THE WOMAN ON THE TRAIN
The moment I see Muthu, the office-boy, standing at the door of the class room I feel a familiar fear. I close my eyes and try to concentrate on Ms Bhalla who is reading aloud with dramatic effect Ruskin Bond’s story ‘The Woman on Platform 8’. It’s a moving story about a brief encounter between a woman and a motherless boy.
I love short stories, especially Ruskin Bond, and Ms Bhalla is my favorite teacher. But it’s no use. I can’t hear a word she is saying.
I open my eyes. Ms Bhalla is in a world of her own, reading away, book in her left hand and making gestures with her right. She hasn’t noticed Muthu, or the fact that almost everyone in the class are looking at him and not at her. So thoroughly is she absorbed in herself and so totally is she oblivious of her surroundings that no one dare disturb her.
“………..I watched her until she was lost in the milling crowd,” Ms Bhalla ends the story with a flourish and looks at us triumphantly only to discover that most of her students are looking towards the door. Her expression starts changing.
Before she gets angry someone says, “It’s Muthu, ma’am.”
Ms Bhalla glares at poor Muthu who sheepishly walks in and gives her the chit he is holding in his hand.
I look down into my notebook trying to keep my mind blank, but even without seeing I know that Ms Bhalla is looking at me. “Shanta, go to the principal’s office,” she says, “and take your bag with you.”
Take my bag with me? I feel scared, anxious. I hope it’s not too serious.
“Must be a big binge this time ,” I hear Rita’s voice behind me. Tears well up in my eyes. Rita is from such a happy family. Why is she so mean and nasty?
I’m about to break down when I feel Lata’s reassuring hand on my wrist, “Let’s go, Shanta. I’ll bring your bag.”
We walk through the silent corridors. Our school is located in one of those ancient castle type buildings - cold, dark and gloomy.
“I shouldn’t have left him alone last night,” I say.
“I feel so sad for uncle,” Lata says.
“Whenever I’m there he’s okay. Controls himself. He loves me so much. I’m the only one he’s got - after mummy died.”
“He was improving so much,” Lata says. “Looking so good last weekend.”
Lata is my true friend ….. the only person who I can open my heart to. The others - they watch from a distance. With pity. And a few like Rita with an evil delight at my misfortune.
“Something mush have happened yesterday,” I say. “I wish I had gone home last night. It’s in the evenings that he needs me the most.”
“Shanta, you want me to come,” Lata asks.
“Yes,” I say. I really need some moral support. Facing the world all alone. I can’t bear it any longer.
Ms David, our class-teacher, is standing outside the principal’s office. I follow her in.
I nervously enter the principal’s office. The principal, Mrs Nathan, is talking to a lady sitting opposite her. Noticing me she says, “Ah, Shanta. You daddy’s not well again. He’s admitted in the clinic again. You take the ten o’clock shuttle. And ring me up if you want anything.”
“Can I go with her?” Lata asks.
“You go back to class,” the principal says sternly, “you’ve got a maths test at 10 o’clock haven’t you?”
“Please Miss…. “ Lata pleads with Ms David, our class teacher, but Ms David says,” Lata you are in the ninth standard now. Be serious about your studies. And today afternoon is the basketball final. How can you be absent?”
I feel pain in the interiors of my mind. No one ever tells me to be serious about studies; or even sports.
Lata gives me my school-bag and leaves quickly.
Mrs Nathan takes off her glasses and looks at me. There is compassion in her eyes. “Be brave, Shanta,” she says. “This is Ms Pushpa - an ex-student of our school.”
“Good morning, ma’am,” I say.
“Hello, Shanta.” Ms Pushpa says. “I’m also taking the train to Coonoor. We’ll travel together.”
As we leave the principal’s office I can feel the piercing looks of pity burning into me. The teachers, the staff, even the gardener. Everyone knows. And they know that I know that they know. Morose faces creased with lines of compassion. The atmosphere of pity. The deafening silence. It’s terrible. I just want to get away from the place. These people - they just don’t understand that I want empathy; not sympathy.
I walk with Ms Pushpa taking the short-cut to Lovedale railway station. It’s cold, damp and the smell of eucalyptus fills my nostrils. A typical winter morning in the Nilgiris.
I look at Ms Pushpa. She looks so chic. Blue jeans, bright red pullover, fair creamy flawless complexion, jet-black hair neatly tied in a bun, dark Ray-Ban sunglasses of the latest style. A good-looking woman with smart feminine features. Elegant. Fashionable. Well groomed.
We walk in silence. I wait for her to start the conversation. I don’t know how much she knows.
“You’re in Champak house, aren’t you?” she asks looking at the crest on my blazer.
Polite conversation. Asking a question to which you already know the answer.
“Yes ma’am,” I answer.
“I too was in Champak house,” she says.
