As Pooja arranged the luggage systematically, her movements showed those very signs of animation and alertness, which are so typical of any passenger who has just boarded a train. Meanwhile, Upamanyu had taken out the tickets from his pocket to see if they tallied with the numbers on their berths. It was a two-day journey. If one found the space to settle down comfortably, and stretch a bit, Pooja thought, what more would one ask for. Why do people make so much fuss over this two-day affair? As if the space belonged to them eternally!
Pooja pushed the handbag and suitcase under the seat to which she then fastened them. This time she did not have her usual 5-litre water jug. She had brought instead two smaller bottles of water. Putting them away, she asked Upamanyu, 'Shall I take out your slippers?'
'Wait until the train starts moving.' He said. 'What's the hurry about?'
Pooja said, 'None at all, but who will do this again and again?'
'Okay, then, take them out. I shall go down and loiter on the platform. Don't panic; I shall board the train in time.'
Pooja pulled out the slippers from the bag. She also took out two books from it. One was The Early History of the Jews and the other one was The Purple Sea. They had bought the books in Delhi, and Pooja had kept them in the handbag, handy, in case they got bored during the journey. What better way to pass the time than reading?
After all that exertion, Pooja realized that it was hot. How could the AC compartment get so hot, she wondered. Just then, two passengers occupied the vacant seats opposite theirs. Both were women. One was somewhat fat, but quite beautiful, in salwar and kameez. The other one was slim, and wore jeans and a T-shirt. She sported short hair too, like boys. They had a lot of luggage: Three handbags, two big suitcases, one 5-litre water jug, and a largish carry-bag. Pooja thought that the two women were mother and daughter. Their baggage made the place quite congested. The jeans-clad 'girl' was quite smart.
After packing the space below their seat with their luggage, she shoved the rest into the empty space below Pooja's berth. She pushed aside Pooja's bottles with a karate chop and placed her own jug there. She stepped on to the seat, unhinged the upper berths effortlessly, and hooked them on to the wall. Now their side looked roomier. Pooja thought of doing the same thing. When she got on to the seat, and tried to push the berth up, she found it too heavy to lift. Presently she returned to her seat and sat near the window, looking out silently. Once she had tried to see the two fellow passengers through the corner of her eyes.
The one she had taken to be the mother, had eyes as heavy and compassionate as the monsoon clouds. The posture in which the 'girl' in jeans sat looked rather odd to Pooja. One could have even mistaken her for a boy, she thought.
Pooja told herself, if the fellow-passengers are interesting, the journey becomes that much bearable. Who knows how far they would travel or what kind of people they were? On her onward journey, she had nice fellow passengers. The guy on the upper berth had slept through the journey. The lady on the lower berth was from Madhya Pradesh. She was a schoolmistress. Her husband was a doctor in a medical college. She had kept talking about him all through the journey. Her husband was not in favor of eating more than one roti. If one overate, he would insist, one became fat. And fat was bad for health, he would explain. He paid a lot of attention to exercise, but when it came to reading, he was a bookworm. He used to stay up until late in the night to read, and the schoolmistress's sleep was disturbed whenever he turned the pages. Sometimes he would study in the kitchen for fear of upsetting her. She had said that she was visiting her parents, and was now returning to her own place.
Upon this, Pooja had asked her about her children. 'Oh, no, no. I do not have any kids,' the schoolmistress had shot back. 'To tell you the truth I do not like babies at all, they mess up the household, shit and urinate, I can't manage all that!' Pooja had expressed surprise. She had met many types of women in her life. But that any woman would not want to have babies just because they might dirty the household or defecate, was beyond her. She concluded that the woman was fibbing. She could not have babies, so she had taken recourse to lying. So what, if she didn't have babies? Everyone had some shortcoming or the other.
The lady had treated Pooja and Upamanyu to some snacks she had brought from home, and coffee from the pantry. Pooja too had reciprocated her gesture by offering the lady some sweets and soft drinks. 'My father was worried when he came to see me off, how I would be able to travel all alone. I told him, 'Don't you worry. One made the best of friends on trains.' Pooja had kept chatting with her for most of the time, falling silent only when she could not help admiring the Sundargarh forests. But who knew how the return journey would be like?
Suddenly the train moved, like someone lazily waking up from a slumber. Though Upamanyu had asked her not to panic, Pooja got a little worried. Since she hadn't had time enough to assess the integrity of fellow-passengers, she couldn't leave her seat. Soon, however, Upamanyu appeared, and Pooja asked him why he had delayed so much. 'Why, you thought the train will leave me behind?' Upamanyu joked.
