Fiction

Story: Fellow Travellers

By: Shloka Shankar 

Train journeyAnother school year came to an end, and another heady, dizzying summer lay ahead of us. Earlier that week, my school had closed after what seemed an interminably long academic year, and I had passed into fifth grade with a reasonably average percentile. Vacations always meant one thing – a train journey to Madras, living with grandparents, watch my mother rather flushed and annoyed in the presence of her “in-laws”, that word which rather gratingly got on her last nerve.

I packed my own suitcase full of clothes to suffice the two-week trip, and looked forward to Marina Beach and the few friends I’d made in and around my grandparents’ house, which was dingy, unkempt and dilapidated, yet had something of the old world charm about it, which left you mesmerized and in awe every time you looked at the yellowed building.

My father came home early from work the day before we were to catch our early morning train to Madras. He seemed in his usual jovial mood as he sipped his tea listlessly, going back and forth from the bedroom to the living room, and occasionally to the bathroom to pack his shaving kit and sundry items.

I was an only child, and was used to the kind of attention I always seemed to receive from my parents. They fussed over the smallest of things and wanted everything to be just perfect. We slept fitfully and diligently set the alarm for four o’ clock, brushed our teeth, heard the familiar honking of the rickshaw wallah who always dropped us off at the station, picked up our respective bags, locked the doors and windows stealthily as if not to wake our neighbours up, and we were off to the Central Railway Station.

We climbed the stairs littered with paan stains, peanuts, newspapers and the occasional cigarette butt. I looked at the trains ready to leave, puffing and chafing, the incessant voices coming from the speakers giving passengers information about their arrival and departure, till my father finally found our compartment with a sense of triumph. My mother glossed over the list of passengers to find our names, and her task equally accomplished, we boarded the train expectantly.

I was lucky enough to get the window seat, but my father would not be seated next to us. His seat was on the aisle a few feet away from us. This left my mother looking rather disconcerted as she sat worrying who would sit next to her. Luckily, it was a woman in her early twenties who sauntered down looking up from her ticket to the seat numbers till she finally greeted us with a welcoming smile, as if we were being invited to her humble abode. My mother greeted her rather cheerfully, and the lady ruffled my hair muttering “How cute!” under her breath. I hated being treated like a child and being called cute. I was on the heavier side, which made me look all the more teddy bear – like and cuddly.

The lady had two suitcases beside her and my mother offered to help her prop them on the stand above them. She slid them with perfect ease, and from what I had glimpsed, seemed even muscular. She was relatively tall, with chiselled features that resembled a dancer. Her long hair was neatly plaited with a multi-colour hair band at the end. Her eyes were beautifully shaped, dark and mysterious with a delicate line of kajal adorning them. She wore a cotton kurta with a beige dupatta and looked simple, yet elegant.

She introduced herself as Ramaa after she had seated herself. She was on her way to Madras to attend a friend’s wedding, and my mother told her that this was our routine summer vacation in an ironic tone. I could see that my mother was already dreading the sweaty and mosquito-ridden nights that she would have to endure along with the constant nagging from my grandmother.

I let the two women beside me dwindle into harmless chatter as one got to know the other as effortlessly as fish taking to water. My mother seemed to enjoy Ramaa’s company, and Ramaa was amused with my mother’s way to talk animatedly when she was excited. I pulled out the tray in front of my seat and began to solve a puzzle from the book I had brought along.

Our compartment was half-full as far as my eyes could see with families, couples, businessmen, children my age, toddlers, teenagers, old men and women, and the coolies who flitted in and out in their bright red uniforms, haggling for that extra rupee or two, with passengers grudgingly consenting at the end.

My father came up to our seat, introduced himself to Ramaa, and asked me if I wanted anything before the train left the station in the next few minutes. My mother distrusted bottles labelled ‘Mineral Water’ and brought along her own 2 litre pet bottle for the journey. As for magazines, she didn’t need them with Ramaa to keep her company. I told him I had everything and that he needn’t worry. He went back to his seat, where two other gentlemen sat beside him. How odd it seemed to me then! Two women who hadn’t stopped their chattering since the one greeted the other; and three men who sat next to each other quite oblivious of the existence of the other! I guess this is what they mean by female of the species.

The train finally left the station with a steady pace and the nameless, figureless voice that made the announcements told us that we would reach Madras in five hours. I looked at the people who were still on the platform waving out to their loved ones, some even beginning to jog or run beside the train, not willing to let go of whoever seemed to be travelling, away from them. Some were teary-eyed, others cheerful, others with a sense of impending doom. The coolies were counting their little bounty and were either cursing or revelling at how their day had begun. The vendors walked about selling newspapers, tea, coffee and what not, with paper cups hanging on their shoulders, conveniently wrapped in plastic.

Steaming cups of coffee and tea began to be served inside our compartment as well, the invigorating, sleep-vanquishing drink that we Madrasies always crave for. Ramaa and my mother helped themselves to cupfuls of coffee, while I sat looking bored already. I had finished solving five puzzles, all of which had been ludicrously easy. I decided to watch the ramparts of the city go by, and open into the vast expanse of the countryside with its paddy fields, farmers, locals from small towns, colossal mountains, and the arid land that whizzed past us as we chugged on.

Ramaa pulled out a novel from her hand bag, and I saw that it was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. As if to justify reading a classic, she explained that she majored in English literature, and that Dickens had always been her favourite novelist. She asked me if I read any books myself, and I sheepishly blurted out that my favourite books were the Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton kind. She smiled warmly and told me that I was on the right track for my age. “You must try reading the abridged version of classics when you’re a little older. I’m sure you would love that. Pulp fiction never quite has the same charm as reading a classic.” Years later, I still recall our friendly banter as if it were just yesterday. My mother took down Ramaa’s address and phone number, only to misplace it in a few days. She frantically rummaged through her purse and bags in the hope of finding something that resembled Ramaa’s delicate penmanship on a strip of paper torn out from the last page of my puzzle book.

My mother and Ramaa continued to converse about everything under the sun in those five hours. Never before had I seen my mother let her guard down and form a friendship as easily as she hit it off with Ramaa. From time to time, she would speak to me and ask me about school, my hobbies, and my friends, just to make sure I wasn’t lost in the conversations of the adult world. She was old enough to be my elder sister, and yet had the maturity of a woman well beyond her years.

Soon breakfast was served, and I quickly devoured some toast and jam, while my mother ate her idlies soaking in sambhar. Ramaa decided to skip breakfast and opened a pack of Good Day biscuits that she quietly munched on.

I felt removed from the humdrum of life and forgot about where we were heading to. It felt nice to just sit there and talk to Ramaa hour after hour, completely forgetting the tedium of the journey. In a little world of our own, my mother no longer felt anxious about visiting Madras, I no longer felt restless and tied down before finally getting off the train; and Ramaa was herself. She seemed like a self-made woman, and I still can’t help but admire her as I think of her today, reminiscing and hoping to find a reason to trod down memory lane. 

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