From Kolkata to Siliguri

railway line1One day, many years ago, when my daughters Aditi and Tara were aged nine and seven respectively, we took an overnight trip from Calcutta to Siliguri. The train was to start at 8 p.m. in the evening and I hurriedly packed some cheese sandwiches for dinner. Before we left I shoved some bananas into the bag and grabbed a water bottle.

As soon as we found our seats, the kids demanded their dinner and within minutes had polished off the sandwiches. Then they balefully ate a banana each. Dinner finished and done with, I tucked them into bed, looking forward to a cosy winter’s night.

I had not bargained for our next-door compatriots. No sooner had the train jerked to a start, we heard the rustling of paper and the clanging of steel. An aroma of hot ginger tea drifted into our compartment, along with scolding adult voices and the whine of complaining children. I listened to the commotion with irritation, but soon consoled myself that it was a good thing that they were having their dinner early. It meant that they would soon retire and we could go to sleep. But the rustling of paper continued, and the conversation got louder…and louder.

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Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

“Beta, have some more,’ a woman called out, a woman whom I gathered was the mother.
“Mummy I’m full!’ screeched a young girl.
‘Mummy spent the whole day preparing this for you! Khao!’ It was a man who spoke, and his stern voice seemed to settle the matter. There was a short silence and all that we heard for the next few minutes were chomping and slurping sounds, punctuated by an occasional belch.

The relative peace was broken with the sound of heavy foot-steps and over-hearty greetings.

Oh no, I groaned to myself. Guests.
‘Aha, kya swad hai,’ complimented one of the newcomers.
‘Baitho, baitho. Khao,’ came the instant invite.

After a few polite refusals which no one paid any attention to, the guests joined the party. There was more rustling of paper, more clanging of steel. And everyone started to talk at once. They talked about food. About finding more plates, distributing water, opening bottles, sharing the parathas and the pickles…and occasionally, there was friction.

‘Mummy! Shivam took my laddoo!’ screeched the same girl whose had complained about being too full to eat anything.
‘Take this halwa then,’ said her mummy.
It was clear that mummy proceeded to serve the halwa to everyone else because a young boy’s voice piped up. ‘I hate carrots!’ he said.
‘The carrots are fresh from the farm, so eat that,’ said the father.
‘I don’t like halwa,’ said someone else. A new voice.
‘Kha lo beti, it’s not very sweet,’ said the mother.
‘Nooo, no! You know I don’t eat sweets,’ she protested.
‘She’s always dieting,’ rued her mother.dhokla
And so it went on…

I lay wide awake, marvelling at how people could talk endlessly about food…what they were eating, who had made it, how it was made, why someone was not eating…and why someone was eating

Hours seemed to pass and finally, the conversation petered out. And it looked like the remnants of the food was being packed.

I looked at my watch. It was nearing midnight. There was a brief debate as to whether some of the leftovers could be eaten the next morning or would they have to be thrown away. It was decided that the momentous decision would be taken the next morning.
Finally, there was silence. From across the aisle, my husband Anil winked at me. ‘What a party!’ he whispered. He thought it funny.

I didn’t. The heavy smell of oil and spices had lingered, and it made me feel slightly sick in the enclosed compartment. Even in the dim light, I could see that the corridor had been littered with food and plastic. As I drifted off to sleep I heard my nine-year-old ask her father in a plaintive voice. ‘Why did Mummy bring only bananas?’

The next morning as we were alighting I could not help peeking into the next compartment. To my utter delight, I saw two fat teenage girls with pimply oily faces, a rotund toddler of indeterminate sex, and an overweight ten-year-old boy. The father was a thin man with a large paunch and the mother a huge woman who could barely walk.

What Anil couldn’t understand was why I was so cheerful the whole day, in spite of the sleepless night.

Two Daughters

(A brief and true account of my experiences after my second daughter was born).

It all started the day my second daughter was born. It was a lovely day in March, clear, crisp and cool. As I breathed in the fragrant air I felt my cup of joy brimming over.

Which only shows how innocent I was to the ways of the world.

