The train I was supposed to get on had been cancelled because of the heavy rains and thunder in the small village she had come to. The station was quite far away from where this small station stood. The station was small and only two trains ran from this small village called Keyaphuli to Kolkata everyday. They were distanced by ten or twelve hours and if you missed a train to Kolkata, and your place of residence was far away, you had no choice but to stay on in the waiting room till the next train arrived ten hours later.
The station was devoid of any passenger as the last and only train at night had been cancelled. Just one electric bulb outside the waiting room flickered and threatened to go off and drown the station in darkness. The waiting room was better. The plaster on the walls was in different stages of decay but the neon light was bright enough to be able to read and see. There was one long table with a few chairs strewn about and two long benches standing at right angles and long enough for anyone of average height to lie down for a siesta. There was no one. It might have been scary but I did not feel scared. I never did. Life for me, was scarier than an empty waiting room in a deserted and lonely railway station standing in a remote village in West Bengal. It had begun to rain so one could not even hear the chirping of the birds of the night.
The station master who lived in the quarters behind the booking counter and his tiny office, seemed to be a kind man. From his graying hair and moustache and slightly bent gait, it appeared as though he was to retire soon. Very uncharacteristically, or maybe this was part of his manners, he offered me dinner, which he cooked himself, knowing that I would have to skip dinner if I had to stay overnight in the waiting room. I was a bit hesitant, but the way he requested me, I felt it would sound rude to refuse so I nodded my head to say yes.
He asked the signal man, who also sat behind the ticket counter if the station master was busy, brought me a very frugal dinner consisting of a few chapaties, a bowl of dal, a vegetable curry alongside a spoonful of hot chilli pickle. And of course, a glass of water which, looking at the condition of the glass, I kept untouched. I had a bottle of water and drank from it.
I did not point out that I was forbidden to have pickle but I almost polished off the plate and thanked the signal man who waited on my dinner and took away the utensils. The very frugal dinner tasted delicious on my hungry stomach. The delicacy of taste in any food depended on the feeling behind who gave it, served it and offered it, I realized once again after a long time.
I got married very young and according to custom, was not allowed to visit my parents once I got married. I could not remember when anyone had last served me dinner or lunch or tea, after my marriage. It was I who did the cooking and the serving and the cleaning after. It was after everyone in the family had finished their meal that I sat when the domestics ate and then had whatever was left. I never felt it was unfair because it was an integral part of my life. I had watched my mother do it so why would it be different for me?
Marriage seemed to suit me fine because I loved the duties of being a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law to those who depended on me. When my daughter was about to get married, I wished for a grandson. But that was never to be. Why should I burden this young man with a story that may make him feel sad just before he was preparing to spread out his wings and fly?
I looked out of the window and remembered that this was a new moon night and the thundering rains kept the stars from shimmering in the sky. I do not like the New Moon. It is too dark and depressing and gloomy. But I was scheduled to travel today and could not change the date of departure for any reason.
I looked at the clock hanging on the wall which had stopped and demanded repairing. I looked back at my wrist watch and found it was already ten pm. At this point, a strapping young man, perhaps in his early twenties, stepped into the waiting room, drenched in the rains, water dripping off his hair and his body, his shirt sticking to his broad chest. He was carrying a suitcase and looked around to sit down. There were only two long benches and I had already occupied one. He hesitantly sat himself on the other bench, looked at me and offered a shy, embarrassed smile. He apparently had missed the cancelled train too. He took a towel out of his suitcase and began to dry his wet hair.
The station master walked in again, smiled and asked the young man if he would like to have dinner as the small station did not have its eating place open at this late hour because it was not a busy station at all. The young man smiled shyly and refused. Pointing at his suitcase he said he had enough biscuits and dry snacks to see him through the night. But I saw that he did not eat at all so long as I kept looking at him. He looked smart, handsome and with a body built carefully through regular exercise. How I would have loved to have a grandson like him, I thought allowing my imagination to run wild, as usual.
“You missed your train too, did you as it was cancelled?” I asked him, trying to make him feel comfortable as I felt he was not feeling easy though I was a middle-aged woman old enough to be his grandmother.
“Yes” he said, “and it seems I will need to wait here the whole night.” “Yes”, I said and took out a piece of unfinished knitting from my bag. But he seemed to be in a friendly mood and said, “Now, I will have to wait till tomorrow morning to catch the train. How will I keep looking for my grandmother?” he asked, as if to himself.
“Why, what difference would it make? It is only a matter of ten or twelve hours. So why the hurry”?
“I have never seen my grandmother, not even in a photograph. My mother died when I was almost a toddler. I heard lovely stories about my grandmother from my father, my uncles and aunts but I could not get hold of even a photograph of hers. I discovered two old and tattered diaries of hers which no one bothered to look at. I got hold of them, read them and learnt what a bold woman she was. I recently got the news that she is alive and well somewhere in Kolkata, living alone in an old age home. I am eager to go and meet her before I leave for higher studies.”
His sharing so much of intimate nostalgia with a complete stranger surprised me a bit but I took it in my stride. At least, the long night would be a bit better with this young man narrating his stories.
“Do you have her address to be able to locate her?”
