The Night Train to Kanpur
It was a frantic rush to Howrah station on the eve of that Diwali. Husband and I were to board the Rajdhani Express, for Kanpur, his hometown. Mother was accompanying us to the station. We had arrived by a morning flight from Chennai the previous day, on a two week leave from our respective jobs. The plan was to spend a night with my mother in Calcutta, then proceed to Kanpur for Diwali with his family. Our annual leaves alternated between Calcutta and Kanpur, left us little opportunity to travel elsewhere. Now on the drive to the station, in spite of mother’s self-proclaimed expertise on Calcutta traffic guiding the driver, we were stuck in a whirlpool of traffic, even she was overwhelmed by. I was jittery, at the possibility of missing the train, having to spend Diwali at my home, rather than with my in laws who were expecting us. But more, sad at leaving mother, who lived by herself after father’s passing, alone at home for Diwali.
I recalled how mother’s arguing with father, on the best route to a place, confusing the driver in the bargain, used to once be a common occurrence. So I took away the baton of charge from her, handing it to the driver by asking him to take the quickest way he knew to the station. He would be more proficient in navigating us through this maze of traffic, emanating from the final Diwali shopping, on his own instincts. We made it to Howrah Station just five minutes before the scheduled departure at 5pm. The car park, runs alongside the Rajdhani Express platform, so it was a short, brisk walk to our first-class compartment. At its entrance, pasted on the side walls, we hurriedly located our names on the reservation chart. Then I warmly hugged mother, still sulking from my high-handedness in the car. She had not interpreted my real intention, of averting my husband’s assuming she was delaying us intentionally, which I knew was not in the least, in case we missed the train this evening.
As I pulled away from her embrace, I noticed the sadness in mother’s eyes, the loneliness she tried to hide, smiling at us, nudging us to board quickly. My husband rushed inside with the larger of our baggage. I stepped onto the train, and then turned back to wave at mother, before disappearing inside. She would wait till the train rolled out of the platform, I thought. After identifying our four-berth coupe, my husband stood at its sliding door, waiting for me. Our berths were along with an elderly couple, who were comfortably seated facing each other, adjacent to the window. The gentleman with all-grey hair, framing the bald patch of his head, had a round, friendly, jovial face. His eyes were big, kind, peering through the thick glasses of a rimless frame. Bulky, he wore a blue-black checked shirt, over light blue jeans, with white sneakers. He nodded at us with a warm smile, as we stepped inside on the red-carpeted floor. We smiled back.
We nodded politely at the lady, in a white and pink georgette sari, who looked back at us stiffly. She seemed over sixty, matronly, with a plump face, her jet-black – obviously colored hair, was parted to the center with vermillion, and tied in a bun behind her head. In presuming she and her husband were the sole occupants of this coupe, no one having claimed the other two berths so far, our walking in had clearly disappointed her. Husband and I settled our baggage under a lower berths and a rack above. We then sat facing each other, he beside the gentleman, and me the woman. I looked through the dark-glass window at my mother who was still waiting, looking in the direction of the train, though unable to see anything inside, obviously not us. It saddened me to see her looking so forlorn, especially on the eve of a festival such as Diwali.
Suddenly I felt like a nudge at the back of my waist and the train started rolling out very slowly. I looked at my watch, it was sharp 5 pm. Impulsively I got up, briskly rolling open our coupe’s door, walked out to the entrance, to wave goodbye to mother one last time. Leaning outward, I waved and caught her attention from the slowly receding train, as she waved back earnestly, least expecting to catch another glimpse of me before the train pulled out. Her all-grey hair, made mother look older than her seventy years, or was it the loneliness, that was rushing her aging lately. I could not help notice, as I looked on, how she had shrunk in height and weight, over the years, though luckily still mentally and physically agile. In the five years since father’s passing, my marrying a year after his demise and moving to Chennai, mother seemed to have aged in leaps and bounds. With a heavy heart at leaving her alone for Diwali (Kali Puja in Bengal), as she had declined to come along this year to my in-laws, I returned to our coupe.
Just as I sat down, a uniformed waiter came inside, carrying a tray with single rosebuds attached to solo fern leaves. He gave each of us one, bowing courteously with a smile. Before leaving, he announced tea would be served shortly. On cue, a waiter came in, handing each of us a tray. The trays carried a tea-bag, a coffee, sugar, and creamer sachets, along with a stirrer and a cup-flask of hot water. On each was also neatly arranged, a paper-wrapped cheese sandwich, a small packet of Haldiram’s bhujia, a specially packed box of sweets for Diwali and a Five-Star chocolate. I poured the hot water into my cup, over a tea-bag, waiting for the infusion to strengthen. The elderly man did likewise, and then as I did, picked up the thick plastic powder-milk sachet from his tray, struggling without success to open it.
