“I am sorry”, she said out of the blue, cutting through the noise of metal clashing brutally against each other as the train rocked in its rhythm. A raw scent of grease, garbage, and leftovers lingered in the cold air. Arvind looked at her reflection through the dusty mirror while washing his hands in the basin. Clad in a yellow kurta atop green leggings she looked down as if apologizing to her heels for putting too much weight on them. How very tender of her.
“Sorry. I don’t understand”, he lied, remarking upon her emerald eyes behind the frameless glasses. He saw that her eyelashes were strangely glued to each other and it took him a brief moment to realize, they were moist. Her shoulder length hairs swayed gallantly with each gust of wind that ambushed the corridor.
She looked at him and then motioned her gaze towards the door which led into the compartment. The piercing sound of snoring still reverberated in his ears. Even at the distance with a door in between, the noise was so loud that he could almost feel it running through his veins, banging against his skull. Almost an hour he struggled to sleep, failing to which he had walked to the corridor and stood at the corner near the wash basin, to have a smoke. A hawker opened the door all of a sudden. Balancing the tea container on one hand and a minaret of clay cups on the other, he toddled past them stealing a brief gaze at them. As the door gently sprung back, Arvind caught a brief glimpse of a senile man cozily stuffed in his bed.
“Your father?” he asked as if he had a doubt. She nodded with a gentle stretch on her lips, “Not getting any sleep?” he turned against the washbasin to face her, patting his wet hands on his hanky.
“No, and my father isn’t helping much,” she let out a frisk laugh and then her face colored back with embarrassment again. The same face he had been noticing for the past couple of hours.
Ever since she occupied her side lower and upper berth along with her father, they had become people of interest. All credit goes solely to her father. His arrogance and stubbornness added extra toppings to his rudeness when he rebuked an elderly lady who asked politely to trade seats with him. She was too old to climb up the upper berth. The girl sat adjacent to the lady, helplessly looking out of the window pane with an unmistakable hint of dismay. A man, probably in his mid thirties, kindly offered the lady to take his seat instead.
He then munched rowdily on groundnuts and threw the shells on the floor while complaining about his brother at the top of his voice. In a fraction of minutes, everybody in the vicinity knew that his baby brother was a dim-witted fellow who had no respect for his elder brother, and that he didn’t even came to see them off. A few of them shifted uncomfortably in their seats when he spat a few curse words for his sister-in-law who gave him one chapatti lesser than usual, and to add to his flames, his brother didn’t even scold her. Had his daughter not changed the conversation, everyone around probably would have known a little more about their family history than one should.
The coach attender returned with the fourth pair of bed sheets and blankets and the old fellow still found it dirty. The soup vendor never dared to stop near their seats after he was denied his money for the soup being too sour.
“Lady”, he said “Don’t put it too hard on you. You don’t have to apologize for anything, at least not on behalf of your father.”
“Yeah, I guess”, she carried her gaze towards the door and stared at the dark aisle “He wasn’t like this when I was young. I still have some of my best memories with him. He wasn’t like this at all.”A gentle vibe of disheartening sensation escaped her eyes which held tales of teenage jollity, “Not everything changes for the better.”
“Absolutely not. We just have to accept it as it is.” He took a brief pause “You must be too close?”
“Inseparable,” she replied and turned towards the partially open door.
A heavy slab of silence thickened between them for much longer than they could recall. It was hours since his watch struck midnight. He stood patiently looking at her while she fixed her eyes at her father through smudgy glass of the door. He knew that he could bid adieu and head for his not so cozy bed and lay idle until sleep falls upon him. But, something made him reluctant. Somehow, he felt himself relate to her condition. The thin air around him whispered that she wanted him to listen to her. A stranger who he barely met a minute ago told him so much through her silence. Circumstances play strange games in their leisure hours.
“Actually,” he broke the silence, “it was just the opposite in my case.”
“How so?” she turned to him. He almost laughed at the way her eyes widened in a start as if she was shook off a dream.
“When I was young, I didn’t like my father much. In fact I used to despise him for what he put me through on some occasions. To be honest, he had absolutely no sense of judgment when to behave and in what manner. I was a kid, and that too an introverted one. To me, everything, everyone, every thought mattered. I still remember one day when my father dropped me for my music class. Although I don’t remember the reason for which he was mad, yet I can still recall the embarrassment I felt when he yelled at me in front of the whole crowd. The parents looked at us in awe and the children giggled. I felt as if I was under a spotlight dressed as a clown.”
