The Journey of Life

The Journey of Life

Dadar Station was as crowded as ever, even in the wee hours of the morning. Susan, my efficient secretary, was puzzled when I had asked her to cancel my Business Class air tickets and book me on the Jan Shatabdi Express. Practical but unimaginative as she is, she doesn’t know my penchant for trains and train rides. Susan had assured me that Tony, my chauffeur, will be waiting for me at Madgon with my almost new BMW740i.

The reason I chose the train ride was that it was announced recently that this train will have a first-of-its-kind glass-top coach in the Indian Railways – the Vistadome. The experience of enjoying the scenic beauty of the land through Vistadome coaches in Europe had always left me fascinated like a child. I was eager to enjoy the visual treat of the stunning views of the Western Ghats that this train journey had to offer.

I read my name on the Executive Chair Car reservation chart; Justin Carvalho, M, 52, and the seat number, 24. I entered the coach and to my dismay found it to be an aisle seat. But then, I remembered that these pair of seats can be rotated 360 degrees, so I reckoned it was fine.

I flipped open my Macbook Air. I wanted to write about the train sequence as my train would pass through the mountain ranges. I had an assignment of writing a Children’s Storybook. For the past few years, my books have been on the Best Sellers lists of several national dailies. But I neither have the time nor inclination to feel proud of my achievements – there are so many stories out there to be written.

It was with a sense of annoyance that I looked up when someone tapped on my shoulders softly.

“Uncle, can I sit on the window seat? It is mine.” It was a young girl with shoulder-length hair and sporting a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

I would have ignored this brief interlude in a while, but her soft pleading voice full of hope and cheerfulness,, rang in my ears as she settled on the seat beside me.

I had been working merrily for more than an hour while she was engrossed in the forests and mountains through which the train passed.

Suddenly she turned to me and asked, “Uncle, what are you so busy with?”

Normally, I detest being addressed an Uncle, as it feels like age-shaming. I prefer people calling me ‘Sir’.

“I am an author, and I am writing some new stories for children,” I thought the brief answer will suffice.

‘Stories’ sparked an interest in her twinkling eyes. “Oh, can you let me read one of your stories,”

“Sure,” I replied as I took out my iPad and opened a file, “here is one story. Actually it is a novella. Let me know how you liked it,” and handed over the device to her.

She took the iPad from me and began reading. After her voice and tone, there was something in her that I found so distinctly familiar. It was as if I had known her for years.

Never before had such interactions brought back old memories to me. It was as if the fog that has descended over my old memories, was getting lifted slowly and the visibility was getting better and better.

Everything became as fresh in my memory, as the morning dew drops on rose petals in the garden. Each one of us has our own stories of love and passion that are mightier than any. For, they are about us, they are what we have lived through. We are not merely viewers watching a story unfold, but actors who live the roles without having any script. 

***
Year: 2000.  Month: September, Place: Chennai Railway Station

The train, Chennai Express, was nearing its destination, Chennai. It was 6:30 a.m. in the morning and almost all passengers in the three-tier Sleeper compartment were awake and getting ready while opening and fastening their luggage.  It was amazing to see how the camaraderie that has developed among the co-passengers during their journey had reached its anti-climax. All were focused on what they would be doing once they reach their home. Some were worried about who was coming to receive them. The coach was silent with anticipation and preparation; unlike last evening when it was buzzing with activity. 

I looked out of the window at the not-very-familiar landscape and the landmarks rushing by. I had been to Chennai only once in my life earlier. I had come to hate the city, vowing that I would never visit it again. 

The hostility, or to put it mildly, the indifference of the citizens, especially the auto and taxi drivers had put me off. Pretending not to know Hindi with a dismissive “Hindi nei”, they had fleeced me to the core. It was so difficult to ask for directions from people on street, not everyone understood English as well. Fate has somehow brought me again to a city that I hated so much.

On the seat opposite to me, Sunita was giving me coy glances, as her younger sister Anita kept chattering excitedly with her and their parents. The family has befriended me the moment they boarded the train, the previous evening. 

The father was a government servant and the mother a school teacher; and they were not averse to be-friending strangers on train, despite having two lovely daughters in tow. But, I was not too eager to display much interest or take initiative. Had it been any other time or journey, I would have thanked God for providing me such a wonderful and promising company. But this time I had already thanked God enough. After months, God has finally provided me the opportunity to meet Her, my Goddess!.

