(a short story)
Lovedale. A quaint little station on the Nilgiri mountain railway in South India. There is just one small platform – and on it, towards its southern end, a solitary bench. If you sit on this bench you will see in front of you, beyond the railway track, an undulating valley, covered with eucalyptus trees, and in the distance the silhouette of a huge structure, which looks like a castle, with an impressive clock-tower. In this mighty building is located a famous boarding school – one of the best schools in India. Many such ‘elite’ schools are known more for snob value than academic achievements, but this one is different – it is a school known for its rich tradition of excellence.
Lovedale, in 1970. That’s all there is in Lovedale – this famous public school, a small tea-estate called Lovedale (from which this place got its name), a tiny post office and, of course, the lonely railway platform with its solitary bench.
It’s a cold damp depressing winter morning, and since the school is closed for winter, the platform is deserted except for two people – yes, just two persons – a woman and a small girl, shivering in the morning mist, sitting on the solitary bench. It’s almost 9 o’clock – time for the morning “toy-train” from the plains carrying tourists via Coonoor to Ooty, the “Queen” of hill-stations, just three kilometers ahead - the end of the line. But this morning the train is late, probably because of the dense fog and the drizzle on the mountain-slopes, and it will be empty – for there are hardly any tourists in this cold and damp winter season.
“I’m dying to meet mummy. And this stupid train – it’s always late,” the girl says. She is dressed in school uniform – gray blazer, thick gray woolen skirt, navy-blue stockings, freshly polished black shoes, her hair tied smartly in two small plaits with black ribbons.
The woman, 55 – maybe 60, dressed in a white sari with a thick white shawl draped over her shoulder and a white scarf around her head covering her ears, looks lovingly at the girl, softly takes the girl’s hand in her own, and says, “ It will come. Look at the weather. The driver can hardly see in this mist. And it must be raining down there in Ketti valley.”
“I hate this place. It’s so cold and lonely. Everyone has gone home for the winter holidays and we have nowhere to go. Why do we have to spend our holidays here every time?”
“You know we can’t stay with her in the hostel.”
“But her training is over now. And she’s become an executive – that’s what she wrote.”
“Yes. Yes. She is an executive now. After two years of tough training. Very creditable; after all that has happened,” the old woman says.
“She has to take us to Mumbai with her now. No more excuses.”
“Of course. Let your mummy come. This time we’ll tell her to take us all to Mumbai.”
“And we’ll all stay together – like we did when Daddy was there.”
“Yes. Mummy will go to work. You will go to school. And I will look after both of you. Just like before.”
“Only Daddy won’t be there. Why did God take Daddy away?” the girl says, tears welling in her eyes.
“Don’t think those sad things. We cannot change what has happened. You must be brave – like your mummy,” says the old lady putting her hand softly around the girl. There is no greater pain than to remember happier times when in distress.
Meanwhile the toy-train is meandering its way laboriously round the steep u-curve, desperately pushed by a hissing steam engine, as it leaves Wellington station on its way to Ketti. A man and a woman sit facing each other in the tiny first class compartment. There is no one else.
“You must tell her today,” the man says.
“Yes,” the woman replies softly.
“You should have told her before.”
“You could have written, called her up.”
“How could I ?”
“I don’t know how she will react. She loved her father very much.”
“Now she will have to love me. I am her new father now.”
“Yes, I know,” the woman says, tears welling up in her eyes. “I don’t know how to tell her; how she’ll take it. I think we should wait for some time. Baby is very sensitive.”
“ ‘Baby’ ! Why do you still call her Baby? She is a grown up girl now. You must call her by her real name. Damayanti – what a nice name – and you call her ‘Baby’”
“It’s her pet name. Deepak always liked to call her Baby.”
“I don’t. It’s ridiculous,” the man says firmly. “Anyway, that we will see later. But you tell her about us today. Tell both of them.”
“My mother-in-law – what will she feel ?”
“Poor thing. She will be all alone.”
“She’s got her work to keep her busy.”
“She’s old and weak. I don’t think she’ll be able to do the matron’s job much longer.”
“Let her work till she can. Then we’ll see.”
“Can’t we take her with us?”
“You know it’s not possible.”
“Poor thing. Where will she go ?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll arrange something – I know an excellent place near Lonavala. She will be very comfortable there - it’s an ideal place for senior citizens.”
“An Old Age Home ?”
“Yes. I’ve already spoken to them. Let her continue here till she can. Then we’ll shift her there.”
