Why would anyone consciously choose to travel by bus, when they can take a train? I can present multiple reasons to tilt this in the favor of trains as a transport medium. You are seldom delayed by traffic jams, and other trains don’t honk or disrupt movements. At the end of a tiring day, the steady rocking of the compartments is as comforting as the cradle for a baby. The view from a train window will wake the poet in you, and the assortment of nibbles sold on a train are the perfect snack while you ponder over that poem that has popped in your head. The shrill whistle of the engine can be a nuisance, I’ll grant you that, but aren’t the endless green fields a sight for sore eyes? Once, when I was travelling with Kamala and Sudhakar uncle, I spotted a peacock from the train! It was an eye-catching shade of cobalt in an emerald sea, and the peacock cast a spell on me. The wings were spread out, as if the bird was anticipating an audience when the train passed by. When Kamala and Sudhakar uncle woke up, they wouldn’t believe a word of what I said. I caught Uncle telling Appa that I had a vivid imagination, but I know what I saw, and it was a peacock.
If a leisurely ride is what you’re looking for, the best advice I can offer is to travel on a weekday. Deepti akka’s wedding muhurtham was on a Tuesday, so we got lucky with the train seats today. On summer afternoons, one can manage to get an entire berth without having to share it. I love to stretch my legs all the way and flex my toes, turning my back to the window while the breeze fans my neck. Appa says it’s indecent for girls to sit in this manner, but I like it, perhaps a little more because of his objections. Right now, my little act of rebellion is going unnoticed because he is fast asleep. Everyone in the train compartment can hear his loud snoring! Amma is sitting right next to him, but she’s immersed in chanting the Vishnu Sahasranama, because she couldn’t do her puja rituals this morning. Her sense of devotion has silenced the snoring for Amma.
Deepti akka’s wedding in Bangalore was such a grand celebration! The masala dosas at breakfast were lip-smacking, and I ate three of them even though Amma objected with her stares. And last night’s reception buffet was top notch! I was drawn to the unlimited chaat counter like a moth to a flame. Besides, I had to make up for all the chaat Amma wouldn’t have — she suspected the server to be a Muslim and kept avoiding the pani puri. When it comes to matters of the stomach, how can one resist delicious food just because the cook worships a different God? While Amma cleansed her soul with the shlokas, I smelled my palm once again. The lingering aroma of the bisibele bhaath from the wedding lunch stoked my senses.
I was looking forward to reaching Mysore, because Kamala was not accompanying us on our return home. At the railway station, she split up from us to spend a fortnight in Mangalore with Padma aunty and the twins. My parents wouldn’t allow me to take a vacation. When the heat of summer will roll into the monsoons, I shall be moving to 10th standard. Matriculation, as they used to call it. At the wedding, my relatives emphasized sufficiently on the decisiveness of the board exams in shaping one’s future. Inevitably, there was plenty of unsolicited advice at the wedding.
“Don’t subscribe to cable television for a year.”
“I gave my son boiled water and Chyawanprash during 10th std.”
“Make her recite the Saraswati sthotra every Thursday until the results are announced.”
And guess what? My parents will listen to every single one of them, lest they be caught unprepared while the board exam loomed over my head. I don’t understand why they are worried. After all, I am the topper in my class. Yes, Tahir has been inching closer and eyeing the top spot like a hawk. He can mock the first rank as much as he wants, that it’s not worth the trouble, unless it’s the all-important board exam itself. Something about saving the best for the end. But if I had to be honest, he should be more concerned about the ghastly pimples on his face and see a dermatologist. Amma never fails to mention that I simply must do better than him. She firmly believes that we are a superior race, and Amma couldn’t stand the thought of me losing out to a saabi in the board exams. I tried explaining to her that she was comparing apples and oranges — Tahir wants to be a software engineer and I have set my mind on becoming a doctor. Yet, she peers at me incredulously, wondering if they brought me up with the right values.
“Ayi giri nandini… Nanditha medhini…Vishwa vinodhini….”
My train of thought was interrupted by the shrill sound of Amma’s mobile ringtone. Listening in on the conversation, I realized it was Padma aunty informing Amma about their journey’s progress. When we were seeing off Kamala at the station, I could hardly contain my joy. No Kamala for two weeks, and I get to have the room to myself. Ah, what luxury! As the windows rattled, I marveled once again at what a wonderful invention the train is — with every passing minute, it was increasing the distance between me and Kamala.
“Maddur vade, maddur vade…. Pay only if your hand gets burnt by it!”
