When strangers meet en route in real life, the stories are usually far less dramatic.
The problem was, they thought she was alone. The solution, I figured, was to make them think otherwise. That way they would at least think it was two against three instead of one girl against three guys, and for most such guys that’s deterrent enough. So I decided to casually call out to her to check if she was fine, and damn! I didn’t know her name. I hadn’t asked; not even after she had asked mine. “Arrey, seat mil gai?” I called out, awkwardly, casting the words into the universe, broad and wide in her general direction, expecting no response. “Haan, mil gayi. Theek hai. Khidki ke paas!” In that order or some other, those were the words I heard in immediate response. The problem guys looked at me, shifted around a little on their feet and settled down. The stealthy mouth-to-ear whispering ceased; the smiles and giggles disappeared. Problem solved, I hoped.
“I’ll get down at Aligarh. You can call her here then,” said the man occupying the side lower berth in front of me. “Oh, thank you,” I nodded gratefully. Aligarh came, she came over, and pulled her legs up to sit cross-legged. “I need to go to the washroom,” she said, like the auspicious moment she had been waiting for to make the declaration had just arrived. “Okay,” I said. “But my slippers…,” she pointed at her broked footwear. I pulled my feet up, and took the shoes off. “Here.” She slipped her toes — just the toes — into them without actually wearing them and walked all the way to the washroom on her toes. Unbelievable, I thought. It does take some creativity to wear sports shoes like stilettos.
She returned, took the shoes off and we sat cross-legged on the side lower berth, looking out in the dark through the window with patches of light, small and big, rushing past every now and then. Finally, she looked relieved and relaxed. “What’s your name?” “Finally, you asked,” she said and told her name. “Oh, that’s Urdu for playfulness. Chanchalta in Hindi,” “Naaice! You know! Very few people know.” A few moments passed in silence. “Okay, listen. I have called my father to the station. He’ll come with an extra pair of slippers. But act like we don’t know each other. Like, hum ek doosre ko nahin jaante. Please. Family, you know.” “Yeah, of course. I know. No problem. Hum waise bhi ek doosre ko nahin jaante,” I said as assuredly as I could manage. She smiled. And then we talked about random things. I don’t recall what all, but she was easy to talk to. A few hours later, we were at Kanpur.
Her father was there on the platform, waiting with a pair of unbroken slippers. She had spotted her father from afar when the train had just entered the platform and we had immediately slipped into our roles as strangers. We got off the train one after the other without looking at each other. Complete stranger. Convincing performance. I started walking away and just out of curiosity, turned around to see where she was. She and her father were at the top of the stairs on the overhead bridge, and just then they turned out of sight. End of a weird journey, I thought smiling.
It was very early in the morning when I reached home. And slept. Apart from being weird and interesting, the journey had also been tiring. I woke up in the afternoon, and the house was full of guests, who were there to attend the recitation of Bhagavata Puran, which was to continue for many days, and for which I had to be the Pareekshit (the principal listener). So I was getting ready when the phone rang.
“Hello, pehchaana?” A female voice asked. “Umm… sorry. Who is this?” “Arrey, itni jaldi bhool bhi gaye! Mujhe kaise bhool sakte ho?” “I am really sorry. Umm.” Arrey, main bol rahi hoon.” And she told her name after complaining some more, which is when I remembered that when I had handed her phone over to her, and she had demanded to be taken home, I had asked her to save my number just in case we got separated again. And just as I hadn’t asked her name, I hadn’t taken her number either. She was calling because when her father found from the news that a few people had lost their lives on the platform due to excessive overcrowding and something of a stampede, he had asked how she had managed through. She told. He said, “Kam se kam us ladke ko phone kar ke ‘thank you’ to bol do jo tumhein yahaan tak leke aaya.”
So she was calling to thank me. I assured her that there was nothing she needed to thank me for and that she had pulled and pushed herself through the crowd on her own without my help. We had just travelled together. But she insisted on thanking me for being nice in her characteristically emphatic, not-listening-to-you way. “Save my number. We’ll talk again. And meet when I am back in Delhi.” “Okay,” I said quickly, for I had to get ready; pandit ji was waiting. Also, we were just two strangers who had met on a train, and the journey had ended. So regardless of her polite offer to talk and meet, I didn’t think it was happening. But we did talk and did meet.