STRANGER IN THE NIGHT

Before I see her, I hear her. No, it is only her stick. Her, I never hear at all.

When her battered wooden cane clacks against the old wooden seats, we who are sitting at the front of the first compartment of one of the last locals to Borivali, look up. In the aisle stands an elderly lady, left hand clutching the hook of her stick, right hand cupped in supplication, her entire frame swaying with the motion of the train.

Thinning grey hair, straggly and uncombed, plastered against her skull into a tiny bun at the back. A fading tattoo at the centre of her sun-bronzed forehead; a caste-mark, perhaps. Her eyes are shut. Perhaps she cannot open them. Perhaps she chooses not to. I don’t know.

She wears a dark green blouse that yawns around her elbows. A green and red sari, not unclean. Bangles on her wrist, golden, perhaps gold. Not someone who was always poor. From wizened head to unshod feet, she is four feet something and sparsely built, just like my grandmum.

We are terrified she will fall over.

The middle-aged man with hennaed hair who has just boarded at Khar, already proffers a coin. My faintly moustachioed young neighbour, who has spent the last fifteen minutes telephonically advising his associate about relationships, compromising and how not to say ‘fuck’ in front of one’s mother, tucks his phone between shoulder and ear, digs out his wallet and extricates a ten-rupee note. And I, who think myself inured to beggars of all description – wheedling eunuchs, anaemic urchins and deadpan single mothers – fish in my change pocket and draw out all its coins.

She accepts our coins without remark and drops them into a pocket sewn inside her blouse. The note she raises to her forehead, murmurs a silent thanks, and tucks into the waist of her sari.

She shambles on to the next set of seats. I find my head turning to watch her. She lightly grazes the heads or shoulders of the seated men to steady herself; maybe also to garner sympathy. I stand and lean against the back of my seat for a better view. Few are those who don’t bring out their wallets.

As Santacruz approaches, the train decelerates. She turns around, steadies herself for a moment and inches towards the door. She is too short to grasp the hand-grips overhead. The train stops with a jerk. She teeters, but does not fall.

She lowers herself onto the platform. On an impulse, so do I.

The train thunders out of the station. She uses her cane as a pathfinder, casting about in front of herself as she walks, nay, totters along one side of the platform. I stroll unobtrusively along the other, looking at her sideways. She shuffles up to a foodstall. Identifies it with her hand. Shuffles onward. Bangs her stick against a bench. Reaches the next stall. Hand flails for the counter. This too is open. She chooses to totter on, not exhibiting the measured confidence of the blind.

I follow, hopefully inconspicuous. Should I walk alongside her, I will attract more than a few stares, even at this late hour. I’m already embarrassed by what I now realise is my stalking, but am unable to stop.

She reaches a third foodstall. Taps the glass. Gestures to the attendant to pack something. A few samosas and vadas. She produces notes out her sari.

The attendant catches me watching. Locks eyes for a moment. Then shrugs, and returns to wiping the counter.

Ten minutes have elapsed. A train has drawn in, paused, and departed. I realise that I don’t need to be shifty. She is not at all aware of my presence.

Turning around, she backs up against the stall and slowly slides to the ground. Withered, veiny hands rip open the parcel and count its contents. Satisfied, she stuffs it into a cloth bag on her shoulder. One hand pushes down against the concrete. With the other, she bears down on her stick. After a few seconds of crouched uncertainty, she straightens up. Circles around a shut newspaper stall. And slowly squats on her haunches.

She is facing the stall, instead of resting against it. I am puzzled. Until I observe a small stream of something emerge from between her feet, darkening the platform.

As another train draws in, she struggles up, and advances to the edge of the platform. A man walking by warns her to go no further. She stops, and lets her cane clatter against the doorframes of the slowing train. Thut…..thut….thut…thut..thut. When it halts, willing hands pull her in. I board it too.

What will claim her first – death, hunger or a terrible accident? Will she welcome death, or is she terrified of it? Where does she find the courage to fend for herself, and for how long has she been on her own? Does anyone ever speak to her? What does her voice sound like? Where was she born? What is her story?

She goes on to Jogeshwari, a few more rupees and God-knows-what. I alight at Andheri, for a thirty-rupee rickshaw ride, dinner, and bed.

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A THING OF BEAUTY

Memories from an eighteen month old trip:

I slip on the snow-crusted road, land on my arse, and laugh. My first sound in four hours.

Apart from ragged breaths in the thin Himalayan air. The scrunch of ice powdering beneath my shoes. And the drip-drip of icicles melting into miniature waterfalls and streaming across the road.

Towering conifers crouch on the mountainside to my right. To my left and far below, the Bhagirathi meanders down to the Ganga. Dharali, where I’m staying, is some kilometres behind me. And I’m on the road to Gangotri.

