“Collect your train tickets from the travel desk? ” My boss said with a frown that meandered through his face.
A smile hardly appeared on his ever-glowering countenance upon seeing some subordinates like me, for reasons best known to him.
I wanted to argue as to why I could not travel by flight. It wouldn’t make much of a monetary difference, but as usual, I was tongue-tied. It was this docility of mine as compared to other girls in the office that always made me submissive.
As if my boss had read my mind, he quipped, “It is a matter of just fifteen hours’ travel from Mumbai to New Delhi.”
Why hadn’t I learnt to persist with my demands, in particular, outside the threshold of my house?
A strong figure who might have taught me to stand up for my rights was conspicuous by his absence during my growing stage.
I had never seen my father, not at least after I had started recognising people.
Confronting many adversities, my mother raised me with utmost care and affection.
However, she would be disarrayed without as much as an intimation on certain days.
It was probably her irresoluteness that had rubbed onto me.
As I grew up I realised that it was some niggling past that was responsible for her timidness and confusion.
All I knew was my parents separated when I was a child. How and why were questions that by far were left unanswered.
I did not consider it right to scrape the wounds, my mother would have been desperately trying to heal.
She was so overprotective about me that at every stage of my life I had to convince her to let me do what I wanted. She vehemently opposed my taking up this job.
“It is time you get married,” my mother dropped a bomb on the day I finished my graduation.
Here I was basking under the glory of having bagged a good job offer on campus and there she was broaching the subject of wedlock.
After much debating, she allowed me to work, but I had to succumb to her whims and accept her condition of marrying in two years.
“Wonder who will be the other passenger in the coupe?” My mother began groaning no sooner than she learnt about my official trip to New Delhi.
Apprehensions and my mother were synonyms.
“Ticket checker keeps doing rounds and trains have a special patrolling squad. Don’t let your imaginations fly haywire.” I convinced her.
Mom wouldn’t let go of the topic. She brought out a list of advice, like don’t strike up a conversation with the co-passenger. Just don’t trust him or her. Please don’t accept any food item offered to you. It could be laced with sedatives.
“Ma, please stop watching movies and serials,” I chided her, but she continued with her do’s and don’ts till the day I left.
Nine-year-old Chinky was engrossed in her drawing when she suddenly felt someone caressing her naked back.
She wriggled and turned to find Ajay daada*, her next-door neighbour and their landlord’s son. The thirty-two-year-old man stood grinning and the next moment Chinky was thrilled to find a chocolate bar thrust into her palm.
“Have it,” he said planting a kiss on her chubby cheeks.
This was nothing new, but only today his hands had slid down her frock while caressing her back. The little girl did not know what it was though, and it happened on subsequent days.
I reached Mumbai Central to board the Rajdhani.
Entering my coupe I pushed my suitcase underneath my seat.
A tall man, who I guessed might be in his late fifties, walked in and took his seat.
Mother’s pre-warnings had cut deep through my subconscious mind, dissipating my self-confidence. I began feeling a bit restless inside the coupe sitting with a stranger.
The train left Mumbai Central and I could sense the co-passenger smiling at me.
Probably he had caught me fidgeting and was attempting to make me feel comfortable.
The initial resentment thawed. Mother’s umpteen pieces of advice to be cautious crumpled like a pack of cards as he began conversing.
Though loquacious, he did not sound monotonous. Strangely his presence seemed soothing.
The topics generally steered towards weather in Mumbai as against New Delhi. About the delicacies, he enjoyed back in Mumbai and what he was looking forward to enjoying eating in Delhi.
I too spoke about my favourite cuisines.
Time flew as fast as the Rajdhani express.
The huge bar of chocolate was so enticing that Chinky did not object when Ajay daada liberally ran his fingers over her chest. First with the zip of her dress secured and then when it was unzipped.
She was too engrossed in eating the bar when he lowered his hands towards her nicker. He had just slid his hands inside it when Chinky heard a scream.
Ajay daada hurriedly retreated, leaving the girl in a dishevelled form.
That was the last time Chinky saw him.
She was locked in a room while loud conversations rang through the drawing room. She heard Ajay daada, his wife Nirmala Tai* and her parents howling and shrieking.
In two months her family left the place to settle in far off Orissa. Uprooted from a small town in Ratnagiri to a city like Bhuvaneshwar.
“So you work in the IT industry?” The gentleman smiled looking at me as the train approached Vadodara.
I raised my brows, surprised.
“Your Identity Card says so,” he chuckled pointing to my card jutting out of the handbag.
He began discussing about jobs in the IT sector and stuff related to it.
Then I don’t exactly know how to substantiate my move.
I found myself sharing a lot of information, both official and personal with him.
