A JOURNEY BACK TO VALENTINE’S
The compartment was less crowded and the seats in front of her remained empty. On the side berth, however was an old couple sitting facing each other. The old woman was looking at her son and then she looked at her and smiled.
“What does he want? His father hasn’t come?”
She wanted to kill the old woman; what a time to enquire about his father!
“No, we are going alone this time.” She managed to say that without any emotions.
“How old is he?” the old hag was definitely not going to leave her in peace.
“He is four now.” her mood was palpable in her answer. The old woman might have realized that and kept quiet.
Relieved, she turned her attention to the outside world and it was then she noticed that the train had already started to move. Moving towards the window she made her son sit by it and pointed towards the station that was fast disappearing behind. He showed no interest to the outside scenes but kept his eyes fixed on the tinted glass to avoid looking at her. He was not crying any more with that hurt look in his eyes and she thanked God for that. She almost hated her son every time he looked at her with that expression, which never failed to bring his dad’s face into her mind’s frame.
“Madam, your berth number” it was the bedroll supplier. She told him; checking it against the list he carried, he kept the bedrolls by her side and moved to the next cubicle.
She sank back deep into the seat and tried to relax keeping her eyes closed. Her head was heavy and she was feeling tense and a bit unsure of herself. ‘Must be the lack of sleep and running around the whole of last week’ she tried to justify herself. ‘A cup of tea can make me feel better’ she was sure of that.
“Your ticket” she opened her eyes and saw the ticket examiner standing before her. Quickly she opened her bag and took out the ticket and gave it to him.
“Half the bogey is empty; everyone has started flying,” he said that in a loud voice addressing no one in particular, but for the benefit of all those who could hear him. He had given back the ticket to her and had already started checking the old couple’s ticket.
“Senior citizens, eh? Are you carrying any proof with you?” sarcasm of the public servant was ostensible in his question.
“Do we really look much younger than sixty-five, to you? It is a concession given to us by the government. Yes, I am carrying the copy of the ration card,” the old woman started opening the side pocket of the bag she kept by her side.
“I was just trying to ensure so that you don’t get harassed later. Keep it with you safely,” giving the old woman her ticket back he got up and moved past.
Coffee and soft drink sellers from the pantry have started their rounds but tea failed to show up. After waiting for a few minutes she bought a coffee. As she was drinking the coffee she heard the tea boy shouting ‘tea, tea’ and coming her way, she swore softly under her breath.
“Your son is dozing, make him sleep properly,” it was the old woman again and she turned to look at her son. She kept coffee on the small collapsible wooden rest between the berths and made her son sleep properly on the berth. She was relieved now; he won’t bother her for another two hours, he won’t ask for his daddy till he got up. She took the paper cup containing coffee and sat back by the side of the window that her son was occupying.
Then as she started to relax, sipping her coffee Anil came back and stood before her mind’s eye. In fact, he had not gone anywhere; he was there all the time but she was delaying it, the confrontation. Or what confrontation; it was almost over with the legal notice served. She knew the last bit of doubt would disappear, once she moved to States and joined her new job.
“Why do we need this uprooting, you are getting a hefty pay packet here too,” he was arguing unnecessarily, she had already made up her mind. But what she hated most about him was his laidback attitude towards life in general.
“You have no ambition in life. You are happy with a senior marketing executive’s post and the thirty or thirty five thousand you make, but I am not.” She was clear in all her thinking and the goals she had set for herself
“I don’t understand you, what else we need to achieve? You have a very good job and we have a flat and a car…”
“We don’t have a flat, I have, and a car also.” She had intended to tell him that for the past few days and it immediately had the desired effect. There was a shocked look in his eyes that slowly turned into hurt and then determination. He did not utter a single word after that and simply moved out of their room. That was how everything else got started and within two days he shifted from the house.
Initially she thought of saying sorry to him but she knew she was not going to leave that US job under any circumstances or for anyone else and that included her husband. Her legal notice was also a challenge to him; either accept her for what she was or leave her alone to her own ways.
Suddenly the fast moving train jerked to a halt bringing her abruptly out of her reverie. Looking out, she realized that it was not a station and then a train whizzed past making her almost jump from her seat. ‘That almost gave me a heart attack’ she thought, sinking back into her seat again.
She did not know why she suddenly turned her head towards the side berth where the old couple was sitting. It was a strange scene that greeted her; the old woman was spoon-feeding the old man who apparently looked healthier of the two. She had not paid much attention to the old man to see how he looked like, and she was not bothered also. Her own problems were giving enough head aches as it was and an old couple, just because they were traveling together, could not become her concern.
She turned her head again towards the outside scenes through the black coloured glass of the window, which allowed her only a dim view of the stark reality of outside world. But she was not really seeing anything outside; she was looking at her own past and future through a kaleidoscope that she had learnt to turn at her will.