“No, I don’t. I have been told that she walked out of her home on a rainy night like this and never came back. Her sons had filed a FIR that she was missing at the city police station some distance away from the village but there was no sign of her. They had published a notice in the papers about her disappearance but without the photograph because there were none. I want to know why she walked out of the home she had lived in for many years and never came back. Why? I want to know why her sons or her husband, that is, my grandfather did not bother to keep at least one picture of her for us to look at.”
“You have never seen her as she walked out when you were a toddler. So, why are you so keen to meet her?”
“I do not remember by mother. An old ayah brought me up and my paternal aunts were not very bothered about me though they were caring in a way. But it was Mamata Mashi, the ayah who took the place of my mother and regaled me with anecdotes not about my mother but about my grandmother. She said that my grandmother read a lot and was very good at storytelling so the children crowded around her all the time. Somehow, those two diaries I discovered while rifling through an old wardrobe aroused my intrigue about this woman who had disappeared one morning and after some initial searching, her husband and her sons had given up.
“I wondered how she could write such a beautiful hand and so lucid descriptions about her childhood, her marriage at 13 to a man double her age, her giving birth to three sons and two daughters and her life spent in writing in secret between her back-breaking household duties. I was sent to a boarding school when I was around ten, so I did not have the time or the chance to search for her. I waited for the time I would return and go looking for her. I have just finished my graduation and am scheduled to go abroad for higher studies but before that, I want to meet her.”
I kept quiet. The rains were lashing against the Venetian blinds of the two large windows of the waiting room. The sounds of thunder could be heard loud and clear, piercing the silence of the dark night dotted with sparks of lightning from time to time. The night was thick with a strange eerie air of mystery so thick that one could cut it into slices with a sharp knife. I noticed that my knitting had stopped. I pulled up my cloth bag, used it like a pillow to rest my head on, turned away from him and tried to sleep.
But it was not to be. He smiled and asked me whether I too, had missed my train, where I was travelling to and why and was I not afraid to travel alone on a rainy night like this?
I said nothing and turned away to show him that I did not want to answer his queries. At the same time, I wanted to answer his questions. I wanted to tell him that I was going away forever. Where, I did not know. How I would survive at 50 with my arthritis gaining ground with every passing day. I had no clue about. I had very little money. But I did not wish to share my thoughts with this very young boy with a very strange wish – not to go around with a girlfriend close to his age, - not to plan his travels abroad, - not to do the rounds of the visa offices, - not to dream about a glorious future, but to look for a grandmother he had never seen, not even in photographs, just because he had read two diaries she had written to find out where and how she had learnt to read and write and why, so many years ago.
He understood a bit but really wished to continue the conversation. He looked at my head turned away from him, rose from his bench, and putting his hands in his pockets, I could feel him slowly walk out of the waiting room to stand on the platform and look at the thundering night. The sound of his footsteps on the tiles of the waiting room floor faded away slowly into the night. I tried to sleep but could not because I felt a little bad about turning a cold shoulder when the young man was trying to be friendly.
I did not want to dash his dreams by telling him the truth. I did not tell him that I was his grandmother but he did not know this and I did not see him being born. I did not want him to know that I was the grandmother he was so desperate to meet. I did not want to tell him that I had never walked out of my home which I loved dearly but still remained there, buried six feet under the garden in the spacious grounds of the Chatterjee home.
I did not tell him that I had been killed by my husband when he discovered that I had fallen in love with a resident tutor who taught my sons and had also become pregnant by him. I did not tell him that I was not ashamed of what I had done and my husband killed me more because of my brazen behavior than the fact that I had betrayed him.
I did not tell him that I missed being alive, missed my sons and their families and even the husband who killed me with the help of his henchmen, a mandatory presence among the household staff in aristocratic families even today. I was grateful to my husband for not betraying my secret to my children, less because he felt it was my shame and more because he felt it was his. I did not tell him that I missed the child that was inside me and died when I did. I did not tell him that my husband had wiped out all traces of me including every single photograph I happened to be in.
I kept my knitting back into my bag, picked myself up and walked out of the waiting room into the dark night. He was standing out, looking up at the dark night for the rains to let up. I looked at his broad back, his tall bearing but his back turned, he did not see me walking out of the waiting room and the station because I was no longer a physical presence. I floated away into the night like a will-o-the-wisp, remembering suddenly that I had planned to die under the running wheels of a train in this very station. My husband got wind of it and took care of what would have been a scandal for an aristocratic family. So, my spirit returns to this station every New Moon night, waiting for the night train to take me to Kolkata. I know that that train will never come and I will never go.
Then, I remembered suddenly, that I had not even asked this young man his name. Then with an involuntary shrug, I walked away. What would I do with his name since I would never meet him? I had not given him my name either, had I?
The young man turned around, saw the middle-aged woman turn the corner and disappear into the night, limping slightly and said to himself, “How I wish you could be my grandmother. I am not yet born but came to catch a glimpse of a grandmother I would have cherished as I know that my mother will die not long after I am born. I should have asked the lady her name. Why didn’t I? I really do not know. I only know that after a point of time, names do not matter. They all melt together to make a messy whole and disappear somewhere into a rainy night filled with thunder and lightning. Will I meet my grandmother after I am born?”
Wednesday, July 8, 2020