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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 01, Dated 07 Jan 2012
    ORIGINAL FICTIONS 4: ROMANCE  

    The Hero’s Entry

    By SOURABH RATNU
    Translated By RAHUL SONI

    Illustration: Devashish Guruji

    EVERY LOVE story has a life expectancy. Sometimes it’s as short as the blink of an eye, sometimes as expansive as the songs of wandering Banjaras. As I was heading towards the railway station that October afternoon, I had no idea that I was standing on the threshold of one such story. And how could I? Such idle thoughts don’t cross your mind when, even though you are 26, your mother’s been after you all morning so that you don’t miss your train.

    Anyway, we somehow found ourselves on the railway platform at 1.30 for the train that left Jaipur at 1.50. With a rucksack on my back and a camera and laptop bag in my hand, I tried to get my mother to leave. Reaching early and waiting for something to happen wasn’t really my thing. And long goodbyes gave me an ache in my heart. But who’s to tell mothers that children have their own idiosyncrasies? Not only did she not leave, she goaded me once more — “Go keep your luggage under your seat” — so that we could then have such a long drawn-out parting that I would want to cry.

    I turned, more as an expression of my helplessness, but the scene in progress at the door to my coach blew me away. Actually, the scene wasn’t especially different from my own — but the girl who was being seen off by her mum and dad was very special. Now, ‘special’ too is a matter of taste. Who knows what will appeal to one’s eyes? Often, the eyes oblige when the situation is just right. And to say anything about the situation is meaningless — which idiot doesn’t wish for a beautiful companion on a long journey?

    My heart’s engine immediately blew a whistle. And when I saw the girl pick up her bags and get into the coach, I told my mother without looking back, “Since you’re insisting so much, I’ll go keep my luggage,” and followed her.

    AS I stepped in, I was in the grip of a strange excitement. It was as if the world was suddenly full of possibilities. When I saw her standing in the aisle looking at me, it was as if the cold wave ripping through the city stopped, the station’s cacophony melted away and time forgot to breathe. I stared at her blankly. With her eyes, she indicated her hand. When I forced myself to tear my eyes away from her face, I realised that she was holding a red bag in one hand and had a big folder slung over her shoulder. And with all this luggage, she was struggling with the door to the AC compartment. I gathered my wits and moved to help her. When I leaned over her shoulder to hold the door open for her, my nostrils were flooded with her intoxicating scent. And when she smiled and said, “Thank you,” it was as if the whole train was filled with butterflies. I stood there looking at the butterflies while she went in to search for her berth.

    I knew my berth number — 24 — so as she moved through the aisle, taking care not to snag her folder, I stood watching at the door. But even though I was standing still, my heart and mind were jumping all over the place. The thought popped up in my head that my prayers to God for just such a journey may finally be about to come true.

    I’d forgotten I did not believe in the existence of God. The last 10 years I’d spent travelling alone had been, I felt, building up to precisely this moment. God had put me through many testing situations. And till now, he hadn’t even let me get anywhere close to such a beautiful girl. Instead, he’d thrown me each and every time into the laps of fat Marwaris who travelled with boxes of fried namkeens, ate poories and aloo sabzi steeped in asafoetida, and then proceeded to torture me by farting in the closed 3-tier AC compartment. But today could be the day I got my reward for all those years of penance.

    Then, a doubting voice spoke into my ear, “No, you idiot. Even if there is a God, he’s so pissed off at you for not believing in him that he’s only doing this to tease you.” Another voice immediately followed, “To hell with such a God, who would toy with a man for just a little doubt. There is no God — life is a game of probability. Anything can happen at any time because there are infinite variables in life and, therefore, the possibilities are also infinite. So, because you have tolerated these Marwaris for so long, believe it or not, the law of averages is in your favour today.”

    While the voices in my head were debating, my eyes were following her feet and noting the berth numbers. But when she went past number 24, something died inside me. And after watching her settle on a seat at the far end of the coach, I somehow dragged my feet towards my own berth.

