I have finally succeeded in writing a complete story. And also found the courage to make it public. Be gentle, reader. In your reading, your criticism, your dismissal.
“Oh, damn!” Jack almost dropped the five-rupee note on the chai wallah’s wooden cart as he heard the train toot its departure. His love for the Indian tea had often put him in a tight spot, but nothing as life-threatening as this. The door to his coach was steadily inching away from him. “Run, run, saahib!” The chai wallah looked less than impressed with Jack’s hesitation. Run to catch the train? Or miss it.
His beloved tea spilled outside of the earthy terracotta cup in mud-coloured splashes; he ran.
A man in clean white kurta and pyjama was standing at the door of his coach. The smoke from his cigarette confusedly swirled towards his glasses, and drifted away without any warning. He held out his hand for Jack to grab, “Come on! It’s not that difficult. Just hold my hand and put a foot on this step here.” Jack, panting and holding on dearly to the chai kulhad, grabbed hold of the smoker’s hand, and climbed up. On a normal day, he’d keep his nose valves on slow around a smoker. But it wasn’t a normal day, was it? As soon as he heaved himself up, his eyes met the smoke-yellowed ones of his saviour. And though Jack was preoccupied with plenty, he found that his vision had moved down to the brownish teeth smiling their delighted smile at him. These much-abused set of sufferers were in all likelihood unaware that they emitted a clawing whiff of air riddled with smoke. “Hi, I am Joyodeep. JD.”
“Jack. Thanks for saving my life there,” managed Jack, breathless at 57 years.
“Not a problem. Going all the way to Jabalpur?”
“Yes… Yes,” Jack breathed back.
The train was almost out of the Habibganj station. It looked like it could rain.
Wanting to check on his luggage and drink his tea, Jack decided to go inside the air-conditioned compartment.
Shivani had finally settled on her seat next to the window. She always made sure she got a window seat. If she did not, she shamelessly reasoned with the person at the window to give it up for her. There was no need to do it today, and it was just as well, because she didn’t have the strength.
She hoped that the seats next to her would stay empty. But more than that, she was hoping the tomato soup vendor would come sooner than he usually did. The hot liquid might wash down the lump threatening to betray her otherwise indifferent appearance. She liked the too-sweet tomato soup and the oily croutons they served on this train. They reminded her of the ever-embracing life with too much of everything.
At least one of her wishes was not going to be answered today. A visibly tired-looking man in purple khadi kurta and faded blue jeans came and sat on the aisle seat. “He looks like a European. An American would never have that air.” Shivani looked away. The slums had begun to thin out. It was greener and wetter outside.
Jack had a habit of clearing his throat before he said anything after a long gap. “I accidentally kept my newspaper there in your magazine slot. May I..?” He pointed at the newspaper, not sure whether she’d know English.
“Sure,” said Shivani, but still took out the paper before he could reach it.
She looked at the kulhad in his hand and wondered if he would manage doing both at once —read and drink. He didn’t. He neatly re-folded the paper and inserted it into his slot. And began sipping the tea.
The soup wallah would take time to come. Shivani decided to look out of her window. Mud huts drenched in last night’s monsoon shower stood steadfast against the elements. Or were they scurrying away? Each moved out of her vision before she could decide. She was aware that Jack was looking out of the window, too. Her window.
On a normal day, she’d have initiated a conversation.
On any other day, Jack would have drowned himself in the newspaper.
“Are these neem trees?” He wanted to know.
“Hm? Yes. Oh yes,” smiled Shivani faintly.
“These are sacred here, aren’t they? Like the peepal tree?”
“All trees are sacred,” she turned to look at him, wishing he’d melt away.
It had been an hour since they’d left Habibganj, and no one had come to sell any beverage. Shivani decided to go looking for them. When she got up, Jack got up, too. He apparently didn’t want to be discomfited when she edged through the tiny space between the two rows.
She couldn’t find anyone from the train’s pantry car. By the time she got to her seat, and made him get up again, the lump in her throat had won. She was crying when Jack accidentally lifted his eyes.
The behemoth chugged on its rails through the teak and sal forest, defiant against the menacing arrows of the monsoon rain. The windows of the train were blurred with insistent rivers of raindrops. Time slipped by quickly, much like the landscape around them.
“Hey! Did you see that? I am sure it was a sambar!” Jack was determined to do something. He didn’t know what, but he couldn’t just sit there and let the woman cry. So he tried to distract her by pointing out an imaginary deer in the sal forest.
“No.” Shivani’s voice was noticeably dead.
“It wasn’t a sambar?” Jack persisted.
“I didn’t see. All I see is rain.” Shivani did not believe in pessimism, but today was different.
The soup wallah entered the compartment with his gleaming stainless steel dispenser.
“And all I can see is endless life.” Jack was not an optimist, but he was willing to change today.
Shivani turned to look at him. She had a strange depth in her eyes, Jack noticed.
“Bhaiya!” She waved at the vendor. “Ek idhar.”
“What’s that?” Jack wanted to know.
“They make it too sweet.”
“Yes. And the croutons oily.”
“I’ll have one, too,” Jack nodded a yes to the vendor.
He winced at his first sip.
“It’s not for everybody. Especially when they’ve had chai just before it.”
“I like the crouton, though,” munching at the fried bread square in obvious delight.
“Really? I thought you’d stay away from all of that.”
“Why? I love pakoras. And samosas.”
“How long have you been in India?” Shivani looked pleased, and yet surprised.
“My aircraft landed at the New Delhi airport last week. I have been in India almost all of my life, though. Figuratively.”
“My parents were missionaries here in Jubbalpore.”
“Jabalpur. I was born here, but was taken to Brooklyn, New York, when they died. I grew up listening to their stories.”
