It’s unfair when self-preservation comes in the way of being humane, but as a woman in the city I’ve had to make that choice far too frequently

One of the reasons I choose to travel by the public bus service is because there’s so much to observe. Not all pleasant, of course.

Last night, I happened to get one of the last empty seats in the bus at Chennai Central railway station. Just as the bus was about to start, two women supporting an apparently impoverished young man stopped the bus to get in.

They got in with difficulty with some help from some people in the bus. The man was clearly undernourished, faint and could not even hold his head up straight. One of the women he was being supported by looked old enough to be his mother. The other woman was much younger but looked equally troubled.

Since I was on the aisle seat closest to the door and the men’s side was overcrowded already I stood up to let the weak man sit down. But before I could get out of my seat, the woman seated next to me pulled me down and asked the women to seat the man elsewhere. Thankfully by then the woman behind me had offered her seat and the man sat down there.

I was pretty pissed off with my seat-mate. It’s normal for a woman to be wary of strange men sitting next to them, but this man was too sick to even sit straight; let alone lay a hand on her.

But right before I could give seat-mate a dirty look, a not-so-distant recollection stopped me. A few months back I was waiting at the bus stop when a noticed a thirty-ish, healthy-looking, blind man near me. A bus approached us and the man asked me which bus it was. It happened to be the bus that both of us needed to get into. When the bus stopped in front of us, the man asked me to lend him my hand.

The two-second hesitancy that flashed in my mind before I took his hand and guided him inside the bus haunted me for the rest of the ride. I could not believe that for entire seconds I had instinctively perceived a threat to my safety from a disabled person who’d asked for a simple favour.

It didn’t take long to for me to realise why I had reacted that way. Just a few weeks back, one of my friends stepped aside politely to let a wobbly scooter (one of those with the side wheels for extra assistance) pass her by. The man on the scooter grabbed her breast as she passed by. No “thank you.” Just a grope.

When this is the sort of abuse women go through every day, was it fair of me to judge women for being over-cautious? So I decided to cut my seat-mate some slack. I know I would give up my seat for a person who I felt needed it more than I do, irrespective of gender. I bump into the blind man every now and then and make it a point to guide him to an empty seat (though I was humbled, awe-struck and my savior-complex promptly shamed away once I realised how little he needed me) when I do.

But those are my choices, and even I might not always choose to do so. I have been brought up to tread on the side of caution and I know that are plenty of times when I am forced to choose caution over compassion. It sucks, but what can you do?

(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at nandita.j@thehindu.co.in. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )