Their thoughts were racing faster than the moving sceneray outside the the train window. It was cold, but Catharine had coerced Shankar into keeping the window open. She wanted to take in as much of India as possible, afterall she would be going back to Canada in a weeks time.
Even as she sat glued to the moving trees and telephone poles, he was caressing her hair, playing with her fingers or staring right into her hazel-blue eyes, which she said changed colors – between blue, green and grey – according to her emotions and of course the Canadian climate.
She being a French Canadian had helped them get closer. Having met in one of the many Student Exchange Programs between India and Canada, he had taught her English while she was still trying. Not that she was a bad French teacher, just that ShankarÂ was never comfortable with pronounciation – be it English or French. As it has always happened, is happening and will happen, they fell in love.
Now, four years after the end of the Exchange program, and two visits to India by Catharine, they had plans of getting married. Where would the marriage be held? What will be the customs/rituals followed? How will their parents communicate? These were only a few of the questions they were trying to find answers for.
Forced to take a special train because of a goods train de-railment in Guntur, they were cozily entrenched in an un-reserved compartment and which was pre-dominantly empty. One reason, why he was sitting close to her…staring right into her eyes and holding her hands.
In her orange churidhaar, she looked stunning. Her nose ring, bindi, anklets and the jasmine flower in her reddish brown hair added to her Indianness. An Indian in the making. Shankar would joke around, “Hope you don`t become a complete Indian by the time I get to marry you, I might no longer be interested,” and she would just shrug it off.
She had workd in the farms, with the Mexicans, who knowing that the Canadians do not like manual labour, had come in to fill the gap. Yet, her fingers were soft. The softness one could feel for one whole day and yet not get an overdose. Shankar was so engrossed with the feel factor that he didn`t notice a burkha clad lady and a 5 year old kid when they sat across the aisle. It took him a stare and a piercing nod in the woman`s direction to understand that they had company.
The lady`s arrival failed to deter our protagonist from his romance. Mabe this was what that made the lady react the way she did. After a few uneasy moments the lady adapted to the hormone-filled vibes in the coach and became comfortable in their cooing presence.
In fact too comfortable, for she pointed towards Catharine and asked Shankar, “Is she a Mumbai girl?”
Shankar knew that in India, United States ofÂ America was by far a more recognised country than Canada and hence, “She is from America, not Mumbai.”
This tickled her curiosity gland, which is far more developed in we Indians, as she came up with a gem of a question. A query that brought a grin on his face. “So how are you people related?”
Maybe, he should have thought a bit before he answered, but a smile at Catharine was all he had time for as he thrust his chest out and said, “She is my wife. We are just back from her honeymoon.”
At this point she removed her viel. She looked tired but her anxitey and confusion showed in her eyes. Shankar wondered if it was a confusion which has been an integral part of her life or had cropped up after he had told her that he had managed to marry this white girl from America. She was on the higher side of 40 and had wrinkles on her face, which made her look old beyond her age, maybe the travails of being an Indian housewife. The lines on her face did not seem newly attained.
Catharine had a smile on her face for she knew that Shankar was having fun. She stopped looking out the window and when the lady was not looking at them, she winked at him, as if suggesting, come on, embark on another of your story telling trips.
Nothing much happned for the next one hour. The lady was busy staring at Catharine, the kid and Shankar, not necessarily in that order. One could say that she was thinking hard. Her pursed lips were trying to say something but her motor responses were bent on concealing it.
When she could not control her self,Â she motioned towards Shankar and asked, ” Do your parents know about your marriage?”Â He realised that she was getting too personal, but then he was an Indian too and understood the curiosityÂ levels ofÂ his contrymen. She was getting too comfortable, but then, if that was what she wanted, that is what she would get.
“Yes, infact, we are coming from my parents place in Madurai,” he exclaimed. At this the lady looked sky-wards, let our a chuckle and turned away from them. And when she turned back..she had tears in her eyes. She followed this up with another gesture which went on to say that she was looking at some kind of support – she pulled the kid near her and held his small hand till he winched in pain.
Shankar had always been very susceptible to women with tears in their eyes and he needed no second excuse as he inched closer to her and held her wrinkled hands.
“I had a son just like you, must be 25-26 years old,” she said and started sobbing again. He knew that he had to say something but words failed him. To loosen up a bit he turned towards Catharine to translate what the lady had just said, but she, with a raised hand indicated that there was no need.
He pulled deep into his resources, squeezed her hands gently and enquired, “So, where is your son now?”
“My son, the only one I could call my own has left me to fate,” she said in a voice that felt like hot lead being poured into his spinal cord. He let our a shiver – one that accompanies the feeling of helplessness.
Her son had one day brought home a pretty girl and said that he was going to marry her. Though they say only a woman can completely understand another woman, both the girl and his mother never understood each other. On the third day, she and her son parted ways because the son felt that his fiancee was not being given the due respects in the house. She had never seen him since.
“It has been three years now,` the old lady said, `and my daughter is getting married in a weeks time.”
