I've gotten used to traveling alone. When i was a kid, I used to love traveling by train . Not anymore. The burgeoning crowds everywhere gets to me.Everywhere I turn and look around there seem to be zillion faces passing by and I seem to be literally dashing somebody or the other while i drag my luggage. My train to Bangalore stood there in an ominous line of blue. For the first time, I was travelling by AC coach. No big deal ,except , its middle of a pretty cold December ! I found my compartment and settled into my window seat. It was around 3pm and in few minutes the train would leave. I shivered while peering drowsily out of the glass covered window. Bored, I looked around and examined my fellow passengers .There was only a very old couple opposite to me,sitting cross legged and speaking a strange language.
The train is pretty empty , I mused. In India, there are very very rare days when you could find a train running relatively empty and the reason for an uncrowded train are usually dark and ominous .I racked my brain for one such reason, however none dawned to me !
Suddenly, I felt a pair of eyes looking at me .A tall broad shouldered man peered at me through his glasses while he removed the haversack from his shoulders. He slid his sack below the seat and sat down next to me unbuttoning his suede coat.
“ Gosh,..Made it”,he said ,apparently to me while I stared blankly at him for a second or two. The train slowly started to pull out of the station.
“Good ! The train is literally empty”, He exclaimed ,looking around satisfactorily .
I turned away however it began to dawn to me that he was no stranger. In fact, he seemed familiar. Nevertheless , I ignored him while he shuffled in his seat ,removing a magazine from his satchel ,cleared his throat loudly.
“Where are you of to ?”
I turned towards him and asked ,”I beg your pardon !”
He gave me an impish smile and repeated” Where are you going?”
“Bangalore”, I replied.
“Oh great ! Me too”, he gushed warmly.
I tried to smile weakly at his response.Cautiously, I asked,”Do we know each other ?”
He stared at me for a moment and pursed his lips." Ah, you don't remember me ? No problem, ...well, I had hoped you would but since you don't,.....my name is Ali. I had come to your place exactly 2 years ago with an aunty who does matchmaking,- umm.., I've forgotten her name.I had come to see you and you refused me !
He said all that in a single breath,taking me totally by surprise. I felt colour rising to my cheeks while i jogged my memory. I looked around, hoping no one had heard him since we were talking in English.
Screwing my eyes, I looked at him and then I remembered him. It was weird. Almost immediately, I began to remember the sober meeting. It was the usual meeting which happens in arranged marriages. I didn't remember the details but I remembered why i had refused him.Usually,I forget names,phone numbers, birthdays,errands but remember faces,incidents - both happy and tragic very clearly, especially if reminded about them.
The train was well on its way. He looked at me again and asked,”By the way, I am going to Bangalore to speak about my invention. I made a contraption. Do you remember ? I'm a mechanical engineer.
I smiled weakly at him and mumbled,”Sounds interesting !”
He removed India Today from his satchel and turned the pages rapidly. After a sketchy perusal , he looked at me and asked.” How about you ? Why are you going to Bangalore?”
I didn't wish to speak to him anymore. I secretly wished I could disappear. Twenty two hours of train journey with him next to me scared me out of my wits. I put on my best 'serious cum unfriendly ' face and answered,” A trip. My sister lives there".
He nodded his head and fumbled through the magazine as if trying to formulate his thoughts.
“By the way, why did you refuse ?”
It was a shocker.I consider myself a straightforward person but asking such a question point blank after two years is something even I wouldn't do.I put up a straight face and turned to gaze at the passing farms and green fields.
“ I'm just asking”,he shrugged his shoulders and continued,” in these kinds of marriage meets,no one gives any reason.you know,..the reasons which accompany a no is really bullshit.”
I looked at him and said,”I know.. all the same ,how does it matter ?”
His dark brown eyes bored through his glasses at me and cried,” Arrey! How come it doesn't matter? After I met you, I started making plans. ... I never had made those kinds of plans earlier. I mean, i hadn't met any girl which forced me to make plans. In my head, you know.”
By now I had gotten used to the fact that there was no escaping this man and this steady one sided conversation. I'd probably have to jump out of the moving train and I think he might probably jump after me to seek his answers.
I looked at him. He hadn't really changed much. I had put on weight while he was still dark,curly haired,with pointedly prominent nose and white teeth.He was the only guy I had seen who was same age as me and taller than me.
I felt a sudden wave of anger rising within me.How did he dare to get so comfortable to ask me to clarify my refusal.
“Plans !”, I shrieked,”what do you mean by 'plans'?
“ You know, the same as any other guy.”
“Huh,”..I exclaimed ,taken totally by surprise,” You know, this is the reason. You are weird.Incomprehensibly weird ! Since you remember so much, you might also remember how you barely talked and just kept looking at me through out that 15 minute meeting.You expected me to say yes ? ...besides you were a divorcee .I had decided i wouldn't meet divorcees till I was 30 and above.
He looked at me ,unabashedly, raising his eyebrows and throwing up his hands.
“That's it ! That's why you said no ?...seriously, what did you want me to do ? I don't talk with girls much especially if i have gone to see them for marriage, you know. I don't have many girls in my company's factory unit. I didn't lie........hmm.umm......I'm talking right now because its just you and me here and come to think of it this is our second meeting.”
