A Beautiful Life

A Beautiful Life

I hated the holiday at the farmhouse. If not for the compulsion of my parents, I would have scooted from the godforsaken place long back. This holiday, supposed to invigorate me, turned out to be a damp squib. I trudged along the narrow mud road as directed by a villager to reach the railway station. Only two trains halted there, and I hoped that I was in time for one. 

The desolate platform welcomed me with its patches of light and fetid odour.  The graveyard silence was occasionally peppered by the croaks of wearied frogs and noisily chirping cicadas that considered to herald its existence interspersed with a distant bleat of a goat from the sloping fields on the other side of the track.  I dropped my bag, twisted my hair into a bun and slumped on the cracked cement bench, over which a slanting lamp post projected rings of yellow light. 

Rummaging in my tote, I pulled out the best medicine to forget the mess around me. A sucker for romantic stories, I delved into a novel. The whisper of the pages was disturbed by stirrings near me.  A sensual scent of vanilla tickled my nostrils before my eyes fell on a man dressed in faded jeans and kurta. Another lost soul in the middle of nowhere! He dumped his bag between us and settled on the far side of the bench. I looked around; there were vacant benches, but he chose to share mine. 

“So, you like romance novels?” A teasing lilt interrupted my surreptitious observations. 

“Excuse me, are you talking to me?”

“I don’t see anyone else around.” He grinned and continued, “But this novel is not as good as the hype it created.”

I closed the book and glared at his audacity. First, he sat on my bench and then criticised my favourite author. 

“Storytelling is not an easy task. As if you know a better love story. Why don’t you write a book?”

Irked by his smirk, I opened my book and continued reading, hoping to shut him up—no such luck. 

“I can narrate a better love story. Hmm, in fact, maybe two. ” 

“Oh really?”

“Try me.”

“OK. Let’s see If your story captures my interest like this book.” I slammed the book and waited. 

Crossing his legs, he began his narration… 

Krishnan gazed fondly at his wife of five years as he caressed the tattoo on her wrist. He recollected the day she got inked. It was on their honeymoon she expressed her desire for a tattoo. Coyly batting her eyelids, she mumbled that her strict family had never allowed it. Krishnan accompanied her to a tattoo parlour, watched her delight as she thumbed through the tattoo album. Unable to select, she asked him to choose. She clasped his hand tightly when the tattoo artist worked magic on her wrist. 

Krishnan had never denied her anything. They slowly fell into a rhythm, taking time to understand each other, to fall into a passionate romance. 

“Borinnnggg”, I yawned and checked my wristwatch. The stranger uncrossed his legs, picked a pack of smokes, and offered me. 

“I don’t smoke!”

He lit a cigarette, snapped the menthol, and puffed out smoke in circles before resuming his narration. 

Krishnan’s reverie broke when a nurse entered the room. On seeing the patient asleep, she gestured him to get medicines from the pharmacy. Krishnan planted a kiss on his wife’s forehead and ran his fingers on her pixie cut before stepping out. He loved her dark lustrous hair, but she lost all of it because of the medications and had chopped it reluctantly. Krishnan had assured his wife that it would grow again once they ended the treatment. 

He chose to take the stairs to stretch his legs. A shudder rippled through him as he glanced at a small child wearing a mask come out of the oncology ward. He peeked into an open room on another floor where a patient leaned on crutches surrounded by men in uniform clapping in encouragement—a chorus of Come on AD. You can do it! Filled the room.  

I sat upright, wondering where this story was going. Why did I agree to listen to this nonsense? Have I fallen into the fire from the frying pan?  My book beckoned, and I picked it up, but the narrator resumed in a subdued voice.

Anand limped to the table….

“Wait. You were talking about Krishnan. Where did this Anand come from?” 

“You are one impatient woman. Let me continue. You will understand.” He threw an exasperated look.