Pooja said, 'You have the habit of getting on to the train in the last minute. It is no longer as of old. You are getting on.'
'Is it not very hot?' asked Upmanyu.
'Why don't you lift our berth?' Pooja said.
Upamanyu removed his shoes, and climbed on to the lower berth, lifted the middle one, and fastened it to the hooks.
Pooja said, 'Now it is a little more comfortable. Isn't it?'
'Yes.' Pooja had kept the two books on the seat.
She asked, 'Which one will you read?'
'Any of the two will do.' replied Upamanyu.
Taking out his reading glasses from his pocket, he turned the pages of The Purple Sea. Pooja picked up the other book and sat near the window. Since the light was inadequate she switched on the light and said, 'these days I cannot see clearly.'
'You too need your reading glasses.'
After this the couple were immersed in their respective worlds.
It was difficult for Pooja to concentrate on the book, what with constant movement of the railway staff, the pantry men, and the vibrations of the train.
After a while, Upamanyu offered her a packet of cigarettes. She was surprised but then thought he was up to some trick, and took the packet from him. She noticed some scribbling on it. It was Upamanyu's:
'Observe the two women in front of you.'
Giving the packet back, she gave Upamanyu a quizzical look. But he did not respond. Then she observed the two women. Both of were beautiful; but one of them appeared somewhat rough. Pooja thought that if she had been wrapped around in a sari, and wore a little shyness on her face, she would be a dream for any man. But she wore such a roughness on her face that it banished any trace of softness it may have had. On the other hand, the other 'woman' brimmed with such softness that with a little jerk it threatened to spill like cream.
Pooja remembered that when the two boarded the train first, the plump 'woman' had moist eyes, and the 'girl' in jeans asked her, 'Come on, now. What is it?' and gently stroked her cheeks. Pooja assumed that she was one of those who always cried while parting from their near and dear ones. But, then the 'girl' with jeans asked her in the same roughness of voice that Pooja associated with the grating of two hard stones. If indeed they were mother and daughter, they must be of opposite nature. Now Pooja was almost certain that they were not mother and daughter. The 'girl' in jeans asked her partner, 'How about some mango?' The plump 'woman' looked shyly and smiled. She had a lovely smile.
Meanwhile the 'girl' had taken out some mangoes from the airbag, and cut them into slices and offered a few to her partner. In her turn, the 'woman' scooped some juice out of the mango and offered it to the 'girl'. Visibly happy the latter patted the woman gently and affectionately on her cheeks. After treating each other to the mango, they ate some snacks out of a box.
After reading Upamanyu's message on the cigarette packet Pooja had not read a line of the book that she held in her hands. She put the book away. Soon she began thinking about her home. When she returned an empty house would greet her. She had had a busy life. Earlier, she used to wonder why God had not made the days twenty-six hours each! One would then have been able to look after oneself. But, now that she had all the time in the world, the vacant house was constantly haunting her. Earlier she used to sleep like a log, unconscious of bodily existence. The nights were too brief for adequate sleep. Now the nights were interminable. She would wake up at three in the morning. She would not know why, but looking at the two women, she thought that her life had slipped by imperceptibly. But what sort of life had she expected to live? Did she want a life like this one? What blueprint of her life did she have? Part clear, part hazy? Absurd? That which could not be explained in word? Perhaps she had thought of only happiness without a trace of sadness. She closed her eyes and thought hard. No, she could not recall any thing. Maybe a man full of love in her life would be circling her life like a bumblebee. Like every other girl, her must have been no less or more, must have been Upamanyu would explain to her how she had got everything she had asked of life. Pooja would also agree with him. She had Upamanyu, she had her children, a house to live in, a job a car, a plot of land. But she could not recall Upamanyu and she having ever fed each other any juicy mango! Perhaps much had eluded her in her life.
Presently, Upamanyu took out a scrap of paper from his pocket scribbled something on it and handed it over to her: 'Did you observe the two? What do you make of them?' Pooja looked at him with the same quizzical eyes as before. Upamanyu closed the book and kept it away, and said, 'It would be nice if we could have some tea.' He strolled out. Pooja sat leaning on the pillow. Soon the two got ready for a siesta. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. Pooja and Upamanyu had had rice for lunch and Pooja was feeling lazy. The 'girl' in jeans pulled the curtains hanging down from the upper berth and converted their part of the compartment into a tiny little room. They were undisturbed by their fellow passengers' movements beyond the curtains. She even drew the window curtains and made the space semi-dark.