I was ready to pull out my hair. Instead, I stared out of the window and contemplated ways in which i can shut him up.
“And as far as my divorce is concerned, I had told you, na,....I had married when i was 25 .I barely knew her.Within a week, we both realized it was a ghastly mistake....to tell you the truth ,”his voice turned into a whisper and his face came closer ,literally touching my nose,”You know...umm we didn't ,.....you know,...not even close.We got divorced within a month.I made the mistake of listening to my mum.I never made that mistake again. I've taken it upon myself to find the girl I like,you know. I also realized that i'd feel 'in my bones' ,you know, if i like anyone.I hope you understand what i am saying.”
“Frankly, I don't give a damn”, I said in Rhett Butlerish style and pushed him away.
He picked up the magazine and shifted a bit further down the seat,away from me.
He removed an Ipod from his satchel and plugged the earphones to his ears.For some time ,there was appreciable silence. I looked at the old couple across us ,both immersed in reading newspapers.
Day turned into dusk and as the sun set, pheriwalas increased in number. The catering staff came around to take orders for dinner. I seem to always puke at the sight of food served in such trains so as a regular indian i had packed my dinner.
After 20 minutes or so, Ali removed his earphones and stuffed them in his pocket. I had cooled down and felt bad about being so dismissive and unnerved. I could have tackled his unjudicious chatter more calmly.Instead, I over reacted ,quite unnecessarily.
He offered me a chocolate bar and I hesitantly took it. I removed the wrapping little by little as i ate while he tore the wrapping completely and finished the chocolate in two bites.
“Do you have a tissue? “ he asked ,examining his fingers. I threw the small tissue box at him.
“You know, you are a smart and intelligent girl.You are pretty too. But you are not sensible !“
I understood what he meant by it.If he had said it 5 years ago, I'd have probably choked him to death.He looked at me, unsure of my reaction.
“I know”, I simply added to his silent observation of me, then glared at him ”and you are still looking me up – up and down !”
Startled, to mollify me, he added ,”Its ok to not be sensible all the time.After all, who is ?"
He sat cross legged on the seat to face me and he asked suspiciously,”Have you been terribly hurt or you are normally grouchy ?"
It was my turn to be startled. I avoided his gaze and stared straight to the berth opposite to me.
“I was. Is it obvious?"
“No, no you hide it very well.Except the eyes ,.....you know. They tend to give one away !"
"The world would be an enlightened place if people could decode eyes ”, I murmured sarcastically.
“True, true!” he smiled .
“The plans,...after meeting you, I had made up my mind, you know, ......I've broad shoulders and you cry a lot and very easily because you are sensitive. I had made plans to keep you happy and away from hurtful stuff . I had thought,........we would have made a great partnership, ...and besides i wondered how it would be to make love to you !"
I threw the styrofoam cup with water at him.
Needless to say , till we retired to sleep we didn't argue . We exchanged news and views and what had changed in our lives .He told me about his extended family and that his mom was no more.He talked about his work and how he invented things in his free time.His life was ,as I had imagined, predictable and boring except that he made new things in his free time.The last movie he had seen in the theater was American Beauty and he pretty much shopped for his clothes from one store in whole of Pune.
By the next morning, we were more or less friends. The train was estimated to reach Bangalore at noon. We ate idlis and vadas at a station, mostly because i like idlis .As for him,he embarked on a tour of the platform for a decent egg omellette and when he didn't find any- settled for a vada grudgingly.
When the train screeched to a halt at the station in Bangalore, he threw his hands in the air and said,
“Ok, here we are ! Your sister is coming to pick you up ?”
“Yeah” I replied ,counting my bags,” here is your magazine."
“Oh yeah,thanks..by the way,I'm put up at Leela ,..I'll probably fly back if i get the tickets.”
“Ok, ...there,..... best of luck ,”I said smiling at him and shaking his proffered hand.
“Thank you , Sarah .”
Quietly, we got down from the train and stood on the platform. My sister had not arrived as yet so i stood waiting for her.
He pulled up the haversack on his shoulders and said,” Here is your tissue box. It has only a single tissue”, he said pointedly.
“No problem”, I replied.
He looked at me for a minute and then said,” Didn't you think it was too much of a co-incidence that we had seats next to each other?”
“As a matter of fact , I did."
“ I'm glad that seat didn't belong to anyone else....well...it so happened that I saw you at the platform near AC2 in pune. I called out to you but you didn't hear me. So I ran after you, and scrambled in the seat next to you,” he beamed at me, with smiling cheek to cheek. He hesitantly picked up his suitcase and wished me goodbye.”Bye ,Sarah”
As he walked away, I looked at his departing figure."Weirdo”,I muttered to myself.
I examined the empty tissue box and removed the lone tissue and threw away the box. As i opened the tissue to wipe my face , I spied a 10 digit number scrawled across it in bold dark ink. I stared at the phone number and laughed till tears struck my eyes. The only thought that crossed my mind was : Will he find my number in the magazine as easily as i had found his ? After all, I could have easily thrown off the tissue box without as much a second glance at the tissue.