An Unconventional RendezvousI didn’t know them and neither were they peculiar enough to be written about. Rather, there was nothing distinctive about them which any of my co-passengers in that General bogey of Lucknow-Bhopal Express would want to remember. But still, I would like to mention about them here for myself, and for all the similar sophisticated folk who feel that life is about achieving a high societal status or fat bank accounts.
It was the month of December and travelling in a general compartment of a train in U.P. for the first time makes your journey all the more doleful. Not just because of the hard cushion-less bench pressing against your bottom mercilessly for hours, but because of a plethora of aspects – shattering and thundering of double pane windows persistently threatening they might crash upon you anytime and none of the 2 layers being able to stop the freezing wind from coming in; inimitable characters flocking all around gossiping on topics ranging from the scanty dress of a B-grade actress to petty property disputes back home, from Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement to that kid he bashed up back in his village; clamour of the beggars to those torturous and deafening ringtones of the mobile phones to shouting over the phone at the top of their lungs; the cocktail of smells originating from different sources like the spittle of paan, the open lavatories, the garbage dump at the railway lines near the platforms and that odd obnoxious smell from the sugar mills outside in the fields as the train crosses by.
I could have sat there unperturbed, engrossed in The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell had it not been for a surge of curiosity when I asked him “which station just passed by?”
He must have been in his late 40s and wore thick glasses which resembled the bases of 2 coke bottles; a woollen cap and a sweater to avoid the chilling wind through the windows; the muffler covering the lower half of his nose and the dropped neck resulting in intermittent snoring; a thin strip of moustache that ran neatly along the boundary of his upper lip hanging tightly from the peeking nasal hair. A big round belly floated beneath his laid back torso followed by a crumbled beige trouser dressed with black spots. The tattered shoes with worn out stitching clearly reflecting the number of miles they had done so far. He took the window seat with a huge jute bag in his lap precariously clutched between his left arm and the gigantic belly.
It was too late to realize that my question shook him out of his modest dreams. He searched for the source of the question before he replied back to the person sitting next to me “Kalpi just went by”. I was about to say to him ‘it was I who asked you the question’, but this time I was quick enough to realize the terrible squint in his eyes.
She must have been in her early 40s and sat adjacent to him vehemently coughing and sneezing. Her right hand was resting on his knee. She had an equal ratio of grey and black hair divided in the centre by a red crease of sindoor. She wore a pale yellow woollen cardigan and a maroon shawl covering up to her nose just like her husband’s muffler. Her eyes were looking down to the floor like a slave until I presented them with that shrill question. Her eyes looked pale and the grids of wrinkles neatly decorated the dark circles around her eyes.
But, there was an unknown keen tinkle of happiness in her eyes and face, something that made her say “These trains are … (cough) … such a pleasure … (cough) … to travel. Oops! … I hope … (cough) … I didn’t hurt you”. After a careful observation I realized she was pressing her husband’s fingers as if to infuse some sort of sensation into his hand.
“No no!” he said in an apologetic tone so as to cure the woman of her guilt of accidently waking up her husband. “Kalpi it was! Jhansi would be another 2 hours from here” he said in a dominating voice.
She looked at me with a discounted smile and again dropped her sight towards the floor. It seemed to me she was somehow not coughing while her head was down and chin touching her breast. She felt comfortable that way.
“Do you belong to Bhopal or Lucknow?” It had been almost 6 hours I had talked to anyone so I triggered off a conversation with him.
“We belong to Jhansi, but our son had been working in Lucknow” he replied.
“Oh cool! Then you must be a very frequent visitor to Lucknow.” I spoke with a lot of vigour and enthusiasm as I was also working in Lucknow. “Where is he working by the way?”
The man looked at the woman as I asked this question. She gave him a stern look as if controlling herself from coughing another time.
He shook his head in response and his vision dropped towards the floor again. The woman, with her stare fixed at her husband, replied to my question “He is no more now”. And she started coughing her lungs out as she completed the sentence.
I could not even blink my eyes for 2 minutes. I gazed at their faces trying to figure out how it may have felt to be in the shoes of those modest brave-hearts.
“Arre bhai! One packet of masala peanuts please?” He ordered the vendor who had been shouting at the top of his voice just to sell the 2 rupee packets of cashew, peanuts and walnuts.
The man offered me the packet. Both of us gently pulled out few pieces from it. The woman clearly looked tempted by the packet but her throat was too bad to handle masala peanuts; neither did the man offer her any.