She switched off the reading lamps, not even bothering to ask Pooja if she wanted to read on. Though they had two bed-rolls, she spread only one bed sheet; they used another one to cover themselves with the white bed linen from head to foot. Pooja had thought the berth would be too narrow for the plump 'woman' alone but now both lay there snugly entwined. The 'girl' in jeans pressed the 'woman's cheeks and said, 'Now, you have got every thing what else do you need?'
As the fat 'woman' blushed profusely her face turned red. Whenever she smiled her face threatened to melt like wax. The 'girl' in jeans kissed her partner's red face. The whole scene reminded Pooja of how Radha was stricken and prostrated by the witty arrows shot by her sakhi Lalita, such was the overwhelming nature of her abashment at those. Their amorous play reminded Pooja of Radha and Lalita's loving frolic in the kunjaban.
Upamanyu entered brushing the curtains aside and said, 'No tea till 4 in the afternoon. The pantry is closed'. Noticing the darkness around, he asked Pooja: 'Are you planning to sleep? I am going up then.'
Pooja, of course, was not feeling sleepy. As the two partners in front of her kept muttering below the bed-sheet, Pooja remembered how she had walked the lawns of Rajghat clasping Upamanyu's hands. How long had it been since they last walked holding each other's hands?
They no longer shared one existence. Now the day would begin when they would hear the alarm ring at five in the morning and end at eleven in the night when they slept turning away from the clock. Work, work, more work.
Wherefrom does so much work generate? Work for the son, work for the daughter and work for Upamanyu, and no time for oneself. Such had been her life. Scenes of her mundane life whirled past her consciousness. Standing in front of the wardrobe, when she would select a particular sari, she would then find a matching blouse which was all crumpled, or vice versa. She would wait for a good Sunday bath; but even on those Sundays, she would come out of the bath in a hurry. While plucking flowers for her morning prayers, she would begin chanting, much before the actual worship began. By the time the idols received their respective offerings, the relevant mantra would be over. Pooja would call from there, 'Listen, I am getting late. If you want any breakfast, come to the table at once.' Upamanyu would be either shaving or reading the morning papers then. Pooja would then butter her toast and start eating, when still on her feet. She too would be getting late. All this and much more of such routine life: twenty years of her married life had whirled past. When could she have enjoyed her life?
When the kids were small, she was sandwiched between the two. When they grew up, she felt too shy to close the bedroom door. When the son and daughter left home for their professional studies, the house was desolate. When Pooja saw these two women in the train, and their love, she wished she had their leisure in her own life.
Pooja noticed that the two women, locked in an embrace, were fast asleep. They looked like two flowers in a single stalk. No they could not have been mother and daughter. Though one was fat and the other slim, and one was in jeans the other in salwar and kameez, they belonged to the same age group. Their face looked equally mature.
Pooja stood up, switched on the light, and flipped through the pages of The Purple Sea. She could not read a thing. What was the use of such a dim light? She put the book away, and went to the loo. Since she was in the air-conditioned coach, the air outside felt warm. The door of the pantry car was now open, and someone carrying a tray asked her if she needed some tea. Pooja gave him the seat number and returned to her seat. The man came with the tea after some time. A flask and a cup. Pooja told the man that they were a couple and would thus need two cups of tea. To this the man said that she should have asked for a 'family tray'. 'Why? Is there only one cup of tea in the flask?' she asked him. 'No three,' said the man on his way out. Meanwhile, the jeans clad 'girl' had awoken. She said, removing the bed sheet from her face, 'Get her two cups.'
As Pooja waited, the two women were heard muttering beneath the sheet. Pooja stood up and, reaching up to Upamanyu, tried to wake him up. He came down and said, 'Shall be back in a minute,' and went off to the loo. The two women stretched their limbs. It was obvious to Pooja that the plump 'woman' was trying to tie up the strings of her salwar and the other one was buttoning up her shirt. They exchanged glances and smiles and sat up.
Soon Upamanyu returned. The pantry car fellow came back with an extra cup of tea for Pooja, and two cups of tea for the two women. Pooja and Upamanyu sipped their tea, and the two women took out some sliced bread with cheese spread and started eating. Then they took out two big apples and started munching on them. The 'girl' in jeans then took out some more eatables and fed the plump 'woman'.