The smart starched nurse in the snow-white uniform who was tucking me in said casually:

‘I hope you’re happy beti, you seem to look it,’ she said, as if she were surprised.
‘I am,’ I answered, trying to read between the lines.
My gynecologist, a lady with high heels and a sophisticated hair-do added lightly, ‘Looks like we are going to have you here again soon… for a third try.’ She laughed.

I knew what she meant. Yet, I joined in the smiles, although a trifle weakly. It hit me then, minutes after my second daughter was born, that giving birth to a second daughter was special. Only one third of the population managed it and clearly, it didn’t make them popular.

When my parents arrived I noticed that though my father looked happy, he was trying to hide his real feelings. Nervousness? My mother was less diplomatic, and avoided all eye contact.

Or was I going mad with imaginings? Here I was, dying to hug them and shout from the rooftops about how wonderful it was to have a baby…but I remained silent.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief when my friends trooped in. Ah ha! Here come my generation of people. I can tell them what I really feel. Or so I thought.  I found that they were acting strangely. Their manner was a little too hearty, and they did not give me a chance to talk. And when they thought I wasn’t looking, they threw in my direction strange searching glances.

By the time I went home to my father’s place I had caught on – and was not amused. Everything will return to normal, I told myself miserably.

However the nursemaid who came in to attend to me and the baby dashed those hopes. She was middle-aged with a leathery wrinkled skin and gnarled hands, but she had five sons, she told me proudly.

The world changed. I stopped watching Mahabharat on TV. I stopped chatting with the baby.

My neighbor, a frequent visitor, never ceased to advise me, ‘Beti, you are young. After a couple of years you can try again.’
‘But I like daughters.’ I told her. ‘Even if the next one is a girl I’ll be happy.’ My mouth had opened at last, and as I expected my neighbor was horrified. ‘Three daughters!’, she exclaimed, as it were a fate worse than death.
Seeing me sniff, my mother said, ‘This is normal after delivery.’
Our neighbor nodded wisely, ‘This is not an ordinary shock.’

It was no use trying to convince anyone of the truth. Nobody would have believed me anyways.

A month later it was time to go home, to my husband. I wanted to leave it all behind, but my flight home was not uneventful.

On one side I had a lovely lady whom I could not resist asking, ‘How many children do you have?’
She answered hesitantly, looking very embarrassed, as if she had a guilty secret. ‘I have two daughters,’ she said.
On the other side of the aisle there was this respectable looking gentleman who had been eyeing both my children for some time. He said at last: ‘That’s a very good looking baby boy.’
I gave him my brightest smile and said, ‘It’s a girl.’

I had to put up with his sympathy for the rest of the flight.

Words cannot describe my relief at catching sight of the father of my children and his glowing face. At last I could share my true joy, the joy of giving birth to a beautiful daughter.

(Slightly revised after it was published in the Deccan Herald as a middle, years ago.)

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The Fate of a Book

booksWhen I am caught at mundane past-times such as reading, I find it tough to come up with good lines to stave off unwelcome visitors.

If the telephone rings while I’m reading, the conversation usually goes something like this.

‘What you doing?’ goes the caller.
‘Reading,’ I say in as serious a tone as possible.
‘Oh! You can come with me to the mall then…’

If the door-bell rings and I open the door holding a book, the conversation goes like this.

‘What’s that?’
‘A book.’
‘Hey, you’re now officially rescued from boredom! Come, lets go for a walk.’

I can’t hope for another rescuer.

Sadly, reading has become an activity difficult to peruse…er… pursue.

It’s not considered important. After all, activities such as swimming, or walking bring with them added health benefits. And going to the pub or watching television are imperative because both drinking and watching TV are relaxing, and help one unwind after a hard day’s work at the office.

That’s why I was surprised when I came across a sizeable chunk of the population reading, in an otherwise deserted library. People hunched up, brows furrowed, buried in books. I scolded myself for my cynicism, but only for a while. Further investigation revealed that this was what was called ‘exam’ fever, with collegians absorbed in finding ways to surreptitiously tear reference books and steal the pages.

Strangely, thousands of books are printed everyday and thousands of writers tap away at their keyboards…in the hope that one day someone will read them. Read them?

If the books are lucky perhaps. More often they will stand unread, adorning a drawing wall, and are shined along with the brass, the crystal and the porcelain. Or they lie in some long-forgotten corner, gathering dust. Or perhaps pile up in anonymous stacks to be passed on from generation to generation.