“When did you pass out, ma’am ?” I ask.
“1987,” she says.
I do a quick mental calculation. She must be in her mid-thirties. 35, maybe. She certainly looks young for her age. And very beautiful.
We cross the tracks and reach the solitary platform of Lovedale railway station.
“Let me buy your ticket. You’re going to Coonoor aren’t you?” she asks.
“Thank you ma’am. I’ve got a season ticket,” I say.
“Season ticket ?” she asked surprised.
“I’m a day scholar, ma’am. I travel every day from Coonoor,” I say.
“Oh! In our time it was strictly a boarding school,” she says.
“Even now ma’am,” I say. “I’ve got special permission. My father doesn’t keep well. I have to look after him.”
“Oh, yes,” she says, and walks towards the deserted booking window.
Lovedale is the most picturesque railway station on the Nilgiri mountain railway but today it looks gloomy, desolate. One has to be happy inside for things to look beautiful outside.
She returns with her ticket and we sit on the solitary bench.
“Where do you stay ma’am ?” I ask.
“Bangalore,” she says. “You’ve been there?”
“Only once. Last month. For my father’s treatment,” I say.”
She asks the question I’m waiting for, “Shanta. Tell me. Your father. What’s wrong with him ? What’s he suffering from ?”
I’ve never really understood why people ask me this question to which I suspect they already know the answer. Each probably has their own reason. Curiosity, lip-sympathy, genuine concern, sadistic pleasure. At first I’d feel embarrassed, try to cover up, mask, give all sorts of explanations. But now I have learnt that it is best to be blunt and straightforward.
“He’s an alcoholic,” I say. Most people shut up after this. Or change the topic of conversation. But Ms Pushpa pursues, “It must be terrible living with him. He must be getting violent.”
“No,” I say. “With me papa is very gentle. He loves me a lot.”
Tears well up in my eyes and my nose feels heavy. I take out my handkerchief. I feel her comforting arm around my shoulder and know her concern is genuine.
Suddenly the station bell rings, I hear the whistle and the blue mountain train streams into the platform. They still use steam engines here on the Nilgiri mountain railway. The train is almost empty. It’s off-season, there are no tourists, and in any case this train is never crowded as it returns to Coonoor after transporting all the office-goers to Ooty.
We sit opposite each other in an empty compartment. She still hasn’t taken off her dark sunglasses even though it is overcast and it begins to drizzle.
She looks at her watch. I look at mine. 10 AM. Half-an-hour’s journey to Coonoor.
“You came today morning, ma’am ?” I ask.
“No. Last evening. I stayed with Monica David. Your class teacher. We were classmates.”
What a difference. Miss David is so schoolmarmish. And Ms Pushpa so mod and chic. But I better be careful what I say. After all, classmates are classmates.
The train begins its journey and soon Ketti valley comes into view.
“There used to be orchards down there. Now there are buildings,” she says.
“You’ve come after a long time?” I ask.
“Yes. Almost nineteen years. The first time since passing out,” she says.
“For some work? Children’s admission?”
“No, No,” she bursts out laughing, “I’m single. Happily unmarried.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, contrite.
“Come on, Shanta. It’s Okay,” she says. “I’ve come for some work in Coonoor. Just visited the school for old times’ sake.”
“You must come during Founder’s day. You’ll meet everyone,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “All these years I was abroad. America, Singapore, Manila, Europe. Now that I’m in Bangalore, I’ll definitely make it.”
“You work?” I ask.
“Yes. In an MNC.”
Must be an MBA from a top business school. Like IIM. Or maybe even Harvard. Wish I could be like her. Independent. Smart. Elegant. Successful. I certainly have the talent. But what about papa? Who will look after him?
I try not to think of the future. It all looks so bleak, uncertain. Better not think of it. I don’t even know what awaits me at the clinic. Just a few minutes more. It’s unbearable - the tension. Why do I have to go through all this?
She’s looking out of the window. It’s grey and cold. Dark clouds. But she still wears her dark sunglasses. Hasn’t taken them off even once.
Suddenly we enter the Ketti tunnel. It’s pitch dark. The smell of steam and smoke. It’s warm. Comforting. I close my eyes.
The train whistles. Slows down. I open my eyes. She’s still wearing dark glasses. Maybe she too has something to hide. And me. What I want to hide, everyone knows; but makes a pretence of not knowing. At least in my presence.
The train stops at Ketti. On the platform there is a group of girls, my age. They are in a jovial mood; giggling, eyes dancing, faces beaming, so carefree and happy. Their happiness hurts me deep down in my heart.
The girls don’t get in. Dressed in track-suits, and Ketti valley school blazers, they are probably waiting for the up train to Ooty which crosses here. Must be going for the basketball match.
A girl with a familiar face walks up to me with her friend.
“Not playing?” she asks.
“No,” I say.