Finally, the train slid softly to a stop on Platform No. 11. Everyone began de-boarding. I gripped my suitcase and travel bag and stood up. Sunita glanced back as she stepped down while giving me a sad smile. I stood on the platform and gave the Krishnan family a friendly wave of goodbye. A railway coolie in red uniform came near me and gestured for picking up my luggage. I shooed him away as I picked up my bags and walked towards the main exit.

Her name was Sujatha, and yes, spelled not with a T but a Th, as is customary in South India. How she got her name spelled in this way; although her family was from Central India, was in itself a story she had told me over the phone. When she was born in a Chennai hospital, some twenty-two years back, her father told the nurses to keep her name as Sujata, and they had promptly written down the name as Sujatha, which got carried over to her birth certificate, school registration, and so on and so forth, till everyone in her family accepted the spellings.

I reached the cavernous hall, ahead of which was the ‘Exit’. There were stalls all around. Straight ahead was the Higgins Botham bookstall. That’s where she had promised to meet me. I had called up her home when the train had reached Katpadi Junction, more than an hour back. Luckily she picked the phone, and I told her the train is on time. 

There was no one near the bookstall who would even vaguely match her description. I sauntered near the Entry. There was an Enquiry Counter and Platform Tickets counter nearby.

I had no idea how she looked. The pics that she had sent of herself were hazy. It was much later that I came to know that she had done it on purpose. In fact, I was worried that she might be physically handicapped. Such sensitivity and feelings could come only from a person who was differently abled. But the way and the speed with which she would respond to my chat, made me doubt my ill-founded ideas. 

On various occasions on the message board, she would tell me horrifying stuff about herself and how she would not be alive for long. I took in whatever she said, with a pinch of salt. Believing some and disbelieving a few. Maybe she was testing me or maybe she does have some physical handicap. But that was long ago. On my part, I had been playing quite smart. I never sent her any pic of mine. After some time, she stopped pestering me. Meanwhile, we had spent several nights on phone. That was how our ‘love’ blossomed. Finally, one day both of us gathered some courage and decided to meet face-to-face!

I was still submerged in my thoughts when I suddenly caught sight of an angel in white !! 

She was wearing a white sleeved kurti-and-shalwar with a bandhni coloured dupatta. She was wearing silvery bangles that showed off her slim fair wrists. She was rushing towards the counter. 

 “Could you please tell me if the Chennai Express has arrived?”, she asked the railway clerk.

Her voice tinkled, like some maestro playing a few notes on Jal-tarang.

“Yes, it arrived ten minutes back. At Platform No. 11. “,  the counter clerk replied.

“Please give me a Platform Ticket”, she said, as she pushed a ten-rupee note inside the cubby-hole of the counter.

I was stunned. 

My heart skipped a few beats. 

We had discussed what she would be wearing, on phone. This was supposed to be the dress, the outfit she would be in. 

She was slim and tall, by Indian female standards. She had a fair complexion with an oval face and large alluring eyes, the kind for which Hindi poets use the simile “deer-like eyes”. Her face was radiant and the dark-brown long hairs with strands around her cheeks gave out a halo-like glow. The sleeved white dress suited her perfectly and she looked like an angel who has just stepped off from the clouds. 

If I had to describe her in other words, I would have said, she resembled all of the lovely characters that I had read in my childhood; Snow White, Cinderella (at the party, of course), and Sleeping Beauty.

Then I looked at myself. 

I had not even changed or shaved. I was still wearing the crumpled cotton shirt, which I find very comfortable; with two large breast pockets that contained an assortment of things one might find handy during a train journey. The jeans and sports shoes were just a bit short on respectability. Apart from my appearance, what bothered me were my looks. What can one do about one’s complexion, dark – which is looked down upon by all Indians; and one’s looks? 

The sense of feeling inferior was not new to me. Although I had never been diagnosed as one having an Inferiority complex, it was more due to not being subjected to such specific psychological tests. Deep down, I knew my shortcomings and failings. But never have I been so struck with this feeling. 

I felt dizzy and gasped for breath. My God, what will she think of me? What would be her impression of me? All these months, she has been cooing on phone, sweet words or sweet nothings to a nondescript guy like me?  

Not that I was ugly, but I always thought that I had no features that would score high on one’s AQ – Appearance Quotient. Although the neighborhood aunties always liked me, but I knew they don’t go for looks, but for a man of substance. The only physical asset I had; I liked to think so; was a healthy body, lean muscles and a six-pack abs that my gym-mates envied. But then how can one flaunt them in public or tell a sweet girl about it?

