Sridhar Venkatasubramanian



Sridhar Venkatasubramanian


The Girl With The Milk Can

The Girl With The Milk Can

27 mins

Chapter 1 -Train to Bhagalpur

A cold biting wind-swept across Platform No. 5 of Sealdah Station on that wintry New Year’s Eve night, as I was waiting to board the Mughalsarai Express to Bhagalpur. The platform was crowded with passengers. But I was neither bothered by the cold nor the jostling noisy crowd around me. In fact, mentally I was in a completely different place and time.

It was exactly 20 years back when on the same New Year’s Eve, I remembered waiting for this train to travel to Bhagalpur, a small town in Bihar. I vaguely remembered that this train was then known as the Upper India Express. I had then been recently promoted to the rank of Junior Manager in the Bank and it was my first posting outside Calcutta, where I was born and brought up. A colleague of mine who had also been recently promoted and posted to Bhagalpur was travelling with me. Both of us were in our early thirties. But being a married man with a two-year old kid, he was not very enthusiastic about the prospect of being away from his family. I, on the other hand, was single and thrilled about working in another state, an opportunity that would not only give me the chance to learn about its people and culture but also help in my future promotions.

We arrived at Bhagalpur next day in the wee hours of the morning. Even at that early hour the station looked very busy. The din created by the vendors, the porters and the travelers hurrying to and fro, was music to my ears, as it seemed so different to what I had seen in Calcutta. It was probably the same but being full of enthusiasm about being in a new place, with new and exciting prospects, I could not help but feel a great delight in my surroundings and quite forgot Calcutta for the moment.

We came out of the station to find ourselves almost immediately surrounded by a crowd of rickshaw wallahs. They started fighting among themselves as to who had the first right to take us. I could follow some of their conversation but though the language initially sounded like Hindi, on listening closer, it seemed quite different. Later on I learnt that it was known as Angika.

For the first couple of days we stayed in a hotel but later on shifted to the well-furnished outhouse of a bungalow, which was owned by a Bengali gentleman, a professor at the Bhagalpur University. The bungalow was situated in an area where the residents were predominantly Bengalis. Though I did not have any inhibitions in living among the local people, my colleague preferred this place as he felt it would be like a home away from home.

As the days passed, the Professor became very close to us. He was impressed that I was pursuing higher studies to become a Cost Accountant, even though I had a steady job. He even helped me to borrow books from the local library for my studies and would drop by frequently to have lengthy discussions on matters relating to banking and finance.

Six months rolled by as we settled into the daily grind of office and home. There wasn’t much scope for entertainment in that small town, except for a couple of movie halls.

Every morning, my colleague used to get up at 6.00 and go out to fetch milk from the khaataal (Bengali for cow shed) that was about a kilometer away. Since he was aware that I usually studied late into the night, he would wake me up only at around 8.00 and that too with a cup of hot tea.

But on that day he woke me up at 6.00 and asked me to fetch milk as he was feeling feverish. He dismissed the idea when I told him that we could get tea from the nearby teashop. So, cursing him for waking me from my deep slumber, I went out. Little did I know that this day would change my life forever.


Chapter 2 -The Girl With the Milk Can


Half asleep and bleary-eyed, I walked reluctantly towards the khaataal. As I turned into the lane leading to the cow shed, I barely noticed the figure coming from the opposite direction and very nearly bumped into it.

On hearing the sound of ‘o! ma go!’ (a sound in Bengali expressing surprise) I became fully awake.

Right in front of me was the most beautiful girl I had seen in my entire life. In that early summer morning sunshine, her face was like a rose in bloom. I stopped in my tracks, mouth agape, staring speechlessly, so stunned was I at the sight of this beautiful apparition that seemed to have suddenly appeared before me.

She must have been in her mid-twenties. She was carrying a small milk can and so, I surmised that she must be returning from the khaataal. I was relieved on seeing that no milk had been spilt but I was scared that she was going to be very cross with me. I stammered an apology, saying that it was entirely my fault. I was overjoyed when she briefly looked up at me, her frown melting into a quick smile. And then she went on her way without a backward glance.

My colleague’s fever had not abated the next day also and so I went to fetch the milk in the morning. Now, no more bleary-eyed and sleepy, there was a spring in my step and I prayed to God that I should meet the girl again. My heart leapt into my mouth as I saw her walking towards me. I kept looking at her with a ready smile on my lips, hoping that she might reciprocate. But I was crestfallen when she passed by me with her eyes cast down.