“I wish we knew. We wouldn’t have gone so early to practice,” she says.
“Who’s captaining?” her friend asks.
“Lata maybe. I don’t know,” I say.
“Where are you going?”
“My father’s in hospital. He’s not well.”
“Oh! Hope he gets well soon. Okay bye.”
The girls walk away whispering to each other. And I hear the hushed voice of the one I’ve met for the first time, “Poor thing.”
“Poor thing.” The words pierce through my heart. “Poor thing.” The words echo in the interiors of my mind. “Poor thing!” “Poor thing!” “Poor thing!” The resonance is deafening. I feel I’m going mad. I feel Ms Pushpa’s hand on mine. A slight pressure. Comforting.
The up train comes, the girls get in, and train leaves towards Ooty.
Our engine’s whistle shrieks, our train starts moving. Outside it starts to rain. We close the windows. The smallness of the compartment forces us into a strange intimacy.
“I’ll come with you to the hospital,” Ms Pushpa says.
I know she means well, but nowadays I hate to depend on the kindness of strangers; so I reply, “Thank you ma’am, but I’ll manage. I’m used to it.”
“Is he often like this?” she asks.
Why is she asking me all this? It seems genuine compassion. Or maybe she has her own troubles. And talking to me makes her own troubles go away.
I decide to give her every thing in one go. “When I am there he’s okay. Controls himself. He loves me more than his drink. Last night I stayed at the hostel to study for a test. And he must have felt lonely and hit the bottle. I shouldn’t have left him alone. After mummy’s gone I am the only one he’s got, and he’s the only one I’ve got.” I pause and I say, “He was improving so much. Something must have happened last evening. He must have got upset - really upset.”
“I’m so sorry,” she says. Her tone is apologetic as if she were responsible in some way.
“Why should you feel sorry, ma’am. It’s my fate. I’ve to just find out what’s upset him. And see it doesn’t happen again. Maybe somebody visited him, passed some hurting remark. He’s very sensitive.”
Her expression changes slightly. She winces. “Does he tell you everything?” she asks.
“Of course he tells me everything,” I say, “There are no secrets between us. I’m his best friend.”
“I wish I could help you in some way,” she says.
I don’t say anything. I close my eyes. What a fool I have been, I’ve told her everything. And I know nothing about her. Not even the color of her eyes - she hasn’t even once taken off her dark sunglasses, like someone who’s blind. How cleverly she’s manipulated the conversation. Maybe people who are happy and successful feel good listening to other people’s sorrows.
I feel stifled. I open my eyes and the window. A shrill whistle and we pass through a gorge. Noise, steam, smoke, and suddenly it becomes sunny and the train begins to slow down.
“We’ve reached,” I say. We get down on the platform at Coonoor.
“I’ll come with you,” she says.
“Thanks. But it’s okay. I’ll go by myself.”
Ms Pushpa takes off her dark sunglasses and looks at me. I see her eyes. For the first time. A shiver passes through me as I look into her eyes. They are greenish-grey. She’s got cat-eyes. Exactly like mine.
Suddenly she takes me in her arms and hugs me in a tight embrace.
Stunned, I struggle, feeling acutely uncomfortable.
She releases me and I just stand there feeling numb, confused.
The whistle shrieks. I come to my senses. Look up at her. Her eyes are red and tears flow down her cheeks.
Suddenly she puts on her sunglasses, turns and walks away.
As I walk towards the hospital I think about my brief encounter with Ms Pushpa, her rather strange behaviour. It’s certainly not one of those ‘hail fellow – well met’ type of time-pass conversations between co-passengers. But suddenly she’s gone and I don’t know anything about her. She hasn’t even given me her card, address, phone, nothing. It all happened so fast.
The Clinic. Well laid-out. Neat. Spick and span. Anesthetic smell. An air of discipline. I walk through the corridor. I know where to go.
“Yes?” a voice says from behind.
I turn around. It’s a matron. I’ve never seen her before. Her eyes are hard, pitiless.
I tell her who I am. Her expression changes. Lines of compassion begin to crease her face. But still, her face has something terrible written on it.
I smile. I have learnt to smile even when I feel like weeping.
I enter the room. Papa is lying on the solitary bed. He looks okay. His eyes are closed.
“Papa,” I say softly.
He opens his eyes. “Shanta! Come to me,” he says. I rush to his bed. He hugs me tightly, “Don’t go Shanta. Don’t leave me and go away,” he cries.
“Don’t cry papa. I’ll always be with you. I’ll never leave you alone again,” I say, tears rolling down my checks.
We both cry copiously. Time stands still. I sense the presence of people in the room. Apart from the matron, there is the comforting face of Dr. Ghosh and a young doctor in white coat, stethoscope around his neck.
“Can I take him?” I ask.
“Of course,” Dr. Ghosh says.” He’s okay now.”