    Illustration: Devashish Guruji

    GOD, PROBABILITY or fate — whatever it was, had made me the butt of a cruel joke. On my berth and the berth opposite, a large Marwari family had set up camp. All the space for luggage below the seats was taken, and boxes from LMB Mishthaan Bhandaar wrapped in plastic sat regally upon my seat, laughing at me. My despair changed colours like a chameleon. My sadness turned into anger.

    I brought out my ticket and waved it like a pistol in the face of the man who looked like the head of the family. Seeing my angry gestures, he immediately cleared up my seat for me and, after some pushing and shoving, a little space was conjured up for my rucksack as well. Although now their luggage had taken up all the space between the berths. By the time I arranged everything and got back to the door of the coach, the train had started moving.

    Now I felt like hugging my mother and weeping, but she was right outside the door, telling me not to get off the moving train. My father, sensing an opportune moment, rattled off all the rules for rail travel in the same scolding tone. I thought it better to stay put. Soon they were left behind and the train pulled out of the station.

    When I looked back to see them getting smaller and smaller on the platform, I saw that the girl was also waving goodbye to her parents from the door at the other end of the coach. At one point, both our parents were walking side by side. How similar these people are, I thought. Simple members of the middle-class who mate for life like pigeons and rear their children like elephants. I looked at her once again to my heart’s fill. She was wearing a charcoal kurta and pyjama. Her hair was flying in the wind and coiling around my heart like a snake. Before I could start cursing my fate again, I reined in my imagination and headed back to my seat.

    Usually, I stare out of the window at the city going past, but that day I immediately took refuge in a book. Perhaps it was ordained that I spend this journey reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich and absorbing the deep meditations on life, death and spirituality contained therein.

    THE MARWARI family seemed to be returning from some wedding because the whole family was ruling over the coach like baraatis at a bride’s home. Seven members of their family occupied the seats around me, and their loud banter was only making me more irritated.

    It was then that one of them tapped my leg, and I stuck my head out aggressively from behind my book. He was rapidly chewing on some gutka and trying to size me up. Finally, manoeuvring the gutka under his tongue, he said, “Bhaisahib, I have a request. We are a big family, please adjust with us a little.” I thought he was telling me to sit clench-arsed so that they could squeeze in one more member of their family on the berth.

    Illustration: Devashish Guruji

    With stony look and grave voice, I said, “What’s the matter?” He saw my face and smiled. “One of our family member’s seats is a little way down the aisle. If you shift there, we can all sit together,” he said. I told him that I had managed to make space for myself and sit here with great difficulty and would he please excuse me? His smile grew even wider and, controlling his merriment with difficulty, he said, “Arrey sahib, at least take a look. And don’t worry about your luggage. We’ll help you adjust all that.” The way he said it indicated that there was more to this than met the eye. Hope and excitement were born again in my heart. I followed him.

    And when I saw the same girl sitting directly opposite the seat he wanted me to take, every fibre of my being started singing songs of joy. Not caring that I might become a laughing stock, I ran back and shifted to my new seat before they could change their mind.

    NOW THE two of us were sitting opposite each other. Between us was a big window in which farms, trees, hills, houses and horses ran by quickly as if in a film.

    I couldn’t believe my luck. I stole a glance at her. How wonderful Nature was! It had placed every feature on her perfectly proportioned face with great care. Now, I couldn’t wait to hear her voice. But I told myself that we had the next 18 hours together and I was being impatient for no reason. This made me settle down for a while, and for the next 20 minutes, I pretended to be busy.

    I took out my second-hand Nikon AF90 and tried to capture the trees running past us. Till then, she had just been staring out of the window — now she started looking at me. I wanted to talk to her, but knowing that she was staring at me made me break out in sweat. A number of thoughts started to undermine my confidence: why had I not shaved before leaving home? Why had I not worn my favourite T-shirt?

    Surreptitiously, I glanced at her again. Everyone has, in their hearts, an image of what love looks like. Sometimes you can close your eyes and see it, and sometimes it is impossible to capture in words or images. But when it is sitting on the seat opposite you, it doesn’t take one second to recognise it. Well, now that I’d recognised her — the problem was getting to know her.

