18th December. Sunday. 4 pm. Chilled weather. The train is heading for'.or is it significant at all? I have moved with life and went where it took me. I am sitting, reading a book about the Second World War in a first class compartment. Hitler's speech is on full swing while it is snowing outside. The window panes are down, the heater is on, radio is playing old time numbers, and my cup of steaming hot coffee (which the errand boy just left for me) is right beside me, yet I feel frozen.
I am alone. Not in this world, just in this compartment. But I prefer it this way; for I am bad at conversation. My sense of humor leaves the other person perplexed. Neither do I have stunning looks nor any huge bank balance to compensate for this. No, don't think I am an old rotting person or that I suffer from intense inferiority complex. Julie tells me that my aura is very pleasant. I have never understood the meaning of 'aura' though. Nonetheless, I have come to know myself with time. So, I don't waste time and energy trying to befriend my co-passengers. Luckily, I don't have any co-passenger today.
I have closed the book. A child is wailing in the next compartment. I try thinking philosophically about my surroundings, but the song on radio is the one I have always hated. So, I am unable to concentrate. And I don't feel like getting up to switch it off. Why have I always hated this song, I try to figure out. No use.
It's white outside. I think about my grandmother. She wore a lot of white and her hair was also pure white. She passed away last year. I hadn't cried much; but I always think of her when I see white color.
Life is like that, just a journey.
I look at my watch. It's 6 pm now. Time is moving slowly. I am reminded of a line I read somewhere (perhaps during my college days) - 'It's not time that is passing away, it's just you and I.'
The train seems to be coming to a halt. I hear some sounds. It's not my station. I have time. I am still here. People are getting down. A girl in pig-tails is hiding behind her mother while the lady is urging her to shake hands with her cousins. Must be distant cousins. I smile. My brother's daughter, Sally, is just the same. I imagine her happiness when she'll see me tomorrow, just in time for her birthday party. I have a neatly packed wrist watch ready for her.
I close my eyes.
Some noise wakes me up. I open my eyes to find a pair of honey eyes staring into them. I am struck with nostalgia. Intense nostalgia. I am transported to the huge gardens, the big library, the canteen and the corridors. I am back to my college days. Maybe I am in a dream. Sitting up, I rub my eyes. No, Pahul is indeed sitting right in front of me.
She smiles. The same old smile, the same curve of lips and the same expression of eyes that spoke volumes. Ours was never a love story. But we both understood each other. In fact, we were just the same; so there was no need for 'understanding'. Our friends thought we were in a relationship, but we knew we were not the kind to fall in love. Being alone or being with Pahul meant the same for me. But there lay some difference somewhere.
The voice has lost its husky tone, but the melody is still there.
I smile, my mind flooded with memories.
Our first meeting in college had been a very casual one, just like our last meeting at the farewell party.
She is wearing a pink sweater, her favorite color. Does she remember mine? Its pink, I can almost hear her saying.
We are talking, catching up with each other. She is single, unlike me. She has moved up the ladder of success faster than me. And she admires Julie's hair-cut. I carry Julie's snap in my wallet.
This time, being with Pahul is better than being alone. At least, in this compartment.
Pahul has adopted a child. Five year old Som is full of life, she is telling me. Julie is expecting our second child, I tell her. My life has changed so much since the college! Though this change is inevitable, it amazes me. Meeting someone from those times, and living in these times'is it a mere chance; or is there more to it than that?
I shake myself out of this thought process. This 'thinking' has always been my drawback. It stops me from concentrating on the topic of conversation. I remember I was in a party last week. General ailments like cold were being discussed and I was in my own distant world'.questioning my existence!!
Pahul is looking out of the window. Thinking. We have always been the same.
It's not snowing anymore. Pahul has pulled the window pane open. Cool breeze rushes inside. Strands of her golden hair leap out to frame her face. She casually tucks them behind her ear. Certain things never change. Is she also observing me so keenly and comparing me to myself of yester years. She must be, after all she is as quiet as I am.
We start talking about a workshop we had attended during college days. Old experiences'.. discussing them is equivalent to reliving them.
It's completely dark outside now. We prepare ourselves for the night. I take out my sleeping bag after dinner. Dinner was good. I hadn't realized how hungry I was. Pahul is rummaging her bag.
'Goodnight', I say.
'To you, too'.
I close my eyes.
Suddenly, there is a loud thud. The whole compartment shakes. I wake up with a start. It must be around mid-night. The lights go off. And then, in a flash of a second, it happens. I am thrown on the floor with immense force, there is a lot of shouting, the window panes crack. Faces of Julie and my child cross my mind. Pahul's suitcase has landed on my legs with a thump. My seat seems to have broken and I am unable to move my right arm. Outside there is a lot of smoke which rushes inside through the broken window glass. I am unable to breathe. God, take care of my wife and my two children.
Twenty six hours, thirty five minutes have passed since the accident. My brother and Sally are beside me. I survived. I became conscious around five hours back. Julie will reach here in half an hour. I am in a hospital, like all the other victims. I can't speak much.
The train had collided with another. I was in one of the lucky compartments, for the impact here was less than elsewhere. The first six compartments had been completely destroyed.
Pahul. Where is she? I haven't seen her. I try pulling myself up, but it pains like hell. The doctor had to amputate my right arm. Why am I not feeling devastated? I have lost one of my limbs. But I am still here. Maybe I don't have the energy to react right now. People are crying over the ones they have lost. Media people are moving here and there, adding to the misery.
Two days have passed. Julie is here now. She is putting up a brave front. I am much better. I am able to walk around a little bit. I'll be discharged in another week. I'll have to change my job. I won't be able to play golf anymore. I'll have to learn eating and brushing with my left hand. Now, the consequences are dawning upon me.
Life has shown me so much within the last two days. I am reminded of Pahul. I inquire about her with the nurse. She tells me to wait and returns with some papers. There were two girls by that name on the train that fateful night. One of them is in room number 126, the other couldn't survive the injuries.
I send Julie to room number 126. But I can't wait, so I am following her. The girl on the bed is sleeping soundly. It isn't Pahul. At least, not the one whom I know.
I request for the photograph of the other. Yes, they had clicked snaps. Pahul is the one who had died. She is no more on this earth. It seems as if an eternity has passed. We had wished each other good night, and then all this happened.
They found her body in two compartments away from mine. Why she had gone there, I have no idea; and shall never have; for she is no more. I have no contact information of her mother or Som. I can do nothing.
Tomorrow, we'll go back to our home. Julie is happy now. I'll also be happy. If not, I'll try to be, for Julie's and my children's sake. Julie is telling me that we will try to locate Som, and if we do, we'll adopt him. Pahul knew no other relative of her. Som will be alone now, but not if we are able to locate him. I'll be happy for Som's sake also, if we really are able to find him. I'm positive, we will.
Life is, but just a journey.