“But sir,” the young doctor protests and says, “He’s hallucinating….”
“It’s okay,” Dr. Ghosh interrupts giving him a sharp look. “Shanta knows how to look after him; like a mother. Isn’t it Shanta?”
“Yes,” I say.
Papa gives sheepish look. That’s what I like about Dr. Ghosh. The way he gets his message across. There is no need for him to reprimand papa. Especially in front of me. My papa’s own remorse is his own worst reprimand.
We talk in silence. I don’t ask him any thing. He’ll tell me when he wants to.
“You’re hungry?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. It’s almost noon.
Soon we sit at the Garden Restaurant overlooking Sim’s Park. He takes his hands out of the overcoat pockets and picks up the menu card. His hands tremble. DT. Delirium Tremens. Withdrawal symptoms. Must have had a prolonged bout of drinking last night. I know what to do. Just in case. I don’t want him to turn cold turkey.
“Papa, you order,” I say and pick up my school bag and briskly walk across the road to the wine shop. On seeing me the owner puts a small bottle of brandy in a brown paper bag and gives it to me. I put in my school bag. No words are exchanged. No permit is required. It doesn’t matter that I’m a 14 year old schoolgirl. He knows. Everyone knows. Pity. Compassion.
But I know that unseen eyes see, and tongues I cannot hear will wag.
The silence. It’s grotesque. Deafening. Unbearable.
As I give him a fifty-rupees note, the owner asks, “Saab - I hope he’s okay.”
I nod. I don’t seem to have a private life anymore. Unsolicited sympathy is a burden I find difficult to carry nowadays.
Papa has ordered Chinese food. My favorite. He has a nip of brandy. His hands become steady. We start eating.
“She wants to take you away from me,” he says.
“Who wants take me away? I don’t understand,” I say perplexed.
“Yes. She’s going to take you away. She came last evening.”
I feel a strange sensation in my stomach. The food becomes tasteless in my mouth. It seems he’s reached the final stage. Hallucinations. Loneliness. Driving him insane. He’s seeing images of mummy now. The point of no return. Fear drills into my vitals.
“Please papa. Mummy is dead. You’re hallucinating again.” I say.
“She came last evening. Wanted your custody.”
“Custody? What are you talking?”
“Yes. She wants to take you away from me.”
“Don’t delve too much.”
In the evening we sit on the lawns of the club waiting for my birthmother. I feel like a volcano about to erupt. Daddy sits with his head in his hands; nervous, scared. Dr. Ghosh looks away into the distance, as if he’s in our group but not a part of it. I wonder what’s his role in all this.
And opposite me is that grotesque woman with suspiciously black hair. Mrs Murthy. The social worker from the child welfare department.
Social work indeed! Removing adopted children from happy homes and forcibly returning them to their biological parents who had abandoned them in the first place.
And this birthmother of mine. I hate her without even knowing her. First she abandons me. And then after fourteen long years she emerges from nowhere with an overflowing love and concern for me. ‘My papa is a dangerous man,’ she decides. It’s unsafe for me to live with him. So she wants to take me away into the unknown.
“Don’t worry,” Mrs Murthy the social worker says,” Everything will be okay.”
Yes. Everything will be okay. Papa will land up in an asylum. I’ll be condemned to spend the rest of my life with a woman I hate. Our lives will be ruined. Great social service will be done. Yes. Everything will be okay.
Papa is silent. Scared. He’s been warmed by Dr. Ghosh. No outbursts. It’ll only worsen the case.
And me. I’m only a minor. They’ll decide what is good for me. Of course they’ll take my views into consideration. I can see my world disintegrating in front of me.
We sit in silence. Six-thirty. Seven. The longest half-hour of my life.
“She said she’ll be here at six-thirty sharp,” Mrs Murthy says, “I’ll check up.” She pulls out her cell phone. Signal’s weak. She walks to the reception.
We wait. Darkness envelopes.
Mrs Murthy returns. There’s urgency in her step. “Her cell phone is switched off. I rang up the hotel,” she says, “It’s strange. She checked out in the afternoon. Hired a taxi to Bangalore. It’s funny. She hasn’t even bothered to leave a message for me.” Mrs Murthy is disappointed and says angrily, “After all the trouble I have taken. She just goes away without even informing me. She promised she’ll be here at six-thirty sharp.” Looking perturbed, she leaves, promising to check up and let us know.
After she leaves, Dr. Ghosh says to my father, “Come on. Let’s have a drink.”
“No,” my papa says,” I don’t need a drink.”
We take leave of Dr. Ghosh and begin walking home.
“This woman. My ‘birthmother’. Does she have cat-eyes? Like me?”
“Don’t delve too much,” papa says.
He puts his protective arm around me and we walk together into the enveloping darkness. But I can see light in the distance.