“Who told them?”
“My grandmother. Mother’s mother.”
The forest was getting denser. The lights in the train seemed more meaningful now. The rain had let up. If a sambar showed up now, Shivani would be able to see it.
“So, are you going to Jabalpur to see your parents’ place?”
“Yes,” Jack looked out of the window with a strange depth in his eyes.
“Why now? Why after so many years?”
Jack turned slowly to look her in the eyes, and asked instead, “Where are you going?”
“To my parents’ cremation.”
“Oh. I am sorry.” He waited for a while, and said, “Alone?”
“My husband couldn’t come. It was so sudden. Their car hit a rock while trying to avoid a rogue truck.”
The rain must have been chasing them ardently. The forest had given way to a modern-ancient human settlement. But the rain covered it indiscriminately. Just like it had done the forest. The buildings were standing next to wilting trees; the people were travelling to chase time. They could almost hear the blaring horns; smell the stench of struggling humanity.
They had finished the soup, but she wanted more. And Jack was surprised to notice that he did, too. This time, the vendor obliged quickly.
“It is a little over an hour to Jabalpur now,” Jack didn’t struggle much with the newly learnt pronunciation.
“Is someone coming to pick you up?” Both said together, and then smiled.
Shivani said, “Yes. My uncle. What about you?”
“The son of my father’s friend. I’ve been in touch with them all of these years.”
“Why now?” Shivani persisted.
“How old are you, may I ask?” Jack evaded the question again. Or seemed to.
“Thirty-seven. Does it influence your answer?”
He looked away for an instant, and seemed to have made up his mind, probably thinking she had seen enough years to understand.
“I was trying to experience life before I came to see where it began. This way, I wouldn’t have to change my process of experiencing it. Do you understand?”
“I think so. Does it mean that you have now stopped experiencing it?”
“No. It means I am now ready to live it.”
This was the train’s last stop before Jabalpur. People came here to visit the numerous temples it housed. Shridham. The Home of the Supreme Being.
“Were you close to your parents?” Jack wasn’t sure it was the right question, but he asked it, nevertheless. Shivani seemed to be open to questions, he thought.
She took a while in answering. It surprised her that her eyes didn’t well up for yet another time since yesterday.
“Does it bother you that your husband couldn’t come?”
“Yes. A lot.”
“Are you married?” she asked in return.
“Yes. Cathy couldn’t come either.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Yes. A lot.”
“I am surprised at these temples (we call them mandir). Why do they keep them so dirty, when they are so sacred?”
“Like why they cut trees, if they are so sacred?”
“Yes, a lot like that.” She closed her eyes and rested her head on the back rest. Jack assumed she did not want to talk anymore. Disappointed, but willing to let her have her way, he tried to read the newspaper.
Before long, though, Shivani opened her eyes.
“I don’t know your name. I am Shivani,” she held out her hand.
Jack took it and said, “I am Jack.”
“Jack, if you need anything, any help in Jabalpur, call this number. It’s my uncle’s.”
She took out a small note paper from her bag, wrote a number and a name, and was giving it to Jack, when he said, “May I come over for the cremation? Will that be all right?”
“Yes,” she said, ” Yes, I should think so. Here, I’ve written the address. They’ll leave at 12 noon today for the ghat.”
“Women don’t go for cremations. I might stay home, though I wish to go. We’ll see.”
The Jabalpur station was approaching. Jack felt he wanted to say more. Like most times, though, he did not know what he wanted to say.
“I am glad I found you on this journey. Five hours is a long time to read a newspaper.”
“Thank you for talking with me. I needed to talk; just say anything,” Shivani said.
It was raining in Jabalpur. The train’s windows were blurred with insistent rivers of raindrops.
“Look! Did you see that monkey crossing the road?” Shivani pointed at a blur.
“No. All I see is rain.”
“Oh? All that there is, is life.”
New words in their order of appearance:
Chai wallah — Vendor of chai, the sweet, oh-so sweet and milky Indian tea
Saahib — It has a complex origin, but in the current Hindustani, it means ‘big man’, or ‘sir’.
Kurta and pyjama — Kurta is a loose-fitting long shirt with slits on the side, pyjama is a loose pair of trousers with drawstrings. Seen often in the Indian subcontinent, worn by both the sexes.
Chai kulhad — Kulhad is a terracotta cup, usually used to serve tea or sweet curds/yoghurt and some other sweetmeats.
Joyodeep — Masculine name meaning Light of Victory.
Jabalpur — A city in central India, among the Satpura hills.
Habibganj — A suburb of the capital of state of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal.
Shivani — Feminine name meaning Female Part of Lord Shiva.
Khadi — Fabric, and clothes, made of natural yarn in handlooms. Usually associated with cotton khadi.
Neem — A tree found in the Indian subcontinent. Use in medicines, and ayurveda.
Peepal — A tree found in the Indian subcontinent. A ficus. Considered sacred.
Sal – A tree found in north, central and south India.
Sambar — A kind of antelope found in the Indian subcontinent. It moves in herds that are different from the other deer herds; in that, usually, the mother sambar, her youngest calf, and a subordinate female make the herd, instead of the normal large numbers other deer species have.
Bhaiya — Older brother. But women normally call a male stranger this way, too.
Ek idhar — Literally, “one here.”
Pakoras — Fritters. Most common ones are made of black bengal gram flour, onions, potatoes, and vegetables such as cauliflower.
Samosas — Savoury snacks. Fried in oil; flour triangles, usually stuffed with a potato stuffing. These days, they are available with all sorts of stuffing, vegetarian and otherwise.
Jubbalpore — The spelling and pronunciation used by the British when they were in the Indian subcontinent as the rulers.
Ghat — Cremation ground, also called shmashan ghat