“I know the feeling. It seems we had our own period of faux pas.” she pressed her lips to stretch a cold smile.
“What is your favorite memory, if you don’t mind sharing?” Arvind asked carefully.
She pressed her lips again and rolled her eyes as if to look inside her mind. She tried to recollect the fragments of broken memories as they conjured up in a form of delusional motion pictures. She turned back to the door, cracking knuckles absent mindedly. Arvind stood vigilant looking at her and occasionally checking for RPFs on either side of the compartment. It was not a good sign to stand near the door past mid night, and that too with a girl. It was considered unethical for some reasons which are too weird to explain. He knew that it would be almost impossible to avoid them if they bust in from the other side of the coach, but he considered himself a maven in thinking on his feet.
Her eyes glowed with a divine aura when she spoke, “I was eleven. I remember because it was my birthday the day before and I received my first love letter that very day. Eleven red roses too,” she chuckled, “I was busy doing my homework in resentment. I don’t actually recall if it was my mother’s scolding or one of those devastating battles with my brother. A soft chime caught my ears, one of those which every bicycle had for horns. Our house was on the corner of the street so it was not an unusual event.” Arvind bore down on his waist and stretched. She stole a quick glance at her father, “Then he called my name. I walked to the door of our veranda. He stood there, my father, wide eager eyes and a smile stretched so drawn out that it contrasted his wrinkled face. I’d never seen him more happy and anxious. I cupped my mouth in astonishment. I wasn’t accustomed to surprises then.”
Arvind noticed as a subtle smile creased on her face “After all those years, it is still fresh in my memory, right before my eyes. I don’t remember if he asked whether I liked it or not, but I am sure I loved it. Five years later, something terrible happened. He lost his mind. He has recovered a lot ever since, but he is not the same anymore.”
The train slowed down, and gradually halted at a small station. No one got in or out, at least not from their compartment. The eerie stillness of the night was broken occasionally by the door of compartments and toilets when they were pulled and released to spring back. They noticed a few people unsheltered in the ruthless cold, covered in thin blankets, sleeping on the platform floor. Children in rags running about while their mothers called on them. A cry of a child roared through the silence all of a sudden. An old disheveled man, barely clothed, held himself tightly while he shivered in the cold, his hands dug in his arm pits. A small living being enveloped in warm heavy blankets flapped its tiny hands while resting on his lap. He was trying to shush the child. Maybe he was singing a lullaby, or simply revealing his helplessness to her/him. After a brief stop, the train advanced again, making a peculiar noise as if it was pelted upon by stones. The cry persisted, diminishing gradually as the train moved ahead.
He caught a glimpse of her. He noticed that although her face was bright as day, yet there was a dark film behind it. A layer of memories which one yearns to replicate. A layer which held thousands of tales, blended with expectations, sorrows, and regrets. It flashes in the conscience constantly and reminds of the times which were much better than the present. Not everyone has the capability to move on, and even if one did, sometime, for a brief moment, even for a second, it returns.
“My name is Jyoti, by the way,” she held out her hand.
“By the way, I am Arvind,” he smirked and obliged.
And that’s when three constables of the RPF stepped in. Right on the cue. They looked at them as if they found a pair of masked thieves working their hands on an ATM machine. Jyoti broke their handshake and stood against the door as the trio inched towards them. They stood still for a moment switching their gaze from Arvind to her and back.
“What time is it Tiwari ji?” asked the senior constable to the one on his left.
“Two ‘o’ clock, Sir,” responded Tiwari ji.
“Morning two ‘o’ clock?” he asked again.
“No sir, at night. Past mid-night, when almost everyone falls asleep, sir.”
“Why do you think would two people of opposite gender elope out of their seats when everybody is asleep, Mishra Ji?” he asked to the one on his far left putting extra weight on the words ‘opposite gender’.
“I have no idea sir. Why on earth would someone do that?” responded Mishra Ji.
“Maybe, they weren’t getting any sleep and decided to have some fresh air,” Arvind clarified.
“And the air conditioned air isn’t fresh enough for you?” Mishra Ji shot back.
“Sir, we want no trouble. It is my father; he is snoring loudly, due to which we weren’t getting any sleep. We would get back to our seats right away.” Pleaded Jyoti.
“If that’s the case then why can’t we see anyone else from the compartment rendezvousing with you two? Or is it that you two have the most susceptible ears here? What is it, huh?” he eyed at Jyoti. She lowered her gaze, Arvind could clearly tell that she was shaken, terrified. He was about to step up to them when suddenly their walkie-talkie spoke in an indistinct voice. The trio exchanged a frustrated look at each other as if the walkie destroyed their fun.
