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The cacophony hurt her ears as they neared the station.
“I don’t think I will survive this!” Shruti huffed. “This is utter madness!”
“And that is precisely why I want you to go through this,” her mother’s ever-smiling face goaded her on.
“Dad please, try and put some sense into her. You know better!”
The immaculately-dressed bespectacled man smiled his enigmatic smile but deferred from saying anything.
The whistle blew shrilly.
“I hate that noise!” Shruti repeated and looked at her father pleadingly.
“I assure you it won’t be tough. If you need anything, just call me. You do realize how happy your mom would be if you do this? Please darling? As a tribute to us probably?”
She couldn’t refuse and had to embark on her dreaded voyage. She knew her mother was incredibly excited because that’s how she had met her father. In the train. And they had had a love story worth telling and re-telling. To this day, her mother swore by trains.
As the train puffed away, she stood waving to them. They started getting tinier and tinier and finally the fast-moving train blurred them out. Shruti moved to her seat, hoping with fingers crossed that her journey be as uneventful and bland as possible. When she was born, her entire family had expected her to be a bubbly replica of her mother. However, much to their surprise, she had turned out to be a mirror reflection of her father. She, unlike her mother, was not a glib talker. She preferred to keep to herself, stayed away from noise and crowds and most importantly, tried to avoid drama as much as possible. The word, drama was anathema to her. She found her mother sweet but maddeningly theatrical. Life was always a bed of roses for her mother. Shruti, on the other hand, was cynical. She did not set much store by mushy-gushy ideas and believed in being her own boss. Her father was a bridge between the two women. He had the effervescence to survive her mother’s hyper-happy self and the sobriety to match his daughter’s gravity.
She looked at her ticket and saw that her seat was an upper bunk. She heaved a sigh of relief. No pushing and getting pushed. She could retire to her sanctorum and listen to her music in peace.
A middle-aged couple sat side by side on the lower bunk. Relieved that no intrusive people surrounded her, she packed herself in her bunk, pulled a sheet over herself and plugged in her earphones. Suddenly, her eyes snapped open and she woke up to a drenched t-shirt and an outstretched arm prodding her gently.
“Whh-at?” she blurted out, her speech a little warbled.
“This gentleman here wants to know your preference for dinner. Veg or nonveg? By the way, you should not sleep with the sheet covering your head. That’s what caused your sweating.”
Shruti propped herself up on her elbows and addressed the pantry guy directly without looking at the man in the top berth directly opposite her.
“Nothing else, is there?”
“We have dal, paneer, rice, roti-“
“No thanks, leave it,”
“Okay ma’am.” He sounded apologetic.
“You have continental, right?” the guy in the opposite berth asked him.
“Yes, we do! Bread, chicken-”
“Will you have that?” he then asked Shruti.
She couldn’t help but glance at him now. Why was he behaving as if he was in charge of her? But she didn’t want to hurt the poor pantry guy, who was trying hard to get everything in order.
“Yeah..well.okay,” she consented.
Then she fell back on to her berth and tried to sleep.
However, sleep doesn’t come so easily the second time. So, she decided to take a walk and stretch herself. She walked out the air conditioned compartment and stood at the heavy train door. Some people were smoking. She stayed there a while, looking at herself in the mirror above the washbasin. Her full face and fuller lips were evidence that she was Reet’s daughter. However, if one heard her talk, which she rarely did, she would be seen as Adit’s daughter. Her parents’ love story was something of a local legend. Met in the train. Spent some chaste hours at a hotel. Hiked to Bhatinda. Separated. Met again. In fact, she would have had a totally different dad had her own dad not been in the same berth as her mother. She shuddered to think who it would have been. And that is why she kind of mistrusted love stories-the mush, the coochie-coos, the aawws, the oohs and aahs, she mistrusted it all. The smoke clouded around her, making her cough.
“Shit…” she exclaimed.
“I know…the smoke here and the ennui inside…” The top-bunk guy had come out with a towel. “Don’t worry,” he continued. “It will halt at a station soon and it will be less suffocating.” Saying so, he started washing and lathering his face vigorously.
“I don’t like to wander about squalid stations,” she said, her vexation taking the better of her, and went back inside. She took a seat opposite the old couple and stared out the window, into the ascending darkness beyond. She wondered when she would reach. Trains were just so slow.
As if on cue, it started slowing further and came to a halt.
‘What a bother!’ Shruti thought. People had started forming a beeline towards the gate. Vendors shouted their regular ditties, men and women crowded, pushed and jostled, children clamored for attention and foodstuffs; the air-conditioned compartment had almost started resembling a Mumbai local. A couple of kids had collected near her seat. They were looking at her phone and pointing. Shruti knew that they were attracted to her phone cover because it had a cute key chain of a mickey mouse attached to it.
Before she knew what was happening, one of the kids scooped up her cell and bolted. She instantly cried out, “hey!” and ran after them. She dashed out the door and out the train. Her phone was almost her lifeline, especially in that cooped-up train bogey.
