When you're twenty years old and living in India, it's difficult to feel optimistic about life. The future (and indeed, the present) seems about as bright as India's chances of winning the FIFA World Cup. In 2006. And every time an Ayodhya flares up and a Gujarat burns, slowly, bit-by-bit, our collective faith is reduced to ashes.
It is one of the great ironies of our times that when we lose life and property, we lose it in full public view; but when hope is lost, it is lost quietly, without the fanfare. But it is without doubt the greatest loss of all.
Which is why seemingly non-descript events like the one that took place last week on a bus from Pune to Bombay assume significance. As with most buses across our vast land, this one too proved hopelessly inadequate to accommodate the large numbers that thronged to make the four-hour journey. As they jostled in the aisles and wedged themselves into whatever space was available, I whispered thanks for my seat and leaned back into it. It was going to be a long ride.
Twenty minutes later I was almost asleep when the elderly woman seated next to me slowly got to her feet. She then motioned to one of the women standing to take her seat, which she gratefully accepted. “I'm still strong”, the elderly woman then told me, smiling. “And when we help others, God makes us stronger.” I nodded dumbly, unsure of how to deal with the unexpectedly awkward moment. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for what happened next.
Inspired by the woman's gesture, people all over the bus began standing up and offering their seats to those closest to them. Transfixed, I watched this strange pantomime playing out in front of me; one set of people sitting down and another taking their place in the aisles. I finally got to my feet, as if compelled by some invisible force, and kept standing till we reached our stop.
As I got off the bus and watched it disappear into the distance, I could not help but smile, despite my aching feet. This was no historic event that I had just witnessed; and yet, standing by the side of the road that night, I had found faith again. I knew that fuelled by our own belief, a spark could still burst into flame. And in the dying embers of our disillusionment, there might still be a flicker of hope.
When you're twenty years old and living in India, that's worth a whole lot more than an elusive World Cup.