I’m the only tourist in town, and didn’t tell anyone where I was headed. Didn’t meet a soul on the way. I have no money, no bag, and no intention of reaching Gangotri or anywhere else. Out of coverage area, I lost contact with my parents two days ago. No one knows where I am.

No responsibilities, no expectations, no worries. I don’t have to be back anywhere at any time.

As the sun suddenly kindles the blue ice into blinding white, I realise that this, then, is what they mean by living in the moment.

*

The bus conductor wondered why the boy had chosen not to board his train at Rishikesh, or at Haridwar farther down the line. The boy just smiled to himself and recalled the first chapter of Vagrants in the Valley by his favourite writer Ruskin Bond: ‘From Raiwala, we’ll take the train’, Rusty said. ‘It will cost us about five rupees.’

He got off on the busy highway. They walked through the narrow Raiwala bazaar, looking in at the tea and sweet shops. He strolled through a copse of trees and stumbled upon the railway station.

A single low, low platform. Three tracks. A couple of disused goods wagons. A tiny station-master’s office-cum-booking counter, the ticket-seller fast asleep. Benches. A man selling spiced cucumber.

Now a cool breeze came across the plain, blowing down from the hills.He set his backpack down and paced up and down the platform. A cow ambled across a level-crossing nearby. An elderly lady squatted on her haunches and glared angrily at the horizon.

The Bandra-Dehradun Express chugged in. No one got in or off. It chugged out.

The treetops seduced the auburn sun down into their arms. A bell clanged on the station platform and the stranger looked at his watch and said it was almost time for his train to arrive. A feeble crowd gathered. He heard the shriek of the whistle as the front light of an engine played over the rails.

The Hemkund Express lumbered in. As he hoisted himself through the door, the boy believed he’d spent an evening in a story.

*

The sun had disappeared behind the Dhauladhar Himalayas as I sat in the bus at Kangra, idly staring out the window, waiting for my journey to commence. Some movement near the door caught my attention, and I saw her get in.

She was so beautiful.

She walked down the aisle and settled into the seat behind mine. God, how much I wanted a second look! Just then, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a sweet voice above and behind me said, ‘excuse me, yeh bus Pathankotkihaina?

I twisted around. She was standing, holding onto the back of my seat for support, smiling slightly. I hope I didn’t spent too much time staring before replying, ‘haan’.

She thanked me and sat back down. For five minutes, I considered moving to sit beside her. But alas! A rotund man with a disinterested moustache fell into the seat I wanted. Too late, too late!

I spent the rest of the journey pretending to observe the dark countryside whilst stealing uncontrollable glances at her reflection in the window-glass. At some point, I fell asleep. When I awoke, she was gone.

All my memory tells me now is that she had a luminous face and lustrous black hair partially covered with a dark dupatta. I suppose she was a few years older than me, and plumper too. But I can’t be sure.

I may forget what she looked like, but I can never forget what I felt when I looked at her.

* * *

YOU, THE CONVERSATIONALIST

Where have you gone?

We’d stand on a railway overbridge, rest on a bench, stroll on a beach or go lie down on a mountain, and enjoy a long, unpredictable journey down the highway of words. Leaning towards each other, heads nodding, hands aflutter. Your eyes would glaze into emptiness as you rambled through the wilderness of your thoughts, then find their way back to latch onto mine, when it was my turn to wander. The expression on your face as our conversation grew into something beautiful, was beautiful.

You missed trains, skipped meals, overshot bus-stops and took the long way home, anything; anything to prolong a promising encounter. You never let differences in age, sex and background impede you. You were the one who’d chat with my mum. You loved sunsets, and banished sleep until the first rays of dawn. Above all, you loved coffee.

You never understood how conversations began, nor did you care. Perhaps music and alcohol helped; usually not. You cursed your phone after a dropped-call and never understood why anyone would opt for a prepaid plan. You were aware that not all conversations start off with a purpose, but often end up creating one. And once we started, our phones would be silenced but our hearts would sing.

You always ventured beyond sentimental reminiscing whilst speaking of the past and jumped off the cliff of foreseeable certainty whilst talking about the future. Your words were shaped by the ones you’d just heard. Your opinions were strong, but not immutable. I smile when I remember the mounting excitement on your visage, which you struggled to supress while waiting for me to finish, before bursting forth with your response. You understood better than anyone that listening without interjecting is far more difficult than speaking without ceasing. Silences never made you uncomfortable. There is a time to talk and a time to think.

You approached all conversation as art, where creativity lies in the form, not the content. You recognised the rhythm in sentences and the melody in dialogue. You painted pictures with words and sculpted ideas out of thoughts. You valued original thought above all else.