On the third day, my colleague who had by now fully recovered, set out in the morning to fetch the milk. He was pleasantly surprised when I told him that I would fetch it as he should be resting for some more days. I also told him that the morning walk was giving me a lot of energy and it helped me to pursue my studies with more vigour.

But like yesterday she passed by me without so much as a glance in my direction. I wanted to greet her with a Good Morning, but the words remained stuck in my throat. I watched her go, hoping against hope that she would at least turn around to look. But she walked away with her head bowed and went out of sight as she turned into the main road. I cursed myself for not summoning up the courage to say a simple ‘Good Morning’.

But my shyness I knew, as I pondered, was not something new. I had never been able to speak to even my female colleagues, let alone strangers. When girls laughed in my presence I always thought I was the object of their amusement.

It was quite natural, because I possessed a face which cannot be termed as handsome by any standard. I had a big fleshy nose for which I was teased mercilessly by the kids at school. To add to my woes, my hair had started turning grey when I was only in the eighth standard. By the time I joined college, about a quarter of my hair was grey. And my college being a co-ed institution, my agony increased even more. I dreaded walking past groups of girls in the college hallways, for fear that they would ridicule me by calling me ‘Uncle’ or something equally humiliating.

By the time I had finished college and entered the banking service, I was a man with a low self-esteem, resulting in an inferiority complex and few social graces, especially when it came to interactions with girls. But, the testosterones were doing their work and so, I could not help but feeling attracted to girls, which was quite natural for a man of my age. 

The morning routine of mine at Bhagalpur, however, continued in the same way for a fortnight or so. I saw the girl every day but I could not muster enough courage to greet the girl and she never raised her head to look at me. I prayed for a miracle that would make her talk to me, but that did not happen. But like an addict, I could not let go of my morning encounters. Every morning, my heart would start beating crazily as she passed by me in the lane and I would be on a high for while. This feeling would take a dip as she disappeared round the lane and I could see her no more.

But, after two weeks, I had a great stroke of luck in the form of the friendly Professor who decided to come with me on my morning walk to fetch milk. I cursed him in my mind for interrupting me on my dream walk but went along with him. And like every day, as we entered the lane we saw the girl with the milk can coming from the opposite direction.

‘Good Morning’, the Professor greeted the girl in a loud voice.

‘Good Morning, Sir!” the girl looked up and replied, surprised. But I noticed that her face after a momentary glance at the Professor, rested upon mine as if expecting something, or so it seemed to me.

“GGGood………mmmmorning” I blurted out, coming out of my trance. She nodded her head in acknowledgment and with a smile directed at the Professor, walked away.

The next day onwards I greeted her with a smile and wished her Good Morning and she reciprocated with a smile. I felt as if I had achieved a great victory.

After a week or so I realized that though there was a great desire in me to know more about her, I still did not even know her name. I did not dare to ask the Professor about her, afraid that I might jeopardize his good opinion of me.


But in my heart of hearts I wanted to get to know this girl with whom I had fallen in love at first sight.

I wanted to start earlier in the morning than usual so that I could walk with her to the cow shed, which would give me ample time for a longer conversation. But I dropped the idea, fearing that she might think it rather forward of me. And I was also not in a great hurry as I knew I would not be transferred from this place for at least another three years. I decided to let fate play out its hand at its own pace. 

But we all know that though man proposes, it is God who finally disposes. It was the day after Mahalaya(the beginning of Dusshera).I got an order from my Head Office to report back for posting to Calcutta within 4 days. It seemed that the Costing Cell of the Head Office was in immediate need of a person having a background of Cost Accounting techniques and being an employee who had cleared the Cost Accounting Intermediate level examination, the obvious choice fell on me. 

I was elated at first on being chosen for such a coveted post and that too at the Corporate Office. But on the other hand I had now only three days to profess my love to the girl.

For the next two days, I tried to muster courage to talk to her. But somehow, I could not get past the customary ‘Good Morning’.

But on the third day, I realized that if I did not overcome my shyness and talk to her, then perhaps I would never be able to see her again, as I had to leave the town that very evening.

I started a bit early in the morning to fetch milk from the cow shed. As I walked down the main road I saw her coming out of her house. She was surprised to see me and greeted me with a smile.

We walked together for some time in silence and I finally plucked up some courage and spoke,

“What are your plans for this Durga Puja. Are you going on some trip out of Bhagalpur”?

She remained silent and then said, “You tell me first. What are your plans. You must be going back to your family in Calcutta”.

At that moment I realized what a fool I had been. Seeing my appearance, she must have taken me to be a married man with children.

