“Hey! What happened? Are you alright?” Alia wakes Raghav up.
“I’m fine.” Raghav was sweating profusely.
“Same old dream, chasing the train?” She asked.
“Yeah! And my father’s gunmen chasing me.” Raghav replied.
“I think it’s time to face your demons.”
“You don’t know them, dear. Listening to stories and living them are two different worlds altogether. It will be horrific, not romantic,” Raghav warned Alia.
“Don’t worry. They invited us. It’s your sister’s wedding. I don’t think they would create any problem. Besides, your father is an M.P. now. The media will be covering the event. He won’t take the risk. Get ready. We have a train to catch.” Alia said.
Raghav had decided to visit home because of his mother. Home that holds some secrets, some unpleasant memories yet draw him like a magnetic black hole. Devouring his freedom, happiness, and peace, yet taking care of his well-being.
‘What a paradox? They want me to live happily, oblivious to taking into consideration where my happiness lies. But, am I genuinely happy here? What do I still seek? Why do I go back? Is it the obligation being born to them? The debt of inherited genes.’ Raghav thought.
It was 8:43 am. Bright and sunny, full of traffic snarls, blaring horns, taxis and autos fighting neck to neck to enter the Bangalore railway station. Twenty-two minutes left for the train to depart. Raghav paid the taxi driver and got down with the luggage.
“Alia, let’s run, otherwise, we’ll miss the train.”
Raghav was anxious. He didn’t want to miss this chance. He lifted both the suitcases and started pacing fast towards the station. Making his way through hundreds of vehicles, people, he asked a coolie, “Sanghamitra Express, which platform?”
Without waiting to hear the reply, he moved ahead, shouting out, “Excuse me”, to everyone, coming in his way. On entering the main station building, he heard the announcement, “Sanghamitra Express, Bangalore to Dhanbad, is standing at Platform No.3. ting-tong.”
While looking back again to check on Alia, who was carrying two more bags and trying to catch up with his speed, Raghav climbed the stairs leading to Platform no. 3. He stood on the footbridge to catch his breath. Waiting for her, he observed, her dusky face, wet with sweat, long curly ebony hair tied in a top knot, trying to run astray, taking advantage of her frantic situation. He smiled, ‘How much I love her! God, please help me.’
As if, by some intuition, she looked up to check, ‘How many more stairs?’ Her black kohl-lined eyes met his. She was accusing him of something, frown lines appeared on her forehead, perhaps, asking him to rush to the train.
She reached the top step, almost breathless, and said, “Hey! What are you looking at? Go ahead. I told you to start early but you and your lackadaisical attitude. Run, dreamy boy, your Sanghamitra’s blaring horns are saying bye, bye!”
Alia overtook him to alight the stairs to platform no.3. Sanghamitra was whistling merrily, ready to embark on its journey, inviting all on board to a destination that holds some promises, some wayward wanderlust, someplace to meet, something to tug on, somewhere to find retreat, away from one melee, perhaps, to embrace another one.
The guard started waving the green flag. Amidst the ting tong of announcements, hawkers’ high volume sale pitches, Raghav was manoeuvring his way past the flood of people, bags and trolley. There was a sudden rise in the cacophonous voices, bidding adieu, giving last-minute instructions in Kannada, English, Hindi, and numerous other languages. Raghav looked for his coach, Sanghamitra started with a jolt, Raghav threw his suitcases in one of the second-class compartments. He pushed the bags further ahead, making space for Alia to hop in. The train started moving. Raghav helped Alia board the train first.
Alia steadied herself after climbing up and peeped out of the door, anxiously looking at Raghav to board. Sanghamitra was chugging out of the platform without him.
Alia was overwhelmed to see the growing distance between them, ‘Am I losing him again, like many other times, when he starts giving up, sulking in the unforgettable miseries of his childhood repressions?’
‘No, he has to push hard, be strong, be the man, he always wanted to be.’
Raghav did not relent to Sanghamitra’s advances and stepped up, onboard into the last coach.
‘I hope this forty-one-hour journey is enough time to think about my plan.’ Raghav thought.
It has been five years since the day he ran away from his captivity. Alia had been his love, his family since then.
‘Alia is known to be a go-getter. She’ll handle everything.’ Raghav closed his eyes to enjoy the peace before the storm.
“Tea, tea, ginger tea, masala tea,” The tea seller’s calls woke him up. Early morning sun rays were making zig-zag patterns on the floor. It was 6:25 am. Another 40 minutes to reach Patna. Green farms, cattle grazing in open fields, ‘What a lovely sight to behold!’ Raghav woke Alia up and requested her to get ready for the drama.
Little did he know that the entire Bhojpuri movie was waiting for him at the station.