You fiercely believed that every word stands for something, and stands for something. That one cannot arbitrarily replace another. That it means what it means, whosoever utters it. That dreams are open to interpretation, but words are not. That hidden somewhere in the haystack of your vocabulary, there is one word which encapsulates exactly what you want to say. You would torment yourself until you found it, and smile with relief when you did.

You respected conversational etiquette. You joined conversations, didn’t hijack them; you participated, not dominated. You never lectured, hectored or ranted. Your questions were intended to probe, not hurt; direct, not shame. You never forgot that discussion, debate and argument are all emotionally heightened versions of the same entity.

You wielded responsibly the deadly, potent power of speech. You trod carefully through the minefields of allusion, metaphor and deliberate vagueness. You never hopscotched over the fine lines between sarcasm and cynicism, humour and mockery, asperity and arrogance, retort and repartee. You considered nothing trivial but small talk, revealed freely short of gossip. You played Seek with clarity, Tag with logic and Blind Man’s Bluff with inspiration. Your words were the trees that blossomed in the orchards of your mind, destined to wither as ashes lost to the wind, or priceless thoughts seeded in other soils.

Our friendship was born of banter. We both cherished the happiness of being perfectly understood by another soul. The more we spoke, the lesser we had to speak aloud. But we knew that conversations never end; they only pause.

You made me dream. You made me want to write down the things you said. You made me understand myself better.

Come back, come back, wherever you are.

* * *

Announcement: Hiatus and a new blog

Hello.

Starting today, over the next four weeks, I will travel to and explore Kolkata, Benaras, Lucknow, Harsil, Mussoorie, Mcleodganj, Delhi, Jodhpur and Udaipur and all the roads and rails along the way. For company, I will have The Complete Verse of Rudyard Kipling, a backpack, and myself.

I’m taking a journal along. I will jot down what I see, hear, smell, taste, think and imagine. When I return, these notes will become blog posts.

While it would be easy for me to publish them here, I don’t wish to inflict page upon page of travel writing on those who regularly follow this blog. So I’ve created a new one: Footloose in Feb.

Throughout March and perhaps beyond, it will showcase glimpses of my journey. None of it will read like a typical travelogue (Day 1, Day 2…), I promise. I have other things in mind, culminating in a short film I will make on the road.

Until then, this blog is on hiatus.

Please do read my new blog. This sort of writing is uncharted territory for me. Your views, likes, shares, comments and emails will really make my day.

The first post is already up. See you in four weeks. Cheers!

* * *

THE BREAKING OF THE FELLOWSHIP

To Priyank, Allen, Satija, Smit, Duplik, Singhi & Yash

(There! Happy? 😛)

As the bus clattered inland from Palolem Beach to urban Madgaon, I rested my head against the window and let a gentle rain patter on my face. Our journey back home would be plagued by heartache. Three of us eight were going to leave for degrees and jobs in the United States.

I am not equal to describing the nature of our camaraderie. But I must tell you some things about them.

They squeal like the prepubescent pygmies they still are. And use pillows as weapons of mass destruction. Prefer women with long hair and short names. Write hieroglyphics and scratch themselves inappropriately. Have perpetually blocked noses and awkward telephone silences. Have no idea whatsoever about status quo. And post fake comments on this blog.

We are radically different and differently radical. I have detested one or the other at some point. Each of us has drifted away once. All of us have always come back.

This is not a celebration of our days that were. This is a vent to my apprehensions about the years to come.

Seven of us took time out from our busy schedules (See? I’m using adult clichés already) and took off for one last trip together – to Goa. The eighth was detained by a blasted visa interview. Damn.

Wine on the sand at midnight. Perching on sea-sprayed rocks. Conversation conversation conversation.

Three nights, four days – our final memories.

They may come back different people. They may come back to different people. They may never come back.

Incompatible time zones will separate us. Vocational demands will intervene. Innumerable strangers will be befriended. We will meet once every year. Or two. Maybe.

But we were lucky. All of us lived in the same city till age twenty-one. We kept odd hours, immersed ourselves in disparate courses, made countless new friends and didn’t meet as often as we could have. Yet somehow, we are closer now than we were before.

We’ve managed to get through over a decade without uttering ‘best friends’; I won’t begin now. But as friends go (pun! pun!), I couldn’t have found any better.

Were I of a Gandalf-ish turn of mind, I’d intone “Here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears…” Scratch that. I’d never live that one down.

Our trip to Goa was a quest for closure before the imminent dilution of eleven years of friendship. It has been two months since we returned. Two of us left this week. We tried to feel emotional about it but even the shock of their departure hasn’t set in. Another leaves later this year. And I am nowhere close to achieving any degree of closure.

As I write these words, I am beginning to wonder, who needs it? After all, this bloody well isn’t the end.

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