Hair gathered in a dirty, unkempt bun, oily-faced, traces of leftover kohl in her sleep-deprived eyes, lip-balmed mouth, sleeves of the tee rolled up to her armpits, dirty jeans folded to a little above the ankles, floaters strewn somewhere beneath the berth, she sat cross-legged, facing the window. Steam whiffed into her face, leaving miniscule droplets of perspiration on the rind of her upper lip. Traces of the strong Indian tea she was sipping mingled with the sweat. She watched the trees and landscape run by as she adjusted the Walkman’s earphones. The Pakistani rocker crooned only for her. Percussions tried to rule the song. She wasn’t listening to the lyrics. But she knew it was something about a mermaid and her lover.
The sun was kind. No one seemed to shade their eyes from it. There were clouds. There were huge patches of shadows cast from the clouds, on the lush green fields of God-only-knows-what. Black soil wherever green failed to catch up. Tiny watering holes catering to cattle. She was watching rural Maharashtra early in the day. It was an effort to avoid socializing with her co-passengers of three days. Right now, all she wanted to do was to listen to the mermaid song, watch the landscape, and feel the rumble of the train engine.
Traveling in a non-AC coach had a sense of freedom to it. The urchins were free to drag themselves across your berth. The vendors were free to barge into your privacy handing you a C-grade magazine. The co-passengers were free to watch you while you slept, read, spoke. The wind was free to play on your face. Everybody was free to do whatever they want! To restrict yourself to your own world in such a seemingly anarchical world seemed like an impossible task. And she had easily achieved it. However, there was also a benumbing quality about train journeys. Especially while passing through dark clammy tunnels. She found the comfort of a mother’s womb when smoke filled the compartment and when all she could hear was the moans and sighs of the engine.
A few more hours and she would be getting off at a station platform, where she barely knew anyone. It was supposed to be a short vacation. She was temporarily running away from people. But running away from thoughts would be so difficult. Thoughts would shuttle in and out of her mind interspersed with sleazy magazine snippets, the urchin’s tired song, or the shoeshine boy’s bare eyes. Emptying the teacup, switching off the music, wiping her eyes, ignoring the wind on her face, she got up to go for a short walk down the steely compartment.
A man already stood there at the doorway, looking out. She could only see his back. Jeans, pale orange kurta, very many wooden beads strung around his neck, a sorry excuse for a scrawny ponytail. His left hand in pocket, the other supporting him against the door, he stood, forming an inverted ‘V’ with his legs. Company. She groaned her disinterest in human contact. She caught her reflection in the grimy mirror near the entrance. God-awful. She wished she could just fade into the surroundings. To look presentable, she tidied her hair and leaning against the metal, feeling the cold seep into her, through recently formed goose bumps, she check her reflection on the mirror again. From where she stood now, she could see his face. Clean-shaven, cleft chin, traces of dimples that would have made cameo appearances if he smiled. This is probably what Gautam would look like, now. She thought, trying to conjure up the image of a grown-up Gautam. Just a vague faraway thought.
Gautam, who loved rough and tumble games. Gautam, who ran for the school team. Gautam, who broke more than just a couple of hearts. Gautam, whom I worked on my summer projects with. Gautam, who waited for me at hallways shyly. Gautam, whom I secretly liked a lot too. Gautam, whom I didn’t have the courage to face. Gautam, who would have become someone much more significant had he only confessed. Gautam, whom I was sure I liked. Gautam, who became a faded memory when I left high school.
For a minute, she seriously contemplated asking the kurta-clad man if he was related to anyone named Gautam, but decided against it. He would laugh at me, she discouraged her impulsiveness. He was watching her now. He was not staring intrusively, but, on the contrary, she could feel that he welcomed her presence. Before she got comfortable, she decided to go back to her window seat. After all, she was trying to shut out every decibel of noise from outside herself. And meeting new people was the last thing on her mind.