Savitri sprang up to the shrill screech of her alarm clock. ‘Upbeat mornings’ was the name of the alarm tone on her phone but it felt anything but upbeat to her ears. She rubbed her face lazily, lingering in the soft sheets for just those few extra minutes. How different life was now!
‘Ahh, the innocent luxuries of Ma’s home...’
How she could wake up whenever she wanted to, how her friend Rupi’s house was an arm’s distance away, how she used to chase her brothers through the long, shadow-patterned corridors. But, here she was, married with a life’s singular objective now being making perfectly round rotis, dusting the gazillion ugly artefacts on the shelves, watering the tulsi plant and watching inane T.V. serials with her mother-in-law.
She took off her orange nightie, showered and changed into a saree – the dress-code around here was a law stricter than the laws of a dictatorial government. She hurried with her chores in the kitchen. Measuring the milk carefully before pouring it into the sunset-coloured tea, she stifled a yawn.
‘Today is the day!’ her heart pounded happily.
She was finally doing it!
The tickets had been booked.
The bags had been packed.
Her cab had been arranged.
So, here she was at Gwalior railway station, with her 3 suitcases out of which 2 were packed to the brim with beautifully-embroidered lehengas, glittering costume jewellery, her favourite perfume and a dozen gifts for her family and one empty suitcase dedicated to all the shopping she was going to do to calm her fad-crazy soul. She also carried with herself a bottle of rail neer and a bag of excited nervousness.
She was leaving for her mother’s house after 2 long years. She was even travelling without an XY chromosome-escort. How adventurous!
Tying her long, black hair in a tight knot behind her head and adjusting the pallu of her fluffy, pink saree, she smiled at the railway tracks.
She hoisted herself into the bogie with the help of the scratched, worn-out side-bar.
She scanned the berths.
‘Oh, here is 41.’
She pushed her suitcase below the berth securing it with chains, like she’d be always advised to, by her mother.
The woman seated across her smiled warmly. Savitri gave her a sweeping, wary look and half-smiled in return.
‘Let me just be polite but keep away from these people’, she told herself.
As she heard the train chains shuffling and wheels churning, she took a deep breath. Along with smell of stale urine and aroma of freshly-made-bread-omelette she had also inhaled the scent of independence. She put her legs up on the navy-blue train seats and felt her hair flutter in the wanton breeze. She texted her husband.
That’s all he had to say!
She had also called her mother, informing her about her time of arrival and in a rather hushed voice about her fellow travellers.
“Be careful. Say your prayers to Goddess Durga. They must be immigrants from Bangladesh – you can’t trust them.”
She peeked another nervous glance at the burqa-clad woman and her bearded husband. She had fleeting visions of being shipped to Saudi Arabia to be married off to a rich oilfield-owner. She hugged her handbag, tucking it between her waist and the rusty window.
The train chugged on, passing cottages and forests, water-soaked wet paddy fields and winding rivers, through dark tunnels and village shanties. Savitri was onto her third kulhad of tea and had polished off several steel plates of chole – bhature.
“Travelling in a train makes me hungry” She had grinned at the vendor for whom she’d become a high-worth customer.
The palette in the sky transitioned from shades of blue to shades of purple. The lobby lights lit up the dark train. The family opposite her had removed their many Tupperware boxes of food and aligned it neatly on their seat.
“Care to join us?” the woman across her asked.
“No, no…uh.. not very hungry…”
So, she watched them through the turning pages of her book, eating meat and talking in a strange dialect. She muttered a silent hanuman challisa and curled up on the warm seat. It was going to be a long journey and she hoped more than anything to be back home, away from the cockroaches on the train walls, away from the unfamiliar surroundings and away from the people she had learnt to hate.
She pulled the dusty, grey blanket over her body and kept a sepia tinted picture of Durga under her pillow. The rhythmic movement of the train then cradled her to sleep, almost instantly.
At roughly 2 am, she woke up with a jolt, feeling a pang of thirst take over her body. She slid over to the other end of her berth, only to find an empty bottle shining proudly in the dim light. She sat up straight and gulped a few times, making herself cough uncontrollably.
A hand from the berth opposite hers passed a bottle of water in her direction. She pretended to not notice it in the dark and turned over, facing the wall.
‘Gosh, I could drink an entire bucket right now.’
It felt like all the energy from her body was being pulled out by a long piece of straw stationed in her throat.
The train seemed to be approaching a quaint station. It halted with a jerk. It was dark and foggy. The station was aglow with a faint yellow light. She slipped her socked feet inside her sandals, grabbed her handbag and rushed outside to buy herself a bottle of water.
Her eyes scanned through the fog, desperately looking for a chai stall or a water vendor. She took quick steps through the paan-stained platform eager to find an oasis in this desert. She was sprinting.
After what felt like the Dandi march of 1930, she came across a small mobile cart.
“How may I help you?” the vendor asked in a rather coquettish voice.
“Just one water bottle please”
“Madam, where is your husband? Do you know how unsafe these places are for women? Areh, just yesterday, I heard about that case near Sai Baba mandir. Mani told me he saw it with his own eyes. But I mean it was bound to happen, did you see what…”
“Please sir my train will leave”
“But then Jagdish clearly mentioned that weeks back….”, the young chap was in no mood to stop narrating his freshly-brewed gossip.
“Sir, paani ki bottle please”
Savitri was getting impatient. She could already hear the whistle blowing and announcement blaring through their raspy speakers.
“Gwalior jaane wale yatron kripiya platform number ek peh train number paach shunya shunya ek…….”
Savitri thrust a crumpled note into his hand and snatched the mineral water bottle from him.
She could see the train moving slow initially and then picking up speed. She gathered the loose ends of her sari and ran. She could feel the cold slapping her face. The train, like a stubborn child, ignored her persistent calls and passed by.
She ran as fast as her small legs could carry and pushed her body towards the goal. She was slowly losing her breath. She could feel every inch of her body scream “I give up, Savu”.
But just then she saw a hand pop out of the metal doors. She hardly give it all the energy she had left. She was almost there, reaching for it. Her heart was pounding, her feet were leaden.
A firm grip pulled her into the hiccupping train. She clambered in on all fours.
After catching her breath, her head looked up only to see bearded co-passenger from her compartment beaming at her almost as if waiting for her to scream “Myyy herooo”. He helped her up and fussed over her, asking if she was okay.
Savitri was trembling. She composed herself, straightened her sari and followed him meekly to their compartment. The lights had been switched on and all her fellow travellers were staring at her oddly.
Savitri sat down on her seat, looking up sheepishly. She tucked in her unopened Rail Neer bottle in her handbag and smiled gently at the burqa-clad lady on the opposite berth.
“Can I have some water?”