What if… he drowned the rest of the question in the engine’s whistle, distracted himself watching the platform with its tea stalls, magazine vendors, red-shirted coolies, and infinite moving bodies slipping by. First slow enough to make out details, and then so fast that things not in the light became vague silhouettes, till they faded to a grey haze. The wheels found a steady rhythm to beat, and the coach rocked to it. The outside streamed by, a continuous grey, exploding into gold at the end of the platform. Four halogen lamps lit a board proclaiming ‘N. Delhi Station.’
As it slid into the same grey shadow that had become the rest of the city, he realized he was going home. For what may be the last time. He knew he should want it to be.
His compartment seemed crowded, and he was hot. It was stuffy inside and after looking out at the dim city, the lights seemed too bright. He waited for the AC to kick in.
The first tendril of cool air against his cheek brought no comfort. He looked out, into the darkness, made deeper by the tint on the windows. A few pin pricks of light filtered through, he wondered how far they were, how powerful. Were they traffic lights, flood lights, or lights put on hoardings?
It was hot. He wanted some fresh air. If only the windows could be opened.
A slow, sticky unwanted silence descended. Two men fighting over a berth had called a truce till the TTE decided their case. The sullen silence permeated through him, he blamed himself for the confusion. He knew it was not rational.
Sitting across from him were three ladies. They sat still, with their hands crossed in their laps, right over left. Their saris are carefully draped over their shoulders, hiding their necks, upper arms, torso… the only parts of their bodies visible beneath the veil, were their faces, and arms below their elbows. Their backs made identical angles with the back of the compartment, and shoulders were evenly hunched: a group preparing for a recital, perfectly uniform, staring straight ahead. Their eyes looked past him, through him and through the partition behind his head, at nothing. They barely rocked with the train, nor did they resist its motion.
The eldest sat near the aisle. Her face had wrinkled around her eyes, as though she squinted a lot. Her sari was a shade of brown almost no one would wear out of choice, a few tufts of hair sticking out under her sari were grey. In the middle sat probably the youngest of the three… her sari had been pink at some time. She swayed with the train, occasionally even brushing her companion’s elbows, guiltily enjoying the ride. The third sat next to the window. Wedged deep into the angle of the back and side of the compartment, with her shoulder pressed firmly against the window, she hardly swayed at all, and she did not seem to want to. The beginning of her sindoor was visible under her sari and a black and gold mangal sutra hung low over her chest. She was the most impassive. The lights of the city flashed by her window unheeded.
Who were these women, he wondered, so intent on being ignored that they failed?
Silence had exploded in the coach. Someone was moving luggage, he could hear the leather scrape against vinyl. No one else seemed to hear it.
On his right sat a man in a steel grey safari suit. Three pens stuck out of his breast pocket and it bulged from what might have been a cell phone. He was carrying a brief case on his lap. He undid the clasps with two smart, almost simultaneous clicks and took out a sheaf of paper from it. Leaning forward to get more light he started reading. A few seconds later, he began shuffling his sheets frantically, checking titles, page numbers and looking at margins. He did this three times, getting more panicked. The fourth time, nearly hysterical, in his anxiety he was so vigorous that a page flew out of the sheaf. It flew slowly upwards, towards the light, not spinning as far as it appeared to, then lazily drifted back down, landing between the two men. The man with the brief case picked it up, checked the number, and slipped it into his sheaf. He opened his brief case, this time the clicks were more spaced, and found the sheet he was looking for. He shut the brief case again.
He glanced at the new sheet, his eyes focusing for a second then began reshuffling the document. Probably a civil servant or a businessman.
On his left, next to the window was a boy of his own age. He had ear phones on, and the cable slipped over his chest into the pocket of his jeans. His hands beat the time of an unheard song, on an invisible drum, in mid air. He switched to a guitar, leaning over, almost caressing the air he strummed. Head swinging to hypnotic music he was lost to the present.
Rajesh, that was his name, broke out in a sweat, though by now the AC was working, it had become much cooler. What he needed was some peace.
The sound of paper shuffling, an almost endless hiss, punctuated by brief pauses was becoming unbearable. The light was so bright, it burnt him. He got up.
In the aisle, he stepped over a suitcase, his sole brushing against its side. He brushed the mark, and looked up apologetically. The owner of the suitcase did not notice, or did not acknowledge. Grateful Rajesh moved on. He got to the doors that lead out into the non air conditioned space which lead to the restroom and vestibule. Two heavy doors on either side of the space allowed passengers on and off the train, they were shut. Rajesh stepped into this space. The air was strangely cool, he was grateful. No one was about. He wondered what he’d do next.