I thought it was the right time to tell her more about myself and also confess my feelings for her. After all, at worst, I would be rejected or scorned. If that were the case, it didn’t matter as I was going away that evening and would never have to face her again.

Then an idea popped into my mind. Those were the days when there was no internet, but pen friends were quite a rage. Why not simply ask her whether she would like to have me as a pen friend, I thought. That way, I could tell her that both of us could correspond and learn a lot about each other’s culture and background. I was sure that once she accepted my request we could start communicating through letters and it would be easier for me to declare my love to her through the written word.

So, with renewed vigour I started, “May I ask request you for something? Please brush me off if you don’t approve. I will not impose upon you”.

She looked at me and started to say something when suddenly, an auto rickshaw coming from the opposite road stopped in front of us. A handsome young man in his early thirties got out in a hurry, exclaiming,

“Hi!! Koel, what are you doing here so early in the morning. I told you didn’t I, that I would definitely come before Puja to see you!”

It was the first time I got to hear her name, who till now had for me been simply ‘The Girl With The Milk Can’.

Koel’s face was alight with joy and she was laughing aloud as they hugged each other oblivious to the surroundings.

“Go home, Dev. I will be back soon with the milk.” She said to him finally.

“Oh! Forget the milk. We can send somebody to fetch it later. Jump into the auto. We have to discuss so many things before the wedding” he protested.

She smiled at me, shrugged her shoulders ruefully and followed him into the auto.

The young man before getting into the auto waved at me and said, “Bye Uncle! See you!”

I stood gaping at the back of the auto as it rode away from me. My heart felt as if it had broken into a thousand pieces. At the same time, I felt embarrassed realizing what a blooming idiot I had been to think even for a moment that such a beautiful young girl would be attracted for me. Like the young man had said, she must have considered me an ‘Uncle’ too, and only been courteous to me just as she might have been to any elderly gentleman. Oh! what a fool I had been, I thought in self-pity, to build castles in the air.

Tears were streaming down my cheeks uncontrollably as I returned to the outhouse, without even fetching the milk.

I asked my friend to fetch the milk saying that I had a sudden stomach upset. I rushed into the comfort of the toilet, before he could spot my tear-streaked, wretched face.

Twenty years rolled by after that fateful morning in my life. During this period, I was posted in various places ranging from remote villages to metro cities. During these years, I had many interesting experiences.

But I was unable to get over my memories of the ‘Girl With The Milk Can’. Somehow, I could never remember her by her name, Koel, a name so beautiful but which brought forth only sad memories for me.  

Thoughts about her were very painful but I derived a strange pleasurable pain in reliving them over and over again, especially, the sweet feelings I had cherished in my mind for her.

I remained single. In some way, after that fateful morning in Bhagalpur, I seemed to have lost interest in women, let alone marriage. I plunged myself in work.

I also assiduously avoided assignments that would take me to Bhagalpur, instead, opting for more challenging assignments in remote areas. Never again would I set foot there, I decided with a sad finality.

But fate had other plans. I was summoned by the Chairman of my Bank one day and was directed to immediately go for an important inspection work at our Bhagalpur Divisional Office.

This summons brought back all those sweet cherished memories. I was unwilling, to say the least. But I could not avoid it. With a sinking feeling in my heart, I travelled to Bhagalpur. For the first three days, I confined myself to the office and the hotel where I was put up. I did not dare to venture into the locality where I had lived some twenty years back. 

But on the fourth day my work was completed. However, my return journey to Calcutta was booked only for the next day’s evening train.

That night I could not sleep a wink. Memories came rushing to assail me and made me heavy of heart. At about 4.30 a.m. I felt I could no longer get any sleep.

Then suddenly the thought of the friendly Professor came to my mind.  He must be in his seventies now. I was ashamed that in my self-pity I had forgotten all about him.

I decided to pay him a visit. I decided to walk to his house as it was only a kilometer away.

I observed that this part of the town hadn’t changed much. The same old bungalow type buildings were very much there still.

As I walked down the main road I saw an elderly man walking toward me. As he came near I was overjoyed to see that he was none other than the Professor.

“Good morning, Professor “, I said.

“Good morning,” he said politely squinting his eyes at me through his spectacles. I realized that he had not recognized me. Of course, my hair was fully grey now and I had become stout in the middle too.

He was overjoyed when I introduced myself. He chided me affectionately for not keeping in touch.

I told him about the purpose of my visit and also that I had nothing to do till that evening.