From one or two odd houses in fields, the scene changed to slums, settlements, next to the tracks, colonies, markets, a road running parallel to the track, the train was fast approaching Patna junction. Raghav could feel his heartbeat matching the speed of the train. He was calming himself with the movie, ‘3 Idiots’ dialogue, ‘All is well, all is well.’ Alia laughed. Sanghamitra’s shrill sounds announced its arrival to the waiting crowd. The gathering was ready to take over.
Raghav stood at the door. The station looked transformed with new flooring, a clean platform, LED boards, Madhubani art, murals and local art on the walls, less stray animals and hawkers. Breathing in the fragrance of fresh morning breeze, the aroma of samosas, aloo-poori, hearing his mother tongue, Raghav’s spirit got a boost, bursting into a smile. The bubble of happiness burst as soon as he saw his mother with a few familiar faces and gunmen. He thought of hiding back into the coach but the line and luggage of the passengers ready to disembark did not let him escape.
He called out to his mother before Sanghamitra came to a complete halt, “Ma, I’m going back.”
“Arey! How can you go back? We all have been waiting.” Ma replied.
“I warned you. No one would come to the station to receive me.” Raghav shouted back.
Teary-eyed Ma pleaded, “Please listen to me. It wasn’t my fault. You know how it is. Walls have ears. Come down. I’m waiting for a hug. It has been five years.”
“Ah! Don’t create a scene, Ma. I hate this fanfare,” Raghav could feel the stares of porters, passengers, hawkers and the welcome party, making holes in his white T-shirt.
Someone shouted from the back, “Bhai Sahab, please don’t block the door. The train halts for just fifteen minutes. If you don’t want to get down, let us deboard the train.”
Raghav had to deboard to give way to others. Alia joined him. Raghav held her hand and introduced, “Ma, meet Alia. She’s your daughter-in-law.”
Both bent down to touch Ma’s feet. Before Ma could give her blessings, she heard some commotion and cries of a woman. It was Sanskriti approaching them with two kids in tow. Ma froze.
Sanskriti hugged Raghav in a tight embrace. The kids joined her, holding Raghav’s leg. She asked, “Why? I loved you more than my life.”
She turned and lashed on Ma, “Oh, God! Mummyji, Have a heart. How can you accept her when you’ve already given your blessings to me? Five years, for five years, I’ve served you, massaged your legs, toiled at your home, and this is what you do to me? If I wasn’t a good match for your son then why did you spoil my life? The moment your husband got the ticket for contesting the elections, your son ran away. You all kept lying to me that he was abroad, busy with his job? You should’ve thought of your grandchildren.”
“But beta…” Ma couldn’t complete her sentence.
Raghav asked, “What are you talking about Sanskriti? Whose children are these?”
“Hell! You don’t recognise your children, Raghu and Siya?” Sanskriti was devastated.
Raghav was taken aback, “Are you alright? When did I marry you? I ran away, remember.”
Sanskriti asked, “Ma, why don’t you speak? Am I not your daughter-in-law?”
“Yes, you are. But…”
The gunmen, the welcome party, all agreed to Sanskriti.
Raghav was thunderstruck. His plans went down the tracks.
“Hey! I’ve proof. Alia, please check these photographs. Take a look at children. Don’t they resemble Raghav?”
Alia checked the photos, observed the two kids, aged 5 or 6 years old, and then a good bemused look at Raghav.
Alia thought, “Incredible, everything makes sense now. His reluctance to visit his family, elaborate plans and briefings to counter any untoward incidents. His anxiety and temper if anyone touch his phone. We are in a live-in relationship. He gets nervous if someone suggests marriage.”
Raghav assured Alia, “All this is a big lie. Believe me, they’re playing tricks to separate us.”
Alia looked at Raghav’s mother and asked, “Is it true, Aunty?”
Sanskriti intervened, “She won’t say anything. She wants her son back, even if it means giving up on her rustic daughter-in-law.”
“How could you? Raghav, you already have a wife and two kids too!” Alia cried, “I won’t stay here, even for a minute.” She hopped back with her bags on the train.
“Alia, please don’t go. I love you and you only. Alia, get down. The train is about to depart,” Raghav pleaded.
“Alia, the train’s moving. You can’t leave me. Give me a chance to explain.”
Alia wasn’t listening. She just kept staring at him from her beautiful doe eyes, the black kohl running along with tears.
“Okay! Alia, I’m coming with you. Hold my hand, let me board the train.”
“Papa, please don’t go,” wailed the children, clinging to his leg.
“Suniyeji, please stop. For God’s sake! I’m your wife, not that modern butterfly. She doesn’t even love you. Am I not more beautiful than her? I’ve learned to speak English also for you.” Sanskriti ran after him.
“Alia!” Raghav kept chasing the train till the end of the platform. He was huffing and panting in Patna’s scorching summer heat.
Sanghamitra Express picked up speed. Alia went inside to seek refuge in the safe havens of her coach. She needed time to think.
