Are you alone?.
It was her voice that brought me out of the South African lanes where I was loitering with the young Trevor Noah.
I folded my copy of Born A Crime, and looked at her direction as I tried to process the question that came as an intrusion to my uninterrupted train of thoughts.
I felt a fear crawling up from the inner walls of my belly as the pretty girl put her bag on the luggage rack and decided to sit right next to me. If I remember rightly, this exact scene with this exact verbal exchange has panned out in The Unbreakable some moments before the train they were traveling crashed. I checked for a ring on her. I could not find any. I too was unmarried. So the scene was not entirely similar after all. I was relieved.
So, where are you headed to? I initiated.
Oh, I would get down at the next station. Thiruvananthapuram.
Oh. You could have easily boarded a bus right?
How am I supposed to find a bus on a Hartal day?
Right! This was one of those days where some political outfits would own the roads and vent their frustration out on the public. Trains were spared for some mysterious reason, and that intrigued me.
Of course! I had forgotten about it. Seems you have a pretty strong reason to be traveling on a hartal day.
I’m on my way to attend the film festival.
That’s when I noticed her shoulder bag with IFFK printed on it.
Woah! Such dedication. You intellectual lot are quite something.
Why? Don’t you consider yourself intellectual?
Hell no! My visits to movie theaters would be to watch some kick-ass action, or some really cool CGI mainly. Plus the popcorn. Cheese, not caramel. Ugh I hate caramel popcorn. Who even came up with such an aberration! Anyway, I cannot stand these award movies.
Hmm. Is it just now or do you always do it?
Such overt generalization! According to you, the film festival is an event where they show lots of boring “award movies” watched by the equally boring “intellectual lot” right?
Well, I didn't mean to insult.
You could speak your mind. No issues. To me, you are intellectual enough to read about Apartheid.
I like his stand up shows. Dude is really funny. I was watching one of the Netflix specials, and that’s when my friend Ria suggested this.
I see. It’s a good read. Enjoy.
Where are you going?
Forward! Of course. I replied, immediately repeating the lame line.
Hmm. Hey, how old are you by the way?
I was bemused by the sudden change of topic.
I turned twenty-nine last October.
Really? But you don’t look the age. Anyway, that joke is still older than you.
A sound similar to Ouch emerged from between my dry lips as I managed a smile while searching for Burnol in my rucksack.
There are different kinds of awkward silences that one experiences in various phases of life. For instance, the awkward silence between you and your colleague as you both stand at adjacent urinal stalls in the restroom is one kind. The awkward silence that forms around you and your mom when you are at home and a person of the opposite gender calls you at night is another kind.
The awkward silence that originated between this girl and me was a third kind altogether. I resumed my read. At least pretended to. I lifted my eyes off the book only when I realized the train was slowing down, and almost coming to a stop. We had reached Thiruvananthapuram.
She was standing, and picking her bag off the rack. I managed a half smile that she reciprocated. Then I saw her walking towards the door with the two bags, and exiting. Fortunately, that was the last I had seen of her. I resumed my read again.
Not many people would acknowledge, but journey by trains have a certain feel to it. If you are lucky to have a seat by the window, the feeling just elevates. If there's enough charge on your phone and you have a pair of headphones to sink into your favorite playlist, it's nothing less than heaven.
I was in one such heaven; on my way home. The train halted at a station. I saw passengers crowding near the door, fighting tooth and nail to get in first and grab a seat. I was wary of them. I feared an aunt with a noisy child, or a chatty chacha would come sit next to me and wreak havoc upon on my mind heaven. I dug the ear buds deeper into my ear lobes and listened to the crooning of Mohit Chauhan. Music has this amazing quality of taking you out of the ordinary mundane world to somewhere exotic. Where you matter.
People say you listen to the beats when you are happy and to the lyrics when you are melancholy. I believe that the words and the tune compliment each other. You got to listen and appreciate both to relish the utmost experience.