The vade vendor was here, and I always look forward to this on train journeys. My stomach was full from the wedding feast, but how could I resist? The smell of fried onions and crisp curry leaves wafted through the compartment as the vendor passed by, shouting his sales pitch with a practiced tune, urging sleepy travelers to take a bite of his tasty snacks. How I loved that aroma! If Appa was awake, he would’ve lectured me – “Mridu, this vade has been refried thrice already. And God knows how overused the oil is! I know, because I overheard one of the vendors exchange his secret with other vendors while I pretended to sleep.” It was tiring to listen to Appa’s excuses, all of them concocted to stop him from spending any money. He was a good father, but a miser. I have made up my mind – when I’m older and earning my own money, no one will be able to stop me from buying all the knickknacks I want.
The train ambled groaningly into Ramanagara, and I could feel the heat permeating the air. It was a lazy summer afternoon, and not many people boarded the train. A lady holding on to a heavy bag and fanning her face with the edge of her saree walked past me. Another guy wearing a blue checked shirt carrying only a book and a bottle of water came in and sat down in the seat opposite to me. He acknowledged me with a smile, something I wasn’t used to from an adult. I peeked to see which book he was reading, because I strongly believe that you can judge people by the kind of books they read. A dog-eared copy of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone. I knew because I had splurged my birthday allowance on the same book, and in retrospect, I did not enjoy it. My friends adored it, but I felt the book was a perfect movie plot. I found it very difficult to contain my opinion. “It’s not a very good book,” I blurted out.
He raised an eyebrow, “You’ve read it?”
“Yeah! I’m still trying to understand the grading system described in the book, though. My school evaluates against 100 percent.”
“Doesn’t matter whether you’re evaluating against 10 or 100, the system is rotten anyway!”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because they don’t focus on learning and education, and place too much importance on marks and ranks!”
I laughed out loud at his ludicrous thought. I liked it when people had strong opinions.
“Where are you travelling to?”
“On this train? To Mandya. In life? I’m not sure.” He giggled, amused at his own answer rather than my question.
“That seems odd. You look old enough to know where you’re going in your life!”
We broke into laughter, and I resisted continuing my conversation. I loved talking with strangers; it gave me a peek into worlds unknown. People are candid and let their guard down even with strangers on a train. Isn’t it incredible? The journey lasts only a few hours, and once people part ways and head towards their destinations, they can go back to being strangers again. I find that buses don’t allow for chances to acquaint with strangers – the seats are so narrow, and I always have Appa or Amma sitting with me. No wonder I prefer trains!
“So, where are you off to?”
Now that we had broken the ice, I found it easier to share my story.
“Mysore! We had been to a cousin’s wedding in Bangalore.”
“What a co-incidence! I was also attending a friend’s nikah in Ramanagara.”
If my parents were awake, they would be instantly alerted to the word ‘nikah’. Amma would’ve asked me to swap seats with Appa, as if sitting next to someone who is a Muslim would defile me. I know my parents are casteists, but that doesn’t mean I automatically subscribe to their religious views either. However, some of their tendencies have rubbed off on me as a result of living with them all my life. Could it be that he was a Muslim? I couldn’t tell from his looks.
“What’s your name?”
Phew, so he wasn’t a Muslim.
“And what would be your name, young lady?”
Blushing at being addressed so courteously, I responded, “Mridula.”
“That’s a really sweet name.”
I studied him once again. He seemed tall-ish and wasn’t too thin or fat. Neatly shaven, and no moustache. Clear sparkling eyes, and well-trimmed fingernails. No jewelry, but he wore a leather strap watch. So far, he looked decent and appeared to be a gentleman.
He had put the book down on his lap now and was at ease. It wasn’t every day that I got a chance to talk to strangers without a parent or guardian looking over or eavesdropping. With Amma and Appa asleep two rows away, I knew they wouldn’t barge in. At the brink of turning 15, I found this moment dizzying – no one would walk in on my conversation with Sandeep and chide me or whisk me away. I straightened my back and suddenly felt older, ready to steer this conversation with my Huckleberry friend.
“Which grade are you studying in now?”
“Finished my 9th standard and after the summer holidays are over, I’ll be in 10th standard.”
“Very important year, Mridula! But you look like a first rank student.”
Anyone else would have taken offence at this compliment, but not me. I loved it when people confessed that I looked like a geek.
“I am, and I will go on to be a doctor.”
Sandeep clapped in admiration. I was beginning to enjoy talking to him; he was honest and carefree. I could easily imagine having endless conversations with him.
“Where do you work?”
“I work in Dubai for a construction company.”
“Why go to Dubai? We have so many IT jobs here in Bangalore itself.”
“Ah, but I’m not as bright as you. I didn’t get good marks in my degree, so I had to be bundled away to work in my uncle’s company.”
“Still, it must be nice in Dubai? Living abroad in a foreign city, even the trains must be better?”
“I think you watch a lot of movies! The facilities are better, of course. But eventually, home is where the heart is.”