Suddenly she thought about her own father who never used to talk to her over telephone. He belonged to a world that was strange and difficult for her to comprehend.
“If I have to keep in touch I shall do so by writing and not through phone. You can talk to me or if there is an emergency I shall definitely contact you over phone; don’t insist, let me continue with this one pleasure of mine.”
She had learnt to hate his letters; long and boring and also time consuming, always containing some moral mumbo jumbo. She felt that her dad still wanted his old cutie, cutie gudia to remain where she was fifteen or twenty years ago without ever changing. That was one more reason why she disliked Anil, he just loved those dreary letters and always exclaimed, “how beautifully he writes.”
She couldn’t find anything engrossing in those letters other than a stale style that suited the Victorian age and the topics even older.
“Madam, you haven’t ordered your lunch.”
She was brought back to her real journey. The boy from the pantry stood before her with a pen and a small sheet of paper in his hand.
“I don’t want any lunch but can you get me a cup of tea and one or two bottles of water, please,” she asked him.
“I can get you a flask of tea but not the single cup and water bottles also; give me ten minutes time.” She nodded in agreement.
She again threw a furtive glance at the old couple and this time she saw the old woman making her husband drink water and then wiping his lips of with a towel.
“You want to piss,” she heard the old woman asking him. She wanted to turn her eyes but somehow it got fixed on the old man.
‘Ahmm,’ and he nodded his head just like her son used to do. Taking his hand, the old woman led him to towards the toilet. ‘What a weird old couple’ she thought, shaking her head in disbelief.
She woke up her son and made him eat his lunch that she got packed from Dim Sum, that famous eatery outside railway station. He had already started to come out of his melancholy mood by showing signs of activity and ate without causing problem. That helped lessen her tension to an extent but she knew it was in the night her real test would start. Her son would not sleep without listening to his father’s stories and lullaby. Even after staying away from her and the flat, Anil used to bring their son from the crèche and remain with him till he slept. He left her flat only after their son slept and it was a huge relief for her. She ignored him and he ignored her; in the first few days of their changed routines she had even kept his dinner on the table in the hope that he would come and eat. That never happened and she did not tell him; her justification was that the dinner was there on the table where he could see it and there was no need to call him.
“Hey, hey, look your son is running out.” it was the old woman calling out to her while trying to block his progress. She hurriedly got up from her seat and brought him back. She took out the battery powered games console from her bag and gave it to him. She knew that would keep him engaged till it was time for his sleep. She looked at the old woman and smiled for the first time since the journey started. Old woman smiled back and said,
“You must be very careful when there is a child with you especially on a train.”
“Yeah, I just…” she tried to explain.
“Don’t bother, it happens with everyone. It had happened with me as well.” For an old woman, she had sparkling white teeth to go with her silvery hair. She wore no make up and no ornaments but had the mangalsutra around her neck and a touch of sindur remained on the forehead where the hair was parted.
“You are going to…” with nothing better to do she decided to prolong the dialogue.
“Panvel; that is where we are staying and you?”
She told her and added, “unfortunately I could not get flight tickets but then this journey itself was decided at the last moment.”
“Can we plan anything beforehand? Most of the times, all the carefully made plans go awry and end up in undecided journeys.” It was kind of philosophical but she liked the punch in it. She smiled and suddenly found herself warming up to the old woman.
“Oh, we can plan it alright. Every journey can be planned and executed with a bit of ruthlessness perhaps. By the way, what was your husband doing?”
“He had his own business. So this is going to be a two nights journey for you. I had been to Kerala a few years back; it is a beautiful place.” She looked at the old man again; he did not look mentally challenged but definitely there was something seriously wrong with him. She decided not to ask the old woman and embarrass her.
The inside of the compartment started showing signs of movement with couple of passengers getting in to their compartment as well but no one had entered her cubicle yet. Passengers and pantry car suppliers kept moving in and out which made their conversation much more difficult. She had ordered dinner for two and had asked the old woman whether she would like her to order their dinner too.
“No dinner for us, I am carrying some fruits and that will be sufficient for us. It doesn’t suit our stomach and I cannot take any risk with him.” Still the old woman did not elaborate and she did not pursue.
It was past eight in the evening when the dinner arrived; her son was most reluctant to leave the games but she promised to allow him play the next day if he remained a good boy and ate his dinner.
The trouble as expected, started when she was putting him to sleep; he wanted his papa to make him sleep and started crying. She was embarrassed and infuriated as well, his dad had totally spoiled him and now her dear son was going to make it difficult for her. She wanted to shout at him and beat him till he forgot everything about his dad and she would have done it had she not been among strangers.
