The Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Guwahati chugged into the Kanpur Railway station at about 7 pm, setting off a cacophonous activity across the platform. The ensuing melee saw me being pushed into my reserved compartment. Before settling down to enjoy the long journey from the Indo-Gangetic plains to the plains of the Brahmaputra. I had to locate my friends, arriving from Delhi by the same train , who also had to go to Gangtok, the picturesque capital of the state of Sikkim, where we had to attend a conference- Having satisfied myself with the security of my luggage and locating friends, I finally settled down in my seat.
I consider train journeys ideal for launching into an introspection-of life lived or yet to be experienced. A doctor`s family from Kalimpong occupied the three berths immediately opposite to mine. They had gone to Delhi to escort back home their teenaged daughter studying commerce in some college there. A priggish gentleman had occupied the top berth and remained cataleptic during the journey. The lower berth had a dusky lady with arresting features, probably a tourist from the Dark Continent, a guest of the Doctor couple, I thought. That explained her being in an indigo blue printed kurta and salwar and not jeans.
I was to occupy the middle berth -an arrangement that I always detest. For one, it made passengers slide onto their birts as if traveling in a space module and secondly , due to the clastrophobic feeling it generated in me. As I could not foresee any exciting changes in the drab environs to sustain my interest for the evening, I went over to the cabin of my friends for dinner and recap, returning only to sleep later in the night on my berth.
I woke up early in the morning and found the sun had commenced its lonesome journey across the azure expanse, presenting the wheeling world outside the frosted windows of the AC compartment in a canvas of fleeting, abstract colours. Inside, the life had slowly started stirring as forays by the tea and snacks vendors from the pantry car became increasingly frequent. I decided to come down from my perch (berth) for a cup of tea.
The dusky lady in blue salwar suit was up and about as I came down and I found her immersed into the voluminous The Da Vinci Code- the controversial literary thriller that had been at the top of the best sellers list for a couple of weeks now. Seeing me alight, she gathered the bedspread , making place for me as I introduced myself. "Bessie from Chennai"she said, looking straight into my eyes.
She had an attractive face , pug nose, and generous lips with black , lustrous, wavy hair surrounding her round face. Her face would not have launched a thousend ships but her dark, liquid , immensely expressive eyes could easily hypnotize the other nine hundred and ninety -nine mortals without much of an effort. It was the camouflage provided by her eyes to her persona, which had erroneously made me consider her to be a non-Indian. Why this sense of relief , I wondered. With laser like penetration and effortlessly communicative, her eyes could convince anyone to endure open-heart surgery without anesthesia. They also imparted a mysterious
aura to her. She folded the book as I sat down. The journey into a world of discovery had just begun....
I am yet to fathom as to how the awakwardness that generally exists among strangers circumstantially thrown together , vapourized the moment the proverbial ice between us was broken . Initial stutter gave way to a smoother flow as we gradually graduated from `you are from, weather and just -for -the-heck-of-it`banter onto personal fields. There existed a mutual willingness to communicate.
She can really converse, I thought. Is she game? In the Byzantine bylanes of the grey matter, a bell had already started ringing. "You studying or something"? I queried. "No , not exactly. Basically I am into research work in the field of textiles and am going to attend a conference at Gangtok", , she answered, once again looking straight into my eyes and through me. My heart skipped a couple of beats and an ECG at that precise moment would have put a straight line to shame. Gangtok , did I hear her correctly?
"Gangtok ! That`s where I, too, am going for a conference. We, it appears are heading for the same boat.", I said as the diaphragm went down and there was a sudden infusion of fresh air into the cavernous lungs. Oh boy! What luck. She will be there for the duration of the conference! My trip appears to have been made Lissome, with an elfin frame and glowing skin complete with a pimple, she exuded grace and charm. Even with her overnight , unwashed appearance she infused a whiff of freshness in the stale, closed confines. Late twenties, I surmised.
