a.m. in the morning I was sleepy and badly wanted a seat for the rest of my one and half hour journey to college. Gawking in all directions I noticed that there were hardly any people in front of the woman’s compartment, so cleverly, I ran in that direction only to enter an already crowded compartment.
As always I stood in the right-hand corner of the couch, leaning against the glass wall attached to the seat. This was my first. I had never travelled in a woman’s compartment. It was interesting to see so many women dressed differently according to their office attires- from carefully pleated sarees, so pencil skirts and crisp white shirts. Unlike me, they all looked motivated for a 7 a.m. metro travel.
Busy with their own doing- some sleeping (wish I was in their place), some listening to music that was loud enough for all to hear, some talking on phone, some reading the newspaper and some just looking out of the window I was caught up in a place from where I couldn’t move.
So, I took out my book of Enlightenment, my savior- “The Mahabharata”. I had been reading Mahabharata for the past few weeks as a part of my course curriculum. I am a literature graduate so to pass my time I used to finish my course books when I was on the metro.
So far, I was deeply involved in the book, it was intriguing to read the descriptions of characters and their traits. I already had my favourites and no, Yudhishthira wasn’t one of them. Honestly, I was highly judgmental of his decision-making skills. Never before this had I got a chance to read an Indian mythical scripture with such dedication and depth. Reading it purely from a critical point of view, I underlined a few lines in the book I thought were necessary for discussion in class. Never did I know that I was offending someone by doing so.
“Hey, you, what do you think you are doing?” I heard a voice but more so, someone leaning ahead and tapping roughly on my shoulder.
“I know you young people don’t believe in anything, I know you guys are against religion and god but have some shame and don’t ruin our religious books by your pen marking.” said an aunty with disgust.
In no time, I saw a few women turning their heads back, looking at me, then at the Mahabharata in my hand, then back at me and then looking away as if disowning me from their compartment or their lives. It was a weird feeling where before answering anything I tried structuring my sentences to explain my side better.
“Aunty, I am reading this as a part of my course. I am studying English Literature and so I underlined it to make notes later. This is obviously not the original scripture, just an English translation.”
The last line was it I guess, it agitated her to an extent that she took a step ahead towards me, jumping over women sitting down only to shout at me for being ‘anti-religious’ and ‘immoral’.
“I am sorry?” I said disturbed.
“You have no values or maybe your parents taught you none. Maybe they are as anti-religious as you are and that’s why you have no value for our religion and holy gods. You are sinning the future of our culture and religion, not respecting its purity by using a pen on it. Also, what makes you think you can read this wearing a skirt and that top, where are your manners. I would never allow my children to commit such a mistake in life.”
For a few seconds, I looked at her with my eyes and mouth wide open. Not believing what I just heard, not believing that people buying English translations of the epic narrative for non-religious purposes say research or study were actually ruining its sanctity. I didn’t know who to blame, my course or myself for reading it.
That our youth is deemed somewhat unfit to even believe in things, if not anything, religion. That my assumed non-belief was a representation of my immoral character and maybe that of others my age.
I had never thought that reading Mahabharata for academic purposes was sinning, that reading it without traditional Indian attire was ‘manner less’, that I could hurt someone’s sentiments without following the dress code while reading about a woman whose honour was snatched away from her in front of her ‘husbands’ and other men.
That nobody did anything about it and more than a morality lesson Mahabharata becomes the kind of religious scripture you read not to understand its philosophical significance but to worship it blindly in the name of religion and God.