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anil mehrotra



anil mehrotra


An Evening With Bessie

An Evening With Bessie

15 mins

The Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Guwahati, late by over an hour, chugged into Kanpur Railway station, setting up a tsunami of cacophonous activity. The ensuing disquiet saw me being unceremoniously pushed into the reserved compartment. There were some errands to be completed before I could even think of enjoying the long journey from the Indo-Gangetic plains to the plains of the Brahmaputra. Friends, arriving from Delhi by the same train had to be located, luggage arranged, and secured with security chains thoughtfully provided by the Railways. This was necessitated as well-wishers had cautioned about gentlemen not bounded by the laws of the land, had a passion for helping themselves with baggage, to appreciate and use its contents at leisure.

We were bound for a conference at Gangtok-the picturesque capital of the State of Sikkim, nestled in the foothills of the mighty Kanchendzonga. Having satisfied me with the tasks at hand and resolving other vagaries incidental to the trip, I looked around the confines of the compartment. My friends, albeit in the same compartment, were some cabins away. This arrangement suited me better as after the initial euphoria of meeting friends wanes off, I consider train journeys ideal for launching into an introspection-of life lived or yet to experience.

A doctor’s family from Kalimpong occupied the three berths immediately opposite to mine. They were escorting back their teenaged daughter studying commerce in Delhi. That the separation with the daughter had been a long one was evident in the constant mollycoddling by her mother, a portly, staid lady on the wrong side of forty. Blessed with fair, taut skin, her strawberry colored, dimpled cheeks, which as I was to find later, was a qualifying trait of almost everyone from Sikkim—courtesy its salubrious climate, accentuated her chinky looks. The appearance of crow’s feet had not diminished her desire to look good, as she lavishly pampered herself with an array of lotions and creams, on an hourly basis.

Her daughter, however, was not so lucky. Delhi’s climate had robbed her of teenage radiance and her mother’s pink luminescence. After perfunctory introductions and my inquisitiveness about Sikkim being answered in a matter of fact tone, the remaining journey was confined to appreciating the unfolding drama outside the running train.

A priggish gentleman had occupied the top berth and remained cataleptic during the journey. A dusky lady with arresting features sat on the lower berth opposite to the doctor. A tourist from the Dark Continent, probably a guest of the Doctor couple, I thought. That explained her being in an indigo blue, printed kurta and salwar and not jeans or maybe she too has gone through the chapter on What-to-wear-while-in-India in one of those Lonely Planet series. These tourists surely do their homework, unlike us, Indians! At least a good face to pass the journey!!!! 

  I was to occupy the middle berth–an arrangement that I always detested. For one, it made passengers slide onto their berths as if traveling in a space module besides the claustrophobic feeling it engulfed me in. As I could not foresee any exciting changes in the drab environs to sustain my interest for the evening, I went over to my friends for dinner, returning later to sleep.

 I woke up early in the morning and found the luggage intact. The relief was indeed palpable. Outside, the sun had commenced its lonesome journey across the azure expanse, presenting the wheeling world outside the frosted windows in a canvas of fleeting colors. Inside, the life had slowly started stirring as forays by the tea and snack vendors from the attached pantry car became increasingly frequent. I decided to come down for a cup of tea, folding up the berth in the process to facilitate sitting.

The dusky lady in blue salwar suit was up and about as I came down and I found her immersed into the voluminous The Da Vinci Code-the thriller that had been at the top of the best sellers list for a couple of years. Seeing me alight, she gathered herself and the bedspread-making place for me as I introduced myself. “Bessie, from Chennai,” she said, looking straight into my eyes, as I took her in. She had an attractive face, pug nose, and generous lips with black, lustrous, wavy hair surrounding her round, full moon-like face. Her face would not have launched a thousand ships but her dark, liquid, immensely expressive eyes, could easily hypnotize a couple of thousand mortals without much of an effort. With laser-like penetration and effortlessly communicative, they could convince anyone to endure open-heart surgery without anesthesia. They also imparted a mysterious aura to her. She closed the book as I sat down. The journey into a world of discovery had just begun.