I wished to go back to The Tipping Point but somehow my mind didn’t. My eyes were sunk into the book but I kept on glancing at the mannerisms of the couple. I was unable to digest the fact that they had lost a son and still they found this train pleasing.
It was around 3:30 pm and most of the noise-makers had resorted to keep their mouths shut. Most of the passengers including the woman had gone off to sleep. There was a perfect synchronization between the dangling handle hooks on the ceiling and the sleeping passengers on the berth as the train caught up speed. The only noise was that of the fans, the shattering windows and the speeding train itself.
“It’s been almost a year now when his bike was overrun by a drunken truck driver”, he somehow sensed that there were questions waiting to erupt from inside me.
“It’s really unfortunate!” I tried to reciprocate with empathy. “So what was your purpose of visit to Lucknow”? I asked.
“We had to collect his Provident Fund and gratuity settlements from his employer. My wife’s brother also stays in Lucknow, so we both went together.”
“It’s tragic really!” I said in a fatigued tone. “Which company was he working for?”
“Tata Motors! Do you know this company?”
“Oh God! I am also working at Tata Motors. What was his name?”
“Whoa! You are Ajit Pandey’s father? Sir, it’s an honour to meet you! I could never meet him in person but I have heard some great things about him. He was a great human being and an asset par excellence to the company.”
“Yes! He was good”, he said in a modest tone again.
“Sir, did you know that our company has an award named after him?” I said in an exuberant tone.
“Oh is it? Not that I am aware of.”
“Sir, it’s called ‘The Ajit Pandey Memorial Trophy’, given to the employee who exhibits the values, brilliance and the acumen that Amit possessed.”
He did not say a word. I could literally hear him swallow a lump of saliva and yet again his eyes went down towards the floor.
I realized that I acted more enthusiastically than required on such a sensitive issue so I didn’t utter any word further.
The woman lifted her head up. This time her eyes were red and damp. She had heard the entire conversation. I could not take my eyes off those deep eyes that had absorbed grief as big as this. The dark circles around her eyes beginning to get deeper and darker. I knew that another word from me would mean the liquid heart will overflow off its brim. I had already spoken a lot.
Another hour went by just trying to pull my concentration into The Tipping Point. All in vain! I could not stop thinking.
“We will get down here!” He spoke as the train halted at the Jhansi station. “All the very best young man!” he said gathering the lost sparkle in his eyes. “These shabby trains aren’t that bad. They have given me some really good friends in the past. Today also it didn’t disappoint me.” I could not even respond to his wish properly.
The woman let go of her husband’s right hand as they left their seats. His hand recoiled back to his stomach as he pulled himself up. I did not even want to think about the extent of his paralysis, but he did have limp in his right leg too.
The elderly couple stepped outside the train; the man, still clutching the jute bag tightly with his left hand and the woman still holding onto her husband’s right arm.
They looked happy that way.
My gaze followed the duo till they disappeared among the station crowd. All of a sudden, I realized, the cocktail of obnoxious smells didn’t feel disturbing anymore. The cacophony of the crowd started to seem pleasant. The noises from the fans became a symphony to my ears. I took off my shoes and socks and put my bare feet on the dirty floor. I caressed my palm over the tainted glass window. The loud gossips of the co-passengers started to make sense. The disgust towards the people sleeping on the floor turned into pity and sympathy.
Meanwhile, the train moved ahead. The crowd at the platform had settled down. I saw the couple again, sipping into small tea cups and sharing a laugh. Their heads turned towards the train and their gaze met mine through the window. Their lips stretched apart in a smile. A tinkle shone in their deep eyes. He raised his left hand holding the tea cup as a toast to this unconventional rendezvous.
I pressed my head against the window grill, still gaping at the strength of their love for each other. A bond, so strong, that even the wrath of their son’s death could not snatch away the smiles from their faces. A bond, so strong, even the mightiest of storms cannot do them apart.
I felt so little!
I pulled myself up and ran towards the door of my bogey bare feet, stumbling upon the people lying on the floor, rubbing against the crowd ignoring the abuses as I knocked off few cell phones on my way. I reached the edge of the door so that I was the only person visible to the people outside the train.
The couple looked astonished at this weird act of mine.
I smiled at them for a second and then raised my palm to the forehead.
The dying sun rays reflected from her cheek as the tinkle rolled down from her eye.