    At this moment, an old fear raised its head in a corner of my heart. Maybe she’d open her mouth and everything would come crashing down? The image could be an illusion too. Lots of ifs and buts circled inside my mind, but at last I found an opening line.

    I gestured towards her big folder and asked, “Are you an architect?” Her eyes shone and she replied, “No, I’m a painter.” As we talked, I found out that she studied art at Baroda’s MS University. When she opened her folder, her desertscapes left me and our co-passengers speechless... Not only was she beautiful, she was talented too. It was as if the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in my heart were all falling back into place.

    Illustration: Devashish Guruji

    She also wanted to know more about me, and when I told her that I was an assistant editor with a sports magazine, we seemed to reach another level of understanding. She immediately opened her heart to me and said that it was her dream to start an art magazine someday — one which would give new artists a chance to show their work, critically review the established ones, and praise the masters.

    As we talked about our dreams, thoughts and emotions, we quickly became so familiar as if we’d known each other for years. Then, when she gave me some tea, I felt like having a smoke. How nice it would be to stand with this girl at the door and smoke a cigarette, I thought. I immediately asked her, “Do you smoke?” She turned to look at the elderly traveller on the seat beside her, but he was sleeping. She nodded and said, “Sometimes.”

    TWO MINUTES later, we were standing in the vestibule with the door open. It felt almost as good as eating mulberries stolen from my neighbour’s garden in childhood summers. I had only three cigarettes. I lit one and handed it to her and was about to light another when she said, “Let’s share? They’ll last longer.” I immediately put the cigarette back in the box. She wrinkled her brow and took a long drag and kept looking at me in silence.

    At that moment, I could almost feel her deep black eyes boring holes inside me. She seemed to reach a place in me where I was embarrassed to find her, and I started looking out of the door.

    The lukewarm late October sunlight was slanting into the coach, and the cigarette smoke danced with it in the breeze. We both stood there and smoked and talked. She asked me, “Have you ever tried sitting on the footboard?” When I said no, she said, “Me neither… Let’s sit.” And then, without hesitation, she dusted the floor with one hand and sat down with her legs dangling outside. Because the space was too narrow, I kept standing, leaning against the doorframe.

    I lit another cigarette. This time, when I stretched my hand out towards her, her fingers brushed against mine. That fleeting touch caused a shiver to run through me. Her deep black eyes saw everything in that moment — and I saw her see it. She turned her head, took a drag, then turned back to me and said, “Why don’t you sit down? I’ll get a pain in my neck from turning to look at you every time.” After some hesitation, I squeezed myself in beside her.

    I had heard that what is true is born from a harmony between the world outside and the world inside, but at that moment I was experiencing the truth of that sentence. Cool breeze, warm sunlight, the rapidly rocking train, a mysterious fortress on a hill in the distance, that girl sitting on the footboard with her legs dangling outside, and me…

    Everything was just as I wanted it. And as the two of us talked, we were drawing so close to each other that it seemed like it would need a crane to separate us the next morning.

    My heart’s engine blew a whistle as she picked up her bags and got into the coach

    The train quietly pulled into Sawai Madhopur station. We got off. I asked her, “Want a guava? The guavas here are very sweet.” She said, “Okay, let’s go eat… I have to call home as well.” In those days, mobile phones were not like opinions — not everyone had one. At least, neither of us did. Our train was standing on platform No 3 and the STD booth was on platform 1. To go from 3 to 1 meant using a railway overbridge because an iron fence had been erected between the two to prevent mishaps.

    We had 20 minutes, since the steam engine would be replaced by an electric one here. By the time we reached the STD booth after buying guavas and cigarettes, there was a long line for the phone. Our conversation had now turned to romance. I was telling her the story of my girlfriend in college, and she was telling me how many times she had almost gotten into a relationship but escaped. I asked her, “How come?” She said, “Well… A lot of reasons… But perhaps God is kind to me… He showed me something in them before…”

    Her sentence remained unfinished because the guy manning the STD booth was telling us that our turn had come. she went inside the booth to call home and I got lost in my thoughts.

