What is it about a train journey in India I fail to understand, but every time I have been on a train, I’ve made friends. And the nature of the friendship has been such that it lasted for only as long as the journey lasted, but its warmth tugged at my heart for the rest of my life. I have forgotten their names with the passing of years; some, I do admit, I remember. But it is their faces that I have not forgotten. At times, it is not even the face, but the action and the gestures that have stayed on.
And the romance! Our train journeys; especially the long distance ones that take anywhere between 12 – 36 hours to cover the passage, make for an ideal situation to fall in love. Not just to fall in love with the cultural and physical landscapes that change with time and stations, but with one passenger or the other who can charm their way into your heart. Just like the girl who occupied the berth opposite mine in the early 1900s. I was just 13 years old then and travelling with a group from school on an excursion to New Delhi from Guwahati. We were travelling by the Northeast Express which, including delays, took about 34 – 40 hours of travel. It was my first time on a train.
She buried herself in some fat book, ear plugs on, with the Walkman hanging from her hips. She was not bothered with her co-passengers, but every time a child entered to clean the floor of the compartment, she fished out a coin and a toffee from her bag and delighted the child with a warm smile. At Siliguri, when hawkers with ‘Chinamaal’ – goods they claimed were from China – flitted about the train, she would put her book aside, free her ears of the plugs and get into full-bloodied bargaining with them. “How much are these for? What? No! No!” And then she would bait for a price half of what the hawker would demand. “Arrey Madam,” the poor guy would say, “How is that possible! How will I survive?” But she would definitely survive the bargain with what caught her attention, at her price. There were hawkers who would scoff at her when she slashed the prices, them she would ask to be off with a wave of her hand. She wasted no words with those kinds.
The day was almost over and as far as her co-passengers were concerned, she had not yet uttered anymore than “Can you please pass me the bottle of water?” or “Excuse me, I need to go to the washroom. Could you kindly keep an eye on my bag?” or “Which station is this?”
Finally, by about 9 p.m. the lights of the compartment were switched off. All of us had settled into our berths dreaming our own sweet stuff. I must have drifted into sleep when suddenly a pinch at my bottom shook me awake. I sat up, as much as the middle berth allowed, and looked around. Everyone was asleep. Who could it be? I went back to sleep thinking it must have been an ant or something. It was not too long before I felt a hand feeling the sole of my feet. I gave a good kick and sprang up. A man was quickly making a dash for the exit door. I chased after him and crossed one sleepy compartment after another. Finally, the man seemed to disappear. There were no more footsteps to be heard and the whole compartment I found myself in was dead quiet. Not a soul stirred. It was as if the silence had swallowed him!
And then, there was this whisper behind me, “Where did he go?” I turned to find the girl standing right behind me, anger in her eyes. We both knew what had happened to each other and felt a bond.
Sharing a cigarette by the entrance door of our compartment, a few minutes later, she showed me how to smoke and we went into a mood of discovering the other and the self. Older to me by six – seven years, pursuing a degree course in Delhi University, the girl told me about her family, her pet dog Chikooo who wears a green collar, growing up in the tea gardens of Assam, stories of Babus who made early rounds in their bicycles to see the garden girl, who has stolen the heart, pluck tea leaves and gather them in baskets hanging by the head. She told me that Delhi has this great night life and that she had had about six boyfriends so far. Her current guy, she said, was making her life hell with his ‘machoism’!
We talked all night and came back to our berths only when breakfast was being served. I felt a high like never before. I had fallen for the girl although I couldn’t say it was her face I liked, or the way she dressed or her voice! It was her spirit, I guess, that attracted me. She was a free spirit and a courageous one too. Not the one my mother would like me to be with, I realized later; but one whom my soul would always seek out. She infused in me a thirst for adventure, a desire to collect stories and to have a mind that gave me the strength to live life the way I wanted. She had awakened something in me that I had never known before: Maybe a desire to step into the adult life.
When we reached Delhi, we exchanged our phone numbers and postal addresses and promised to keep in touch. But that was the last time we heard from or saw each other. Life got busy and new distractions and attractions came up. The Delhi excursion became the high point of my life and I thought of the girl only when I found time alone. Slowly her face faded, but her spirit stayed with me. I made the most of the Delhi trip. Collected as many stories I could, did as many new things that were possible with two teachers acting as our Supervisors.
And then, it was time to take the train back to Guwahati. I must say that I missed her when I boarded the train and wished she were on board too. God must have taken pity on my longing heart for it was soothed soon. “Excuse me, could you help me put my luggage on the top berth?” a lilting voice addressed me. I cheered up for I had fallen in love with the voice even before I saw the face.
The whole journey those were the only words she spoke to me. I never got to know her nor did she exchange addresses or phone numbers with me; but we exchanged smiles whenever our eyes met. And our eyes met so often!
Juanita Kakoty, 33 years old, is a freelance writer and journalist. She has written on the arts, cultures, travel, food, etc. for publications like The Deccan Herald, The Thumb Print, India Today Woman, The Assam Tribune, etc. She is from Assam, a northeastern state of India, and holds an M.Phil. degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having taught at two Indian universities, she is now taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories and photo-documentation. Her published work is available at her blog juanitakakotywrites.blogspot.in
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)
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