I spoke to him about my estranged parents, my job, a dominating boss, an over-smart colleague and everything under the firmament.
It seemed like I was eagerly waiting to share my pent-up agonies with someone. He gave a compassionate ear to my whining. It felt good.
“What is your plan for dinner?” He asked as the train halted at Vadodara. “Doesn’t look like you got the food coupon. I too did not purchase it.”
“Mom has packed some methi parathas,” I said opening the packet and offering him.
“I will be back,” he said, and in a few minutes returned with some dhoklas and two steaming cups of badam milk.
We shared dinner.
The aristocratic aura around him earned my appreciation. I enjoyed every bit of the adulations he bestowed upon me.
I must have slept peacefully not even aware that the train had reached its destination.
“Wake up, madam, shall I drop you somewhere?” He smiled.
I declined his offer since the office had sent a vehicle to pick me up.
As Chinky grew up, reminiscences about Ajay daada surfaced whenever she looked at a bar of chocolate. Her mother had constantly cautioned her regarding mingling with strangers, males in particular if they ever happened to lure her with delicacies.
She would often show her a group snap captured during Ajay daada’s wedding where Chinky was a four-year-old girl.
She would drill the fact into her brain that he was a bad man.
Chinky was left bemused at times.
As I got out of my guest house to leave for the office the following day, I heard someone call, “Going towards Connaught Place? Let me drop you. I am also heading there.”
I turned and was aghast to see the gentleman who was in my train coupe. What did he say was his name??? I racked my brain for a few minutes before it struck me. He said his name was Ajay.
It did seem uncanny that he should be waiting outside my guest house though I clearly remember that I had not disclosed where I would be put up. But I had told him that my office was at Cannaught Place.
Rebuffing not being my cup of tea, I accompanied him in the hired vehicle.
Nothing looked detrimental.
“What work do you have at Cannaught Place? I don’t remember you having mentioned anything.” I blurted out even though it may have sounded indignant.
He told me that he had got a call only in the morning and that he should meet up with a person at Connaught Place.
“And where are you put up?” I asked wondering how he landed up here early in the morning. He told me the name of a hotel hardly 500m away from my guest house. Though it baffled me I convinced myself saying it could be a coincidence.
But coincidence happened again in the evening when I left the office.
“Hi, what a surprise,” Mr Ajay said as the car he was travelling in slackened its pace approaching me.
“Come, I am also heading towards my hotel. I will drop you.” He opened the door of the car.
I just couldn’t find any excuse to deny his offer. I got inside and tried my best not to get too much involved in the conversation. Something began worrying me.
Had I been a fool to have seen a fatherly figure in a total stranger? Had I been naive to have disclosed my personal life and confided in him?
I realised that I hadn’t bothered to ask him about his purpose for visiting Delhi.
However, he generally spoke about places he liked to eat in Delhi or places he would love to visit, throughout the car journey, which helped me shed my inhibitions.
The peak hour traffic in Delhi forced the vehicle to slow down off and on prolonging the ride. What would have taken half an hour from Connaught place to Patparganj, took almost an hour.
My senior in the office, Miss Kiran Sangle had offered to treat me over dinner.
“Please come to the Food point restaurant by 7.30. I will see you there,” she had said.
A dynamic female, Kiran madam was hardly five years older than me. She had made it big in life. I heard from other colleagues that she was engaged and would leave for the US soon after the wedding.
Kiran madam was an extremely affable female and treated all the subordinates with dignity, a striking contrast to my superior.
When I hurried to the restaurant at about 7.25 pm Kiran madam was already seated at our reserved table. Taking the opposite seat in the two-seater, I looked around savouring the ambience of the restaurant when I was taken aback to spot Mr Ajay entering.
I did not recollect having broached the subject of my dinner with Kiran madam at this particular restaurant, but he was here. Coincidences were getting rather obnoxious.
Was he following me? If so why? My mind got clustered with umpteen queries. I chided myself to have turned a deaf ear to my mother’s advice and gone overboard in getting friendly with a stranger.
I thanked my stars for not having shared my phone number with him.
Mr Ajay was about to wave at me as I was seated facing the entrance. However, he abruptly retraced his steps and was gone.
I could hardly concentrate on the dinner.
His pattern of behaviour had been so weird.
Did he follow me to the restaurant and changed his mind upon seeing that I wasn’t alone?
I must have behaved lost, for Kiran madam asked me if I was unwell.
“Please let me know if you need something. You are my guest for a week.” She smiled.
I did not deem it appropriate to confide in her just then about my stint with a stranger. I might sound risible.
The photo of Ajay daada and his portrayal as the evil man got embossed in Chinky’s mind. She was awestruck when her mother explained to her upon her growing up that he had been trying to sexually assault her during her childhood.