She had realized, it was going to be a problem and would continue for some more days till her child started slowly accepting the fact. She could have given him the mobile, which she had deliberately switched off, and he would call his father immediately. But that would be like abject surrender; telling Anil that without him it was impossible to manage her life. She would rather die than agree to such a scenario and the best way to deal with the present situation was to ignore her child completely. She did exactly that and after twenty minutes or so, his loud weeping started to reduce in its intensity till it ended as a low whimper and then stopped completely. She looked at him; his chest was still heaving and the tears have made a small pool where he laid his head on the berth. She made bed for him on the opposite berth and trying not to disturb him too much, she carried and gently put him down there. She cleaned the berth where her son’s tears still remained in a pool and sat by the side of her son.
She realized sleep was now too far away from her and thought of taking one of those mild tranquilizer tablets she was carrying. She almost had one, but thinking it was better to travel without sleeping than taking a risk in train, she resisted her urge. For the past few months she was finding it really difficult for her to sleep without popping one. She knew she was fast growing dependent on the tranquilizer and its soothing effect. She was avoiding the word addiction deliberately replacing it with dependence so that she would remain more confident of herself and her illusion of achieving.
Where did she go wrong? Or did she ever go wrong? She suddenly remembered her father’s last letter. Long and boring as usual; she hardly ever read it barring the first and last paragraphs. It was in the last para,
‘When we are short of time the first thing we learn to throw out is our sentimental attachments. A fast moving person cannot waste his time on worthless objects like an old house. You have the right to sell it because it is in your name. For me, however, it is your mother’s memory each and every brick of this house brings. But then, I have time on my side and that is what you lack. Don’t worry about me; I can carry all her memories with me that only death will take away. You just come; real estate agents are swarming and they are quoting good price too.’
Everyone keep harping on the same old theme of attachments and sentiments; couldn’t they see the world around them had changed many times over and it was living life king-size and living for the moment that was real? What was wrong with her line of thinking? That she wanted to use the opportunities that came her way; that she was ambitious; that she was pragmatic and was not emotionally attached to anything.
But how could she say she was not emotionally attached? Would she allow her son to be taken away from her?
She didn’t know when she slept or how sleep came to her without swallowing the pill, but suddenly she woke up in the night when her son started crying and held him close to her bosom and kept patting on his back till he slept again. Deciding to go to the toilet, she got up from the berth. To her surprise she saw the old woman still sitting by her husband’s side and looking at her; the seat light on the woman’s side was kept on.
“You are not sleeping?”
“I cannot take chances with him.” She told her.
“Keep an eye on my son, I will take a minute.” she had no problem telling the elder woman. She came back and sat on the side of her berth where she could be closer to the older woman.
“What is his problem,” she asked the old woman, in a low voice so as not to disturb others who were sleeping, without any hesitation this time.
“Alzheimer’s” old woman said in one word.
“What did the doctors say?”
“There is no hope,” again the old woman replied with a short answer.
“How did it start?” she was not sure whether she should continue but the question just tumbled out of her.
“Because of me.” She felt that the woman did not like asking her anything about her husband or was too sleepy to answer her questions. Then it came out like a torrent and carried her to a world that was always outside of her reasoning and understanding.
“Because he loved me, because he loved me too much. Ten years back I was in coma. All doctors gave up on me saying there was no cure. He was the only one who believed otherwise. He ignored his business completely; sat by me, fed me, washed me, massaged me, 24/7 he remained by my side. I started getting better and his health started getting deteriorated. His business was ruined by then. Our only son who was in States could not come and help his father. But l feel that I am the reason for all his misfortunes. As I started getting better I kept praying God to give me a chance to return a small fraction of all that affection he had showered on me. Lord gave me the chance by making him sick.” Tears have started rolling down the elderly woman’s cheeks and yet the lady made no sound.
Too sentimental to believe; yet, it was there before her eyes. It was there in the unexciting letter her father had written her. It was there in her four year old son’s attachment to his father. It was perhaps everywhere where people were not too busy to understand each other and to spend time together not to lust but on sentiments.
Old woman before getting down at Panvel told her, “you know, tomorrow is 14 th February.”
“Are you reminding me valentine’s day?”
“Oh no, this just happen to be our wedding anniversary. 51 st wedding anniversary with my dear, dear husband.”
“And your only prayer would be to give you a second chance with him as your husband in the next birth.”
“Yes, that is my only prayer.” She moved out carrying the bag on her shoulder and holding her dear husband’s hand tightly in the other.
She had already decided what she would do next. She called her dad.
“Hello” her father’s nasal sound filled her ears.
“Achaa, it’s me; I’ll be there in the morning.”
“Yes, I know; some of the real estate agents will come in the morning itself.”
“No, achaa, I am not going to sell it. You can tell the agents.”
“If it is for me then you don’t need to do it.”
“It is for me; I have also decided stay back and continue with the present job. My boss had offered me an attractive package that I ignored.”
“Okay, it is your decision; bye” he hung up. That was father; never liked to talk too long over telephone.
Then, as the train started to move, she gave the mobile to her son who without wasting a second started searching his father’s number on the contacts list.