 I am yet to fathom as to how the awkwardness vaporized the moment the proverbial ice between us was broken. Initial stutter gradually gave way to a smoother flow as we effortlessly graduated from weather and mundane, just-for-the-heck-of-it banter onto personal fields. There existed a mutual willingness to communicate. She can really converse, I thought. In the byzantine by lanes of the grey matter a bell had started ringing faintly, growing stronger as the conversation progressed. Could she be a game? 

“You studying or something?” I queried. “No, not exactly. Basically, I am into research work in the field of textiles, going to attend a conference at Gangtok,” she answered, once again looking straight into my eyes, lasers effortlessly boring through me. An ECG at that moment would have put a straight line to shame.

Gangtok, did I hear her correctly? “Gangtok! That’s where I, too, am going, for a conference. We, it appears are heading for the same boat”, I said as the diaphragm went down and there was a sudden infusion of fresh air into the cavernous lungs, a feat Swami Ramdev would have definitely felt proud about. What luck, man? She will be there for the duration of the conference! Condensation from the window panes appeared to be wearing off. My trip appears to have been made.

Lissome, with an elfin frame and glowing skin, she exuded grace and charm. Even with her overnight, unwashed appearance, she infused a whiff of freshness in the stale, closed confines. In the late twenties, I surmised. And man, what eyes! Time and again she buried herself in the book giving me time and opportunity to steal surreptitious glances at her. Fascinating! How come some people maintain a dewy freshness despite keeping a long day? I could never have that satisfaction and resembled a wilted mushroom out of the refrigerated environs, moments after emerging from the shower.

 I regretted my six-month-old decision of doing away with L’Oreal’s 3B. Its natural brown suited my fair complexion, making light a decade load of wrinkles and crow’s feet. The harm these free radicals cause. Could that be the reason for the doctor’s daughter not taking much interest in my talks? I reminded myself to pick up a packet of green Darjeeling tea from Gangtok. Green tea, I remembered reading somewhere, neutralized free radicals. Collagen fillers were also in the market now. Even now it wasn’t too late, I assured myself. Who was that guy who had confided that the fairer community preferred the camouflage of a salt and pepper mop? I tried to recollect in vain. Forget the past and concentrate on the present for a better future, I reminded myself, lest this one too flies over the cuckoo’s nest. A bird on the same berth, even opposite, is better than two in the next compartment- I modified the proverb, assuring myself in the process.  

“Besides research work how else do you keep yourself busy,” I tried to engage her attention as I found her immersion into the book a bit disconcerting. There may be an opening somewhere there in her reply and exploration, was the key. “Time, where is the time, man? By the end of the day, I am pretty bushed, as there are times and social demands from family and friends. My doting husband wants me around him expecting his tomorrow’s demands to be met yesterday. Husband! Her words reverberated in my ears as I found the first airplane finding its target on the World Trade Tower. Seconds later it crashed. “And with two lovable sons, there is no time even to breathe. My plate is more than full, more so on working days.”

 The clatter from the steel running over steel tracks masqueraded the noise of my falling jaw and thudding heart. I found words taking time to form themselves. “Oh, that’s cool. And what’s your husband into?” This was more an effort to assure me that what I had heard was correct. “Well, he is an interior designer. We were from the same college, you know. I never thought that we would be marrying as I was more of an outgoing type. He generally kept to himself. It just happened.

And you know what? my adorable sons are rascals of the first order. Along with two little horrors of my sis-in-law, they make a cute, foursome brat pack. So, there was a college love affair, which was taken to its logical end…………. and kids. This did not require Holmes to analyze it. Obviously I had heard it correctly, even the first time and there was no ambiguity, no scope now. Scope for…. For what? The question reverberated in ether. Why these things have to happen only to me, I wondered! Elsewhere in the compartment the FM channel, Radio Mirchi threw up a melancholy, “Duniya banenewale, kya tere man me samaai, kahe ko duniya banai”. I was sure the channel was named by a sadist of the first order. Rascals.