“Let us go and fetch the milk and we will have a nice chat over a cup of tea at my house. So much to catch up with, my boy. Then, you will have lunch with me,” he said putting his arm around my shoulder

As we entered the lane leading to the cowshed, I saw a woman with a milk can coming out of the morning mist. My heart jumped when her face came into view.

It was none other than my Girl with the Milk Can.  

She looked more beautiful than ever. The few strands of grey hair gave her a dignity and elegance that only enhanced her beauty. Her smile was the same, capable of melting the heart of the beholder.

“Good morning, sir! Seeing you coming to fetch milk after a long time,” she said addressing the professor.

“I was not keeping well for some time. But now I am better. Look, do you remember this gentleman, the banker. He has come to see me specially, so early in the morning. I have promised him a cup of tea in my house”

“Of course! I do remember” she said, looking at me and smiling.

“But, please, let me offer you tea at my house. It will be an honour” she said.

Before I could get a word in between, the professor accepted her invitation.

The drawing room of the house was medium-sized but very tidy and very artistically decorated. I could see a piano and a couple of stringed instruments in that room.

“You know Koel can sing very well and play several musical instruments too. She also has a doctorate in music and is currently doing further research on the folk songs of Bihar and Jharkhand. She is a well-known artiste and has given many concerts on Radio & TV and presently she is a senior artiste in the AIR.” the professor said.

Just then she entered with hot cups of tea. She must have heard the professor and said with a blush, “Oh! Sir always exaggerates. He is so fond of me that he can never feel objective about me.”

As we were having our tea the Professor’s mobile rang. He took the call and when he had finished speaking, his face was grave.

“My younger brother has just been admitted to the local hospital. He has had a mild heart attack. I have to go now. Please forgive me, Sundaram. Take my mobile number and stay in touch.”

“Koel, would you take care of my friend. I had promised him lunch and so it is now your duty to give him that. I hope you are not busy today.”

Before I could protest he said, “Koel is like family. So do not feel shy. If everything is fine at the hospital I will come and join you here for lunch”.

After the Professor had gone, I told her that she should not worry on my account and I could spend my time at the office or at the hotel.

“I will consider that an insult. Besides the professor will be annoyed”, she said sternly, quelling my feeble protests. But to be frank, I was secretly happy to get an opportunity to be able to stay and talk with her. There seemed to be no one else but her at the house.

She removed the cups to the kitchen and then came and sat before me. For some moments I was in a quandary as to how to break the ice.

“It has been such a long time since you left this place. Did you ever visit again?

“No this is my first visit after my transfer from here to Calcutta,” I said sheepishly.

“You know, I came to know your name only today. You are a South Indian, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am a Tamilian but settled in Calcutta since birth.”

“Tell me about your family. Do you have children? What does your wife do? Sorry if you feel I am prying”, she continued, in a tone that felt like music to my ears. I wished that she would keep talking to me till the end of time.

“Oh! it is ok. I have nothing much to tell. I have remained single but am married to my job.”

“Oh! why so? Again, sorry if I am prying,” She said, with genuine sadness in her voice.

“What about you? What have you been doing?” I asked, avoiding her question.

“I thought you were never going to ask” she said with a teasing laugh.

“I have also remained single. My mother passed away five years ago, two years after my father’s death. I live alone here as you can see. I teach music at the University and in my spare time I am doing research on the folk music of Bihar.”

“But what about Dev” I blurted out without thinking and immediately regretted it, as it was not small talk but a brutal invasion into someone’s private affairs.

“Dev…..?” she looked at me with surprise.

I had no option but to relate to her the episode that happened some twenty years back.

She rolled her eyes and burst out laughing, “What a sharp memory you have! While I will compliment you for your acute memory, you have got the facts wrong,” she smiled. “You see, Dev is my cousin, my maternal uncle’s son. He is very much attached to our family and often used to come on visits from Patna, during Durga Puja holidays and stay with us for 3-4 days. On one such visit he fell in love with my neighbour’s daughter and on that particular visit that you witnessed he had come to finalise his marriage with her. They are now happily married”, she said.

“But now I also remembered something from that day. Before Dev appeared you were asking me for something. I was so rude that I did not stop to hear you out. And then you were gone, just like that. You know I kept feeling sad for a long time, for leaving you so abruptly that day”

“But please tell me what it was that you were going to ask”.

Somehow that warm atmosphere of friendship and the sad tone in her voice made me pour my heart out. I told her everything that I had gone through from the first day of my meeting her, my love for her at first sight, my shyness and the low self-esteem that had made me hold back my feelings and also about the many sleepless nights I had spent in the last twenty years thinking of her.