Behind him the door opened again. A heavy set man brushed passed him, on his way to a toilet. It seemed urgent. With nothing better to do, Rajesh slipped into the other.
It was a small room. The light was fine, he could see everything around him. The floor was a little damp, but clean. There was no smell. He was grateful for that. He stood inside the door, wondering
Finally he decided he’d go out again. Before he left he pulled the flush. He did not want to appear weird. There was no one outside to pass judgment on him. He stepped to the outer door opposite the door leading to the aisle.
He’d come for some fresh air. So he reached up, and undid the bolts on the door and swung it back. A blast of cool air hit him in the face, but not hard enough to make him loose his breath.
He glanced over his shoulder. There was no one there. Gingerly he stepped down, on the short ladder below the door, with another glance over his shoulder; he sat down to enjoy something forbidden. Not quite sure it was forbidden or who forbade it.
The air blowing into his face was cool and damp, with the scent of rain wet earth. Somehow nicer than the AC… sound came back. The beat of the wheels entered his being. The wind sighed against him, and somewhere he thought he heard voices.
The door opened. He looked back in time to see a pair of tight jeans, a tight red top, and long black hair disappear into a toilet. He wondered if she was good looking, she seemed so… then he corrected himself, he wanted to know if she was ‘hot.’ Like Anuj had told him, women are either hot, or not! That was all there was to it.
He changed the angle he was sitting at. So that he could look at the door without turning his body, without appearing deliberate. He’d have one full look before she crossed to the door. He heard the flush, the bolt slide ending with a sharp click. She stepped out, straight into his glare.
He reddened at being caught, and turned away. He’d already decided she definitely was not hot. He wondered if he should walk down the coach, and try to spot the girl he’d noticed getting on before him. She’d seemed pleasant looking, if not out and out beautiful. The breeze blowing in his face made such speculation pointless.
The door opened again, he did not turn back. He heard a few clicks…
“Can you help me with this?” a female voice asked him. He turned with the promptness only a female voice can muster. In the split second before he looked up at her, he hoped it was the girl he’d seen get on before him.
It was not. She was not as good looking, but certainly not bad. Cute perhaps? He got up, a little stiff. How long had been sitting for? He stepped across to the other door, glancing at his watch on the way.
“How,” he asked.
“Well, I can’t open it.”
“Oh, let me see.”
She stepped aside. The dupatta from her blue salwar suite brushing against his arm, the material felt nice, cool. He wondered what it was. The bolts were stuck. He could not make them budge. He was disappointed. She did not seem so. Did she think I’d not manage, he asked himself.
“You could share the other one with me.”
He’d hadn’t expected her to accept. After all it was not common practice to sit in a cramped space with a stranger, a man no less.
He sat down in front, giving her the better side. She waited for him to settle himself. She held the rail with one hand, and stepped down onto the ladder, and began to lower herself. Halfway down she put a hand on his shoulder, supported her weight on it, sat down, and removed it.
Supporting a lady’s weight on his was something new. . He liked it, or thought he did. He was not sure; it’d not lasted long enough.
Both of them sat there, shoulders brushing each other. Listening to the train’s rhythm. He had almost lost himself, meditating on blissful emptiness when something reminded him someone was sitting next to him. Perhaps it would be right to converse.
He was thinking of what to say…
“Are you from Delhi?”
“Huh?” he was still thinking of an opener. The question sunk in, “no I’m from Lucknow.”
“Oh, so what were you doing Delhi. Vacation?”
“Not really, I had to apply to colleges”
“Oh! So which college are you hoping to get into?”
The one question he did not want to answer, because that meant entering into a discussion about college, cut offs, hopes, interviews, exams, and a million other things that had saturated his head. He wanted to return to the bliss of emptiness.
“Let’s see which one will accept me.”
“I’m from Lucknow too.”
“Good…” then thinking he was being rude, he added, “Where in Lucknow?”
“I live near the ganj, so that’s pretty far off.”
“We come to the ganj every week end. Ma will only shop there.”
“Why aren’t there any good markets near your place?”
“There are, but Ma…” she just rolled her eyes. She knew he understood, all kids their age understood.
Well he did not care; he was in no mood for conversation.
She was. “Which is your favorite part of town?”
“Home” he answered honestly.
“Really, don’t you like any of the malls?”
“They are ok, but I like my place better.”
This piece of news stumped her, and for awhile she was silent, realizing that people could enjoy being home. Then could parents not be roll-your-eyes-so-that-they-know types?
