It was the summer of 2005, the baldheads in Delhi could have utilized their heated skulls to make omelets in a flash, but here, from the air-cooled insides of Rajdhani Express, the irritated hustle and bustle of the swarming humankind on Platform no.6 seemed entirely needless, slightly absurd. I hadn’t even finished stowing away my luggage to a corner under my berth, when the pantry-boy, zippy and as if fresh from a bath, appeared before me to register my nod for the lunch; and sir, ‘veg or non-veg?’
Life was good.
‘Non-veg’ I replied promptly, even as my mind took me thirty minutes back in time, my Mother telling me from the door of the house how these train-guys barely marinate their chicken, and so how unhealthy it can be. And why have all that non-veg anyway when I have packed you these aloo parathas! Resting my bags on the banister against which I had stopped, acting already tired, I had replied nodding sagely with limpid honesty dripping from my eyes, ‘Of course Ma !’, the way I always respond to all of her suggestions.
In a moment a girl my age came huffing and puffing with two bags, one of which hung forward from her neck like a nursery-school kid’s water-bottle, and sat down heavily on the berth in front of mine, freeing herself of all the weight. She didn’t particularly care about the luggage very much, and let it lie rashly on the floor. I had nervously straightened myself up in the meanwhile, characteristically, at being suddenly brought into a lone girl’s vicinity.
She wasn’t very tall, maybe five feet two, but her lithesome, slender figure cloaked that amply. When shortly she eased herself with her head thrown back, as if dissipating the tension from that oddly hanging bag, I remember it had occurred to me how her neck was quite long for someone her height. It was crawling with all those fancy janpath bead-bands, I thought she was trying to divert attention from the length of her neck with them; ‘but hey, nothing fools me’, I remember smiling inwardly.
No, she did not bowl me over at first glance, at least no more than any other carefree, bead-band wearing, slender-figured girl would have. On a side note all carefree, bead-band wearing, slender-figured girls bowled me over pretty readily. But then, that longish neck, what a weakness it is for some people - people like me. If Vipin had been by my side, I am sure he would have raised his eyebrows in his own peculiar way, which, peculiarly, doesn’t forbid you but rather encourages you hypnotically.
"Hi … Bangalore?" I began, consciously employing the least words possible, lest my tremulous confidence reveals itself piss-off-ing-ly.
"Oh yeah yeah yeah, so you’re going to PESIT too?" she said looking at the folder in my hands. She spoke lightening fast. If I were in her place, I’d have just finished saying ‘Oh yeah..’ in the time she completed the whole of her sentence in. PESIT was, and maybe still is, an engineering college in Bangalore, and that’s pretty much all that I know about it. I can tell you the full-form, but who cares?
"Yes" said I, trying to look unaffected by .. I don’t know what it is that I always try to look unaffected by. Anyway, I was actually going there, to PESIT. No, really. God Promise. Yes I was. Wow. Then she began quizzing me on how good that institute was, and I kept cooking up weird answers, and when there would come over an abrupt silence I would fill it up with rationalizations for why I said what I just said, interspersing all this claptrap, of course, with that odd compliment or two which she accepted graciously. ‘These are going to be some real promising years there.. there’s no way I am taking admission anywhere else’, I was already fast-forwarding life two months, in my head.
“I may as well take up the lamest course at the lamest IIT this year, I have that option too somehow.” I told her in a tone that was meant to sound self-deprecating but was of course secretly self-important, ironically. “Oye that is great!”she said loudly, but then everything that she spoke she spoke loudly, as if there were someone-outside-on-the-platform she was trying to reach out to. She smiled so cutely though, that I think we should replace the word ‘loud’ that I just used with something like ‘blithe’, alright? Alright.
Someone-outside-on-the-platform there actually was. He soon came in with two more bags, one on each shoulder, sighed unnecessarily at seeing her seated and came and sat down next to her. She then told him I was going to PESIT, then told me it was her brother, I acknowledged, and from what I can recall I had my gaze momentarily stopping at his mustache as I was greeting him, and he did seem to notice that instantly; probably he was quite used to it, his mustache all bushy like bristles of an overused toothbrush.
She stood up when it was already some twenty five minutes that we had boarded the train, and rushed outside to get some potato chips. I wondered what lazy slob this guy was to be relaxing here while she was running around for trivial things at the last minute. "Your Sis is intelligent, I know how I’ve just about managed the cut-offs."I said. He smiled suspiciously, and I shrugged it off and began peering from the window if she was to be seen coming back, but he kept looking at me blankly.
"Hey body shody! Real good physique you've got dude." I said to this guy, mainly because all that blank staring of his was making me feel uneasy.
"How old do you think I am. Take a guess. Take a guess." he said with his hands, deliberately or not I do not know, before his mustache.
'With or without the mustache' I wondered.
He looked 35 to me, but I thought answering with a much lower number would make his day. It wouldn't hurt, after-all, to humour the elder brother of your to-be-something.
"24!" I said, hoping that it flatters him and that he doesn't find it sarcastic.
"Try again. Try again" he said. Did he say everything he say twice over ?
"Ok. Ummmm. 28! I just wouldn't believe you if you tell me you're more than twenty eigh..." I said before he cut me short.
"What yaar!! I'm 19. Kya yaar.!!" he was mad. The first meeting with bro-in-law went awry, I thought. Happens. No worries. All's well, I told myself.
Soon, the announcement was made, the train was about to take off, and she still hadn’t returned. As the wheels first rolled I got up quickly and began running towards the doorway, then watched the guy following me and subdued my stomping footfalls to mere brisk walking, and in a few moments was down on the platform staring out into the crowd teeming with people waving tata-bye-bye to their kins in the train, and some looking at me, bizarrely, in dull sympathy. ‘These fools are blocking the way for her, I am sure, and for these foolish trivialities. Dammit!’ I punched my laps and rushed back in before it would be too late. If I had seen someone munching on chips then, I think I would have snatched the pack, crushed it and thrown it out of the door. ‘Where is her brother now, that useless joker?’ I wondered while walking slowly back to my berth. There he was now - in front of me, walking back to our compartment from the door at the other end of the bogey with all the energy that he had till now saved for his funeral. ‘What now?’ I spread my arms out irritably. ‘What’s the big deal’ he replied ‘twas just a pack of chips. I don’t have them anyway.’
"And your sis ?"I asked.
“She’ll surely have them on her way back home. She loves them. And she knows that I am seated on my allotted seat comfortably, so she can relax. Chillax. Anyway, I must confess I am a little nervous about the counseling now. My rank is such a border case. You said you too just about managed the cut-offs. Hopefully, we should end up in the same branch. Nice nice.”
“Wow! It’ll be fun!” I struggled to get the words out of my mouth, “I guess I just need to catch some sleep now dude, please wake me up when the lunch arrives, will you?”
“Lovely.” I mumbled drably into the pillow lying on my stomach and dozed off, and probably proposed to her in grand fashion before the slob could wake me up for lunch. And then the chicken wasn’t all that bad either.