I always wondered: what is the ultimate fate of a book?

I got an inkling when my favorite bhel-wallah served me mouth watering bhel on carefully torn pages of an unknown book. As I deciphered the hidden words on the bhel-stained pages, it gave me a pleasure I cannot describe. Now, I’ve graduated to unrolling peanut-stained pages, and squinting at the small print, in the hope of reading something of use to me, and get a thrill even if it’s all about quantum physics.

So obsessed have I become that these days I try to catch the words on paper boats as they bob past me on puddles past the colony roads. The words on these pages seem to beg me to read them. I think perhaps their craving to be read was not entirely satisfied in their life-time.

In the process of reading hidden words on carelessly torn pages of unknown and mysterious books, I’ve discovered the willing takers of books. They are the raddi-wallahs, the bhel-wallahs and the pavement wallahs.

The ultimate fate of a book.

(Revised version of what was published in the Deccan Herald as a middle)

A Real Lady – a short story

She was a real lady. Soft spoken and gentle, with a constant half-smile on her face. Never would she complain or show any distress at the hard work she had to do all day. She accepted this as her fate. She was born into the grinding poverty and could see no way out of it.

From dawn to dusk she would toil, her day beginning at the crack of dawn. There were times when she could barely drag her thin body up from her ragged bedding, but there was no way she could fall back in bed. Who else would fetch the water from the water-pump? Who else would cook breakfast? It was slow and painful work, but she did it without a tear, ignoring her growling stomach and the nausea that rose up to her throat. She couldn’t eat, because the men had to be fed first. So once the water was brought, she would quickly light the choola, make hot sweet chai and then start to make the bajra rotis. They finished as fast as she could make them, wolfed down by the men with onions and pickles. It was only when everyone had eaten that she would sit down to to eat. Today there was only half a roti left, and though she wanted more, she had no energy left to make it. So she made do with half, grateful for it.

It was time to wash and clean and she always did it with a song on her lips. Today, she sang the dhoom machalo dhoom song she had heard last night from the raucous television next door. She was happy. She felt she was lucky because she didn’t have to work at a construction site, a fate which her friend next-door had to suffer. She had to stay at home, to look after the baby.

She heard him cry, and rushed to his side. In a jiffy she changed the rags he lay on and filled a freshly rinsed bottle with diluted milk. Then, with the baby on her lap, she leaned her skeletal frame on the door of their hut, and watched the colourful cars flash by. Sometimes if some of the chai was left over, she would sip it slowly, trying to imitate the gurgling sounds of the baby.

This was the best part of her day. She could rest, and look at the people on the streets. She looked with simple curiosity, not resentment. They were all well-dressed and fat to her eyes, but she felt she was lucky too. She had a family, a roof over her head, and one good meal a day. And the baby to play with. She couldn’t ask for more.

That was where I first caught a glimpse of her – her frail body almost invisible against the door. The powerful camera brought her up really close and as I focused on the tired, undernourished face, I felt as if I were intruding on her private space. But I could not drag the camera away from the beauty of that face, a beauty that only innocence can beget. I also could not help approaching her.

Ignoring the stares of the neighbours, I started to speak to her. Her name was Chanda she said, her face lighting up. She touched the silkiness of my sari, and the leather of my purse, and when I asked her, she willingly told me her story. As she spoke about the baby, the tiredness seemed to lift from her eyes. I was glad that she couldn’t fathom the pity in mine.

I gave her a chocolate and she laughed as she ate it. For her, it was the little joys that mattered. The taste of chocolate. The touch of silk. The smile of the baby, or just half a roti. After all, she was just seven years old, having been elevated to being the lady of the house when her mother passed away a few months ago, in childbirth.

Note: This story was inspired by a real incident, while I was out on the streets of Mumbai. The latter part is purely my imagination. I never did speak to the girl but I imagined I did. The “middle” has been very slightly edited since it was first published.

(This story was first published in the Times of India as a middle. After this, the Educational Department of H. Aschehoug & Co publishing house in Oslo, bought this story to publish in a textbook and related digital components called GLOBAL VISIONS for use in the foreign language subject International English in upper secondary school in Norway.)