“I love Lucknow, specially…” she realized he was not interested. She sat quiet; her dupatta flew up, into his face. He let the sensation of its coolness and softness sink in like some feathery caress. He wanted it to last. Suddenly he wanted her to stay. Say nothing, but sit next to him… so he was not alone.
“So what do you like,” she asked.
“Nothing much,” he answered, honestly. Can’t she see how perfect this is? Why must she spoil it by talking?
“It’s getting cold. I need to go back,” she said, and got up and left. It took a while for him to realize he’d chased her off. He felt bad, because he’d been rude, at least that’s what she’d think. And because of that she was gone.
He settled back, his thoughts assuming the emptiness of the wheels’ rhythm. He watched whatever was flashing by, vague shadows, sudden light, indiscernible shadows, massive silhouettes, blinking beacons, headlights, flood lit factories, and half cloaked in smoke… he was not really looking.
Despite the noise of the wheels, there seemed to be a complete silence. The air in his face felt cool and smooth. Almost like the dupatta. He was happy no one was around, happy enough not to mind missing a book.
He was distracted for a second, trying to imagine the kind of picture he’d make. Romantic! There were no lights on in the coach, only his door presented a rectangle of light. He saw himself, facing forward, the wind blowing his longish hair back. His spectacles, deliberately chosen to make him seem geekier and the half smile that thinking brought to his lips. His legs hanging out of the train completed the picture, giving it a little rakishness.
A poet was called for. Not a painter. His face never looked good, whether in the mirror, photo paper or canvas. Only a poet would be able to capture his true portrait, understand what lay below the surface, his ambition, resolve, hope, despair and entire being.
He threw his head back and laughed at the big deal he was making out of himself sitting at the door of a moving train.
A whistle sounded, a blast of hot air hit him in the face and an engine roared past his door. Bogies followed, thundering shadows. The air grew hot; he could hardly hear himself think. He got off the ladder, retreating into the complete sanctuary of the coach.
He was watching the train whiz past. Just as suddenly as it had begun, it finished. He did not know how many bogies it had. The shrubs by the tracks came into view. The tracks, two dark constant shadows against a field of continuously changing play of light. How did the other train pass by so soon? Was it traveling fast or are we?
Curious he leant out of the door, looking back he made out a three lights arranged like the corners of a triangle. A yellow one on top and two red ones was all he could make out. He looked forward.
They were approaching something. Shadows hunkered over the track. As they got closer he could make them out. A tin roof over a raised concrete platform pretended to be a platform. An over head bridge that seemed to sag in the middle spanned over the tracks, leading somewhere. The train stopped pulling. It was coasting, and then a perceptible shudder meant that the breaks were on.
Why Rajesh asked himself. How could this shed by the track warrant a stop? He could not see anyone on the platform, nor did he expect anyone to be there. Now, he could make out some faint light under the tin. This puzzled him, someone must be there. But this train was an express; surely it would not stop at this god forsaken country stop? But there were slowing down.
When the train stopped his coach was too far out to make out the source of the light. He wanted to know why it was there, why the train stopped, what justification it had. He looked at the unremarkable cement top of the platform, aware for the second time that the train had stopped.
The air was still cool, surprisingly. He’d expected the breeze to die out when the train stopped, and be replaced by the oppressive sugar solution saturated sticky night air he was used to.
Why was the air here cool, why was the light on, and why did the train stop?
He wanted to find out. Why did he want to find out? There wasn’t a reason, he knew that. But he wanted to know.
He WANTED to know. That was a better reason that those which controlled his life. Most of what he did, specially in the last two years, had been dictated by what was good for his future. He’d taken particular subjects, studied hard, missed the world cup, given up playing in the afternoon, stopped using the internet, and spent hours and hours memorizing immaterial formulae, wondering if he’d ever need them… fretting over being unable to solve the 49 sum of 50… trying to see the logic behind rules that governed the universe, had only minor implication in his life, and for all the emphasis his teachers placed on them, could have been the result of mere coincidence( this even his teachers agreed with), he’d done all this for his future… a future he knew nothing about. Not even enough to be able to say which college he wanted to attend.
But he did want to know why the air was cool, why the light was on and why the train had stopped.
He hopped off the train and started walking towards the center of the platform, where the light came from. Next to him, without warning, the train began rolling forward. Slower than him, at first, then as fast, and finally faster than him till the windows were flashes. His door cut a rectangle of yellow light into the shadows on the concrete. Lighting up an abandoned sack, two trunks and something too far to make out. Then suddenly it disappeared. Had someone shut the door, or the platform run out?
It did not matter, Rajesh was about to find out something he wanted to know.