Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan
Two days had passed but the journey did not seem to be nearing towards an end. The Utkal Express is infamous for its long route. It takes over two and half days and crosses more than six Indian States before reaching Bhubaneswar. I was mentally prepared for a longer than usual journey, but not for this loneliness. Generally, train journeys in India are overcrowded with passengers. But, it had been more than five hours since I had last heard a human voice. The hope, that someone would board my compartment before night died away as the train headed towards the Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh border area where hillocks outnumber people. That week, I had had to travel to North India twice. During the day I had felt tired of experiencing the same drizzling heat, cement-less brick constructions along the railway lines, stained Prussian colored berths, stale faces of the passengers and those inescapable odours of jhal muris and samosas[i] from occasional vendors. However, I had never anticipated the night to be this lonely. The emptiness around me soured my thoughts and made me restless.
When I had left Delhi the morning of the previous day, there had been quite a few fellow passengers. Amongst them was Dr. Anand, a psychiatrist and a close friend of my elder brother. He was a happy and humorous person, quite like his name. He had told me that trains were like his second home and he had spent a significant part of his life travelling. As a child he had grown up in Calcutta, was educated in Delhi, worked in Bombay and married in South India. Hence he had travelled through most of India. And what better mode of travel than the trains, which makes one sense the pulse of the country inside out. Indeed the Railways must have been glad to have such a passenger. During the conversation he remarked that in those days, if Mahatma Gandhi could become the Father of the Nation by travelling in third class compartments, given the present state of affairs, for his frequent travel in sleeper class, he must at least be honored with the title of ‘Uncle of the country’, if nothing more.
A smile bloomed on my face for a moment remembering the words of Anand bhai[ii]; but the train gave a jerk and the graveness returned as if respecting the prevailing solitude. Dr. Anand had alighted the train at Indore early this morning and so had the other passengers at various stations afterwards. The couple along with their three-year-old son occupying the side seat also had got off at the last stop. The child had kept people around occupied as they tried impressing him making strange faces and sounds. Really, in the company of a child, an adult steps out of the boundaries of social etiquettes and behaves naturally, being oblivious of the outer world. I had spent an hour or so with the little boy and his mother had said a sweet ‘Good Bye’ in return, while leaving.
Since then the train had not stopped; I too had hardly seen a human face. A policeman had come to the compartment couple of hours before. He ordered me to put down the shutters and left, never coming back. The windows had been closed since then. The lack of fresh natural air made me more insane. I opened a shutter to rejuvenate myself. I was greeted by a rush of moisture-laden wind whipping my face. The world was deep dark outside. Perhaps the train was passing through some jungle in Chhattisgarh. I did not have the courage to see through the woods. I pulled down the shutter.
The compartment was of no solace either. I thought it would be better to get down in the next station, spend the night in a lodge and catch a morning passenger train. At least it would save me from this forlorn journey. Suddenly the train creaked and came to a halt. It must have reached some station, I presumed. Hoping to see some faces and resolve the dinner issue I went to the door. But what was this!
There was no platform. There was nothing except dense darkness and sound of falling drops after a fresh rain. The leaves were still, so was the world. I could never guess why the train had stopped. There was not a shadow in my whole bogie that I could ask to. I decided to check the neighboring bogie to see whether there was any life there but that too was empty like a flood-ridden village waiting for a new civilization to pour in. The mirror hanging above the basin smiled at me wickedly. The little drops of sweat on my forehead were distinctly visible. I had never seen myself so desperate, so lost. Washing my face, I returned back to my not-so-inviting seat. The water was unusually cold.
Man is a social animal. True. I could realize the significance of this simple sentence of Aristotle. The unbearable rush and irritating crowd of Bombay’s commuter trains seemed much better than this lonesome journey. I was famed in my college life as somebody who could read for long hours, with books as my sole companion. But this night was becoming increasingly silent and disturbing. I ached for a familiar voice. The annoying snoring that I had to face last night from an adjacent berth would have been quite comforting now.
In the meantime the train had started. I glanced at the watch. It was ten past ten. Dinner time had passed. Anxiety had overtaken my hunger. Writing appeared to be my only escape. I took out my diary. As I prepared my mind I could just think of one thing to start with….
‘Night is more beautiful than day, yet awfully dangerous.’
