Imagine this situation. I am standing roughly 6ft away from an escalator in a railway station. At least a dozen people are in the line before me. I am masked and holding a masked toddler in my arms. I turn to speak to a family member and suddenly I am stabbed between the shoulder blades by a pokey finger. I turn around and it’s a middle-aged unmasked woman who says, “Concentrate!” I blink and say to her, “What?” She says, “Concentrate!” No other explanation.
Assuming that she is either the resident lunatic of Krantivira Sangolli Rayanna Bengaluru Station or a wandering math tuition teacher, I turn away from her. Stunned silence from my family group of 10 and equal silence from the two young people who flank her. My nine-year-old nephew asks, “Do you know that lady?” A few minutes later, when I am actually on the escalator, I hear the same woman “explaining” at length to her companions that she had seen a woman carrying a child trip on an escalator. Ahh! Light finally dawned. This was the lunatic’s idea of being helpful. One-word imperatives accompanied by finger-stabbing strangers and no explanation. Our world is full of tuition teachers who have missed their vocation. And their station.
At each stage of life a woman is likely to encounter tuition teachers. The ones who tell you to not swing your legs. The ones who shove your bra strap out of sight or drag down the hemline of your T-shirt. The ones who tell you that you are completely wrong to not bottle-feed. The ones who meet you for the first time or the first time since you were five and say, “Ingane ninna madiyo?” Which is a particular Malayali tuition- teacher way of saying, “You are a useless waste of space for being unmarried.” The ones who come to your wedding reception and tell you, “See now you will learn what real life is like.”
One of my all-time favourites was a man who told me with a hangdog expression at age 16 to not sign up for the civil services exam. No other explanation. Not even “concentrate!” Later on, I found out it was because his neighbours were a trio of sisters who had all got into the civil services and all then married outside their community.
Some of the above parties were strangers on the street and some were relatives who might as well have been strangers. I have real or imaginary voodoo dolls of all and wish them all ill.
Then this year I read the sentence, “all unsolicited advice is criticism.” Let me tell you, it blew my tiny mind. How often have I been guilty of doing it? Even though I know a friend is sometimes just speaking to me to get stuff off her chest, have I not offered so-helpful advice? As a writer, as an occasional teacher and a full-time busybody, unsolicited gyaan is an occupational hazard. I have been guilty of this so often that I should climb straight into a crypt and retire. Very galling.
Now because I am unreasonable let me add that I also have voodoo dolls of the two neighbours who strolled past my toddler making a full-tilt run from the house to the main road. As I panted and puffed after him and marvelled at his tiny legs, I also had two brain cells left to think, my god, if they don’t think the safety of an unknown two-year-old is something to drop everything for, then these are not people I want to know. Unreasonable, I know. Maybe they were thinking about cryptocurrency trades at that moment.
All kinds of serious people are interested in mobilising bystanders to help. What is the psychology of the bystander? What will ensure the safety of the bystander who intervenes if any kind of vulnerable person is being endangered in a public place? If you think your neighbour’s boyfriend is torturing her, how do you intervene without making her life harder or even more dangerous? Smart and committed people are trying to think of ways to make bystander intervention simpler all the time. Because none of us can make it to shore alone. Because we all need the occasional tow and tug from a passing swimmer or speeding boat.
I thought of all the times when I have been very grateful for advice from strangers and near strangers. On the same trip with the toddler, for instance, half an hour later I was on the Metro. I teetered from side to side and a woman said, “Would it help to stand where I am standing and lean against a wall?” She moved and let me switch places with her and then proceeded to mind her own business. No eye contact, no desire to show me through benevolent smiles that she knew how to balance better or parent better. None of that. She wanted nothing from me. Not like the math teacher from Majestic.
And this, I think, is the difference between tuition teachers and bystanders. Both in public places and in private life. Is the unsolicited advice actually helping anyone who is drowning or just a chance to say, “I told you to learn to swim, no?”
I think of my friend standing nervously at the door of the train, wondering whether she would be able to get herself and all her stuff out at the too-brief stop at Delhi’s Nizamuddin station. And the old man who told her, “Don’t worry beta, I have seen whole baraats get off at this stop.” Unsolicited, for sure, yet a piece of comfort I carry decades later at all kinds of brief stops in life, when weighed down by too much baggage.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.