He said this with a sigh of longing, looking out at the paddy fields and a disarming smile. He then went on to touch his nose, just a little. He looked like he was in love. I couldn’t resist.
“Who are you going to meet in Mandya?”
“To meet the girl I will soon be getting married to. Nazrat.”
“Aww, that sounds so romantic! How did the two of you meet?”
“She is my childhood sweetheart. We used to live in the same neighborhood in Ramanagara. My parents moved to Bangalore when my father got transferred. I still remember how I protested about shifting away, mainly because it would take me far away from Nazrat. We promised to write to each other, and she never gave up. Even after I moved to Dubai, she never stopped corresponding with me. Allah put a sea between the two of us, but our love passed the test. Last month my parents finally agreed, and we had the nikah. I’m almost done with my holidays this time, but the next time I’m in India, dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge!”
That sounded so adorable! I kept ‘Aww’ing through his narration, yet something was bothering me about his story. I had to ask but waited for the right time.
“What is she doing in Mandya now?”
“Nazrat stays with her father who teaches at the school in Mandya. She has moved base many times, since her father is in a government job.”
My curiosity was truly bursting at its seams, and there really was no right way to ask what I wanted to know.
“Are you a Muslim?”
“Yeah, I am.”
I expected him to respond with surprise or anger, but he only mentioned it casually.
“Then how come your name is Sandeep?”
“In my childhood, my friends christened me Sandeep. They said it suited me. I went home and looked up its meaning in the dictionary. A lighted lamp. What a serene name, I thought. And I’ve continued using it ever since.”
This sounded unbelievable, “You’re joking, right?”
“No, I’m serious! For a while, my parents thought it was funny. But then I told them I liked it. My real name stayed in the records, but my friends continue to call me Sandeep. Even Nazrat loves this name.”
Which planet was this alien from? If my parents were here right now, they would’ve whisked me away to the next compartment. He made it sound so easy. Refusing to let himself be tied down by religion, doing what he wants.
“I’ve never heard of someone having two names.”
“Let me ask you a question. Who is your favorite hero?”
“Shah Rukh Khan!” But I wasn’t sure where this conversation was leading.
“But he’s a Muslim.”
“Exactly my point!”
We both laughed, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.
“You like Shah Rukh Khan because of his acting and don’t really care about his religion. I prefer the name Sandeep because of its meaning. It is so much better than what my parents named me. So why should it matter if I’m a Muslim?”
He smiled with a calm demeanor. When I looked at Sandeep, I saw that he was at peace with his thoughts. Here’s a man satisfied at making decisions with his heart. The sun was setting at the horizon, and his soft features were bathed in the twilight. I envied Sandeep. How easily he had chosen to escape the rigmarole of religious institutions. He looked back at me, eyes gleaming with truthfulness and innocence. I really wished there were more people like him.
The train slowed down near Mandya, and I could smell the sugarcane factories spewing out smoke – black, sweet, and repulsive. Sandeep gathered his book and water bottle and walked towards the exit. Before getting off the train, he waved at me and smiled. As if hypnotized, I waved back. A few minutes later, the train moved away. I felt downhearted, as if I had bid goodbye to a dear friend. I folded my legs in, wrapped my hands around them and put my head down and looked out at the sugarcane fields. I must’ve drifted off, only to be stirred by Amma’s firm hands coaxing me to wake up.
“Mridu, get up. Mysore is almost here.”
“Wasn’t it just Mandya?”
“A train never stays in one place, Mridu. Get up soon and help me with my bags.”
“You and Appa also slept off. Not at all worried about where I am, and how I’m doing.”
“Oh, don’t be dramatic. I was keeping an eye on you, and I saw when you dozed off too. We have all had too much to eat today. Besides, there’s no dearth of paddy fields for you to stare at.”
The train was stumbling into Mysore railway station, and we had quite a few bags for a two-day trip. I took one of them out of Amma’s hands.
“I was wide awake. And I made a new friend too. His name is Sandeep, and he got off at Mandya.”
“Sandeep, ah? How many times should I tell you not to talk to strange men on the train?”
“He wasn’t strange, Amma. Quite a gentleman. Sandeep works in Dubai, and he was only here to meet his fiancée Nazrat.”
“Sandeep and Nazrat? So many inter-caste marriages these days. I’m sure he was filling your head with ideas.”
“Ayyo no, Amma! He was also Muslim, but he called himself Sandeep. Because he likes the meaning.”
Amma laughed incredulously. I was very annoyed that she was not taking me seriously.
“What rubbish, Mridu. Someone took you for a ride!”
The sky was ink blue, with the first stars peeking out to herald the night.
“C’mon Amma. I’m not a kid anymore, people can’t fool me like that.”
Amma shook her head and muttered, “Perhaps Sandeep is a peacock, just a figment of your imagination.”
Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash