Sign Language

“But then, when will I cut them?”

I had forgotten it was my responsibility to ensure he was able to. Cut them. Blame it on old age.

The question had been asked by the young man sitting next to me and, in all likelihood, triggered by my saying, “this is not the place to be cutting your nails,” after my initial “perhaps you should be doing this at home,” had apparently gone unheard.

The trigger for my statements, in turn, had been the act of this young man casually taking out a shiny nail-cutter, spreading a newspaper on his lap, and starting to carefully chip away at his nails, taking care, as a responsible adult, to not leave any vestige of the activity in the surrounding area. Inside a train on the Delhi metro network, that I now take every day to get to my place of work. And back.

And, after the second statement, since there could not have been any doubt who I was speaking to, as there was nobody else cutting his nails in that coach, or in any other coach is my guess, he had left the nail on the middle finger, perhaps as a fitting hint, half-cut, and looked at me and asked the question. Crossly if my interpretation of his look is reliable.

Then he had looked away, perhaps not noticing my discomfiture as I did not have an answer to his question, and allowing me the luxury of a sigh of relief. But then he had looked right back at me and asked, “Where does it say?”

“Where does it say what” I asked right back, now composed.

“That I cannot cut my nails here?” He had not wasted time. When he had looked away from me, he had quickly scanned the coach to check if I had any basis for my unreasonable demand. Of requesting him to not cut his nails.

I was the deer in the headlights now. I sheepishly looked around, desperately searching for some sign of a sign behind which I might have hidden. I need not have. The young man had done his homework. There was a sign prohibiting sitting on the floor. There was a sign prohibiting smoking in the coach. There was a sign prohibiting eating and drinking. But nothing prohibiting the innocuous act of cutting nails. One’s own.

But he was a reasonable young man. He saw my discomfort and offered me a lifeline. “Has the Prime Minister asked the people to stop cutting nails inside coaches of the Delhi metro in any of his ‘Mann ki Baat’ episodes?”

The nation knows that the Prime Minister had asked countrymen to maintain cleanliness and hygiene. How else could we have known that we ought to maintain cleanliness and hygiene. I recalled, with some guilt, that even from the ramparts of the Red Fort, from where the Independence Day address is delivered, the Prime Minister had so far made no mention of not cutting nails inside coaches of the Delhi metro. How could anyone be expected to know that cutting nails is not be done in the coach of a train on the Delhi metro rail network.

As soon as the train stopped at the next station, I got off, though my destination had not arrived. I was unable to face the young man.

I should have known better. Walking down the platform I was reminded of my interaction, just two days back, with another youngster. This youngster eating in the coach. Did I already say there were signs prohibiting eating and drinking inside the coach? This young lady was eating right under the sign when I pointed this out to her, earning the response, along with a ‘puppy dog eyes,’ expression to go with it, “So when will I have breakfast?” I had looked away, shame-faced, at not thinking about such obvious issues. I may not have been her parent, and she might have been physically a full-grown, independent adult, but clearly I had not thought about when she would have breakfast.

And had continued eating her aloo parathas and pickle which the entire coach knew was of mango, seasoned in mustard oil.

The entire coach now also knew of this old chap who was poking his nose in other people’s affairs. “Can’t you get a mobile phone for yourself?” was the unsaid chorus. “Then you can join us and be brave and nationalistic and patriotic and send out forwards here and there on your mobile, when a criminal incident, usually a murder or rape, catches everyone’s attention and gets reported in the media. But following simple to understand, day-to-day rules in public life? Where do you think you are? Canada? Singapore? In fact, if we discourage breaking simple to understand, day-to-day rules in public life, it might well stifle out more serious crimes that have the potential of catching attention and allowing us the opportunity to be brave and nationalistic and patriotic and sending out forwards here and there on our mobiles. Whose side are you on?”

And that had not been an isolated incident either. A day earlier, I had pointed out the sign to another young man seated next to me and about to bite into his carefully packed sandwiches, to which he had, again with a ‘puppy dog eyes’ expression to match, had pleaded, “I am feeling very hungry.” But, this young man had packed his breakfast and kept it back in his bag. He must be a loser.

I had walked up the stairs and reached the ground level of the station. My mind was made up. I was going to see the station in-charge and request him to put up fresh signs inside train coaches so that decorum is maintained. ‘Do not shave in this coach,’ ‘Do not wash clothes inside this coach,’ ‘All cooking activity inside this coach is prohibited,’ in addition to ‘Do not cut nails inside this coach’ were some I had on my mind. And, of course, ‘Do not rape inside this coach,’ and ‘Murder is not permitted in any part of this coach.’ That would teach them, I hoped.

And that is not all. I would also request him to take away the existing signs like ‘Eating and drinking is not permitted inside this coach,’ since they are not followed in any case.

More pleasant rides on the Delhi metro await us.