As I stood there, brooding; utterly confused and dejected; the righteous self inside me began raising its voice. It began condemning me, more and more viciously.

“Jay, you have no right to deceive such an angel.”

“Man, how can you do this to such a sweet innocent girl? Do you think she will ever like you, forget being in love with you?”

“How can you stoop so low?? How can you emotionally blackmail an unsuspecting victim.”

“You must be the meanest guy around… “

The voices inside me gradually grew in crescendo, as I turned my back. I headed back slowly, feeling bad and unsure of myself. Each of my legs weighed a few tons.

The voices inside me continued their tirade and then began suggesting solutions. Some psychologists might call it Escape Mechanism of the mind.

“See, she doesn’t recognize you. That was a lucky escape.”

“Why do you wish to be humiliated. See, what you can do is, go back. Just forget the whole thing.”

“Yes, she will be disappointed that you didn’t meet her. But is not a small disappointment better than the mess and the heart-break this meeting will create for you?”

“Sometimes it is better not to start something, rather than face the consequences of failing. It is already a lost cause; just cut down your losses.”

“Don’t stay here for a moment more. Go back man, go back.”

My self-esteem too agreed with these opinions. I made my decision, a quick instantaneous one. I will not meet her. I will go back to the platform, enquire and book a Retiring Room. Then I will book my return tickets; relax till it is time to leave by the next train.

I picked up my luggage and walked back with weary steps. By this time she must have got her Platform Tickets and must be glancing around, I thought without looking backward. I wanted to go near the Platforms and ask the Railway personnel about the Retiring Room facilities and bookings. 

On way I passed near the Waiting Hall. It was pretty crowded. One of the favorite pastimes of Indian men is to ease the pressure off their bladders, at the first opportunity available. I was tempted too, and after placing my luggage at a safe spot, I headed towards the Bathrooms.  As I relieved myself, I saw a few young guys shaving.  As I stood in front of the washbasin, I looked at myself and ran the back of my hand on my chins. I had only brushed my teeth on the train. I could feel the stubbles and the sickening vision that confronted me. I took out my shaving kit and applied shaving foam on my cheeks. As I worked up the lather and proceeded to shave myself, my thoughts went back to her.

My Positive Mental Attitude, hitherto silent, kicked in.

“What will you get by deceiving her like this?”

“How will she go back home, and face her mocking elder sisters?”

“Do you want her to carry this impression all her life that you were simply passing time with her and never intended to meet her in person?”

“Will you never talk with her on phone again? What excuse will you give then? That you developed cold feet and ran away?”

“Look, since you have already decided to go back, why bother whether she likes you or not? Just meet her once and then your obligations are over.”

“Come on, be a man and face everything.”

Finally, I decided to settle the issue with the flip of a coin. Heads – I will meet her; Tails – I will go back.The study of Statistics had taught me that the chances of any side coming up would be fifty-fifty!  But I had also read somewhere that when you flip a coin, in the brief moment when it is in air, your mind will reveal what outcome you were hoping for. <y heart was always on Heads!

By the time I put on my after-shave, I had already become a changed man. With steely resolve taking a firm shape inside my heart, I decided, it would only be fair if I meet her at least once. I changed into a clean shirt and looked at myself. Hmm… I looked better, more confident.

I once again picked up my luggage and walked toward the exit hall. She was standing near the Higgins Botham Book Store, looking all around.  I walked towards it. There was a fast-food stall dispensing South Indian delicacies, on the way, with tables and chairs strewn around. A board placed there listed the Menu and proclaimed that the stall was run by a women’s association. I could see that all the staff comprised of women of varying ages. I placed my luggage near a vacant table and went to the woman at the counter, who was dressed in a typical Madrasi saree with a string of jasmine on her hair. I told her that I am coming in a moment. 

As I went towards the bookshop and closed in at her, I could see that she didn’t even give me a second look. In fact, I think, she did not even give me a first look. The guy she had in mind must be someone very special, and obviously, I didn’t measure up.

I went near the magazines and newspapers, spread on the counter; and began looking at the books on the glass cases. I gave her a surreptitious glance and found that she was intently looking at people all around. Her face has lost the bubbly excitement that was so evident at the Enquiry Counter, and she was looking anxious and morose.  I guessed, she might leave any moment, and I cannot delay the inevitable any further. 