Tears welled in my eyes and I did not dare to look at her. Suddenly from the corner of the eye I saw a blur of movement and in the next second I felt a stinging slap on my cheek.

“Oh! You idiot! You poor fool! Why you did not tell me at the time?””

Then she covered her face in her hands and started weeping silently. I sat transfixed without knowing how to soothe her.

After some time, she came and sat near me and touched my cheek gently. Holding my hands, she spoke softly, “I am sorry for hitting you. But the loss of twenty years was too much for me to bear. But I am also partly to blame. I was in love with you too. Not at first sight, to be honest. But slowly, as I learnt about you from the Professor. He told me how studious you were. He would often speak about your sincere and dedicated attitude towards your work, your willingness to work hard to fulfil your ambitions. He would frequently point out your innate decency and soft-heartedness. But these qualities were only what the Professor told me. What I saw for myself in you was enough for me. I did not really need the Professor’s opinion of you. They just confirmed what I already knew in my heart. It was when he said you were single that I started to hope. I was overjoyed. I was sure I could make you love me too. But I too hesitated to speak my mind, not only because I was a young girl in a conservative society but also because I thought a city person like you might not have much interest in a girl belonging to a small town.”

“Oh! if only we had talked more.” she said, her voice heavy with the sadness of the last twenty years, without letting go off my hand.

Then I did something I had never dared even in my wildest dreams. I hugged her tightly and said, “Marry me! Now!! This instant. From this moment I will make you so happy that you will never remember anything sad from the past.”

Then we both looked at each other and laughed and cried like two teenagers finding their first love.

At that time the door bell rang. We let it ring, not wanting to let go of this magical moment. But the doorbell kept ringing insistently. So, she got up reluctantly to answer the door but I would not let her and hugged her tighter.

The irritating door bell continued to ring and suddenly I opened my eyes. I found myself in my bed in Calcutta, hugging my pillow tight.

I was shattered. It took me a while to recover from the disappointment that none of it had been real. So, all this return trip to Bhagalpur and meeting my girl was just a dream, I thought sadly. It had been so real for a while. I could even feel her hands in mine and her look of love for me through her beautiful tear-filled eyes .I had felt so terribly happy. I had dreamt it all and now nothing had changed. I was miserable once again, yearning for a love I would never have. Tears rolled down my eyes and I cried my heart out, all alone in my flat, where I was leading a lonely life.

But life must go on. I got up and went to the door. The milkman had left the milk bottle in the foyer after his repeated ringing had failed to wake me.

I carried it inside and started preparing my breakfast as it was already past 9.00 a.m.

Then my cell phone rang

Chapter 3 -Train to Bhagalpur

It was a call from my previous boss. After retirement he had started a consultancy firm for training newly recruited bank officers. I had joined him after I had taken an early retirement, when I had about 10 years of service left, being fed up of the daily grind of the office and also because I was well-off and I had no one to support financially. Now, I was his trusted right-hand man and he relied heavily on me as I was quite experienced in project finance and my lectures were well received.

I cleared my throat and said, “Hello, Sir!”

“Sundaram, please, you have to help me out. I know you hate taking a teaching assignment at short notice but two of our faculty members have suddenly backed out citing health reasons. And I am unable to get any person with an in-depth knowledge in project finance for this assignment. It is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. So, my friend, I look to you to save the day and do this favour for me.”

I was rather touched by his implicit trust and confidence in me, that he thought I was up to the task. I also felt sorry for the dilemma he was in and the fact that he was senior to me in age and experience made me decide to agree to his request.

“Don’t worry, Sir! Anything for you! Just fill me in on the course content, venue and the experience of the participants. I will take care of the rest. You need not worry.”

He was overjoyed and said he would mail me all the details. Then he hesitated, “One more thing. The venue is not in Calcutta. It is in Bhagalpur. But do not worry about the journey tickets. Everything will be made ready and handed over to you today by my personal assistant. At Bhagalpur station you will be received by the organizers and I will instruct them to take good care of you”

I said ‘Okay! Don’t worry Sir” and disconnected.

My head was reeling now. I had never believed in coincidences or luck but having a dream only a few hours ago about Bhagalpur and getting a call out of the blue to go that very place was too much of a coincidence for me. But now I was feeling optimistic and genuinely hoping that finally something good was going to happen in my life.

So, standing on that cold wind-swept Platform No. 5 of Sealdah Station on that wintry New Year’s Eve night, as I was waiting to board the Mughalsarai Express, I was thinking, “Will I finally be able to get to spend the rest of my life with my Girl with the Milk Can?”

-------------------------------------The End ----------------------------

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