“I wonder how you sleep at home, if you can’t tolerate your father snoring,” said Sharma Ji as he left.
“When I come back, make sure I don’t find you two here, or else you might fall into trouble. Go back to your seats and sleep.” Said the senior one as he left and the door slid behind him.
“Aren’t we supposed to feel secure in their presence?” she remarked wryly.
“I think we should better get back now,” said Arvind. Jyoti nodded, her face still blue. She was about to turn to head to her seat when Arvind interrupted, “Before we leave, there is one important thing that I would like you to know.”
She stopped short and faced him. The train blew the horn which reached out far away and resonated in the dark. A mid-aged lady passed past them and entered the toilet only after looking at them with keen eyes.
“I know exactly how you must be feeling due to you fathers behavior, and perhaps you know that. But what you don’t know is that, it doesn’t matter. The people around you, me, anybody else; their opinions and thoughts doesn’t matter a penny. In a matter of hours you will reach your destination and you will leave behind all of these. They too will forget about you, except for a few of them who would need a topic to gossip later on. But your father, he will be the one who will stick to you, and that’s the only thing that should matter. I was like you once. I was always mad at him for his behavior towards me. That minute annoyance started as a spark which accumulated and turned into an enraged fire in form of hatred. But then a thought struck me. What about those times when I used to cry like anything on top of my voice. He rocked me patiently on his arms. He was never bothered about the crowd around him. When I so stubbornly asked him to buy something which he can’t afford, he had to pull me all the way through the market while I wailed and yelled regardless of the people around us. I asked myself, hasn’t he done a lot for me? How could I of all people forget his little sacrifices in order to provide for his family?”
Arvind noticed that her face was illuminated again, just the way it did when she reminisced about her favorite moment. “Now when he grows old it should be my turn to return the favor. The least I could do is to understand him, patiently. To elicit what little battles he is going through and be a part of it.” A delicate smile carved on her face like the final stroke of brush of an artist.
“Now, we really should get going,” he smiled back, “Can’t risk getting caught again.”
“We should, yes.” She chuckled behind her cupped palm. Her eyes dazzled with a glare while she considered for an apt manner to extend her gratitude “Thank you, Arvind. I am really glad we met. I never saw him the way you made me see. Your father is a lucky man. Not every father gets to have such a son, who not only honors him tremendously but also forms a foundation of inspiration for others.” She turned to the door again, peeking through the same smudgy door and found her father shifting peacefully beneath the preferably clean blanket. “Thank you,” she whispered.
He looked at her as she walked past the door and climbed up her seat. He turned back to the mirror and saw his dusty reflection. He fished out a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. With each puff of smoke her words echoed in his mind- your father is a lucky man. A father whom he despised, abused in his thoughts, wished he were dead. He recalled the night when his father was scolding him over some matter too vague to recall. An overwhelming cloud of guilt engulfed his soul when he saw the picture of how he lost his cool and stood up against his own father. A heavy lump formed in his throat filled with guilt and regret, of the words unsaid, actions undone, apologies unexpressed.
He had been so straightforward to Jyoti that he was bemused at his uncanny courage. He had told her an appalling truth; however it was only a partial truth. A thought did strike him as he had told her, but only too late. Too late to apologize, too late to make amends. It struck him while he sat helplessly by his father’s death bed, while his father lay still with numerous IV injected on his shrunken body as the countdown closed in. Arvind talked to him occasionally, but on realizing that he was just talking to himself, he buried his face behind his palms and sobbed, in silence. Tears fled his eyes, assimilating within it a huge pile of remorse and guilt. Just like Jyoti, he also had a memory so vivid as if it were right before his eyes. But it was not of an unexpected gift he got from his father on his birthday, but of the time when he was in his deep sleep. He remembered how he had prayed for him. A sea of tears erupted from his eyes while his hands were joined in prayer. He begged for his father’s life, but in reality he begged for his own emancipation, his absolution. The greatest hurt in the world as someone said, is the failure to bid a proper farewell.
If only he had met someone like she did. If only that someone would have made him to see his father like he did. He saw his bright face in the mirror; and behind it, the dark film of remorse was unmistakable. He took a last puff and threw the stub into the dark abyss outside. Not every father gets to have such a son, who not only honors him tremendously but also forms a foundation of inspiration for others.