“Are you going to Bhubaneswar?”
I thought I hallucinated about the voice. It could never have come from a woman. Uncertain, I raised my view.
In front of me stood a young lady wearing a salwar-kameez[iii], and struggling with her oversized suitcase. She seemed like a college student in her early twenties.
“I will get down at Cuttack. Can I sit here?” And without waiting for my reply she sat down by my side putting the suitcase as a bridge.
“Sure, sure”, was my rather late and obvious reply.
“Actually I was alone in my compartment. I felt really awkward. Searching for company I looked through a couple of bogies to reach here. Can I be here till the morning?”
“Why not? You ask me as if I own this train! You can sit anywhere you like. It is all yours.” I smiled.
She smiled back. It was gorgeous.
“By the way, my name is Anshuman”, I continued. “Friends call me Anshu.”
“My name is Jeeta. Friends call me ‘Jeeta’ only.” She smiled again. There was something magical about her smile.
Seeing a diary in my hand she asked, “Were you writing something? Did I disturb you?”
“Not at all. I feel one should welcome disturbance. Without disturbances life would be painfully monotonous.”
“You seem to be a writer.”
“Not quite. It is more of a passion than a profession; that too, if the mood demands.”
“Oh! Hope, I have not spoilt your mood.” There was mischief in her voice.
“It is not a big deal. Spoilage of one mood builds into creation of another. Perhaps, that new mood suits the story idea more; who knows?”
“Yes, only time will tell”
“Not ‘time’ Jeeta; it is rather the individuals’ perception which interprets the time.”
Meanwhile, Jeeta almost lost her balance while lifting her suitcase to the upper berth. Fortunately, I was able to catch hold of her.
“It appears as if you are wet. May be the rain….”
“No, No. Not the rain, Anshu. It’s because of my brisk walk with this heavy suitcase.” She cleaned her forehead with her dupatta[iv] before I could offer her my kerchief.
“The suitcase is dripping wet too. May be it is tired as well. Indeed, if inanimate objects became tired and perspired like us, we would have been in this tired compartment in knee deep water, salty though. Isn’t it?”
“You have perhaps not descended from your writing temper. What about your dinner plan?”
“A packet of bread and few bananas are there. I will manage.”
“This is the biggest problem with boys. They never know how to cook and manage with packaged stuffs.”
“Hey, you are mistaken. I am a master of that art. I would say boys are better cooks than girls. In fact, not only in cooking, I believe, boys are better in all forms of creativity. And I have also thought out the reason for this.”
“And what is your reason, Mr Writer?” With this question, Jeeta came close to me as if I was going to share some secret in her ear.
“This is because girls get ultimate contentment after creating the creation itself. They give birth. Boys don’t get that chance, so they try to prove themselves in other miniature forms of creativities.”
“Wow, what logic!” She almost clapped and continued, “So, what items you cook well?”
“Then when are you inviting me?”
“Any day. I mean you leave your address, I will get in touch.”
“An address is the second thing that a girl never shares easily. Isn’t it?”
“Is it? Then, what’s the first one?”
“You know that.”
I hesitated, yet guessed.
“Is it the age?”
“Bingo! Correct mister”. We both laughed.
“Anyhow, I would definitely wait for your invitation. But for today, you have to share my food. I have brought two helpings- one for the night and one for the morning. I had never thought that one would have your name written on it.” Saying this, Jeeta opened two tiffin boxes from her handbag.
“You need not worry Jeeta. I will manage with my bread…”
“Please”, she cut my words.
It was never possible for me to ignore a ‘please’ from a lady and hence I accepted.
For a person like me, who had been titled as a fast-eater throughout, it would have taken minutes to stomach that small box. But that night being lost in Jeeta’s words, it took me more than an hour to finish just a couple of chapatis[v]. It was one of those few chats, where I spoke little and listened much. She talked about her doggie, her favorite TV shows and playback Bollywood singers of Hindi film industry. Jeeta had a good taste in music and our interests matched on most things barring pets.
Indeed this world is mysterious. A few moments ago the night seemed unbearable for me. And now, my heart fervently wished that the train would never stop and the night would never end. When I returned after washing my hands, Jeeta held my hand on the pretext of seeing the time on my watch. It was approaching midnight. While unfolding her blanket, she asked,
“Shall I tell you one thing Anshu?”