I was so immersed in Tum ho paas mere, Saath mere ho tum yun that I barely noticed the girl who had occupied the seat beside me. I threw a glance at her. She had settled in, and was assuring someone over the phone that she had boarded safely. One glance, and I was sure that I would steal a lot more glances as the journey progressed. Her was not the prettiest face that I've come across. But there was something about her that captivated me. I cannot pinpoint what exactly that it was. Her large eyes, maybe? Perhaps her nose, or even the cheekbones? I still don't know. All I knew I was I would suffocate sitting right next to her and not looking.
I had a second glass. She caught my movement, and turned to me. Our eyes met for a first. I felt a mixture of embarrassment and insecurity topped with a tingly feeling. I looked away immediately. Gaining composure, I looked at her one more time. She was done with her call. I smiled. She smiled back and almost had me killed in the process. It is unbelievable how much impact a simple curve can have on us. For, her already captivating face became incredibly, astonishingly beautiful as she smiled. I felt my heart melting and rising all the way up to my mouth. After what felt like an eternity, I looked away. A zillion conversation starters popped in my head.
What's your name? Where are you headed? Was that your mom on the phone? AR Rahman or Shankar Ehsaan Loy? Death by fire or by water? Okay that last question doesn't qualify as a great starter. Anyway, none of this escaped my lips. It would be too soon, I thought. What if she would think that I was one of those loser boys who would not lose any opportunity to talk to girls. No, I could not risk my reputation. I had an impression to make.
I decided to bide my time, and went back to Kun Fayakun. Seeing no action from my side, she fished out her tablet device and started watching something. I found myself in a spot. I was no longer able to focus on the lyrics or the music. I gave up soon after. With nothing else to do, I sat there, staring out through the window as the trees flew back me. Lost in thought. I found her laughing at times. She was watching some sitcom, apparently. I looked at her screen. An episode of How I Met Your Mother. I had watched this show some years back, but could not recall this exact episode. I was now confident about the starters, but did not feel like interrupting her watch. That would be intrusion. Also, the sound of her laughs felt like the sound made by beads of white pearls falling in the calm backwaters on a lazy Sunday evening.
Apna time ayega!
I spent the next few minutes switching between the window sights and her 18:9 screen. Words might not describe the pleasant state I was in when I saw that she had quietly turned on the subtitles for the show. This was turning legen - wait for it - dary. It meant that my presence was acknowledged. Welcomed, even!
I knew we were ready for chat. Before the customary Hello, I excused myself and went to the mirror near the door. I washed my face with the not so cold water. Then I wiped my face and my hands dry. I arranged and then rearranged my hair and made sure I looked decent. The train had reached the next stop. I went into the bathroom to relieve myself. Attending the nature’s call was a confidence booster for me. Moreover, this would give me enough time for the new passengers to settle in before I went back.
I went back with some pre-rehearsed lines in my mind. I even had my come back lines prepared for her response. Imagine my surprise when I returned to my seat only to find that she was missing. I looked around, but there was no trace of her. Shell shocked would be an understatement. Did she actually board the train to deboard at the very next station! The train started moving. I dashed to the door, hoping to catch a last glimpse. I looked left, and right, and then left again and finally my eyes spotted her walking towards the flyover. A pang of familiar despair knocked came over me. I choked.
As she reached the flight of steps, she turned back. Palat. She was not looking towards me at the door. She was looking at one of the windows. I think it was the one where we were seating only a few minutes ago. Apparently not finding what she looked for, she continued looking until her eyes rested on mine. Her eyes smiled, and her lips followed cue. I waved to her as the train gathered speed. My blurry eyes and the speeding train ensured that I could not see her waving back.
We did not know each other's names. We had no clue of each other’s journeys. Hell, we did not speak a single word to each other Still, if you ask me, this was romance in its most innocent avatar.
Kahin Se.. Kahin Ko.. Bhi
Aao Bewajah Chale
Poochhe Bina Kisi Se