(a fiction short story)
What I am about to tell you happened last week. I am twelve years old, I’m a girl and my name is Pooja. I was traveling from Mumbai to Pune by train. I’ve traveled by train so many times before, but this was the first time I was traveling alone.
My father came to see me off in the AC Chair Car on the Deccan Queen at Mumbai. He seemed anxious and kept on saying the same things again and again, ‘Pooja, take care. Don’t get down at any station. It’s only a three hour journey. She’ll come to pick you up at Pune. I’ve told her your coach and seat number. And I’ve told uncle to look after you.”
‘Uncle’ was a young man of about twenty-five on the seat next to mine. “Don’t you worry, sir,” he said to my father, “she’ll be delivered safe and sound.” He gave me a friendly smile. It was a genuine warmhearted smile, not a patronizing one of forced geniality. He looked quite smart and handsome. I liked him and felt happy to have him as a companion. And of course I had the window seat in case he turned out to be a bore.
Now my father was talking to the train-conductor, probably telling him the same things. To look after me. Make sure I reached safe and sound. Repeating the same thing again and again. I felt embarrassed but didn’t say anything. For I knew my father genuinely cared for me. After all, he had no one else in this world, except me.
I felt worried about Papa. That’s why when he kissed me on the cheek just before the train started, I whispered in his ear, “Papa, don’t drink too much.” I knew how much he hated being all alone and lonely and now I wouldn’t be there to look after him.
The train moved. I looked at my watch. 5:10pm. The Deccan Queen started speeding towards Pune. We would be there by dinner-time.
The young man next to me took out a book from his bag and kept it on his knees in front of him. It was a ‘Mills & Boon’ romance! I smiled to myself. He seemed to be an interesting character. Young men in their twenties surely don’t read Mills & Boon. Or do they? Well this one was! Actually he should been inside the Mills & Boon, as the Hero, rather than outside, just reading it!
I was curious and wanted to know more about him. So I looked at him and said, “Hello, uncle. I’m Pooja.”
“Oh yes! Pooja Ranade! Age 12!”
“How do you know all this?” I asked taken aback.
“I read the reservation chart,” he said. “No matter how many times I begin a train journey, I always have an intriguing interest in finding out who my fellow-passengers are.”
“Are you a detective or something?”
“No,” he said smiling. “I’m in the Navy. The Merchant Navy.” He held out his hand,” Girish Pradhan. And don’t call me uncle. Just call me Girish.”
We shook hands. His grip was firm, strong. He really looked handsome and strong – a manly man!
The Mills & Boon paperback fell off. He picked it up and put it back on his knees. It seemed funny. A manly man like him reading Mills & Boon.
He spoke, “Been to Pune before?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “My father worked in Pune there before we came to Mumbai. But it’s the first time I’m traveling alone by train.”
“Then you can help me out,” he said. “You know a restaurant called Vaishali?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know Vaishali?” I asked surprised.
“No,” he said. “It’s the first time I’m going to Pune. But she told me it was a famous restaurant and I’d find it easily.”
“Girlfriend?” I asked curious.
“Okay. You can call her that. She’s a girl and she’s a friend. She’s told me to meet her at Vaishali. Tomorrow at 10 o’clock in the morning. She promised she would be there.”
“Yes,” he said. “She told me that the Dosa at Vaishali is even better than the one at Shompen.”
“It’s the best restaurant in Port Blair.”
“Port Blair! That’s where you met her, is it?” I asked. This was getting interesting.
“Yes. Last December. We were sailing to Singapore and unexpectedly had to dock in Port Blair for some emergency repairs. Just three days. And there I met her.”
Wow! A real life romantic story! And this was like a fairy tale. It was getting more and more exciting and I wanted to ask him so many things.
Who was she? Her name? What happened? How did they fall in love? And what about the Mills & Boon on his lap?
But before I could speak, he suddenly said, “Hey! Why am I telling you all this? It’s supposed to be secret.”
“I promise I won’t tell anyone. She’s more than a friend isn’t she?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out. Tomorrow morning. In Vaishali.”
“Now come on, don’t tell me you haven’t met for her one year!”
“Really. We haven’t met after that. I was sailing. And she didn’t give me her number, address or even e-mail id. Just told me to come and meet her at Vaishali in Pune at 10 tomorrow.”
“So exciting, and mysterious,” I said, “I wish I could come too.”
“Sure. I’d love if you come.” he said. “But before that you must tell me more about yourself. Why are you going to Pune?”
“To see my new mother,” I blurted out without thinking. I love to talk to someone who loves to talk, he was so easy to talk to, and my words just came tumbling out. My mother’s sudden death. My father sinking into depression. His drinking problem. Everyone advising him to remarry. His refusal. Just for my sake. And this proposal. My father insisting that I see her first and like her. I told him everything.
“You mean your father hasn’t even met her?” Girish asked.
“No. Only relatives. Papa has only spoken to her on the phone,” I said. “Actually Papa is worried. About me. He wants me to meet her first and like her. He loves me so much. So he sent her a long letter and she too sent a letter to me asking me to come to Pune , stay with her for a few days and we could get to know each other.” I couldn’t speak any longer. Tears had welled in my eyes.
For some time there was silence.
I felt embarrassed at having told everything to a complete stranger. But I felt good too. Why? I do not know.
I wiped my tears and nose with my hankie and said, “I’m sorry, uncle.”
“Uncle? Hey, come on. I’m not that old. Call me Girish. I told you, didn’t I? And don’t worry. I’m sure everything will work out and you will be happy. I’ll pray for you!”
