Sometimes, we meet strangers, who understand a part of us better than everyone else in our lives. This is the story of two strangers, on a long train journey travelling through the picturesque landscape of Assam.
SP Singh is an Army veteran and author of the acclaimed novel ‘Parrot under the Pine Tree’ which was shortlisted for the Best Fiction Award at the Gurgaon Literary Festival and nominated at the Valley of Words Literary Festival in 2018. His short story, ‘Palak Dil’ made it to the finals of South Asian Award for Micro Fiction in 2019.
Lumdig, a nondescript railway station in Assam in the northeastern India, often wore a sleepy look. On any given day only a couple of trains passed through this junction. With hardly any work Deka, its young station master, found himself wasting his youth in such a place and waited for his transfer to a better station. Anonymity and not neglect was his main concern. A quick glance at the basic amenities at the station told the story of his indifferent attitude. So, what did he do during long empty day hours? Just dozed off. But not that day because a call from the district collector’s office had drawn a few worry lines on his otherwise unfazed face.
During the day he ran around to make arrangements for a brief stay by the VIP. In the evening he was surprised to find a woman alighting from an Ambassador car. He received her and ushered her in the retiring room. The accompanying police escort waited outside, in the veranda, as she freshened up. As soon as she emerged from the bathroom she found a man waiting with tea and biscuits. A cursory look at the clock gave her a sense of relief. She had only half-hour to board the train.
Chitrangada, the wife of the district collector of the North Cachar Hills was travelling to Kanpur. She was going to meet her ailing grandmother. Somehow she had a hunch that her grandma was on clinging onto the last thread of life, and wanted to catch a glimpse of her favourite grandchild before leaving for heavenly abode. Immersed in childhood memories, she forgot about the tea. By the time she realised, it had gone cold. Nonetheless, she drank it in one gulp and replaced the cup on the table.
The dull décor and lacklustre ambience of the railway retiring room could evoke melancholy in the heart of even strongest optimist. Of late, she was upset with her husband whose preoccupation with the job left him with little time either for her or for her family. He had turned down her impassioned pleas to come with her. She knew he wasn’t interested and had her reasons to feel so because in their seven years of marriage he had gone to her parents’ only once. Apart from some trivial quarrels, theirs was a blissful marriage. Heavy sounds of the boots in the corridor cut short her journey down the memory lane. Within minutes she was at the platform waiting for the train.
It was well past midnight when she boarded the train and fell asleep immediately as the train moved out of the platform. When she awoke next morning she found a man, in mid-forties, sitting on the opposite seat. For a moment she was irked by a male’s presence but she realised that it was a train compartment and not her bedroom. The man, however, was looking outside the window. And that gave her some comfort.
Half-hour later she was a bit relaxed, though neither exchanged a word. She fidgeted on the seat to redo her makeup. Suddenly the train halted and the man moved out. Hurriedly she retouched her lipstick, applied the moisturiser and combed her hair. Then she replaced the cosmetics into her leather bag and sat down on her seat.
To her pleasant surprise her co-passenger walked in with tea and said handing her a cup, “Ma’am, this is for you.”
“Thanks,” she said and added after a few sips, “I’m Chitrangada. You can call me Chitra.”
“Chitrangada sounds better,” he said.
“Yeah, for me too but nowadays people find my name quite ancient and everyone calls me Chitra.”
“No wonder. In the age of burgers and colas we are fast losing our traditions and values.”
Thereafter they fell silent for a while.
“Excuse me. What should I call you?” she asked, drawing his attention.
“Sorry. I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Tarun Mehta. You might have heard about the gauge conversion between Lumdig and Silchar. I’m the project engineer.”
“I wish the conversion is completed soon,” she sighed.
“Why? Have you travelled on that route?” he asked.
“No, but I’ve heard a lot from my husband about the day journey between Silchar and Lumdig.”
“Horror stories,” he laughed.
She said nothing but smiled.
He spoke apologetically, “I know the day journey is quite long and tiring but perhaps not everyone is aware that the route is an absolute visual delight as the train passes through breathtaking countryside.”
“I didn’t know that,” she said with a glint in her eyes. “I do hope to undertake journey some day. Hopefully by then the trains would run faster.”
“Surely if your husband is still here for another four years.”
She managed a feeble smile and spoke pensively, “You know that’s not guaranteed.”
“I guess that’s a small price to pay to be a collector’s wife,” he said.
“No, that’s a huge price,” she protested mildly. “It’s a fallacy the bureaucrats live a cushy life.”
Feeling the hurt in her voice, he immediately made amends, “Sorry. I’ve limited knowledge about your husband’s profession.”
During the brief silence she regained her calm. He was relieved. After a cursory peep outside the window he turned to her and enquired, “Chitrangada, what’s your profession?”
“I work in my husband’s house,” her cheeks dimpled. “I mean I’m a housewife. Some women, however, call it by a fancy name like the house manager but the fact remains that the job is similar whether you’re a poor man’s wife or a millionaire’s.”
For a while he looked perplexed and felt stupid at the choice of his question. As far as his knowledge went he knew the wives of most bureaucrats were working women, mostly in the same profession. His co-passenger was an exception. Curious, he probed, “I guess you’re happy as a house manager unlike the women who seek a career and identity for themselves.”
She raised her eyebrows and said, “A few years ago I was like them, full of dreams to achieve something in life and so, I did my MBA. For less than a year I worked in a multi-national company. Then I fell in love with Neeraj, who was doing his training in Mussoorie where I was holidaying with my friends. It was an accidental meeting and love at first sight.”