My husband extended his hand, to offer to help him open it. After a moment’s hesitation, the man handed the sachet over quietly. The elderly couple smiled at him simultaneously, thus breaking the ice that had ensued between us, since we entered the coupe. My husband on opening the creamer sachet handed it back to the man. After adding its contents, along with sugar from the thin paper sachet, the man stirred his tea silently. On taking a sip, satisfied it was to his satisfaction, he turned towards us.
“So where are you going?” he asked. “The train, I believe, halts at a number of places before Delhi.”
“Kanpur” I replied spontaneously. “We are going to Kanpur.”
“Are you students of IIT Kanpur?” asked the lady, in a friendly tone.
“No, no” I replied, exchanging an amused smile with my husband – at being considered students, though we were both near to thirty-eight years.
It was probably that we were dressed in t-shirts, jeans, with sneakers, that made her assume we were students, I thought.
“Then you must be IT professionals,” the lady blurted affably.
“No, he’s a journalist, a writer actually” I smiled, indicating to my husband. “His family is in Kanpur. And we’re spending Diwali with them. I’m an executive search consultant, referred to as a head-hunter.”
“How wonderful,” the lady exclaimed, enthusiastically. “We’re also going to Delhi for Diwali with extended family. It’s been long since we last visited.”
“Where do you live, in Kolkata?” the lady enquired.
“No, in Chennai,” I replied.
“What about Kolkata?” asked the lady, “You have any connections there?”
“Yes, of course, my mother lives in Kolkata” I replied, reminded again she was by herself on Diwali. “That is why we took the train from Howrah, so we could spend a little time with her, before proceeding to Kanpur.”
“So where do you live?” I asked, of the couple “Kolkata or Delhi?”
“Well, mostly in the US, now” the lady replied, with a sigh, “that is, we live most part of the year in New Jersey – our daughter’s home, the rest at Jodhpur Park in Kolkata, our ancestral home.”
“So are you going only to Delhi this time”? I enquired.
“We will actually be visiting few relatives in Chandigarh. After Diwali and bhai-phota in Delhi, we will drive down from there.”
The two men, though silent so far, had been listening to our conversation, making their acquaintance through our exchanges. The waiter interrupted our buildup of companionship, bringing in the dinner menu. It was short and crisp, of Indian, Chinese and continental options, with limited choice of dishes in each category. All of us ordered continental.
After the waiter exited, taking our orders along with the menu cards, the ticket checker walked in. On noticing him, I briskly retrieved our ticket from my handbag, proffering it to him. The lady handed over hers.
“Yours is the next coupe,” he said, scrutinizing my ticket. “This coupe is for them, Mr. and Mrs. Sen Verma. The other two berths here are unreserved.”
“How did this happen?” I asked, giving my husband a quizzical look, since he was the one who had identified this coupe as ours.
He shrugged sheepishly at me and then to the ticket checker he said “We’ll move into our coupe now, I overlooked it somehow.”
The ticket checker, after handing back the lady’s ticket, then mine, retreated with a brisk nod.
“Let’s move our baggage,” I said to my husband, then turning to the elderly couple, having just learnt their names I said “We are really sorry for the inconvenience Mr. and Mrs. Sen Verma. But it was really nice meeting you, however short the time together.”
Mrs. Sen Verma had the mixed look of someone who on one hand was relieved to have the privacy of her coupe back, but was also disappointed at losing companionship and the chance to a hearty conversation ahead.
“Why don’t you leave your baggage in your coupe, then join us for a drink here before dinner” Mr. Sen Verma said abruptly, as if on cue, reading his wife’s expression. “Moreover, since we ordered dinner here, we might as well have it all together. That is if you don’t mind our company.”
“Sure, that would be nice” I replied, smiling simultaneously at the couple, and then looking to my husband for his consent I asked “I hope it’s alright.”
After he nodded in assent, I said to the couple “We’ll be back then.”
We retrieved our suitcases from under the berths, our hand baggage from the rack. A waiter helped us shift our belongings to our coupe.
Once there, we realized, it being at the end of a compartment, it was a two- berth coupe unlike the four-occupant rest. We settled our baggage under the lower berth and on the upper rack. On our return, Mr. and Mrs. Sen Verma smiled warmly, happy to have us back. After we slipped into our earlier positions, Mr. Sen Verma fetched a large bottle of Blue Label Scotch from his suitcase kept under the berth. He poured its contents, with a friendly wink at my husband, into two glasses from the sideboard, marked with the logo of a train. Then he brought out a bottle of soda, added some to the two glasses of Scotch. He grimaced all the while looking at the thick set, crudely made tumblers, as he poured the Scotch and then soda.
“How does the quality of glass matter in this circumstance?” he said cheerily to himself, then handing over a glass to my husband said “What matters is the good company, isn’t it. In any case, we’re better off with these obscure glasses, as alcohol consumption is prohibited on trains I think.”
“Ah yes!” my husband replied, as he took the glass from the man.