Picking up all my courage, I walked near her, and in a soft helping tone, quite different from my usual voice, asked, “Excuse me, are you looking for someone?”

She turned towards me, looked at me with surprise, but did not say anything. There was a look of mild bewilderment in her eyes and an expression of consternation on her face.

After a few seconds, I tilted my head at her and with a hastily put-on slight smile, said in my familiar voice, “I am Justin, Justin Carvalho!”

The wave of familiarity instantly washed away any sign of dismay or chagrin from her face.

“Ohh… I had been standing here for so long, waiting for you.” She responded, brightening up. 

I cannot say if it was caused by the relief of her wait being over, or she was genuinely happy.

“Come, let’s go there. I have kept my things there.” I said, pointing at the South Indian Fast Food stall.

“So why were you so late? The train reached quite some time back.” She asked me.

“Oh, I was enquiring about the Railway Retiring Rooms and other places to stay.” I lied.

As we sat across on the table, I asked her, “Let me order something. What will you have?”

“I just had my breakfast, but you must be hungry. Please order something for yourself.” She said.

I still had no idea what was going on inside her. I could judge that in a way, she was a bit disappointed on meeting me. These girls always dream of their Prince Charming as personified by their favourite male Bollywood icon. In such a race, I would not even be an also-ran, but someone who was disqualified – even to participate!

I had no idea, how much time was left which I had on my hands. I was determined to make it as long as possible. I was almost certain that this would be the last I would have seen of her.  I wanted to etch every single moment in my memory, forever.

I didn’t want to order Vadas or Idlis, which were ‘ready-items’ and could be served in a jiffy. I wanted something that would take fairly long to be prepared and served. I settled for Special Rawa Dosa.  To delay it further, I ordered two coffees to be served first.

I told her that the coffee is for her so that she could at least have something with me; and secondly, I wanted to enjoy the authentic filter coffee.

She said, “OK” and added shyly, “I hope you like Chennai.”

I wanted to say it would be too early to commit myself to anything, but kept quiet.  Our conversation was going nowhere. It was strange, considering that of late, we had been talking whole night long-distance, on phone.

The coffee arrived, and suddenly she said, “Oh, you know I have brought lemon rice for you, with some pickles.”

She proceeded to open her handbag and produced a small Tupperware lunch box and a metal spoon with a plastic handle.

“Did you make it all by yourself?” I asked.

“Noooo…. my sister helped me.” She replied.

I opened the box, “Shall I try it?” I asked.

“Yes, by all means. It is all for you.” She stressed the ‘you’.

I took a spoonful and put it in my mouth.

“How is it?” she asked eagerly.

“Wow! Wonderful!!” I said truthfully. Her sister indeed, was a good cook.

I took a few more spoonfuls. “You don’t want this lunchbox back right now?” I asked.

“No, you can keep it with you.”

“Well, in that case, I will keep at and will eat it later, after you have left. With every mouthful, I will think of you.”  I said, as I closed the lid and repacked the box. 

As we sipped the coffee, I still felt unsure whether I would get to see her again. But I was thankful that I had somehow got the conversation going.

By this time the efficient staff of the joint have already placed the dosa on our table.

Chalo, have it before it turns cold.” She prodded me.

I had asked for the knife and the fork, and began cutting the dosa deftly and putting small bits in my mouth as I followed it up each time with the sambhar on a spoon.

She continued watching me intently, as I ate.

Then she said, “You know, traditionally dosa is supposed to be eaten with hands. In Chennai, people eat it with hands like we eat roti and sabji.”

“Yes, but everywhere in other cities, people eat it with spoons and knives,” I said.

The discussions then veered into other topics. But I was just listening. In any case my mouth was full most of the time. More than anything, my heart was feeling so melancholic. Will I be able to see her again? Is this the last time that I am sitting with this sweet angel?

I wish the time stops here. I wish the world ends at this moment. I wish she would be sitting like this, with me, before me, forever and ever.

Her voice went around me, inside me, and I was there, sitting almost in a trance. I kept looking at her face changing expression every moment, her lips moving.

Finally, it was nearing time to move from there; I had paid the bills.

“So where would you be staying?” she asked.

“No idea right now, but I will tell you on phone,” I replied with sadness engulfing me all around.

“So, I shall be leaving now.” She got up.

“How have you come?” I asked as I picked up my bags.

“I have come on my bike, TVS Scooty. It is in the parking lot.  You can take an auto from the Pre-paid counter or take one from across the road.” She said as we headed towards the Exit.