Without another prompt, she added, “I am going to visit her uncle to borrow some money so that I can conduct the marriage.”
Catharine looked on as Shankar played with the lady`s hands, not knowing what else to do to comfort the deeply affected. Though a foriginer to the intricacies of life in India, she completely understood what the old lady was going through. She had realised long back that she had taken life for granted till she had set foot on the Indian soil, where everyday was a survival. While in her country people were being spoilt with too many choices, here in India people had been waiting for ages for a chance. To prosper, to live life.
When one is caught up with another`s worries, there is nothing one can do, except for think of ones own worries and laugh them away.Â And that was exactly what Shankar was doing. He could have provided her help on the monetary front – but he himself was depending on Catharine`s purse for everything. He wondered if he could give her moral support, but that seemed too hollow. In this country there was no dearth for things that did not have a price tag.
The silence was killing and something had to be done about it. “So, how much do you plan to borrow for the marriage.”
“I don`t know. I will have to manage with whatever her uncle gives me. He is my last hope but the problem is he is not known for his magnanimity,” said the lady withdrawing into her cave of despair.
With the lady gazing out of the window, there was nothing much Shankar could do. Moreover, he was emotionally drained and needed to rejuvenate.Â Maybe, some time with Catharine will help he said to himself and sat beside her. Feeling her warmth. He wanted to get out of the train and be alone, or help the lady somehow and be done with. Everytime he realised that it was not going to happen for a while, he would look at Catharine for that comforting look in her eyes. The eyes that made him forget the world were no longer succeeding.
“Is there anything you want to do for her,” Catharine asked. She knew him enough to understood that right now, she was not on his mind but the old lady. Shankar felt cramped. He wanted some fresh air to enter his lungs and take out the feeling of guilt that was building within him.
Cries of pavment vendors rent the air as the train pulled into Nellore. Now that was a welcome break, Shankar had been yearning for.
The tea-wala who has been an integral part of railway stations in India made his presence felt with cries of survival. The louder he shouted, the better chances he stood of selling his wares. After a long time Catharine was the subject of his thoughts. She had an acquired liking towards tea. So much so, she had begun to start her day with a cup of tea and sprinkle a few more cups here and there in her day`s schedule. Typically Indian, thought Shankar.
He wanted to buy her a cup, but the thought that he will have to buy one for the old lady too, dissuaded him from proceeding further. Not that he was concerned about the three ruppees that he would spend in the process but he did not want the lady to think that this was all that he could do to make her comfortable. He could visualise her chuckle as he gave her the cup of tea. Even as he was engrossed in his own thoughts, the train started moving, forcing him to get back to reality – a world without tea cups in his hand.
He knew this was not going to be easy. He had to face the old lady again and he realised that the fresh air had done him no good. Afterall, the air was Indian too, he told himself as he settled down next to Catharine. Though the corner of his eyes he could see that the lady was trying to get his attention, and in a momentary lapse of judgement he decided to turn towards her and look her straight in her eyes.
“I am getting down at the next station,” she lamented.
Shankar could not hold himself. He had decided that he wanted to help her. “Maybe, you can give me your address, I can send you some money as soon as I withdraw from my bank.”
He waited for what looked like an eternity. All the while she held the boy close to her and looked down. Without raising her eyes she said, “I am an illetrate, I don`t know my address. Moreover, it is a slum.”
At work, everybody knew him as a resourceful person. Somebody, who could take important decisions and wriggle his way around bottle-necks. Today, he had realised that the confines of an air-conditioned room was not the real world.
He looked towards Catharine for support but found out that she was not yet a complete Indian. When asked what she thought he should be doing, she just said, “I don`t know. It is your problem and your country.”
“I want to give her atleast five hundred ruppees, but I don`t have the money right now. I asked for her address but she doesnot know it. So, I cannot send her the money.”
“What about now?” an excited Catharine asked.
“As you know, now I don`t have money and I would not want to borrow five hundred ruppees from you and give it to her.”
After a long discussion, wherein the credibility of the lady was questioned, the importance of the help agreed upon and the futility of worrying over such a small thing understood, it was decided that Catharine would lend him money, so that he could help the lady. But a few complications remained.
“One hundred ruppees is the limit. I do not want to borrow a lot of money from you, just so that I can help the lady. But then, for a lady who is conducting her daughter`s marriage, 100 rs is of little significance,” denounced Shankar. His tone suggested that he had decided against lendng a helping hand.
Before Catharine could upbraid him for what she thought was a stupid logic, the old lady jumped off her seat and said, “Son, give me anything you want to. I just need help, however small it maybe.”
Though, surprised they were, there was nothing to be said after this and a crisp hundred ruppee note changed hands twice – from Catharine to Shankar and then to the lady. Few words were spoken after that and an hour later the lady announced that her station had come.
She seemed happy – overtly happy. In ten minutes the train stopped and with a smile that could have meant a hundred things, the old lady bade farewell. The boy followed her piously.
After the train started again, Shankar asked Catharine, “Do you think she was telling the truth?”