Time and again she buried herself in the book giving me time and opportunity to steal surreptitious glances at her. Fascinating! How come some people maintain a dewy freshness despite keeping a long day? I could never have that satisfaction and resembled a mushroom kept out of the refrigerated environs moments after I emerged from the shower. I regretted my six-month-old decision of doing away with L``Oreal`s 3B. Its natural brown suited my fair complexion, effortlessly chipping away a decade load of wrinkles, crow`s feet and free radicals. Anyway , it was too late now and I assured myself that perhaps some ladies preferred the anonymity provided by a salt and pepper mop. Forget the past, concentrate on the present for a better future, I reminded myself, lest this one too flies over the cuckoo`s nest. A bird on the same berth is better than two in the next compartment, I thought.
"Besides research work how else do you spend your leisure time to keep yourself busy", I tried to engage her attention as I found her immersion into the book a bit disconcerting. There may be an opening somewhere there in her reply and exploration was the key. "Time , where is the time, man? By the end of the day I am pretty bushed, as there are time demands from family, friends as well as social obligations to be fulfilled.
My doting husband wants me around him and expects his demands for tomorrow to be met yesterday. Husband ! Her words reverberated in my ears as if the first airplane had locked-in on the World Trade Tower. Second later it crashed.
"And if that is not enough there are my two lovable sons. There is no time even to breathe on working days. My plate is full".
The clatter from the steel tracks masqueraded the noise of my falling jaw as I found words taking time to form themselves."Oh, that`s cool . And what`s your husband into? This was more an effort to assure myself what I had heard was correct. "Well,he is an interior designer. We were from the same college. You know, I never thought we would be marrying as I was the outgoing type and he generally kept to himself. It just happened . And my adorable sons are rascals of the first order. Along with two little horrors of my sis-in-law they make a cute , foursome brat pack".So, there was a college love affair which was taken to its logical end, culminating into
"Where`s your family", I heard a distant voice enquiring? "Oh, yes, daughter elder, persuing MBA and son in second year of a hotel management course. With kids away and wife in job i get sufficient time to persue my passion for photography and hobby writing"- My answers came out short and crisp."You, a journalist or something. You must be having the thousands crammed up in your nut". She was persistent with her questions and comments. "No, writing came up simply because of phtography.Actually, I was with the armed Forces from where I took voluntary retirement, after over two decades of service", as I found my voice gradually gaining strength. "You
see, the time had come to start my second innings. All of us in the profession of arms have to come to terms with civilian life after retirement and it is always better to start early." She nodded as if she understood my compulsions of opting out of Army. In any case it didn`t really matter.
Unlike in the north people from the south have little or no interaction with the Armed forces barring , ofcourse, the immediate families of those drafted, and view them with a mix of admiration, awe and respect. She was no exception-confirmed by her looks, or so I thought. I seized the opportunity and during the journey tried to regale her with tid-bits from the Army life.
"We too have our share of outings and booze and we love to go on long drives with friends. When we go to Bangalore, the first thing we do there is to attack a pub and have a ball," she countered. " Fine. Do you prefer hard drinks?" I enquired, as this was a familiar territory. "No, I prefer wine but can also have whisky or beer. Our weekends are generally reserved for boozing sessions when friends drive up and we have a roaring time."An evening with her in the snow-capped, romantic environs of Gangtok was just too much to comprehend at the moment. Was this what Khalil Gibran meant when he yearned for "....some bread, a bottle of wine and
you.,beneath the bough " or something like that. I decided to explore the possibility upon reaching Gangtok.
"You see, I don`t fit into the conventional mould of an Indian woman. First my religion , and I really love it, has a different way of looking at these things , as they are not considered much of a taboo as, probably, in your part of the world. Second, I try to live a full life enjoying every moment." I nodded understanding her viewpoint.
She was different and on a different scale, a complete woman with whom a man would like to be and grow old with. Or was I arriving at a conclusion rather early?
That night at Gangtok, it was hard to sleep. From my bedside window I could see the unmistakably sleeping lady-like resemblance of Kanchendzonga, peak, its pristine white shapely contours towering above the night-lit town.What could she be doing? She doesn`t appear to be an early-to-bed type. I am sure she would be in shorts. Should I make a call? Questions and answers float in the room as I try to analyze our conversation to define the relationship , but to no avail. An excellent company , she played hide and seek with words with dexterity, without appearing flirtatious -though she did confess to be one in as many words. "I love teasing though my husband chides me for this,"she had remarked during one of our conversations. Between teasing and tempting the line is quite fine.
