A short story I had written a couple of years ago that was lost for a very long time in the drafts.
I settle into my seat in the A/C first class coach and look at the elderly gentleman across. Thick silver hair neatly combed to the side, clean-shaven with a pair of bright eyes behind the steel glasses, a classic picture of a retired college professor. His daughter had asked me to “keep an eye” on her father at the Chennai station. The man though elderly with his best years behind him didn’t look like he needed any help whatsoever. I was a little worried he’d start a conversation that would keep going, in bits and pieces till he knew me inside out. The kinds of friendships one strikes while sitting in 36 hour train journeys like we were stuck in. Not to be rude or anything but I had a lot on my own plate and needed this time to be alone wth my own thoughts.
20 minutes into the journey, the old man whips a shiny black Nokia cell, dials, waits for a few minutes and speaks into it.
“Hello! aahh, hello, it’s me. So what are you doing? Me? I just had my coffee and wanted to talk to you. Did you take your medicine? The blue pill? Oh good, how about the white one? Make sure you drink enough water with it. Doctor said it could upset your stomach. Yes yes, I am fine. Nithya made me some idlis this morning, but the chutney wasn’t like yours. She tries to follow your way of cooking, but what to do, she has to satisfy our son-in-law too right?” He chuckles.
After a few minutes he hangs up with a wistful smile on his face and our eyes meet. He explains as a matter of fact.
“My wife. I have to remind her to take medicines, or she will forget. You know how women are, always very busy in the kitchen and children. You are married?“
I nod my head, smile to convey; “I know how women are” and poke my head back behind the newspaper.
The train lurches along pausing and gaining speed and we pull into Vijayawada. I get up to stretch my legs and perhaps find something to eat. I look at him and ask if he needed anything?
“Oh no no, my daughter has packed some curd rice with pickle. This outside food always upsets my stomach and at my age I cannot afford to fall sick. Just a burden on the children no? But is it okay to get down, the train will stop here for a little while no?” He asks anxiously.
I assure him we have a 20-minute wait and if Indian Railways were to be trusted, we will have at least 10 more too.
While I buy some bottled water, he walks around with his palms clasped behind him. Surveying the passengers and the conversations beyond them. I see him dial a number but hang up after listening a few seconds. I nod at him and lead the way back into the coach.
After slurping through his curd rice, he dials again. This time he spoke: “Hello! ahh hello, it’s me, had lunch? Yes, I ate. Nithya packed some curd rice for me. Her little one creates such a ruckus this morning. Nithya has so much trouble handling him alone with her work at office and the father doesn’t help much, so she has to do all by herself. No no, she is alright. After all whose daughter is she? Don’t worry ma, our daughter is strong, just like you. We have done our job, and if we have done it well, then she will be just fine. What do you say? Okay, you go take rest now. Remember to take that green pill okay? Alright.”
He climbs up onto his berth and very soon I hear soft snores filter down. I watch the fields and the barren ground rush past me through the hazy smoggy window, mirroring my mind.
The gentleman made calls every few hours. I was compelled to listen to him; a veritable mix of proximity in space and mind. The tones varied from tenderness to admonishments, to care, love and assurance. The camaraderie and the lightness with which he and his wife carried on a conversation was enviable.
He always hung up with a smile. Occasionally wistful, sometimes as if the smile bore a weight, sometimes it never made it to his crinkly eyes, but smile he did. He’d throw his head back and close his eyes, almost like he was re-living the call. His cell phone clutched to his chest across delicately weathered fingers. He’d then open his eyes; offer a small monolog of explanation, a remnant that hung around in the air. He’d then polish the piece with the back of his shirt sleeve, and tell me for the umpteenth time that this was a gift his daughter got him on his birthday a few months ago, so he could call and stay in touch. He’d beam with fatherly pride and place it in his shirt pocket and continue reading a well-worn copy of Rajaji’s Mahabharatha.
“Are we at Gwalior? My wife grew up here you know? I came to this city just once to see her in 1962. She loves the place, not me. I am a true Chennai-ite at heart. The bookstall is still here?!” He laughs and slips back into silence.
A bad tepid coffee and some Marie biscuits later, he pulls out a small plastic album. Hesitating for only a few brief seconds, he points at each different picture. Scrawny fingers jabbing at images, jostling with the rasp in his voice. I thought I heard his voice tremble just a bit as he paused longer on the last picture. It was one of his wife and a little girl. Replicas in the way their gaze held the camera, the lips that curved with the weight of the shyness, the way they clasped their hands in their laps. His son’s daughter. The one he is going to visit now.
“Hello! ahhh, yes, it’s me. Am almost there, another few hours and I will be at Vishwa’s house. Did you take your medication? I took mine. Yes, even the eye drops too. Oh, btw, we passed by Gwalior this morning. You remember the station bookstall on platform 3? It’s still there.” Voice fills with excitement and raising just a bit high. “Time files no? The children grow fast don’t they? Yes ma, Vishwa will take care of me, he always does. Sometimes he gets upset and that’s only because he is going through the family stage, or else he’s a patient boy. I will be quiet and see in what way I can help at their home. Ok? I won’t say a word. Are you happy now? Okay, I think we are coming close to the station, I should pack up. Don’t want to keep him waiting, he will be rushing to work, today’s Tuesday no? Okay, I will keep the phone down now. Alright.”
We wait with his suitcase on the slowly emptying platform. I look at my watch and propose he use his cell and call his son.
“No no, he will be here any minute. Must be Delhi’s traffic. I hear it takes 30 minutes to cross 2 kilometers these days.”
Shortly, a handsome young man of my age darts across and with a show of recognition, approaches us. “Sorry dad, it’s the traffic. Had a good journey?”
“See, I told you, it was the traffic“. He says to me and then turns towards his son: “This young man has been a big help on the train.“
I shake my head, and smile, turning to leave, and the father and son follow.
With just a step ahead of the father, the son walks alongside of me, drops his voice and asks: “I hope my dad didn’t trouble you. He tends to talk a lot these days. He feels lonely, my mother just passed away three months ago.”
Back in Chennai, Nithya, pauses at the answering machine on her way out the door to work, and with a practiced heavy hand, hits the ‘delete’ button.