 Where’s your family”? I heard a distant voice enquiring, as I tried to pick up debris of a shattered dream from the fallen tower. “Oh, yes, daughter, elder, pursuing MBA and son in the second year of a hotel management course. With kids away and wife in a job I get sufficient time to pursue my passion for photography and hobby writing.” My answers came out short and crisp. “You, a journalist or something. You must be having a thesaurus crammed up there”. She was persistent with her questions and comments.

 “No, writing came up simply because of photography. Actually, I was with the Armed Forces from where I took voluntary retirement, after over two decades of service”, as I found my voice gradually gaining strength. “You see, the time had come to start my second winnings. All of us in the profession of arms have to come to terms with civilian life after retirement and it is always better to start early.” She nodded as if she understood my compulsions of opting out of the Army. In any case, now it didn’t really matter. 

Unlike the North Indians, people from the South have little or no interaction with the Armed forces barring, of course, the immediate families of those drafted, and view them with a mix of admiration, awe, and curiosity. She was no exception—confirmed by her expressions, or so I thought. Mentioning that I was from the Armed Forces always resulted in puffing up—pigeon-like- something I always reserved to boost myself up. I seized the opportunity and during the journey ahead tried to retrieve lost ground through tidbits from the Army life.

“We too have our share of outings and booze and we love to go on long drives with friends. When we go to Bangalore, the first thing we do there is to attack a pub and have a ball,” she countered.

This appeared to be familiar territory. “Do you prefer hard drinks?” I enquired, “No, I prefer wine but don’t mind having a whisky or beer, at times. Our weekends are generally reserved for boozing sessions when friends drive up and we have a roaring time”. The comment was immediately saved in the hard disk. A quiet evening with her in the cool, snow-capped, romantic environs of Gangtok was just too much to comprehend at the moment. I decided to explore the possibility of reaching Gangtok.

 “You see, I don’t fit into the conventional mold of Indian women. Firstly my religion, and I really love it, have a different way of looking at these things as they are not considered as much of a taboo as, probably, in your society. Secondly, I try to live a full life, enjoying every moment.” I nodded, all ears, understanding her viewpoint. She was definitely different and on a different scale and extent complete. Or was I arriving at a conclusion rather early?

 That night at Gangtok, it was hard to sleep. From my bedside window, I could see the unmistakably sleeping lady like resemblance of Kanchendzonga, its pristine white shapely contours towering above the starlit town. What would she be doing? She doesn’t appear to be early to bed type. Should I make a call?

Questions and answers float in the room as I try to analyze our conversation but to no avail. She played hide and seek with words with dexterity, without appearing flirtatious though she did confess to being one in as many words.” I love teasing my husband’s friends thought I am chided for this” she had remarked, upon my inquiring. Between teasing and tempting the line is quite fine. What was I being subjected to? My eyes had closed without waiting for an answer, even if there was one.

      After a long day at the boring conference, which I had left halfway preferring instead to do some window-shopping; she barged into my hotel in the evening, catching me in the foyer. “Where the hell have you been throughout the day? I have been looking for you.” A bit took aback by her sudden onslaught, I enquired if there was anything important, and invited her for a cup of tea in the lounge, aware of the quizzical glances and nudges of the other delegates.

“No nothing. Simply wanted your company, just like that. And listen, we are having a drink in the evening”. Stunned more at her brazen attitude of inviting someone for drink whom she hardly knew, than the invitation I stuttered, “Fine, Shall arrange for the stuff. Your room or mine?” I enquired.

 “None, man. Just find a quiet place where we can sit and chat. You have precisely half an hour to get ready. I shall be waiting for you in my hotel foyer. Give me a call before you land up as I hate to hang around there. Ok. Ciao” and she breezed out of the hotel foyer.