Anand limped to the table. The walking exercise had exhausted him, and he poured the tepid coffee from the flask, which tasted like the one sold by vendors in a railway station. His mind galloped to the day at the railway station years ago when he first fell in love.  He had never believed in love at first sight or that it could happen in trains as they showed in movies. But his heart fluttered as she walked gracefully into his compartment behind a pot-bellied man and a stout woman. They stopped at his berth and stuffed a bedroll on the side upper berth. Then pulling a chain, the man secured a suitcase under seat 16. The stout lady checked the lock twice and peered at Anand seated on seat 15. 

The old couple interrogated the young defence officer. They explained that it was the first time their daughter was travelling alone, and it never hurt to be cautious about her co-traveller. Satisfied with the pedigree and ascertaining that Anand and their daughter’s destination were the same, the parents requested Anand to keep an eye on the young girl. Anand’s heart somersaulted at being granted permission to watch over the demure princess. 

The train trundled out of the platform, and the couple bid farewell to their daughter. Anand yearned to wipe the tears that tumbled on Haasini’s ruddy cheeks. He gawked at her with moonstruck eyes as her lips curled, the nose turned red with sniffles. Anand melted, and right then, he knew she would be his, now and forever. It sounded crazy to his mind.

Every single annual holiday, Anand’s family took him to view a prospective bride who would parade in front of his folks. He would squirm, embarrassed, when the girl displayed her singing talent while the proud parents listed her virtues. Anand had chalked in his mind the ideal qualities he sought in his future wife, which did not include singing Carnatic songs! 

Anand looked at the most beautiful woman on earth sitting across him.  He paused and corrected his thoughts – she was the most beautiful woman after his mother. 

I love trains and love stories. My imagination presented Anand to be the quintessential tall, dark and handsome officer. I pulled an orange from my bag, peeled and gave the storyteller half. Then waited for him to get back to the narration until he gobbled up the citrus. 

The train accelerated, and the warm breeze caressed the officer and the lady. Dabbing her face, Haasini glanced at Anand. But before she could say anything, a middle-aged man from seat no-10 asked if Haasini wanted to exchange her berth, if she preferred to share space with the ladies. 

Anand’s heart thumped with frightening loudness. 

He went into contortions of mirth when Haasini refused the offer. The baldie, evidently reluctant to part and anxious to talk, went away suitably snubbed to yell at his wife.  

The couple in the side berths wrapped into a cocoon sharing details about their lives until that moment. Haasini liked to read, so did Anand. They spoke volumes about their favourite authors and books. Then the topic shifted to movies, and she informed that she was a diehard fan of actress Madhuri Dixit.  Her bedroom walls had posters of the actress. The wafting aroma of food from the compartment reminded them of their forgotten hunger. She opened her tasty home-cooked meal parcel, and he opened his station bought food. Serving him from her pack, they enjoyed their first meal together. 

A chubby child from the next bay smitten by Haasini decided to claim her attention.  Giggling, he occupied her lap and turned villain for some time until his mother pitied the young couple and took the child away. Breathing a sigh of relief, Anand opened a discussion on music. They agreed on some and disagreed on a few. She took a Sony Walkman, played a cassette of her favourite playlist, and offered him the right earpiece. Sitting close with their shoulders touching, they swayed to the train’s movement and the music, humming a duet.

I almost hummed my favourite song. The pale lunar radiance cut through the gliding mist bringing in view the temple spire. The faint tinkling of bells trickled in as the narrator cleared his throat and recommenced the story of the blossoming love.

Anand and Haasini’s conversations never ended, and their eyes communicated silently as well, oblivious of the other travellers. He fell in love with the clearly defined dimples on her cheek that surfaced every time she smiled. The way she played with her dark braided hair, the stray curls that danced in the wind, the line of her lips, the kohl-rimmed eyes. Everything about her intoxicated him. 

As the sky spouted rain and webs of lightning lit the sky, she playfully splashed water on him.  Eyes burning with excitement, he laced his fingers with hers, and what should be spoken was unuttered, and looks and smiles decided everything. 