Sanghamitra and Alia, both left the station.
Sanskriti was fanning herself with the pallu of her saree, “Oh, my! it’s hot.”
Raghav looked at Sanskriti. She was much fairer, taller, and certainly prettier than Alia.
Sanskriti had a hearty laugh, “So, was this your true love, your soulmate, your warrior to a righteous life? She couldn’t bear the heat, even for five minutes. What was she thinking? A grand welcome into the Yadav clan?” Sanskriti was amused.
Raghav was distraught. He wanted to strangle Sanskriti.
Five Years ago…
Raghav was returning home after two years. His mood was upbeat after bagging his dream job. Now, he wanted to conquer his home front.
‘Ah! I love trains. They’re so similar to life,’ He thought, ‘My train was the solo warrior, crusading against the steep snowy mountains, crumbling bridges, whistling into a dark tunnel, announcing to the lurking demons not to mess with her winning stride. It ran across the fields, trees running backwards, and soon, giving glimpses of the city life.’
‘So many tracks! When did they begin? Funny! The moment I feel everything is on track, the track diverges into many more. So, many possibilities. ‘Do I need to tell him? Isn’t she good enough for me?’ Raghav started having second thoughts, ‘No, I don’t want to get down. Why did I come back?’
‘Because your father wants you back, at home,’ his still small voice replied.
‘Damn it! I’m 25 years old, a software engineer. I can make my decisions.’ Raghav assured himself.
His head talked back, ‘Whoa! Who am I talking to? You’re a mimicking, squeaky mouse. Just one roar, you’ll scamper and look for holes. Only to be dragged out and killed, again and again.’
The train halted at the station but Raghav’s train of thoughts picked up speed.
‘Ah! He’s here. Right in front of my bogey to receive me. What a frantic waving of hands! Why is he smiling? Ecstatic?’ Raghav wondered, ‘Oh, my God! Why is Bhanu carrying that enormous marigold garland?’
‘Oh, no! Bittoo Dholwala is here too.’
The welcome extravaganza began with the loud beating of drums that subdued the calls for coolie, haggling passengers and the railways’ loudspeakers. Raghav squirmed to observe no change in the scene; Passengers pushing each other to stake claim to a seat, beggars vying for alms, sleeping dogs, cows rummaging into the dustbins and a few monkeys notoriously taking advantage of the divided attention of a banana vendor, smoke emanating from the hot oil, frying pooris and the dirty unkempt platform.
Raghav’s father roared above the din, “Hey! Where’s the garland?”
He hugged Raghav and guffawed, “Welcome, my son.” Raghav had jitters hugging him.
The drums continued beating his spirit and lifting the mood of the nagin dancers. One enthusiast was already rolling on the platform. His orange shirt was sweeping the platform dust.
His father showered a few ten-rupee notes.
‘What unnecessary pomp and show!’ Raghav was disgusted.
The caravan of open jeeps, Scorpio sped towards home. The market was abuzz with its usual business. Onlookers holding their bags and children’s hands tight marvelled at the entourage.
They knew, ‘MLA Sahib’s son had returned from the U.S.A. He was getting married to M.P. Supriya Devi’s daughter.’
All were aware except Raghav that his God had decided his fate. A match made in the political heavens of Patna.
‘Wow! Splendid. Our haveli is decked up with flowers and strings of lights. Ma is holding the aarti thali, all decked up in her jewellery and heavy banarasi saree, reminding me of a scene from a movie.’ Raghav thought, ‘She is Jaya Bacchan, waiting for her son, Shahrukh Khan, on the Diwali night.’
‘The jitters were now turning into elephants. There was something wrong. Why such a grand welcome? I bagged a job in an MNC in Bangalore, as did many others. I didn’t win a gallantry award in a war.’ Raghav thought.
The secret was soon revealed. He was the well-fed goat, soon to be sacrificed for his father’s goals.
“Ma, I’m not marrying anyone. I’ll run away and never come back if I’m forced.” Raghav warned his mother.
“Son, Sanskriti is a nice girl, fair and very beautiful. She’s educated like you. At least meet her once.”
“Naah! I love someone else. I didn’t study to fall back into Baba’s hooliganism. Please tell him to leave me. I wish to lead a simple uneventful life.”
“Tell your son to get ready for the engagement. Everything is decided and arranged for the grand alliance. The press is also invited. Dare he tries his antics! I’ll hunt him down to hell if the need arises,” Baba threatened Ma.
Raghav kept protesting, fidgeting and fretting in his room. Yet he went along to the venue. Sanskriti was breathtakingly beautiful. She was everything a man could ask for; rich and sassy, witty and teasingly charming.
“Hi! I’m Sanskriti.” She giggled, “I’m aware of your reservations in marrying me. Better get over it and leave, rather than running for your life.”