“Your watch looks special.”
“Yes, yes it is, I had got it as a gift from State Government as a prize when I topped the Class X board examination.” She could see the glimpse of pride on my face.
“Yes it is a beauty, and it suits your wrist.”
“Oh! Thank you. Thank you for the dinner as well”. Without thinking twice I continued, “Shall I tell you one thing too?”
“You look special, from head to toe.”
I could see she was little embarrassed by this spontaneous praise. But she replied smartly.
“You are no less…Anyhow Anshu, before morning blinks out from its slumber we should rest a bit. I have an interview coming up.”
“Sure. But what interview? Actually what do you do?”
“I promise, you will know that for sure in the morning, now I am really feeling sleepy. What’s your seat number? 1 or 4?”
“It’s a funny question Madam. The whole bogie is ours. This seems like an eight-room house. One can have a drawing room, multiple bed rooms, a study room; and your music room as well.”
“My dear writer, won’t you spare some of the imaginations for your dreams”.
“Jeeta, you forget our ex-President APJ’s words: Dream is not what you see in sleep, dream is the thing which does not let you sleep.”
“Oh! APJ Kalam, the scientist, he is a big fellow; I am a normal sidha sada girl; I prefer dreams in closed eyes.” Turning her face away from light she continued “Would you please turn off the lights, if you are not writing.”
“In a moment Jeeta… OK. Good night.”
She acknowledged it with a yawn and was soon fast asleep. While I finally rested I recapped the night and decided to cherish it in my memories forever. What should be my first gift to Jeeta? Perhaps a poem; I felt happy with the idea. I will post her one of my poems. I must ask her for her address in the morning. Suddenly I remembered about Anjali, my class-mate, friend or even more than that. My mind waded through the wondrous times spent with her. But today her memories faded before Jeeta’s smiling eyes, her radiant face and magnetic personality. My long relationship with Anjali appeared so fragile. I felt heavy with sentiments and sleepiness. I dozed off.
“Babu[vi], Babu… get up. It’s already Bhubaneswar.” I was shaken up twice before I came to my senses.
When I opened my eyes there was a wrinkled face old man with an anxious look staring at me. Just for a moment I thought I was dreaming but another shake from the fellow made me realize that Utkal Express had reached Bhubaneswar. Where was Jeeta? She must have got down at Cuttack. Why did not she wake me up? I wondered.
The sun had started shining hard and filtered through the window into the compartment. I looked at the watch to determine the time but there was no watch. In place of it was just the longtime impression of it. Thinking that I had dropped it during sleep, I pulled my blanket from one side to the other.
“Babu have you forgotten your station? The train does not go any further. Give me your luggage. I will carry it. The charge will be five rupees. I have to take my tea babu.” I heard the coolie say.
“No chacha[vii], there is no need. There are just a few bags. I can carry it myself. Nevertheless I will give you money for your tea”.
As I browsed through the pocket for the wallet it was not there! I searched it again. The result was the same. I could find just a two rupee coin which I handed over to the man. I also gave him the bread and the bananas. He went away with a grunt.
I searched for my handbag beside my air-pillow. It too had vanished just like the wallet. I had no hope for the luggage either and I was right.
My head was still heavy. The moments of the romantic night were dancing before my eyes. I sat stunned and crestfallen like a man who has lost his family in a disaster.
All that was left was my diary, lying on the front seat like a dumb witness with the pen sticking out from it like a cigarette. I picked it up and my drooping eyes just fell on its open page. Just below my slanted writing that said: “Night is more beautiful than the day, yet awfully dangerous”, there was another line which I recognized as not mine. It read:
‘Quite similarly, a lady is more beautiful than a man, yet awfully dangerous.’
[i] Jhal muris and samosas are Indian snacks.
[ii] Bhai means Brother in Hindi, the principal language of India. Anand means happiness.
[iii] Salwar-kameez is a ladies wear in India.
[iv] Dupatta is a long piece of fabric like a scarf worn along with salwar-kameez.
[v] Chapati refers to flat round Indian bread.
[vi] Babu means Sir, used colloquially.
[vii] Chacha means Uncle in Hindi, the principal language of India.