SHORT FICTION - A ROMANCE
ROMANTIC JOURNEY ON THE DECCAN QUEEN
[A Love Story]
Have you ever seen a handsome strapping young man reading a Mills & Boon Romance? And that too so blatantly in front of so many people in the Deccan Queen!
I did. On the Deccan Queen. Yes, on the Deccan Queen – my favourite train that takes you from Mumbai to Pune every evening. Let me tell you about it.
But first I’ll tell you about myself. My name is Pooja. I am twelve years old and I’m a pretty girl. I love train journeys and I have traveled a lot, especially on the Mumbai – Pune route. But this was the first time I was traveling alone. So my loving father, who doted on me since I was the only thing he had in this world, was very very anxious and worried.
My father had come to see me off at Mumbai’s magnificent CST Railway Terminus. He seemed uneasy 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. He was very handsome, well-groomed, smartly dressed in a light blue T-shirt and trendy Jeans. 25? Maybe slightly older – but certainly not 30! He had a smart elegant beard. A proper well-kept full-grown beard, not the repulsive dirty-looking horrible two-day designer stubble young men sport nowadays. They think the filthy hideous stubble on their face looks fashionable, but let me tell you it looks sick and makes me feel like puking. But this guy had a gorgeous beard – it suited his face perfectly and made him look very handsome and manly.
“Don’t you worry, sir,” he said to my father, “she’ll be delivered safe and sound.” He gave me a friendly smile. 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. I felt embarrassed but I didn’t say anything. For I knew my father loved me very much and genuinely cared for me. After all, he had no one else in this world except me.
I felt worried about him too. 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 to be lonely, and now I wouldn’t be there to look after him, to take care of him, to mother him!
The train moved. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes past five. Right on the dot. Soon the mighty Deccan Queen was speeding towards Pune. We would be there by dinner-time.
I looked at ‘uncle’ – just a sideways glance. But he did not notice me as he had already buried himself in the pages of the Mumbai Mid-Day newspaper. I took out my Walkman from my bag, kept in on my knee, adjusted the earphones in my ears and looked at him again. He was still buried in his newspaper, totally oblivious of the world around him.
I pressed my earphones tighter and tried to hear the music from my Walkman, pretended to ignore him, made pretence of trying to look out of the tinted-glass window of the air-conditioned chair car. But my eyes kept wandering, trying to steal a glance at him when I thought he wouldn’t notice. Hoping he would notice me and say something; talk to me. But he remained glued to his newspaper as if I just did not exist! How mean and snobbish? It seemed he had no manners! I hated him and decided to ignore him.
After some time the young man next to me folded his newspaper and kept it in the rack in front of him. Then he pulled out his bag from below his seat, opened the zip, 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 don’t read Mills & Boon. Or do they? You tell me.
He opened the Mills & Boon and started reading intently. I know it is bad manners to disturb someone who is reading, but I was so curious to know more about him that I just could not resist. I shut the Walkman, pulled earphones out of my ears, and said, “Hello, uncle. I’m Pooja.”
“Oh yes! I know. Pooja. Age 12.”
“How…?” I asked surprised.
“I read the reservation chart,” he said.
“No. No. Papa must have told you my name,” I said.
“But he didn’t tell me your age, young lady,” he smiled mischievously and said, “Whenever I begin a train journey I always find out who my fellow-passengers are.”
“You a detective or something?”
“No, No!” he said smiling. “I’m a Shippie. A Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy.” He held out his hand, "Girish Pradhan. And don’t call me uncle. Call me Girish – just Girish.”
We shook hands. His grip was firm and strong. Robust. Reassuring. Redoubtable. Just like he looked.
The Mills & Boon paperback fell off. He picked it up and put it back on his knees. It really seemed funny – a solid macho man like him reading Mills & Boon.
He spoke, “Been to Pune before?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “We lived in Pune before we came to Mumbai.”
“Then you can help me out,” he said. “You know where’s a restaurant called Vaishali?”
“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 place. I’d find it easily. That’s what she told me!”
“The person I have an appointment with. 10 o’clock tomorrow 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. That’s where we met for the first time.”
“Port Blair! That’s where you met her, is it?” I asked. This was getting very interesting.
“Yes. Last Year. We were sailing from Singapore to Mumbai and docked en-route at Port Blair for some emergency repairs. It was just a short stay of four days.”
I love to talk to someone who loves to talk. And this was like a fairy tale. It was getting exciting and I wanted to ask him so many things. Who was she? Her name? Was it love at first sight? What happened? 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.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Now you tell me about yourself, Pooja. Why are you going to Pune?” he asked.
“To see my new mother,” I blurted out without thinking. And then like a stupid fool I told him everything. I knew I was making a mistake but he was so easy to talk to that 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 we like each other. Everything – I told him everything; and it made me feel good!
“You mean your father hasn’t even met her?” Girish asked.
“No. We haven't. Papa has only spoken to her on the phone. Some relatives and friends of Papa are arranging the whole thing,” I said. “Papa’s worried. He loves me so much. He wants me to like her first.” I couldn’t speak any longer. Tears had welled up in my eyes.
For some time there was silence. I felt very embarrassed at having told everything to a complete stranger. But strangely after telling him everything I felt good too.
