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.

food salad restaurant person
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.)

IMG_8629