He thought it would be an ordinary journey. Standing behind the pillar he watched the train snort arrogantly into the station. With each snort he was reminded of his grandfather’s words “You will fail in the city and return penniless”; with every heavenward whistle, he heard his cousin, “Don’t worry. Come here and I will get you a job at the construction site.” Now he had a 34-hour journey to prove one of them wrong, and he expected the excitement at the end of the journey. He looked at his ticket once again: compartment S9 berth 23.
Pushing his luggage under the seat, he sat close to the window. “Papa, when will you be back?” – his four year old daughter Munni asked innocently.
He stared into those soft brown eyes of the motherless kid. He held her frail palms in his, through the window. “Munni, Papa will get you a nice gudiya from the city..Say tata,” his sister spoke to the kid, to avoid an emotional outburst. In a minute, the train pulled forward, and Munni’s little fingers parted from between his. “I need to go..”, he thought, “I have to, at least for Munni’s sake..”
The humid summer breeze and the rattling train coaxed him into an uncomfortable state of drowsy consciousness. He dreamt that Munni ran away, the closer he ran to her, the farther she was, like a mirage. He woke up with a start and squinted at his watch.”What is the time please?”A smallish woman, a meek voice as if she was scared that her existence would annoy someone. Her only noticeable feature was her rather large, expressive eyes.”4.30″Something made him look at the woman again. He had stopped noticing women long back. Ever since Meenakshi passed away…
But this woman was different. She reminded him of someone he knew. In an instant he realized who and the painful memories came flooding back. She looked exactly like his childhood sweetheart Madhu. As teenage lovers in a conservative society, they had often met secretly and had declared undying love for each other.
Then someone had found out and all hell had broken loose. The elders in the village Panchayat had ostracized Madhu’s family as she was from a lower caste. Unable to bear the humiliation, she had committed suicide by drowning. That was twelve years back…
Could it be? Could it really be him? He seems different, weary and downcast.
Oh no will he recognise me? No, I am dead to the world. Still she cautiously wrapped her saree end around her head and across her face.
Behind the cotton screen, her mind drifted to happier times, languid strolls in the corn fields, games at the riverbed, his gentle caress, whispered sweet nothings, stolen glances at the temple fair.
Tempted to take one last look, she consoled herself that he wouldn’t notice.
Slowly she lifted her eyes only to find Rupak staring back at her.
No, this girl looks too close to be any other person. She is infact Madhu!! “Hey, Madhu!” he called.
She struggled hard not to respond to that call. And successfully managed it too.
Hey Madhu, you forgot me?” he inquired her and came closer.
The old lady sitting opposite to him was looking at this unapprovingly.
“No, you are mistaken, My name is not Madhu.. I am Supriya”, she lied.
Hey Ram! a young girl cannot travel safely in this country without being stalked!” the old lady muttered angrily.
The girl walked briskly away from him, trying to escape his glances, as though she was hiding something, not wanting to be discovered. He stood confused, she had said her name wasn’t Madhu, and should he run after her? Or should he let it pass, after all he still had a train to catch.
His heart told him it was Madhu, followed her, all thoughts about going to the city vanished; he was on delighted to have met Madhu after such a long time. He was filled with memories of their time together. He finally caught up with her. Looking into her eyes he said, ‘Why Madhu? Why this to me?’
“Please dont lie to me anymore”; sounding more like the Mani he used to be ten years back when he had first met her at the Village temple, rather than the arrogant side that seemed to rule his life now. “I know it is you, nobody else but you Madhu”. Tears roll down her cheecks as she tries to remember why they ended up this way. Was it destiny or fate that they had to meet now?
As she speaks up, the train which for a while had be at a halt, slowly starts to move.
“I was asked by the Panchayat to leave the village. They said they’d manage by saying I’d drowned. Everyone was led into believing I was drowned. I went to the towns, so no one would recognise me. My family disowned me. I struggled to live. Anyway, it’s all made me too immune.
Life being a struggle is passé to me! I’ve learnt it the hard, cold and sharp way.”
“But Madhu, you could have written to me…”
“It’s all over between us Mani. You are now Rupak. I am now Mita. We couldn’t possibly….”
Train no where in sight.
Somebody had yanked the chain.
Some talked of escape. Some, of someone jumping the train.
Others of how this someone had failed.
Alarms rang in his head. Madhu!
Breathe! He commanded his senses.
She wouldn’t. Perhaps she went to the toilet, he reasoned.
He took out a checkered handkerchief from his breast pocket, delicately took off his glasses, and wiped his forehead.
Down, he saw the book lying on the floor.
He shook his head in disbelief.
He got off his seat, onto his haunches and looked for his pen.
He rushed towards the door and saw a crowd which made him fear the worst. Delightfully, the outlook of the gathering was not serious enough to make him feel jittery, but he still needed to find someone, he lit up a cigarette and started gazing at the moon
He paused for a moment. Closed his eyes and blew out a stream of smoke.
He had start smoking when Meenakshi had passed away. Anything to ease the pain he had thought. The melancholic tale of the lonely heart is one
which repeats itself much too often. He still wondered how he made it through those days. Those terrible days that had sequestered him, from
which no one thought he would never recover. But he did.
“Papa…” He heard Munni’s voice in his head. That one word was perhaps the only reason he was still alive.
There was something about the vision that continued to torment his lost soul. Fate had landed many a misery on him in the past and he was so sadly bereft of hope, that sanity often took a step backwards in his disoriented psyche.
The image of the woman he saw danced about his mind, mocking his helplessness, and conquering him with the pain. And at the wretched moment when the omen finally won him over, he threw his cigarette and ran to the door. He looked outside at the landscape roaring past, and the bridge approaching him from the distance, and let loose the grip on the steel rod that was holding him.
He went back to his seat, still refusing to believe that he had left his daughter behind with his sister. Sometimes he wished all this was a nightmare and he would wake up to find his wife and daughter sleeping beside him. He would often wake up in the dead of the night just to watch his Meenakshi sleep. She looked like an angel and he was always convinced that she was his guardian angel! He knew that she was gone and he must move on with life, but sometimes knowing is not about everything in life!
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