I dashed through the dysfunctional metal detector at the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Or rather the Victoria Terminus, as it is called by people who want to assert their inherited linkage to the city. The beautiful city by the sea, Mumbai. To me these people are in denial of accepting the fact that the city, which had its origin in the colonial era, had evolved out of its colonial past. I have always been baffled by this strange tendency to keep holding to very trivial memories amongst a lot of people. They clinch to it like a creeper does to a wall. Although accepting the change would not make an ounce of difference. I mean, would the magnificent, imposing Victorian structure change if we called it the CST instead of the VT. But then, whatever the name, it hardly bothered me. I am not made for Mumbai and I never had hesitation in accepting that. As far as the standard Mumbaikar mold goes, I am a diametrically opposite entity. I am lazy and slow; I cannot remain focused for even a minute; I hate crowded places and I really, really hate humidity. My sprint through the platform was a metaphor for my desire to escape. I felt like a lab rat put in the condition most inhospitable to its species, just to see how fast it escapes. I had already made a fool of myself when I came down to Mumbai wearing a business suit in the month of May. My shirt was already sticking like a postal stamp to my body, all drenched in the costal sweet, beneath the expensive suit. But that annoying feeling needed to be pushed to a lower position in the priority queue, top place taken by – Make your way through the sea of humanity and board the train before it leaves. Making your way through Mumbai crowds should be a recognized globally as an urban adventure sport.
Deccan Queen, one of the most famous trains to run in India. It plies between Mumbai and Pune on a daily basis since the times of the Raj. Had I not been in a hurry to board it I would have taken a minute or two to wonder about why the name of the train, another reminiscent of the colonial era, has not been changed yet. And how long till someone notices. The insides of the coach was no different from the overcrowded platform, but it had a promise. A promise of escape. In Mumbai you would see creature of only your own species everywhere. This should be what an ant sees when it looks around in a huge colony of ants.
The announcement that the train would be leaving shortly, came like breeze of cool air in hot summer. I tried to figure out, amidst the splendid chaos within the cramped up coach, the seat number that I was assigned by the benign online booking website of Indian railways. The reason why I am talking of the website with such reverence is because the website is a living entity of its own! It is manifestation of the great Indian government machinery, which like a tribal deity needs to be coaxed and cajoled to deliver your wishes. No Indian, willing to travel through the world’s largest railroad network, would risk angering it.
’26’ I mumbled. Sitting there was girl whom I had already noticed through my peripheral vision. Without looking towards her, I started settling my bag above the seat.
“Is 26 yours?” She asked, I was still struggling with the various straps of my bag. Without paying much attention, I just responded in an indifferent ‘hmm’. But as she spoke my brain almost alarmed started sending signals that said something is happening which is departure from the usual
“Actually I have some problem sitting in direction opposite to motion, would you be fine to switch this with mine? It is this one” She pointed to the seat just in front of mine. But by this time the talk about swapping seats appeared to be immaterial.
“Anku!” I exclaimed almost instinctively
“Rohan” She screamed. Her eyes lit up with the same sparkle that I had associated so much with her. Instantly I knew that there won’t be a dull moment in this whole journey. Ankita was seating in front of me. It took me a minute to realise that it has been 4 years since I had last seen her. She was wearing a salwar kameez which to me seemed a departure from the usual Ankita that I knew.
“You can’t believe, can you?” Her quizzing eyes looking straight into mine
“That I have changed so much. The bindi, the mangalsutra, this whole Salwar Kameez thing.” She giggled. She enjoyed surprising people.
“Well, I have seen stranger things happen. So, I would not say that I cannot believe that you changed. But what surprises me is that we meet after so many years and that too on a train. I mean, we have so many friends in common but never did it happen that we meet at someone’s place, maybe accidentally. We meet on a goddamn train.” I shook my head
“True. And look at you. All suited up. No stubble. Show your nails to me” She pulled my hands infront of her.