    I was thinking about her unfinished sentence. I wanted to know what her piercing deep black eyes had seen in all those men. then another thought comforted me: what had happened was for the best. All this meant only one thing — that she was about to find her life’s hero today, on the train from Jaipur to Bombay. I was watching her talk on the telephone in the booth and, when our eyes met a couple of times, a shy smile swam into her eyes.

    My train of thoughts suddenly came to a halt when the STDwallah banged the table to direct my attention to platform 3, where our train had started moving. By the time I let her know and she hung up and came out, everyone had run to board the train. I saw panic written all over her face.

    “Oh my God, bhaiyya, our train is leaving… How much?”

    “8 rupees and 75 paise,” the STDwallah said.

    She thrust a 100-rupee note towards him and urged him to quickly give her the change. the STDwallah grumbled and started fumbling around in his cash box. I also looked in my pockets, but unfortunately I had used up all my change on guavas and cigarettes and only had 100 rupee notes myself.

    By the time the STDwallah counted out and handed over the change, the train had almost left the station. We both understood in an instant that by the time we crossed the railway overbridge and got to the platform, the train would have gone.

    The thought of missing the train came to us simultaneously. Adrenaline started rushing through my body, while she became paralysed. I could see only one way to catch the train. the next moment, I grabbed her hand and we jumped onto the tracks off platform 1. Now we were running alongside our train, but between us and the train was a tall iron fence. We were running with all our might hoping that, since this was India, the fence would be broken somewhere.

    It was a very exciting moment, but my mind was occupied with finding a gap in the fence because now the train had started picking up speed. For the first time in my life, I started cursing the government for doing its job properly, when suddenly we saw a gap in the fence.

    I saw something break in her big black eyes. The lights went off in my mind

    “Hurry, we’ll make it!” I looked at her and shouted. “Come, come. Run hard for one more minute and we’re there.” she gave it her all and we crossed the broken railing and were right in front of our train. But now the train was moving very quickly. It was that last moment when a human being could challenge this machine. I thought, if we did not catch the train now, this machine would defeat us and move on.

    I TURNED back to look. she was very tired and ready to give up. the train’s speed was increasing, while hers was decreasing. I tried to encourage her but I knew that it was futile now. I was still running at full tilt alongside the train and there was enough air left in my lungs to let me match the train’s acceleration and grab the rod at the door to climb up.

    Suddenly, time stopped and a lot of things happened. Like a film running in fast forward mode, images flashed in front of me:

    The train has left and we are both at the STD booth, calling home.

    She and I are sitting atop an elephant in the forests of Ranthambore, watching a tiger with its family.

    She and I are holding hands and watching the sun set in the evening.

    She and I are in a taxi, chasing our train.

    It is evening and we are both sitting on a bench at the station. Her father comes up from behind and puts a hand on her shoulder. she bursts into tears. He stares at me with a look that says he’d eat me alive if he could.

    This last image was scary and my mind immediately replaced it with an image of our berth. Now I could see my luggage beneath the seat, my Nikon AF90, my Toshiba laptop.

    The very next moment, I gave it my all and got on to the train. I had just kept my foot on the footboard and managed to balance myself when guilt cut through my heart like a knife. You ass. What have you done? I didn’t have the courage, but somehow I turned back to look.

    Her arm was still raised, beckoning me, and her mouth was agape. Her legs had stopped running and now only her momentum was carrying her forward. And then I saw something break in her big black eyes. the lights went off in my mind.

    Suddenly, a muscular arm emerged from the last coach as it was going past her, grabbed her by the shoulder, and pulled her into the train.

    And a thought came into my mind unbidden: all this was just a test. Your mind betrayed you and you failed. You are not this girl’s hero — the real hero has only now made his entry!

    SOURABH RATNU

    SOURABH RATNU has worked on and off in the film and television industry in Mumbai for the past 10 years. He is interested in people and occasionally tells stories.


    RAHUL SONI

    RAHUL SONI is a writer and translator based in New Delhi. He is the founder-editor of Pratilipi, a literary journal, and Pratilipi Books, an independent publishing imprint. His works-in-progress include a documentary, a novel and a book of non-fiction.

    Original Fictions 1

    Original Fictions 2

    Original Fictions 3


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 01, Dated 07 Jan 2012
 

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