Raghav was zapped with her carefree, bold attitude.
“Hey! Close your mouth or the flies will book a room inside.” She mocked and then asked, “So, What are your plans?”
Rahhav wished to go back abroad, away from the political drama.
Both laughed, made plans to escape and got engaged.
The political alliance was announced followed by the grand celebrations.
“Ma, I have to go back, otherwise, I’ll lose my job.”
“See! This is what happens when you allow children to pursue higher studies. Tell him, he’s not going anywhere. I’ve big plans to launch him. He’s the future chief minister of Bihar.” Raghav’s father gave the final decision to his wife.
Days passed. There was no word from Sanskriti about escaping. Raghav was getting restless.
‘I doubt Sanskriti. Probably, she’s also involved with everyone. Maybe she acquiesced with me to keep me calm during the engagement.’ He thought, ‘Gosh! What a fool I am.’
The date of the marriage was fixed for the next month. Raghav was usually surrounded by gunmen in the name of security. He wasn’t allowed to use a mobile phone or meet Sanskriti before marriage.
One day, Sanskrit sent a message through a maid, “Be ready at 1 am tonight. I’ll meet you behind the cowshed.”
They met and planned to run on the following Wednesday night.
The goods train carrying coal passes through Patna Junction. Sanskriti had managed to convince one of the loco-pilot. He would stop the train just before the city lights at a crossing. They would board the train and leave to lead their lives, free from the clutches of their parents.
Raghav waited for Sanskriti at the decided place. She didn’t show up. Raghav’s instincts told him to leave on that freight train and not to bother about her. The train arrived at the appointed hour.
Raghav climbed into the engine cabin.
“Hey! Who are you? Get down or I’ll inform the police.” The loco-pilot looked alarmed.
“Didn’t Sanskriti speak to you?”
“Why did you stop the train here?”
“Who the hell am I to stop the train? It’s the usual stop here. We wait for the signal for clearance from the station,” He replied.
Raghav begged the loco-pilot to let him stay. He agreed to help till the time he wasn’t in danger.
The danger stepped in.
The train approached Patna Junction. Raghav’s father stood there with his Gunmen to drag him out and lock him up again.
Raghav was guarded round the clock till the date of his marriage. Raghav suspected that it was Sanskriti’s prank. He wanted to shoot her on sight.
Sanskriti was still laughing.
‘What does she get out of playing such practical games?’ Raghav thought.
“Don’t worry Raghav. She’ll return. I just wanted to see what made you so desperate to leave, and run on the day of our wedding?” Sanskriti said.
“I didn’t run for her. I ran for my life, my free will. I didn’t want to live in this scheming environment of terror, casteism, suppression. I hated being here, every day,” Raghav spoke vehemently.
“You should have stayed back to change it, as I did. You’re standing here alive and invited to your sister’s wedding because of me,” Sanskriti replied. “Remember, it was me who helped you escape. Your cousin, Rajeev and I, shared a common dream. Rajeev arranged for that truck that took you across the border that night. I wasn’t interested in marrying someone who had no guts to take a stand for himself, forget about others.”
“Are you happy, now? What are you trying to prove?” Raghav asked.
Sanskriti replied, “Both you and Alia, live a pretentious life, full of hollow visions.”
“You had power and education on your side to fight back but you chose to look away.” Ma intervened to explain, “Does higher education mean sitting in a plush office, making money and grimacing at the wrongs in the world? I expected my son to bring about the change, not run away from the challenges.”
Sanskriti continued, “I’m a software engineer too. Pity! You never paid attention. Rajeev inspired me with his ideas on social reforms. I married Rajeev the same day as our wedding. Raghu and Siya are my children. Your father takes my advice. I work as a software developer for his projects. Rajeev and I are his advisors and the social media managers for the party. He plans to nominate me in the next elections. You see, we have a say in our house. We just need to be brave enough to stick to our resolve.
Raghav was dumbfounded. Sanskriti had shown him the mirror. He was responsible for his plight.
Raghav’s mother hugged him and said, “It’s okay, son. We all are not made of the same material. I missed you so much. Come home.”
“But what about Alia?” Raghav asked.
“Rajeev is sitting in the coach with original photos to explain and appease her. They’ll get down at the next station and return,” Sanskriti replied.
Raghav was contrite and asked for forgiveness.
“You returned after five years. What did you expect? This is still a mild punishment for you.” Sanskriti teased Raghav.
“Is my sister, Vedika, getting married?” Raghav asked.
Everyone laughed and said, “Wait, till you reach home.”
Dholwala: A persons who beats the drum during a festival or a function.
Nagin dance: People imitating the movements of a snake while dancing.
3 Idiots: A Hindi movie starring Aamir Khan and Karina Kapoor.
Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam: A Hindi movie with multiple star cast.
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