Chinky learnt that Nirmala Tai had left Ajay daada and gone taking away their four-year-old baby girl after the incident of him abusing her physically came to light.
Neither Nirmala Tai’s nor Ajay daada’s whereabouts were known to Chinky’s family, as they too had shifted soon.
I stepped out of the guest house with mixed feelings the following morning.
What if Mr Ajay was there waiting for me under some pretext of travelling to Connaught place? How was I going to confront him? I wasn’t sure what the strategy would be but I had decided last night itself to confide in Kiran madam if he would chance to cross my path again today.
Thankfully I did not see him. The rest of the day kept me so busy that I almost forgot about Mr Ajay.
But at 5 in the evening I got a call from the office reception desk. “Madam, one Mr. Ajay has come to meet you.”
I found myself in a tight spot.
It was an office frequented by people no doubt but then why exactly was this gentleman following me?
I had two more days to spend in this city.
Even in the air-conditioned room, sweat broke on my face.
“What is the matter, Miss Anagha? Things do not seem to be fine with you. Even last evening I noticed that you were too fidgety and looked as if something was troubling you.” Kiran madam inquired with concern.
I narrated to her my stint with this stranger, making my vulnerability rather palpable.
“He hasn’t meant any harm so far, but then isn’t it strange that a man whom I met on a train should keep bumping into me again and again? Now he is waiting for me at our office reception.”
“You be here, I will talk to him.”
I did not stop her. I wanted this ordeal to end somehow.
What transpired in the reception hall did not seem half as important to me as madam’s assurance that Mr Ajay would never cross my path again.
I thanked her profusely and left.
True to madam’s words, I never met Mr Ajay during my stay in New Delhi.
I was sure madam must have threatened him with dire consequences if he continued to follow me.
Miss Kiran walked into the reception after she heard Anagha’s dilemma. She had a special hatred for such trouble mongers who took advantage of situations to torture ladies.
As she approached the reception, she was aghast to see the tall man waiting.
‘What does he want from an extremely docile and naive girl like Anagha? His meeting Anagha off and on would not have been coincidental. It has to be a well-contemplated move. If need be I may have to call the cops. But let me first deal with him.’ Kiran approached the man, seething anger within her waiting to burst out anytime now.
“Mr Ajay. May I know why you are causing a menace to one of our employees? Miss Anagha is here on an official trip from our Mumbai office and I see that you have been following her after having travelled with her in the same coupe from Mumbai.”
Her stern voice jolted the quinquagenarian. He gathered himself.
“She is my daughter. I wish to tell her that I am her estranged father.” He murmured under his breath.
Even if this information had rudely shaken Miss Kiran, she did not allow the turbulence to surface on her countenance. Maintaining her composure she said.
“Why did you not disclose this to her while you travelled together? What is the idea behind following her to Delhi? You could have made the revelation in Mumbai itself.”
“Back in Mumbai, there are relatives who might have made detrimental statements about me to Anagha. I was not sure how she would respond. I have been following her for a while after locating her in Mumbai and decided to talk to her when she would be alone in Delhi.”
“Anagha maybe your daughter, but….” Kiran madam went close to the visitor and said something so that it would not be within the audible perception of the receptionist.
The man cringed turning pale. He looked around as if the walls were mocking him. Scampering to his feet he took to his heels and was gone.
When I stepped inside the coupe of the Rajdhani express during my return journey, the other passenger was already seated there.
“Hi, Kiran madam, how come you are here? I wasn’t aware that you too were travelling by Rajdhani. Where are you going, madam? And if it is official why would you travel by train?” I inquired, baffled.
Just then Kiran’s phone buzzed.
It was in speaker mode and she did not think it needful to switch it off.
“Hello, ma. How are you and how is Baaba?” She inquired.
“We are fine Chinky. How have you been? You are coming to Orissa for the Puja holidays, right?” Her mother asked.
Kiran answered in the affirmative.
She was going to celebrate the victory of virtue over vice with pomp and vigour.
She had adorned the attire of Mahakali Durga and trounced an evil man!!!
Except for the salt and pepper hair, Ajay daada looked the same as she had seen him in the photograph for two decades.
He does not deserve to be united with his daughter!!!
This retribution he deserved instead!!!
“Madam, is Chinky your nickname? Back home my mother calls me Chimu.” I blushed.
She smiled and putting her hand firmly on my shoulder said, “I am travelling as your friend today and not as a senior officer. We need to have some time for friendly conversation.”
When I alighted at Mumbai Central, I was a changed woman.
I went home with a friend, meeting whom was not a mere coincidence but serendipity.
The ubiquitous figure that had been bothering me in the past week, dissolved in the September rains of Mumbai, and with that yearning of uniting with my father some day too dissolved.
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!