“How cruel. She was so good to me, looked after Baby, when we were devastated. And now we discard her when she needs us most,” the woman says and starts sobbing.
“Don’t get sentimental. You have to face the harsh reality. You know we can’t take her with us. Kavita, you must begin a new life now – no point carrying the baggage of your past,” the man realizes he has said something wrong and instantly apologizes, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
“You did. I hate you, you are so cruel and selfish,” the woman says, turns away from the man and looks out of the window.
They travel in silence. A disquieting silence. Suddenly it is dark, as the train enters a tunnel, and as it emerges on the other side, the woman can see the vast green Ketti Valley with its undulating mountains in the distance.
“I think I’ll also get down at Lovedale. I’ll tell them. Explain everything. And get over with it once and for all,” the man says.
“No! No! The sudden shock may upset them. I have to do this carefully. You don’t get down at Lovedale. Go straight to Ooty. I’ll tell them everything and we’ll do as we decided.”
“I was only trying to help you. Make things easier. I want to meet Damayanti. Tell her about us. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
“No. Let me do this. I don’t want her to see you before I tell her. I don’t know how she’ll react. I’ll have to do it very gently.”
“Okay,” the man says. “Make sure you wind up everything at the school. We have to leave for Mumbai tomorrow. There is so much to be done. We’ve hardly got any time left.”
“Lovedale’s coming,” the woman gets up and takes out her bag from the shelf.
“Sure you don’t want me to come?” asks the man.
“Not now. I’ll ring you up,” says the woman.
“Okay. But tell them everything. We can’t wait any longer.”
“Just leave everything to me. Don’t make it more difficult.”
They sit in silence waiting for Lovedale to come.
On the solitary bench on the platform at Lovedale station the girl and her grandmother wait patiently for the train which will bring their deliverance.
“I hate it over here. The cold scary dormitories. At night I miss mummy tucking me in. And every night I count DLFMTC ?”
“Days Left For Mummy To Come ! Others count DLTGH – Days Left To Go Home.”
“Next time you too …”
“No. No. I am not going to stay here in boarding school. I don’t know why we came here to this horrible place. I hate boarding school. I miss mummy so much. We could have stayed on in Mumbai with her.”
“Now we will. Your mummy’s training is over. She can hire a house now. Or get a loan. We will try to buy a good house. I’ve saved some money too.”
The lone station-master strikes the bell outside his office. The occupants of the solitary bench look towards their left. There is no one else on the platform. And suddenly the train emerges from under the bridge – pushed by the hissing steam engine.
Only one person gets down from the train – a beautiful woman, around 30. The girl runs into her arms. The old woman walks towards her with a welcoming smile. The man, sitting in the train, looks cautiously trying not to be seen. A whistle; and the train starts and moves out of the station towards Ooty.
That evening the woman tells them everything.
At noon the next day, four people wait at Lovedale station for the train from Ooty – the girl, her mother, her grandmother and the man. The girl presses close to her grandmother and looks at her new ‘father’ with trepidation. He gives her a smile of forced geniality. The old woman holds the girl tight to her body and looks at the man with distaste. The young woman looks with awe, mixed with hope, at her new husband. No one speaks. Time stands still. And suddenly the train enters.
“I don’t want to go,” the girl cries, clinging to her grandmother.
“Don’t you want to stay with your mummy? You hated boarding school didn’t you? ” the man says extending his hand.
The girl recoils and says, “No. No. I like it here. I don’t want to come. I like boarding school.”
“Come Baby, we have to go,” her mother says as tears well up in her eyes.
“What about granny – she will be all alone. No mummy - you also stay here. We all will stay here. Let him go to Mumbai,” the girl pleads.
“Kavita. The train is going to leave,” the man says firmly to the young woman.
“Go Baby. Be a good girl. I will be alright,” says the old woman releasing the girl.
As her mother gently holds her arm and guides her towards the train, for the first time in her life, the girl feels that her mother’s hand is like the clasp of an iron gate.
“I will come and meet you in Mumbai. I promise,” the grandmother says. But the girl feels scared – something inside tells her she that may never see her grandmother again.
As the train heads towards the plains, the old woman begins to walk her longest mile – her loneliest mile – into emptiness.
And Lovedale station, the mute witness, doesn’t even a shed a tear. It tries. But it can’t. Poor thing. It’s not human. So it suffers in inanimate helplessness. A pity. What a pity !