It happened long ago, before flashy cars started zipping around on our pot-holed roads, before glitzy shopping malls dotted our cityscape, before the Internet and mobile phones, before enterprising journalists coined acronyms like the PYT.
When I boarded Doon Express for Kolkata in a murderously hot summer evening at Lucknow and took my seat by a window, the girl sitting opposite to me was indeed a pretty young thing. She was twenty-something with chiselled features and captivating eyes through the corners of which she surveyed the world from time to time. She was the kind of woman who would keep her man on tenterhooks. In the times of epics, when men fought on horseback and on galleys, such a face could have, rather, would have launched a thousand ships.
I settled down while she was having a violent tussle with her little son. Sonny was sleeping like a happy log, but mom insisted that he change into a proper nightdress, a pyjama suit. The child battled valiantly even in his sleep. If Kumbhakarna could do anything similar, the Ramayana might have ended differently.
The heat and dust, the tumult of the railway station, jostling porters, and catering staff rushing with precariously poised food trays on finger-tips provided a perfect backdrop for the mother-and-son combat. Suddenly, the lady declared a brief ceasefire and yelled, ‘Didn’t I ask you to fill the water bottles!’ whereupon a young man got off the bunk above and rushed out, bottles in hand.
Things improved as the train rolled out of the station; a cool breeze blew in. The passengers fell silent. The lady was quiet too, except for occasional commands to her husband to fetch this or that.
It was a gorgeous moonlit night. Through the window, I saw whiteness dripping from trees and thatched roofs and flooding the fields slowly. Within the coach too, peace had gained a toehold: lights switched off, passengers gone to bed, a magical moonlight streaming in, and my beautiful companion, now silent, wistfully gazing at the world beyond. An irrational question kept disturbing me: how could Nature create someone who looks so delicate and behaves so aggressively? …
I would have dozed off. When I opened my eyes, I saw her writing something in her diary with deep concentration, oblivious of the world, her face radiating warmth and eagerness. Obviously, they were tourists who had taken a few days off the humdrum of the city and spent some blissful time in the quiet lap of the Himalayas. Perhaps she wasn’t really as bossy as I thought her to be. Perhaps it was the thought of going back to the drudgery that her life was that made her snappy. She possibly had a sensitive mind and at the moment, was reminiscing the wonderful time they had just left behind, and was penning down the memories she didn’t wish to consign to the junkyard of forgetting. Or perhaps she was just writing about the moonlight? I ought not to have passed judgment without knowing her! It had indeed been unfair.
Then the penny dropped. She stopped and, turning towards her half-asleep husband, shouted, ‘Ei, how much did we pay for the breakfast?’