I wiped my tears and nose with my handkerchief and said, “I am sorry, uncle.”
“Uncle? Hey come on. I’m not that old. Call me Girish. I told you, didn’t I? And don’t worry. Everything will work out.”
“For you too!” I said.
“I hope so,” he said. I’m making it to this appointment with great difficulty – I made it almost by a hair’s breadth. I signed off my ship in Perth yesterday evening and managed to reach Mumbai just a few hours ago. And here I am on this train to Pune. 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. “Just like in the movie …”
“An Affair to Remember?”
“No. Some Hindi Movie… I don’t remember the name,” I said, “You must be dying to meet her, isn’t it?”
“Of course I’m dying to meet her,” he said. “It’s more than one year since we said goodbye to each other at Port Blair. The tenth of November last year we promised each other we would meet tomorrow – the 4th of January this year at 10 a.m. at Vaishali restaurant in Pune.”
“Why 4th of January?”
“We met for the first time on the 4th of January last year. And yes, it’s her birthday!”
“But you must have kept in touch – e-mailed – surely spoken on the phone.”
“No. She didn’t give me her address. She was in Port Blair on a holiday. And me? Well I’ve been sailing since. She said if I really loved her I would come.” He paused, picked up the Mills & Boon romance book from his lap and said,” The only thing she gave me was this.”
“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, “Hey, Pooja. Why don’t you come to Vaishali tomorrow at ten? We’ll celebrate her birthday together.”
“But you haven’t even told me her name.”
“You’ll find out tomorrow,” he said. “And suppose she doesn’t come, I’ll be heartbroken. Then you can console me. But I’m sure she will be there at Vaishali waiting for me. She promised. Whatever her decision, she said she won’t ditch me. She’ll definitely be there for our rendezvous.”
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. It was Karjat, the station in the foothills just before the mighty Sahaydri Mountains .
I turned to Girish and said, “Let’s get down. You get yummy batata-vadas here.”
We strolled on the platform eating the delicious batata-vadas with the lip-smacking chutney, and suddenly Girish said, “I’m nervous. I hope everything works out well.”
“Me too,” I said. “Papa needs someone. But he’s so worried for me. Whether I’ll like her or not. And she too?”
“Of course, she will like you. You will like each other. I’m sure things will be fine. For you, and also for me. Why don’t you bring her also to Vaishali tomorrow morning along with you? And we will all celebrate!” he said.
“Okay. If I like her.”
“But you must come.”
“I will,” I said. “Like a kabab-me-haddi.”
We laughed and got inside the train. Pushed by the banker engines the Deccan Queen began its climb up the steep Western Ghats .
“Hi, Girish!” an excited voice spoke from above.
I looked up. Another young bearded man. But this was a boisterous type.
“Oh, Hi Sanjiv. What are you doing here?” Girish said getting up form his seat.
“Going to Lonavala,” the man named Sanjiv answered.
“I’ve bought a cottage in Lonavala. A sort of farmhouse. Why don’t you come and see it?”
“No, No,” Girish said, “I’ve got an important appointment in Pune.”
“Tomorrow morning. At ten.”
“And where are you going to spend night?”
“I don’t know. Some hotel or someplace.”
“Why don’t you spend the night with me? I’ve got a bottle of Scotch and we’ve got so much to talk. I’ll drop you first thing in the morning in time for your appointment. It’s only an hour’s drive to Pune. I’ll get my car serviced 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 to Pune.”
“Hi, young lady,” Sanjiv said. “Girish and I are batch mates and shipmates. We’re meeting after a long time.”
I knew that both of them were dying to talk to each other, have a good time, so I said to 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 number also. I’ll ring up my Papa the moment I reach Pune.”
I insisted, and egged on by Sanjiv, a hesitant Girish got down at Lonavala, but not before we exchanged each other’s cell numbers and he requested the lady across the aisle to look after me.
It was only after the train left Lonavala on its final leg to Pune did I notice that Girish had forgotten his ‘Mills & Boon’ romance paperback. I took out the book from the rack and opened it. On the first page was written in beautiful cursive handwriting:
To My Dear Girish,
In remembrance of the lovely time we had together in Port Blair.
PS – Remember, there is a thin line between pity and love.
As I looked at the message something started happening within me. Snehal? Same Shenal? It couldn’t be? Or could it? Snehal! A loving person. That’s what the name means. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Is Snehal a common name? Maybe. It's possible. Maybe there are many Snehals in Pune.
The Deccan Queen is rushing towards Pune. There will be a Snehal waiting for me at Pune Railway Station. A Snehal I am going to meet for the fisrt time. A Snehal my father wants to be my new mother.And do you know, what is the first thing I am going to ask her?
I am going to ask her which is the best restaurant in Port Blair.
And whatever her answer, I am going to take her to Vaishali restaurant on Fergusson College Road at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. And I'm dying to see the expression on her face, and Girish's too, when they see each other at the rendezvous.
I will not return the Mills & Boon romance book to Girish. I’ll keep it for myself. I want to read it on my journey back to Mumbai by the Deccan Queen.
And then I'll tell my Papa all about the lovey-dovey rendezvous in Vaishali.
Copyright © Vikram Karve 2008
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.