“And you married him.”
“Yeah, you’re right.
“Where was the hitch in your continuing with your job?”
She became pensive and tensed. He waited anxiously. When she stirred he breathed easy.
“On the day Neeraj proposed me he said that he wanted a wife.”
“And he had one,” said Tarun in a sad tone.
Though he did understand what went on in her mind that moment, he tried to comfort her, “I’m sure you would be leading a wonderful life as a collector’s wife.”
Her response was a huge smile. Fearing he might dig further into her life, she looked at him and asked, “Where’s your wife?”
“In Lucknow. She runs a boutique there,” he replied. “Since I never get to stay at a place for more than six months it’s not possible for us to stay together.”
“Lucky girl,” she mumbled.
“Did you say something?”
He fell silent. A deep sadness had settled in his eyes. Perhaps she had touched a sore spot. A pang of guilt ran through her for broaching a sensitive subject. His eyes had begun to fill. The man could burst into tears any moment and might need a shoulder to lean on. That moment she felt vulnerable. So, she excused herself and slipped out and sat elsewhere until the next station arrived. When she returned to her seat he was immersed in a book. His eyes were clean.
After lunch she opened the bag, took out a pair of needles and a bundle of light brown wool, and started knitting. Neeraj had bought the wool from the local market and it was his favourite colour. Before leaving she had promised to knit a sweater for him. Though she had knitted it for almost a month, she couldn’t finish it. The train journey, she thought, would give her enough time to complete the sweater.
Out of corner of her eye she saw him reading the book. As the train picked up speed so did her knitting that she had learnt from her grandmother. Contrary to her friends’ opinion, she enjoyed it. In fact, it acted as a stress buster for her.
Suddenly a waiter appeared and asked them for tea. Both nodded in unison, “Yeah.” He kept aside his book and looked at her. Then he said, “I’m surprised.”
“Why? What’s so surprising about it?” she replied, placing needles on the seat and exercising her aching fingers.
“I find it strange. I mean an MBA graduate and a collector’s wife reviving a dying art.”
“Oh, I understand. In a way you’re right. Not many educated girls know how to knit. I learnt it from my grandma who knows so many designs. She is the best knitter in the family. My folks say she never repeats a design and has knitted about hundred sweaters, pullovers and cardigans. Unfortunately, I could learn only a dozen designs from her. I hardly get time at home. During the train journeys, though, I manage to knit a sweater or two.”
“Your husband is a lucky guy. The feel of a sweater knitted by someone special on a wintry night would really be a unique experience.”
“Why? Hasn’t anyone knitted you a sweater?”
“In my family women are too lazy to knit a scarf, leave alone a sweater. My wife, in fact, hates needles. Sometimes I wonder how she runs a boutique.”
She sat opposite a man who was so sentimental about the hand-knitted sweaters but had none. On the other hand, her husband for whom she had made a dozen of them but he had never expressed any sentiment like that.
For the rest of the journey they talked on various subjects and when they got tired, he switched to reading and she to knitting. In between he did look admiringly at her fingers, which moved like a professional’s. As the train reached the last station before Lucknow she finished the sweater. He got down and brought two cups of hot tea. They had it quietly. After finishing tea he started to pack his luggage. One moment he waited anxiously for the next station and the next he wished his journey never ended. It just went on and on, forever. Why? He didn’t understand. Neither his mind nor his heart had an answer.
Uninterestedly, he watched the dim lights of the villages pass by. His hometown was to arrive any moment.
“Excuse me,” he heard her voice.
“Yeah,” he turned back.
“I’ve a gift for you. I hope you won’t refuse it,” she had a packet in her hand.
“What have I done to deserve this?” he asked with a sheepish smile.
“It’s for the trouble you took during the last twenty-four hours for getting me hot tea from the stations,” she grinned.
For several seconds he remained too overwhelmed to say anything. Then he thanked her and asked with a childlike sparkle in his eyes, “What’s in this?”
“Open it and see for yourself,” she shot back.
Curious, he opened it and was shocked to find a sweater. It was the same one she had been knitting in the train. A sense of guilt weighed him down. She was knitting that sweater for her husband. How could he accept it? He argued in his mind and said, “Chitrangada, though this is the best gift of my life, I can’t accept it. Neeraj is its rightful owner.”
“Believe me. You deserve more than him,” she insisted. “I’ll make him another one.”
“Thank you so much. I shall treasure it all my life,” he wiped his misty eyes.
“It’s not for the safekeeping. Do wear it some times. I’ll feel happy,” she laughed.
He joined her. Minutes later when the train halted, they shook hands and bade each other good-bye. Outside, the weather was chilly. He put on the sweater. Half-hour later he reached home. His wife and children welcomed him with tears and hugs. After freshening up he sat at the dining table as his wife made tea.
As soon as she placed cups on the table his sweater caught her attention. She moved closer to him and touched it. “Nice sweater. Where did you get it? I mean who gifted it?”
“Chitrangada,” he blurted out and began to sip tea.
“Is she one of your cousins?” she enquired but just couldn’t take her eyes off the sweater. She felt it between her fingers and had a closer look at the design. “Tarun, you know this design is very, very exclusive, the kind a woman makes for someone special.”
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“I run a boutique and don’t forget I’m a designer too.”
“But you never knitted a sweater.”
“So what?” she snapped back. “A woman can never miss the feelings that go behind stitching a garment. Every fold and joint carries the pain and hard work of the maker.”
“All right, I believe you,” his smile hid everything.
“Indeed, it’s a very special sweater,” her smile said it all.
* * *