What was I being subjected to? My eyes had closed without waiting for an answer, even if there was one. After a long day at the conference, which I had left half way to do some window-shopping, she barged into my hotel in the evening.
"Where the hell have you been throughout the day? I have been desperately looking for you." A bit taken aback by her sudden onslought, I enquired if there was anything important , and invited her for a cup of tea in the lounge, aware of the quizzical glances and nudges of the other delegates. "No nothing, simply wanted to be with you ,just like that. And listen , we are having a drink in the evening.
" "Fine , shall arrange for the stuff. Your room or mine"? I enquired, stunned at her brazen attitude of having a drink with someone she hardly knew. "Bullshit, man, find a quiet place where we can sit and chat and you have precisely half an hour to get ready. I shall be waiting for you in my hotel foyer and since I hate to hang around there, give me a call before you land up. OK. See you then.", and she breezed out of the hotel foyer.
Well, the decision was made for me and in any case I never had a choice. I scampered to my room for a bath and freshen up. She was waiting in folded, hip hugging blue jeans and a thin , printed top which revealed nothing but was inadequate to keep the chill out. She appeared fresh and I noticed she wasn`t wearing any lipstick. "Let`s go for a walk. I want to make a call". It was raining very
fine, gossamer like, as if through an atomizer, which made walking a pleasure. A long call from a public phone, as I stood outside watching her silhouetted contours against the glass booth.
A short walk later we entered a bar, selected a quiet corner and settled down to one of the most pleasant eveningsthat I could remember. As far as drinks were concerned , I realized rather early that I was no match for her and gave up the chase. Would she be able to carry herself later in the evening or I may have to help her to her room.
The thought was exciting. Once in the room she may permit me to hold her atleast, if nothing else-the thought went down the nerve endings like a bolt.
"What do you think about me, I am sure you would have analyzed me by now", she enqueired toying with her glass, an enigmatic smile gracing her shapely , generous lips. Here was my chance to convey my desire."You are a highly desirable woman , in more matters than one", I almost confessed, "and one would be lucky to be with a woman like you-so vivacious and complete". Suddenly, a flash came to my mind. Should I touch and caress her hand now. No there is no point in rushing things. A more obvious hint was sure to come and its better to wait, I surmised. "What do you feel about me?" I enquired, as my eyes languorously floated across her face, lingering on her lips and nose, finally locking with her eyes.
"You know something, you are a dangerous man." She said, raising her glass to her lips, effortlessly adding fuel to fire. There was no trace of slurring."Dangerous "? You feel I am a violent sort of a character"? I almost protested, failing to notice the latent thought skimming the surface. "No you have an attitude and way with words and can get away with a woman with whatever you want". She laughed softly , almost to herself, her eyes like blazing coals, singeing me with their intensity. This was the moment, man. Finally the hint! The red Goan wine after all had its effect. The distant evening appeared much closer and rosier than I had imagined.
We rose and walked to the hotel. The rain had stopped and there was bounce in my steps. Concerned whether she would be able to negotiate the steep flight of stairs right up to her third floor room. I nonchalantly offered my hand, which was politely refused. She invited me to the room and sat next to me. My insides were nothing short of a bowl of jelly. I brought up the topic again "You have already labeled me dangerous. Aren`t you scared of being in the room sozzled with someone like me? Only if she gives an inkling of going ahead now, of which I was almost sure now, would I like to make my next move.
"No way, man. Do you think I could be drinking with a stranger without feeling safe? You see, my intuition told me that you were a safe bet. I also told my husband about you and that I am going out for an evening with you during my call to him. And since he had no hassles , I went ahead. It is time now, and I hate holding you for so long, more so as you have quiet a distance to go. You can give me a call tomorrow and lets meet tomorrow evening for an encore. I am sure you enjoyed the evening as much as I did. Thanks sweetie,for a lovely evening. Good-night."
It was time for the second tower to come down . Only , the twin-tower tragedy appeared piffing in comparison.....
- Anil Mehrotra