I left her near the Parking, as we bid good-byes to each other. There have still been no words on what-next. No appointments, no promises! I walked away with a heavy leaden heart.

The Pre-paid counters had a long queue, and I was in no mood to save some money. It did not matter anymore if a cabbie fleeced me. When you see the most precious thing you have discovered in life, going away; nothing else matters.

I walked out on the road, crossed it, and started engaging an auto.  Just then I saw her on her red Scooty. Looking so magnificent, her white dress contrasting with the color of the vehicle, her head held up majestically, her eyes straight ahead; she turned her Scooty at the U-turn and zoomed off to the distance. 

If you can ever have that rarest of rare kind of experience, you might get an idea of it. It was like a beautiful dream that you have always yearned for, moving away from you towards the horizon and you are just left watching it helplessly.

I felt utterly lifeless and empty. It was as if she has taken more than my heart; a part of me and drove away with it.

***

 “Uncle, is anything wrong? Your tears are flowing, overflowing!” 

The alarm in her voice jolted me. She opened her handbag and passed a few tissues to me. I wiped my tears way, and thanked her, “No, it is nothing… nothing to worry.”

I hardly ever dabbled in my past. But today something had happened, I was unable to put my fingers on it, which brought my imprisoned memories flooding back.

I remembered every moment of how the next three days were spent. The Marina Beach, the five-star hotels where we had our lunch or dinner – Taj Coromandel, the ITC Grand Chola, the Leela Palace, it was as beautiful as a dream.

When I was leaving, she promised me, “Don’t feel sad. There will be many more such evenings.”

We got married in the year 2002 and settled in Mumbai. Ours was a Court marriage under the Special Marriages Act.

***

Year: 2012, Place: Mumbai city 

I was the Special Projects Manager in a large IT MNC. That day many new joiners were being sent to my cabin as a part of their Induction program.

“So which institute are you from?” I asked a new recruit.

“SIT Lonavala Sir!” He replied promptly.

“Oh, campus selection!” I said. “Sujatha, the HR, you must have met her during your Campus.”

“Sorry Sir, but your company did not visit our campus. Ours is a new Institute, perhaps that’s why.”

“Come on man!” I sounded a bit loud, “Sujatha told me that our company had been there! Are you sure?”

“I am quite sure about it, Sir. I was the Placement Coordinator from the students’ side.” His confident reply shattered me from inside. 

The suspicion that had been haunting me for so long had suddenly pounced on me and dug its claws deep inside me. When I had gone outstation for about a week, Sujatha had called me up to say that she would be going to Lonavala for a Campus Recruitment at SIT. 

As the saying goes, even a small drop of curd can spoil whole bucketful of milk. Our differences began distancing us. Our daughter, who was about seven years old, became the silent victim of indifference.

It does sound so incredible that when one has yearned so much for someone, that to spend a second of togetherness is bliss, would now look for avenues to distant oneself.  An overseas opportunity came for me and the next fortnight I was headed for Texas in the US. That was the last I saw of my family, my own family.

***

The ringtone of my phone brought me to out of my reverie. 

It was Tony, my chauffeur, “Sir, the train will be in about fifteen minutes. I am already on the platform. Okay, Sir!”

I visited the washroom, and then began packing my Macbook Air in my bag and kept the iPad in my jacket pocket.

“Did you like the story?” I asked the girl, whose name is still unknown to me.

“Very much…In fact,  was lost in it. Your words are like magic!”  She replied in a tone that was full of admiration.

“Thank you so much.” I replied and asked her, “By the way, I don’t even know your name.”

“My name is Nikita,” she extended her hand,  “and what is yours?”

The name sounded so familiar. I clasped her hand and replied, “I am Justin, Justin Carvalho!”

I didn’t stop to look at her face or her expressions. I picked up my bags and walked out of the coach.

***

As I alighted, Tony came running, picked up my luggage, and led me towards the exit. At the car parking, Tony placed the luggage in the boot of the car and opened the rear door for me.

I was about to sit in the car when I saw Nikita running towards me.  I stood there, waiting for her to come.

“Uncle, if you don’t mind, my mother is here to pick me up. Could you just spare a moment and met her.”

Never a person to disappoint a fan and a girl at that, I walked along with her to the car. A lady came out. I saw her face and as my jaws dropped, I marveled at the twist of fate.

“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayal alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Sometimes the Universe conspires to bring u together and give us what we rightly deserve.
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