Winter. Early morning. Chill in the air. I stand alone on the metre gauge side of the lonely island platform of Mettupalaiyam Railway Station and stare at the peaks of the Blue Mountains (the Nilgiris) silhouetted in a veil of mist in the distance.
Nothing much has changed here since the last time I came here on my way to Ooty. Almost 30 years ago. The place, the things, the people – everything looks the same. As if frozen in time.
But for me there is a world of difference. Then I was a young bride, full of inchoate zest, in the company of my handsome husband, eagerly looking forward to the romantic journey on the mountain train, on my way to our honeymoon at Ooty.
And now! The same place which then felt so exciting now feels so gloomy. Strange. But true. What’s outside just doesn’t matter; what’s inside does. I try not to reminisce. Remembering good times when I am in misery causes me unimaginable agony.
I look at my watch. 7.30 A.M. The small blue toy train pushed by its hissing steam engine comes on the platform. Dot on time. As it was then. The same December morning. The same chill in the air. Then I had the warmth of my husband’s arm around me. Now I feel the bitter cold penetrating within me.
I drag my feet across the platform towards the mountain train. Scared, anxious, fear in my stomach, I experience a strange uneasiness, a sense of foreboding, a feeling of ominous helplessness - wondering what my new life would have in store for me.
I sit alone in the First Class compartment right in front of the train. Waiting for the train to start. And take me to the point to no return. Wishing that all this is just a dream. But knowing it is not.
And suddenly, Avinash enters. We stare at each other in disbelief. Time stands still. Till Avinash speaks, “Roopa! What are you doing here?”
I do not answer. Because I cannot. For I am swept by a wave of melancholic despair. My vocal cords numbed by emotional pain. And as I look helplessly at Avinash, I realize that there is no greater pain than to remember happier times when in distress.
“You look good when you get emotional,” Avinash says sitting opposite me.
In the vulnerable emotional state that I am in, I know that I will have a breakdown if I continue sitting with Avinash. I want to get out, run away; but suddenly, the train moves. I am trapped. So I decide to put on a brave front, and say to Avinash, “Coming from Chennai?”
“Bangalore,” he says, “ I’d gone for some work there.”
“You stay here? In Ooty?” I ask with a tremor of trepidation for I do not want to run into Avinash again and again; and let him know that I had made a big mistake by not marrying him - that I had made the wrong choice by dumping him, the man I loved, in search of a ‘better’ life.
“I stay near Kotagiri,” Avinash says.
“Kotagiri?” I ask relieved.
“Yes, I own a tea-estate there.”
“A tea estate?”
“Yes. I am a planter.”
Now I really regret my blunder 30 years ago. Indeed I had made the wrong choice.
“Your family – wife, children?” I probe, curious.
“I didn’t marry,” he says curtly. “There’s no family; only me. All by myself.”
“Oh, Avinash. You should have got married. Why didn’t you?”
“Strange you should be asking me that!” he says.
“Oh my God! Because of me?”
Avinash changes the subject, “I’ll be getting off at Coonoor. My jeep will pick me up.” He pauses, then says, “And you, Roopa? Going to Ooty? At the height of winter! To freeze there!”
“No,” I say, “ I’m going to Ketti.”
“Ketti ?” he asks with derisive surprise.
“Yes. What’s wrong with going to Ketti ?” I protest.
“There are only two places you can go to in Ketti. The School and the old-age home. And the school is closed in December,” Avinash says nonchalantly, looking out of the window.
I say nothing. I can’t. I suffer his words in silence.
“Unless of course you own a bungalow there!” he says turning towards me and mocking me once again.
The cat is out of the bag. I cannot describe the sense of humiliation I feel sitting there with Avinash. The tables seem to have turned. Or have they?
There are only the two of us in the tiny compartment. As the train begins to climb up the hills it began to get windy and Avinash closes the windows. The smallness of the compartment forces us into a strange sort of intimacy. I remember the lovely moments with Avinash. A woman’s first love always has an enduring place in her heart.
“I am sorry if I hurt you,” Avinash says, “but the bitterness just came out.”
We talk. Avinash is easy to talk to and I am astonished how effortlessly my words come tumbling out.
I tell him everything. The story of my life. How I had struggled, sacrificed, taken every care. But still, everything had gone wrong. Widowed at 28. Abandoned by my only son at 52. Banished to an old-age home. So that ‘they’ could sell off our house and emigrate to Australia. ‘They’ - my son and that scheming wife of his.
“I have lost everything,” I cry, unable to control my self. “Avinash, I have lost everything.”
“No, Roopa,” Avinash says. “You haven’t lost everything. You have got me! I’ve got you. We’ve got each other.”
Avinash takes me in his comforting arms and I experience the same feeling, the same zest, I felt thirty years ago, on my first romantic journey, on this same mountain toy train, on my way to my first honeymoon.