“See. All nice and cropped. Kya baat hai?” She threw in her usual gesture of admiration
“Yes. You are not the only one who has been hit by life. Everyone gets a fair chance. I had a meeting in Mumbai, with a publisher. So had to present my best self.” I admitted
“Publisher! So are you finally getting published?” She almost screamed
“What is the book about?” Going by the Ankita from college I was expecting her to jump up and down, right and left.
“Some science fiction bullshit” I tried to play down
“What!? When did you start writing that? No love stories?”
“Not anymore. And moreover there are too many idiots writing love stories. But science fiction is niche. I wouldn’t have got published for next 10 years had I kept writing those candy floss love stories.”
“Oh my God. I cannot believe it. You know when I used to tell Aakash that you deserve to get published he always mocked you.”
“Well, as it happens to be, he is the one who helped me to get through to the chief editor of this publishing house.” I flashed the information for her
“I know. You guys are like this. You would catch a grenade for each other but would always make fun in each other’s face.” The light in her eyes seemed to die as if the source of her energy had been turned down. I knew what the reason was. When I first saw her calling my name, I knew this moment would come. Could I have avoided discussing on this? I asked to myself. Maybe not. Because Aakash was the link between Ankita and me. It was because of him that we knew each other.
Suddenly both of us went quiet. Unexpectedly we ran out of topics to talk. I kept evaluating things that we could talk upon but rejected each one of those in my mind, because some way or the other each thing linked to Aakash. She kept looking out of the window. The urban landscape of Mumbai, with all the chaos and disarrangement, was getting left behind. The queen, as it is called, raced away from the city by the sea towards the city by the mountains – Pune. The distinct costal smell of Mumbai was getting lighter and the temperature lesser. Sun went down somewhere behind the cluster of concrete giants, which from a distance were looking like half made sculptures of a novice.
“So, when are you getting married?” She asked trying to break the envelope of awkwardness
“I don’t know. Maybe 2 years from now” Unknowingly she had now pushed me into a more awkward territory not that I was comfortable already.
“Why? Are things alright between you and Kalpana?” She asked with a concerned voice.
“Well. She is not there anymore. We separated.” I tried not to look towards her as I kept gazing out of the window. The sunlight still shone on the face of the distant cliffs which came closer with each passing moment.
“Why what happened?” She asked. Although I didn’t want to bring up any discussion about Kalpana with anyone, but the simple fact that Ankita didn’t think twice before asking what happened made me feel glad. It is only with people who are really close to your heart, that you can ask anything without the fear of hurting your relationship. I had always felt that I was the closest to Ankita, among all of Aakash’s friends.
“The irony is, I don’t know.” I shook my head as I half smiled and half did god-knows-what.
“She simply left. And it appears that she doesn’t want to have any contact. Although she never told this to me and when I asked she just said that she needs some time by herself. She seemed to be intimidated by the fact that I knew her too well. I stepped back and it has been two years since then. So many times I think of calling her but then I don’t. We were not in a relationship where we could not have talked if there had been a problem. I mean, she could’ve told me what the problem was.” I just stopped abruptly there were so many things on my mind that I simply could not process the whole chunk of thoughts.
I turned to her. Her eyes still fixed on me. She had a look of a mother who had just seen her child fall down but would not help the child, just to let it learn.
“Don’t worry.” I tried to brush away her worries with a smile
“I am alright now. I am over her now” I assured
“Well, that’s what I tell myself everyday”
“You know Rohan, people say that all the time that they are over some person. But actually that never happens. I know how it is. Once you are with someone, completely into the relationship you allow that person to touch your life and alter your life like no other. If and when that person goes away the impressions still remain. Like even the sculptor leaves a work incomplete still the work speaks of the sculptor’s art. That incomplete statue will always be there even if the maker has gone away. So don’t tell me you are over her”
“Maybe you are right. But there is no other way to overcome. You know, when this happened I would not sleep for days at a stretch. Everything in my life was a mess. I could not remember even the slightest things. Sometimes I would keep staring at the mirror in the bathroom thinking whether I have brushed or not. I realised how important she was to me. She was the one thing that stablised my life. For a very long period of time things stopped making sense at all. There was no real value attached to anything I did. All seemed worthless
Without her my life was like a plane without a wing, somersaulting on its way to a crash. But then one day I questioned myself – how long would I be living like this? Either I end everything or I get out of this mess. It was not just me but everybody around me who was getting affected by this. And then I think I decided to move over her.”