“Hey! Red tee!” she shouted, running after the kids who cackled merrily and scuttled joyfully. She was afraid of scaring them off lest they should drop her phone somewhere.
“I will give you chocolates, come back!” she shouted and ran faster. Her heel suddenly gave way and she got thrown forward in a head-on collision with another.
“What the heck are you doing scampering on those heels?” the top-bunk guy exclaimed, into whom she had collided. He was nursing his leg where the heel had managed to make a dent of some sort.
“I..I am sorry…”
“I thought you didn’t like to venture out of your safe haven compartment?”
“Listen. I am in no mood for banter right now. Those kids have my cellphone and if they do something to it, I am totally lost. So, if you really are the good Samaritan you profess to be, kindly help me.”
He stared at her for a few moments. Then-
“I think they went that way,” he said and started walking away from her. Two of the kids had gotten hold of the third kid who had the phone. They were trying to pin his arms behind his back while he kicked.
“Police here!” the top-bunk guy said in a booming voice, flashing his credit card. And immediately, the kids stopped fighting.
“May I know where your parents are?” he asked in a formal tone.
None of them said a word.
“Should I then assume that you are all unaccompanied? Well let’s take them then,” he said to Shruti in a mock conspiratorial manner.
“Thh…there!” all of them started stammering and pointing in all sorts of directions.
“Hand the phone over,” he said again and the kids promptly gave it back.
After restoring her phone and escorting the kids back to their angry parents, the guy started to leave.
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“Hey...listen” Shruti said and he stopped in his tracks.
“Thanks,” she said, a flush creeping up her face. She felt stupid now, having scolded him like that. “You handled them smartly.”
He smiled a little.
“How long will this train wait here? It’s really crappy,” Shruti asked.
“About half an hour. Out of which ten minutes are over.”
“You want to catch a cup of coffee?” she asked, trying to make up for her former rudeness.
He looked at her a little strangely, as if not believing his ears.
“What?” she asked.
“I thought you said you hated to get down on filthy platforms?”
“Well, once we are down, why not make the most of it?” she said, a bit irritated now. “Do you wanna?”
“Oh gladly! But it’s on me,” he posed a condition.
“Well, the dinner is already on you. Let me get you a coffee at least,” Shruti said and both of them chuckled.
“You really didn’t know about continental food in trains?”
“Well, how am I supposed to? It’s my first time on a darned train.”
His eyes opened wide. “You are kidding.”
“No…it’s like I have always travelled by air. In fact, it is on my mother’s insistence that I had to undertake this journey. My granddad wants to see me.”
“Oh…all right! So rich spoilt brat?”
“You are getting me wrong. One Cappuccino please,” she said to the coffee shop owner. “What will you take?” she asked him.
“Same as the lady,” he said and smiled.
“It’s like I have a certain thing against trains and train journeys. My parents met on a train actually. And the way they got married, almost as an accident…”
Shruti found it easy to talk to him. He was not overly curious nor apathetically uninterested. Just the right amount of attention. As a rule, she hated narrating her parents’ love story. But now when she told him and he listened with rapt attention, she found the story funny, quirky and deserving of the label of a local legend.
“…and that poor man…what was his name? I seem to forget…” she said, racking her brains to remember.
“Ansh?” he prompted her.
“Yeah! Spot-on! That Ansh dolt got left in the end and he sort of deserved it, rejecting mom like that-” she stopped suddenly and looked him in the eye. “I didn’t mention his name yet. How did you know? Have you heard this story before?”
He had a mysterious smile playing around his lips.
“I forgot to ask you your name,” Shruti resumed, surprised at her own loquacity. “I am Shruti, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Shruti. I am Maan.”
“So, Maan, you know my parents or something? I didn’t really expect you to make such a brilliant guess.”
“Well I kinda know them. Adit and Reet right?”
Shruti’s eyes grew wider. “Well yeah…but how do you know them? I have never seen you around our place.”
“Well in that case, you have never seen my dad either but you do know him.”
Shruti couldn’t understand what he was talking about.
“Ansh is my father.”
The coffee spilled out of her mouth as she heard it. For a few minutes, none of them spoke. Shruti had no idea what to say. Should she apologize for talking about his dad like that? Or should she just go back to her seat, pretending this hadn’t happened?
A gong sounded.
They stood still, their coffees turning cold. The train was starting to move. It was as if her legs had turned to stone. Before she could say another word or have another thought, their lips had met and sealed.
Shruti had no idea what was going on and why she was doing this. When they broke away from each other, the train was filing out of the platform at a breakneck pace.
“Do you know the way to Bhatinda?” she asked Maan breathlessly.
“We will find out,” he replied and their lips locked once more.
(Inspired by Jab We Met)
~Written as a part of the 'To Be Continued' contest on Readomania ~