Well, the decision was made for me and in any case, I never had a choice. Here was my big chance. I looked up into the clouds, apparently to thank people up there who mattered and are known to arrange such meetings. As I couldn’t spot any, I let a silent thank you hang in the chilled air of the hotel.

I scampered to my room for a bath, layered myself with aftershave and deo, repeatedly checking my looks in the solitary mirror in the washroom.

 She was waiting at the foyer in folded, hip-hugging blue jeans and a thin, printed top which, though inadequate to keep the mild chill out, communicated feminism without revealing. She appeared fresh and I noticed she wasn’t wearing any lipstick. “Let’s go for a walk. I want to make a call, she said.

It was raining gossamer-like, very fine as if through an atomizer and made walking a pleasure. A long call from a ubiquitous PCO, as I stood outside watching her silhouetted contours against the glass booth, and a short walk later we entered a bar, selected a quite corner settled down, and ordered.

The way she attacked her glass and proceeded thereafter, I doubted if she would be able to carry herself later in the evening. Though used to single malts and other harder stuff, I soon realized that I was no match for her both in capacity and capability and gave up the chase. Maybe that I may have to help her to the room. The thought was exciting. Once in the room, she may permit me to hold her, if nothing else, and, who knows the rest may follow-- the thought went down the nerve endings like a bolt. God, after all, really looks after those who work hard. Once again I looked for reassurance from the divinity up there.

 “What do you think about me, I am sure you would have analyzed me by now,” she enquired toying with her glass, an enigmatic smile playing on her shapely, generous lips. Here was my chance to convey my desire. “You are a highly desirable woman, in more matters than one,” I almost confessed. And one would be lucky to be with a woman like you—so vivacious and complete”.

 Should I touch and caress her hand now. No, there is no point in rushing things. A more obvious hint was sure to come. Why hurry when the stage appears to be set. Better to adjust the flow of adrenaline into the blood vessels.

 “And, how and what do you feel about me?” I enquired, as my eyes languorously floated across her face, down the petite nose, lingering a moment longer on her lips, moving up and finally locking with her eyes.” You are a dangerous man”. She said, raising her glass to her lips, effortlessly adding fuel to fire.

 There was not even a hint of slurring. “Dangerous?” You feel I am a violent sort of a character?” I protested rather weakly. “No you have an attitude and way with words and can get away with whatever you want, hence dangerous for a woman to be with you” She laughed softly, almost to herself, her eyes singeing me with their intensity.

Finally the hint! The heart started beating at rates above what it was designed for. This was the moment, man. The red wine after all had had its effect as the distant evening appeared much closer, and mushier than I had imagined. She polished off the bottle as I called for the bill, paying through my credit card.

We rose and walked to the hotel. The rain had stopped and there was a bounce in my steps. Concerned whether she would be able to negotiate the steep flight of stairs right up to her third-floor room, I nonchalantly offered my hand, which was politely brushed aside. She invited me to the room and sat next to me.

My insides were nothing short of a bowl of jelly. I brought up the topic again, “Aren’t you scared of being in the room sozzled, and alone, with someone labeled dangerous, like me? Only if she gives an indication of going ahead now, and there was the least doubt, would I like to make my next move? The moment of truth had finally arrived.

“No way, man. Do you think I could be drinking with a stranger without feeling safe? You see, my feminine intuition told me that you were a safe bet. During my call to my husband from the PCO, I had informed him about you and that you were from the armed forces and was going out for an evening with you. And since he had agreed to my request, I went ahead”.

 “Anyway, sweetie, I am sure you enjoyed the evening as much as I did. I hate holding you so late into the night more so as you have quite a distance to go and it is cold. Let’s meet tomorrow evening for an encore. Thanks for a lovely evening. Good-night, Dangerous.”

  It was time for the tottering second tower to come downOnly, the twin tower tragedy appeared piffling in comparison. 

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