Pooja enjoyed looking at the two eating the way they did.
The 'girl' in jeans tried to play a music cassette on her Walkman, which did not seem to work. She told her partner, 'What have you done to this?' and gave the Walkman a few taps after which it seemed to work fine. The two covered up their bodies up to the neck, the tea cups in hand and listened to some music. The 'girl' in jeans sang a romantic song from a Hindi movie. Her voice was hoarse, she had no sense of rhythm, and Pooja found it very irritating.
'I could not read the newspaper today', said Upamanyu.
'Why, you went to the platform. Didn't you get one?'
'Not that I did not read it but is that what you call a newspaper?' Upamanyu replied.
Pooja knew what an avid reader of the local newspaper Upamanyu was.
'Oh! I overslept! What station is this?' he asked.
'No idea', replied Pooja. Pooja had stretched out on her lower berth and Upamanyu was now seated near her feet. As he ran his hand on her feet, he pressed it slightly. Pooja withdrew her feet quickly and told Upamanyu reprimanding, 'What on earth are you upto? What will people think?'
As the two women continued to be glued to the Walkman, they had in the meantime got entangled again. The 'girl' in the jeans ran her hand on her partner's cheeks and said, 'Komal, yes you really are Komal.' 'You ought to have been called Komal.' She said as she squeezed her cheeks.
'No, my name is Pinkie,' she said, smiling coyly. 'Is it not the same thing?' She got an affectionate smack on her face.
Around nine in the evening, Upamanyu and Pooja had their dinner from the pantry and turned in. Early in the morning, Upamanyu woke Pooja up and wanted her to go to the loo. Pooja said, she did not need to. Taking advantage of the darkness Upamanyu kissed her quietly.
After this, Pooja could not sleep. She remembered her children and relatives. She also recalled the few days she spent with Upamanyu in Delhi. The first day was enjoyable for both of them. But after that they became unaware of each other. The same familiar bodies, the same limbs, hands, face, and spots. Besides, they had got tired shopping, and at last lay on the bed turning their backs to each other.
By the by, the train got crowded. By eight in the morning the 'woman' woke up and woke her partner up too. The 'girl' in jeans had put on shorts for the night. As she got up, she said, 'Have you asked for some tea?' Her partner shook her head to say no.
'You are impossible,' said the 'girl', and went out. This was for the first time that the two were separated. The plump 'woman' went out with her toothbrush. She came back after some time and began to comb her hair. Though they had spent nearly a day together, Pooja had not exchanged a single word with them. Right from the start of the journey, Pooja had taken to the plump woman. Her large compassionate eyes, shy smile and cream-soft manners. Taking advantage of her partner's absence, she ventured to ask her: 'How far are you going?'
'Is that your home, or are you going on a holiday?'
The woman kept quiet for sometime, and then said, 'I am from Delhi. My sister's husband worked in the Steel Plant of Rourkela, as a manager. Perhaps you know about the terrible accident. It was in the papers. My elder sister, her husband, their two children, my younger sister, her husband all died in the accident.
Pooja's heart missed a beat. 'So many of them lost their lives?'
'Yea. They were travelling in a car. A truck hit them. It was a head-on collision. Only my younger sister's young son survived the accident.
'Oh God!' Pooja gasped. 'Did your younger sister too live in Rourkela?'
'No, she had come on a holiday.' She said. That is why you are going to Rourkela?'
'Yea. My mother, brother and my husband have already reached Rourkela.'
'What will you do now.' Pooja asked innocently and fell silent.
'What shall we do? We shall have our all belongings in a trunk and return.'
Pooja did not ask any more questions. Tears had appeared in the woman's eyes.
Just then, the girl in jeans returned. 'What happened? Yes, what happened?'
'Nothing', the woman said. Now the girl in jeans took out some eatables from the air bag, and arranged them on a plate. They fed each other, as before. After that, they ate their apples. The girl in jeans asked her partner, 'Fatso! What else do you want to eat?'
The plump woman blushed. The two resumed their activities, turning on the Walkman, getting entangled, and became complementary to each other.
Life is strange, Pooja thought. The real magician is the one who knows how to live.
She got up and walked away, looking for Upamanyu. She found him queued up in front of the loo.
Translated from Oriya by Sumanyu Satpathy, Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi, Delhi 110007