3.7 Kindness on the road

Words by Tarang Mohnot
May 2022

Memories about people who reminded me to trust the world and find safety outside my home.

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Illustration by Shilpa Sivaraman

It’s 1:43am. I’m hiding in my room. He rings the bell. “Finally,” I think. The smell of green apple vodka wafts in. My heart is in my mouth.

What’s it going to be today? A series of filthy slurs? A bunch of scar-causing smacks? Shattered glass? Blood? All of it?

*

I’d repeatedly tell myself that my father was more than just an alcoholic, an abuser. But I fooled myself every day and I kept getting better at it.

Sadly, nobody warned me about the potential dangers of living in my own home. If they did, at 13, I wouldn’t have hidden under my study table, petrified. At 15, I wouldn’t have refrained from calling friends over on my birthday. At 17, I wouldn’t have thought of safety as an illusion. At 21, I wouldn’t have faced anxiety and depression. And at 24, I wouldn’t be writing this.

*

The first time I ever embarked on a solo trip, was at the raw age of 17. My mother decided to send me to Ningbo, a small Chinese town, where I worked with hearing-impaired children for seven weeks. She probably came to realise that I was far too wounded for a 17-year-old and that living away from home would do me good. And just like that, I found myself navigating a town that didn’t speak my language and didn’t eat my food. Was I scared? Most certainly. But was I safe? Definitely. And fortunately, or unfortunately, that’s all that mattered.

Soon thereafter, I travelled across India. I was unstoppable. People were always quick to warn me about the potential dangers of the vulnerable, brave life I’d chosen. I mean, for a young girl to live her life on the road, is something, right? More often than not, bad things are lurking outside the door, waiting to get in. Yet, for five years, I decided to be utterly vulnerable, trust strangers and even hope that they would go the extra mile and help.

The feeling of home

I reached my host family’s home in Ningbo at 7pm. Battered by all the travelling, all I wanted was supper and a good night’s sleep. It was a family of three - the mother was a music teacher, the father was a police officer, and the kid was a 10-year-old who was gleaming at the idea of living with a stranger for seven weeks. While the father and son spoke broken English, the mother and I communicated through gestures and expressions.

Sensing just how hungry I was, the mother scurried off to the kitchen. She brought out bowl after bowl of piping hot food, trying her best to explain each dish. Although I could barely comprehend what she wanted to say, I noticed that not a single dish in the spread was vegetarian. I tried to explain that I don’t eat meat or seafood; but all in vain.

I pulled out my phone, and looked up the Chinese translation for “I eat vegetarian.” “Uhh…woh chi su,” I said hesitantly. She suddenly came to understand what I was saying. Soon, the father and the son came to the dining area, and the mother got them up to speed on things.

“Eggs?” the kid asked. “Yes, I eat eggs,” I responded. The mother immediately went back into the kitchen. I could hear the loud clattering of utensils - it was as if she had never been in such a rush to get supper ready. In the meantime, the father-son duo tried to come to terms with the fact that I was vegetarian. They asked me about the reason behind this, but all my words got lost in translation.

Sooner than I thought, a bowl of tomato egg stir-fry and sticky rice was presented to me.  But we were faced with another challenge. They did not have any spoons in their kitchen; just chopsticks. So, I had to make the difficult choice between eating messily with chopsticks, digging in with my hands, or settling for the serving spoon.

We spent the next twenty minutes laughing about the fact that I was eating with a serving spoon.

The following morning, I woke up in an empty house. I groggily made my way to the living room and found a note on the coffee table, tucked under an iPad. “Out for work. iPad…use translator…bad English. Card for supermarket…can buy what you need. See you in evening,” it read. I couldn’t stop smiling. Despite all our cultural differences, this family had made me feel at home in less than twelve hours.

A reminder to ask for help

Sometime in December 2020, I was happily dancing my worries away at a hippie-looking bar in Arambol, Goa. I’d had a few rounds of G&T and was feeling euphoric after a long time. The sheer adrenaline of going to a bar all by myself was exceptionally freeing for me. After thirty minutes of dancing, I walked to the bar to get another drink. Just as I grabbed my wallet to take out some cash, I caught a whiff of green apple vodka - that same drink my father often got drunk on right before erupting in fury.

Sooner than I expected, I found myself unable to breathe. My hands quivered, and my jaws clenched. My heartbeats felt like bullets ripping my body apart. Violent shivers made their way down to my ribs, through my knees, and my cuticles. I was having a panic attack. I’d had many of them before, but somehow, it was just one of those things I never got used to. Not knowing what to do, I made my way back to my room - a humble, cheap abode in a backpackers’ hostel. I popped an SOS pill and chewed on sour candy. Chamomile tea helps - I'd learned from an Instagram post, but my body was too paralysed to do anything meaningful.

Right then, I heard a knock on the door. I was petrified. All those things people had been warned me about suddenly flooded my head. “Don’t worry,” was all the woman at the door said. Then, as an afterthought: “I noticed that you weren’t okay. I, uh…am staying in the dorm on the second floor. You don’t have to open the door for me. I just want you to know that I’m standing right here if you need me.” After a moment of hesitation, I dragged myself to the door, motioned her in, and collapsed back on my bed.

This stranger kept me company even after I had calmed down. “You shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help, you know,” she said as she brewed a cup of coffee. “These things happen to the best of us. Worse, they can happen at the most unexpected times.” She continued conversing with me for a few minutes, maybe to make sure that I was okay. Right before she was about to leave, there was another knock on the door. It was a friend of the stanger. She handed me a bag. Inside, there was soup, a scented candle, and a bar of milk chocolate.

A friend among strangers

Delhi has made me swap parties for night-ins. It has made me frantically share my live location with friends. Its reputation has stolen my desire to walk its streets post-sun-down. Still, I’ve been to the city more times than I can remember – mostly for a couple of hours on my way to the mountains. This time, I decided to do something that had always scared me - spend a few days in Delhi, and really explore it on my terms.

So, I did it. I booked a bed in one of the best-rated hostels in the country.

*

On my first day at the hostel, I freshened up and stepped out for lunch. About fifty meters into the walk, I decided to to turn around. Every man on the road had stared at me and exactly three of them had brushed against my breasts.

I sank into the worn-out leather couch in the common room. A big tear rolled down my cheek. I began to regret my decision of giving the city a chance. “Are you okay?,” the girl sitting next to me asked, as she flipped through the pages of her journal. “Is it too much to ask for?,” I muttered. “All I wanted was to walk to a café and enjoy a meal”. She looked at me as if to say: I empathise with you. I wish it weren’t this way. But I’ve got you.

“Let’s go!” she exclaimed. I looked up at her, confused. “Let’s grab that meal together, shall we?”. We spent the rest of the day hopping from café to café, eating to our heart’s content, window shopping in the quaint markets of Delhi, and most importantly, feeling safe together.

On our last day, we sat on the same worn-out leather couch while waiting for my cab to arrive; my arm around her shoulder, and clicked a picture - for memories sake.

About Mysticeti's friends:

Tarang is a freelance writer and full-time traveler, currently living in the Himalayas. She finds solace in music, rain, existentialist thoughts, and oversharing with strangers.

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Shilpa studies History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, and spends most of her time journaling and sketching.

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