She smiled as if rejecting the whole justification. I still remember the day when I was leaving for Aakash’s wedding and Ankita bunked her office to see me off. It felt so strange at that time. But now it made complete sense. She would never meet him again. I still remember that wedding, it lacked the euphoria, so characteristic of any Indian wedding. I remember Aakash sitting on the mare staring into a distance while his kin and friends, fuming with alcohol, danced around him. He was unmoved, only if the baratis took the effort of looking at his face.
“It is not that you forget someone or get over them. You just get used to living with the void in your life. Months after Aakash’s marriage I would go into these strange moods where I wished that a car runs me over the next time I cross the road. I would carry on with my life like everything is normal but on the inside I could feel the burn.”
“I know how it feels. I still do not have a routine, you know why? Because there is no one thing that holds my interest for long. I would start off with a thing and by the time I would get really interested in it the thought of Kalpana would strike. How this would seemed if she was here? And boom. I lose all the interest.”
“Is that why you started writing science fiction? Or rather why you stopped writing love stories?”
I was speechless. I was amazed how well she could understand me. It was scary but at the same time, soothing. Close friends always remain close no matter how much time you are away from them.
“Never mind. I know the answer. But yes I know the feeling of restlessness and disinterest. During our courtship, Anirudh expected me to talk to him daily and be excited about our marriage. Initially I had no interest. But then I realised that, maybe I need make him feel that I am interested. Because what I have lost in Aakash is already gone with him. I cannot keep holding onto it.”
“You are contradicting yourself. You just said that we cannot get over a relationship but now you are saying that you realised holding on would not help”
She smiled again as I her follower and she was a seer who knew what I sought.
“Life in itself is a contradiction, isn’t it? We are not born by our will nor we die by it, still we call it our life. Now how contradictory is that?” she quizzed “Also I didn’t say I was able to forget him. It was just that I was able to fake my happiness.”
“But how long can you do that?”
“I don’t know. It has been four years and here I am. You get up every day and put on a mask. As you said, you tell yourself every day that you are over her. That is what I would call putting up a mask. Like an actor training yourself to behave in a manner which announces to the world that you no longer live in shadow of the one whom you loved. You are over her. You change yourself, your habits, your routine, basically anything and everything that people, or even you, associate with her. You stop listening to the song that the two of you sang together, stop going to that restaurant, that book store and even stop eating ice cream of her favourite flavour, even if it was yours favourite too. And you keep doing it every day. You create the mask. But beneath the mask you still are the same. Till the point that everyone else starts believing the mask to be the true you.”
“Then what? It continues that way forever. You are confused that whether the mask is the true you, which all believe to be or you have lost yourself somewhere in the past.” Her brown eyes were now moist and her voice shrill. She wiped her tears with the end of her dupatta
“Leave it. Thoda zyada funda ho gaya nahi?” she tried to put a smile on her face. Perhaps her mask.
“Nahi yaar. I think you are right. Things that hurt us in life change us more than things that make us happy. The fire in the furnace moulds the tool and not the water in which it is quenched. You remember college. How optimistic we were, perhaps over optimistic. We believed everything would work out and we would have our way with life. And look now here we are crying over the memories of people we lost.”