“I’ll pray for you too! I’m sure she will marry you!” I said.
“I hope so,” he said. I’m just about making it to this appointment at Vaishali. Almost by a hair’s breadth. I signed off from my ship in Japan yesterday. Reached Mumbai today morning. And here I am on the train. She told me if I didn’t keep my appointment with her tomorrow, she’d go ahead and marry someone else.”
“So romantic!” I said. “I’m dying to meet her.”
“So am I,” he said. “It’s more than one year since we said goodbye to each other at Port Blair on the fifteenth of December last year promising each other to meet tomorrow – the 24th December this year at 10 a.m. at Vaishali restaurant in Pune.”
“Why 24th of December?”
“It’s her birthday”
“But you must have written to each other. At least spoken on the phone. E-mail.”
“No. I told you didn’t I? She didn’t give me anything; her address, e-mail, phone number nothing! She was in Port Blair on a holiday. And me. I’ve been sailing since.” He paused, picked up the Mills & Boon book from his lap and said, “This was the only thing she gave me. This Mills & Boon book she had in her purse.”
“Can I see it?”
“No. You are too small for Mills & Boon.” He kept the book in the plastic book-rack in front of his seat, turned to me and said,” Pooja, you must come with me to Vaishali tomorrow. I’ll pick you up and we’ll get a surprise cake. We’ll celebrate her birthday together.”
“But you haven’t even told me her name.”
“You’ll find out tomorrow,” he said. And if she doesn’t come, I’ll be heartbroken. Then you can console me. But I’m sure she will be there waiting for me. She promised. Whatever her decision, she said she won’t ditch me. She’ll definitely be there for our appointment.”
I looked out of the tinted-glass window. The sun was about to set. Outside it was getting dark. Inside it was cold. The Deccan Queen slowed down. 6:45. The train entered a station. I read the name – it was Karjat.
I turned to Girish and said, “Let’s get down. You get good batata-wadas here.”
“How do you know? The first time you are going to Pune isn’t it?
“It’s the first time I’m traveling alone,” I said. “We used to go up and down between Pune and Mumbai so many times when Mama was there.”
“I’ll get the Batata-Wadas.Your father said you’re not to get down.”
We strolled on the platform eating the delicious batata-wadas and suddenly Girish said, “I’m nervous. I really hope everything works out.”
“Me too,” I said. “Papa is so lonely. He needs someone. But he’s so worried for me. He keeps worrying whether I’ll like her or not.”
“Of course, she will like you. I’m sure it will work out. For both of us. Why don’t you bring her to Vaishali tomorrow along with you?” he said.
“I’ll try. It’ll be good. I can see your future wife and you can see my future mother.”
“Okay, try. But you must come.”
“I will,” I said. “Like a kabab-me-haddi.”
We laughed and got inside the train. The Deccan Queen began its climb up the Western Ghats.
“Hi, Girish!” a loud voice said.
I looked up. It was a young bearded man. A boisterous type!
“Oh, Hi Sanjiv. What a surprise? What are you doing here?” Girish getting up from his seat.
“I’m going to see a girl in Pune,” the man called Sanjiv said.
“And you, Girish? What brings you to Pune,” Sanjiv asked.
“I’m looking to buy some real estate; an apartment, plot, bungalow or something,” Girish lied shamefacedly. I suppressed a giggle.
“Real estate? Great. Hey, why don’t you have a look and the Row House I bought just a month ago in Lonavala. It’s ideal for shippies like us. If you like it, you can book one. The scheme is still open.”
“No, No,” Girish said, “I’ve got an appointment in Pune. With the builders.”
“Tomorrow morning. At ten.”
“And where are you going to spend night?”
“I don’t know. Some hotel or someplace.”
“Oh come on Girish. Why don’t you spend the night with me instead of hunting for some dreadful hotel at night? We’ve so much to talk. I’ve got your favourite single malt stocked up. And once you see my awesome Row House you’ll forget about buying a house in Pune. And I’ll drop you first thing in the morning. It’s only an hour’s drive to Pune. I’ve got to go and see that girl too!”
I could sense that Girish wanted to go so I said, “It’s okay. I’ll manage. She’s definitely coming to pick me up.”
Sanjiv looked at me in a curious manner, so Girish said, “This is Pooja. My co-passenger. I promised her father I’d deliver her safely.”
“Hi, Pooja, “Sanjiv said. “Girish and me are batch mates and shipmates. We were cadets together. We’re meeting after five years. Please tell him to come.”
I knew that both of them were dying to talk to each other, have a good time, so I told Girish, “ You get down at Lonavala. I promise I’ll look after myself. I’ve got my mobile with me and I’ve got her phone number also. And suppose you were not here – I would have reached anyway isn’t it? ”
I insisted, and egged on by Sanjiv, Girish got down at Lonavala but not before requesting the lady across the aisle to look after me. He also gave me his cell phone number and making me promise I would ring him up and also my Papa the moment I reached Pune .
It was only after the train left Lonavla on its final run to Pune did I notice that Girish had forgotten his Mills & Boon. I took out the book from the rack and opened it. On the first page was written in beautiful cursive handwriting:
I shall always cherish the lovely time we had together in Port Blair. But remember there’s a thin line between pity and love.
I recognized the exquisite distinctive handwriting at once. It was exactly the same as the handwriting in the letter I was carrying in my purse.
I knew I had to ask Swati just one question : “Had she ever been to Port Blair?”
And to Girish I sent an SMS asking him to be on time for his appointment in Vaishali at 10 in the morning.