“I have some red wine for you ladies, if you’d like” Mr. Sen Verma announced, looking at me. “I always carry some on trips like this by train.”
Mrs. Sen Verma and I hesitantly nodded our consent. Her husband poured us red wine, into two more of the crude glasses from the sideboard. Then following Mr. Sen Verma, who raised his glass, we toasted to new friendship.
“Our daughter and son-in-law are both doctors in New Jersey. They have a daughter” Mrs. Sen Verma said to me softly, nostalgically, bringing us back to where our conversation had been interrupted by the ticket checker.
“Ah, I see.” I smiled. “So you have a granddaughter, and only one daughter?”
“Yes, in fact she’s like you,” Mr. and Mrs. Sen Verma said spontaneously, in unison, as I looked from one to the other surprised.
The way they looked at me, their eyes aglow, it was like I was really their daughter. I suddenly felt inexplicably drawn to them as well.
“You know, our daughter Swagata, is the warmest, liveliest person, so full of life and love” Mr. Sen Verma continued, then looking into my eyes tenderly he added “She is a lot like you, even looks the same.”
I do not know what it was – the wine, lulling motion of the train, coziness of the coupe, or my just leaving home in Kolkata, tears welled up in my eyes. With a large swig of wine, its warmth permeating my throat and gut, I smiled warmly at him. Mr. and Mrs. Sen Verma then consecutively described their life in New Jersey very enthusiastically. My husband and I listened as they told us about their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Their descriptions were vivid and so was their love. They showed us pictures of the family, bringing their descriptions to life for us.
On viewing their daughter’s picture, I realized the connection with her. Something about her eyes, facial expressions, smile, were like my own. Like me, she had an oval long face, large black eyes, a generous mouth and straight long hair. We seemed about similar height, same built, perhaps age too. Having warmed up to the elderly couple, I told them about my parents; of my life in Kolkata before marriage and moving to Chennai four years back. As always, it was such a pleasure talking about my father, our time together. Mrs. Sen Verma, whom I was seated beside and turned to, abruptly took my face in her hands, looking into my eyes, as though looking into my soul searchingly. Could it be she was comparing with her daughter’s, I thought. I smiled warmly, letting her find her answers in my eyes. Their stories, illustrating their love for their daughter, her family, had stirred emotions I had squashed since my father’s sudden demise, my marriage the next year without him to give me away, then leaving mother to move to Chennai. It is so much easier to talk to strangers, share one’s innermost feelings, like we were exchanging intimate stories now.
At 9 pm, a waiter knocked, he announced dinner. The men had finished two drinks each by now. We ladies had finished our single glasses of wine. The waiter brought in individual trays of soup, bread-sticks, along with toast and butter. After about fifteen minutes, wherein we finished our soup, a cream of tomato, the waiter cleared the trays. He then brought in the first course of our dinner – fried fish fillets with baked potato and sautéed vegetables, for three of us non-vegetarians; stuffed-capsicum with baked-beans and sautéed vegetables for my husband, who prefers to eat vegetarian. The main course of roast chicken or cottage cheese rissole, pasta and boiled vegetables, followed. During the meal, Mr. and Mrs. Sen Verma’s attention was on my husband, in learning about his work, his writing, life and upbringing in Kanpur, followed by his moving to Delhi, then Chennai.
By the time the dessert course of kesar-pista ice cream was served, we were like a family, sharing a cozy meal together at home. It was after long that I had this familiar warm feeling, since my father’s demise. Somehow, at meals with my in-laws, it is not the same yet. Perhaps my newness in the family, the feeling of being the daughter-in-law not the daughter, restricts my letting my guard down, to be able to relax like now. After the waiters cleared the trays, husband and I stood up to leave, to retire for the night.
“Thank you!” my husband said. “We had such a wonderful time.”
“Thank you, so much” I added. “Someday I would really love to meet your daughter. I’m certain we will hit it off instantly. Don’t you think?”
The Sen Verma’s looked at me in silence, for what seemed like eternity. I was unable to withdraw from their tender gazes, through my own forlorn misty eyes.
“Our daughter and her family are no more” Mr. Sen Verma said very softly, breaking away from my gaze, looking away. “All are gone. They died in a car crash five years back. But to us she is as alive as she ever was.”
Slowly as his words registered in my mind’s eye, I stared at him in shock, tears spurt from my eyes. I hugged Mr. Sen Verma silently, affectionately, like I once did my father. The look he gave me as I slowly withdrew from his embrace could only be that of a father’s. I embraced Mrs. Sen Verma feeling her warmth in my soul. Brushing the tears from my cheeks, I strolled back to our coupe, along with my husband. I lay on my berth, feeling the rhythmic movement of the trains accelerated chugging, reliving events of the evening in my head, but more the events from a lifetime with my father. After long I dozed off. We were woken at 5 am, by a knock on our door by the attendant, just as the train pulled into Kanpur Central station.