I was reading intently, even when the novel was boring. Suddenly my mother called me. I looked up. She asked me the time and I told her that it was 6pm. Sighing, she went back to her magazine again. She was lying on the upper berth. So I had the privilege of lying lazily across the lower berth of the Sec-Gkp Express. We were headed towards our hometown Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. We had boarded the train in the morning and expected to arrive in Gorakhpur the next day.
I always look forward to these occasions. A ride in a train feels adventurous. The sight of the engines with its vibrating sound thrills me. Luckily for me, this time I had gotten a window seat. But it ruins the effect of sight-seeing when one is sitting in an AC two-tier, what with all the windows permanently closed. But still I had managed to enjoy all the sceneries going across my window. The train was moving very fast, racing with trees, mountains and fields. I was enjoying the beauty of the nature when the old woman coughed loudly. She was sitting directly opposite to me along with a middle-aged man. She had the peculiarity of observing closely at whatever I did without actually looking at me. Her sudden coughing made me self-conscious and I sat straight. Till now we had not conversed at all. She had boarded the train from Nagpur. She smiled and started asking me questions or allow me to say that she demanded answers from me. She wanted to know everything about me. I felt like I am in an interview room where you are supposed to give answers confidently. I looked up towards my mother who had been listening to us. I signaled her with my eyes to come down. She obliged and then I was spared. When two women start gossiping, there is just no room for a third person in the party unless, of course, you have a fresh topic for further gossiping.
That shifted my attention towards the middle-aged man. He had been looking during all the talk with indifference but sensing my gaze, he smiled politely at me. I returned it with haste and then we started conversation ourselves. I learned that he was a researcher and had gone many places for his research work. He started to speak about kings and queens of ancient times, who built which monument in the country, who married which princess and stuff like that. Apparently noticing that I was losing interest, he pointed it out bluntly. He said that students of present generation do not care about our country’s ancient history and civilization. He blamed the present educational system and talked a lot about the degradation of quality of education. I listened to all the talk patiently. Sitting across me, my mother and the old lady had moved on to a new topic-‘marriages in present generation’.
Until now, I had not noticed. But our little conversations and discussions had invited a lot of audiences. Our fellow passengers sitting on the side upper and side lower berths were listening closely. The chai-walah was standing at a side listening as if a live cricket commentary was going on. One passenger (a bit scary looking) had come and occupied the seat across uncle (the middle-aged man). I looked at the chai-walah and ordered 1 cup of coffee for me and 1 cup of tea for mother. To which everybody in the vicinity gave their orders too. After tea time, the crowd dispersed and went back to their respective berths. Soon it was dinner time and then all was quiet. While trying to sleep in the shaking compartment at night, the lyrics of the song ‘this happens only in India’ came into my mind. We Indians are very good at bonding with guests but excellent in bonding with fellow passengers in a train! A girl like me, least bothered about anyone’s private life, now knew everything about the passengers sleeping opposite. Oops sorry. I meant uncle and aunty. See? What a transformation just overnight!!
I woke up early in the morning to see the view outside the window. A marvelous sight it was. The sun just about to rise and movement of the animals glued me to the window. I could almost smell the fresh morning air (though I was sitting in a closed compartment of the train). Then it was time for getting ready. If you are in a train and want access to a clean toilet, then you need to rise early and hurry through the process. Soon there were many passengers lining up in queues outside the toilets for their turns. If you are lucky, you could try to cross different compartments to use those other toilets.
Suddenly it was way past morning and passengers were descending on different stations. My uncle too got down at his destination before us. Before parting, he shook my hand and gave a Namaste to my mother. I suddenly felt sad. Holy crow, why? I couldn’t understand it. I watched him go through my window. Next, it was aunty’s turn. Any guesses what happened next? Her eyes’ became watery and she was on the verge of breaking down when my mother gave her a hug. She even took my mother’s contact number and went away with a ‘bye beta, bhoolna mat’ to me.
I was feeling excited now. Well, excited is not even close enough. I was impatient and wanted the train to reach the station of our destination in time. But hell, I forgot. This is India, right? Anything will happen here. As usual, as if it has become a tradition of the Indian Railway, our train was moving two hours late. After what seemed like a longer time, I saw the outskirts of Gorakhpur approaching towards me as if someone welcomes a person with a garland. Soon we entered the city’s main area. I recognized everything. The familiar sight of the roads, flyovers, and shops overwhelmed me. I recognized the building where my niece lives and waved stupidly at it thinking somebody would recognize it. The train began to slow down but my heart started racing. Who would have come to receive us at the station? Baba, dadi or chacha?
Suddenly my mother tapped me at my shoulder and looked at the luggage. In all the happiness, I had forgotten to remove the luggage from underneath the berth and line them up towards the door of the compartment. I helped my mother and soon we had reached the station. Standing next to a tall passenger, I could barely see the platform. So I rushed to a window across a vacant nearby berth and looked. I started searching through all the people at the platform trying to see one familiar face. And yes! They were there, standing opposite a stall. All my relatives and cousins had come. Could have I asked for more? As I saw, one of my small cousins rushed forward towards the train but was instantly pulled back by my uncle. I laughed and went back to my mother. Finally the train came to a halt and bellowed out quite a lot of smoke. Before anybody could get out, my favorite chachu came inside to help us with our luggage. Soon I was hugging and hugged by what seemed like everyone on the station. After a quick questions of ‘how was journey?’ & ‘any problems?’ we all started to move towards the exit. I looked back one last time. The train was still there. I smiled and with a mute thank you to it, I moved towards my family. I was truly now at home.