When weariness took over, unable to keep their eyelids open and only a few hours left to reach their destination, they collapsed on their berths wishing that the journey would never end. 

The train reached their destination, and the couple parted with heavy hearts. Anand hugged his brother and gazed wistfully as Haasini talked to her sister, glancing toward him. Anand pulled his brother towards Haasini.  With pleasantries exchanged, both went their separate ways….”

The stranger ceased the narration, and I went ballistic, “Is that all? What happened to them?”

He prolonged my agony as he slowly sipped water and folded the sleeves of his kurta. Checking the time, he continued the saga of Anand and Haasini. I sighed in relief and curled my feet, rested my chin on my knees, gazing at the star-studded night sky. 

At home, Anand appeared restless like a fish on land, pining over the girl. After an agonising hour, he informed his family of the decision to marry Haasini and that she had all the attributes he desired in a wife. The puzzled brother and his wife hoped to put some sense into his head.

A person with a mind made up only heard blah… blah… blah. 

Anand coerced his brother to accompany him to meet the girl immediately. He had cleverly exchanged phone numbers earlier. The brother realising his younger brother’s plight and resolution, dialled Haasini’s house for their address.

His brother slapped his palm on his head when Anand stopped midway to buy Madhuri Dixit’s poster. On reaching her house, Anand earnestly addressed the girl’s sister and husband, convincing them of his love and eligibility. This took a few hours, but he was a determined man on a mission. His brother argued on his behalf and reached a mutual understanding. 

Anand travelled on the same night’s train back to the capital and met Haasini’s parents. He was nervous about winning their approval. Of course, it was not an easy task, but he was persistent and insistent in removing the obstacles on the path to marrying her.  Initially, Haasini’s family treated Anand with disdain and acted as if he was part of the wall. The father barked insinuations and concerns about his job in the services and its danger. Determined not to let him get under the skin, Anand ignored the snarky remarks. 

Falling prey to his incredible enthusiasm and madness, her parents finally agreed but set a condition that Haasini’s education had to be completed.  Anand and Haasini conversed on the telephone once every week and met once a month under strict supervision. As the lovers counted days for the wedding, the Kargil war happened.

Captain Anand Damodar, fondly addressed as AD by his peers, accompanied his platoon to the war zone.  Haasini never heard from him again.

I almost fell from the bench, never realised I was holding my breath. My heartbeat accelerated, but the storyteller continued nonchalantly.

A stray bullet to the spine left Anand incapacitated. He asked his brother to inform Haasini’s family and arrange her wedding elsewhere. Haasini received the devasting news of Anand’s death from her parents.

I was stunned—a pregnant pause. My eyes turned moist as I demanded the narrator, “They never met again, eh? Is Anand alive?” 

“Oho, looks like my story has caught your interest.”

“Oh, please complete the story,” I begged. 

He smiled and picked up the earlier story thread.

Krishnan returned to his wife, who was sitting awake on the hospital bed. He placed the medicines on the table and gently nuzzled their little bundle of joy. He crooned their favourite song, basking in the glow of contentment. The new parents discussed a name for their prince. Haasini looped her hand into his and whispered if they could call him Anand. Krishnan nodded and cuddled little Anand to his bosom.

Haasini felt dreadfully sad and tremendously happy at the same time. She blinked away the tears gazing at the two men in her life while her hands caressed the tattoo—Bella Vita– Beautiful life.

The rumbling train brightened the platform startling us. The storyteller rose, heaved up his baggage.

“Thank God, life gave Haasini another shot at happiness. But I feel sorry for Anand. I could identify with the characters. Thank you for a wonderful story.  By the way, I am Sangeetha.” 

“The train hardly stops for a minute. My compartment is in the front. I am Anand.” 

The stranger disappeared into the ocean of darkness. I plodded with many questions swirling in my mind.

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