“You know, I no longer die to watch a Shah Rukh movie first day first show. Shah Rukh, Salman they are all the same for me now. I simply do not feel the excitement. Sometimes I miss it but then I do not see the point of that. Maybe this is what people call maturing”
“Somewhere inside I feel that this change that we go through, which you just called maturing, teaches us to adapt. It teaches us to respond to the circumstances and to face this world in a better way, but it drives us away from our true self. We may be best suited to take on the world but we are not the actual us. For example you losing the excitement for a Shah Rukh movie, that’s not the actual you but you have learnt that getting excited earns you nothing. It is survival of the fittest. The fittest version of you lives!”
She just smiled and somehow I knew it was a real one. We just crossed Monkey hill. The train curved on the edge of the beautiful Sahyadri range. Sun went down in the distance, it was orange and almost touching the horizon. The haphazard urban landscape was far removed and the slopes of Sahyadri dried in the sweltering heat lay around us. I my opinion the Western Ghats had the best sunsets in whole of India. I often rode to a small mountain near Pune on the weekends just to enjoy the spectacular summer sunset from there. I loved sunsets. Kalpana hated them. She always considered sunsets as moments of parting, but I detested any such categorisation.
“Sunsets in Sahyadri are so beautiful” I spoke in its awe
“Absolutely” She concurred
“I think this is the second best part of the whole journey” I told her as the train curved through the mountains towards the tunnel.
“What’s the best part?” She asked
“Meeting you” and we both broke into a laughter which only those would understand who have really close friends, who share a relationship where words are secondary or maybe tertiary.
“Trains always mesmerised me since I was a child. Not just the machinery, but the whole concept of travelling with completely unknown people for lengthiest of distances.”
“Is there any specific train journey that you remember?” I asked her
“Not in particular, but yes there are many”
“I had this one journey cemented in my memory. I was travelling from Indore to Bangalore. And there was this couple from Rajasthan who had a very beautiful baby, just above a year of age. The baby was very cute, but sadly it had a hole in its heart. They were going to the Sai Baba hospital in Bangalore of baby’s surgery. They had just got a phone call and had started from their place without thinking twice. It was really heart breaking. And there was this Bengali gentleman. He would have been around 60 years of age. When you talked to him he was all negative about life. He told me how when he was young his family astrologer had predicted great achievements by him but he didn’t. He just turned out to be a mediocre medical salesman. And in the night when everyone was asleep I kept thinking that will I be the same as this old man towards the end of my life cursing everything and repenting how I spent my life. In the same compartment I saw despair in that old man and hope and optimism in the young couple who were traveling for getting their baby operated without any guarantee, just on basis of a phone call. The sheer emotional expanse of life overwhelmed me. And I cried that night, for hours.”
She listened to me with a radiant smile on her face
“I think, you should start writing love stories again, Rohan.” She suggested
“Maybe one day I would. When I have a name and people would by any bullshit with my name.”
“Oh come on! You would write great love stories”
I shrugged. The train rolled in an out of the tunnel and had covered most of the mountainous terrain, now reaching the plateau. Pune was not far now. Our beautiful journey would come to an end soon.
“But you are right. As we grow up the way we see life keeps on changing. I feel it is because of the experiences that we accumulate throughout our journey that shapes our view of life. And somewhere it is up to us how we treat these experiences. It is like, various combinations of same set of musical notes give us different tunes.”
“True. I think it would be a good idea to just note down our current perspectives so that four years later when we meet again, we would be able to compare how things have changed”
“Shut up! I need to get going. Anirudh will be picking me up at Shivaji Nagar.”
“What? Are we already there?” I asked and looked out of the window and I couldn’t believe we were already in Pune. Sun’s light had almost died and the road running parallel to the rails was full of vehicles, like fireflies in a field at dusk.
The train pulled on the platforms and we bade goodbyes. I would be going on till the next stop. She waved from the platform as her husband stood politely behind her. Would she tell him who I was and how she knew me? I asked to myself.
In the last few years I never had felt as contented as I did that day. Neither she nor I asked to exchange numbers or addresses. Maybe we would meet again, like this, in one of the sunset journeys. Maybe…