The Summer Train

Kava eyed the big black bag that her Dadi had brought from the market. Sudha caught her from toppling into it. She whined “I want the biggie biggie ball, Amma”. “They are not balls they are grapefruits, Bobo”. Sudha picked her up with the motive of distracting her but she wiggled and coiled and slipped out from her hands. The door bell rang just in time and Kava leapt to open it. She lifted herself from the toes and clicked the latch slowly opening the heavy door. The courier guy extended the paper to Sudha for signing and gave the envelopes to Kava. This give and take procedural transaction amused her. Every time she opened the door there stood a new face extending something interesting.

Sudha decided to take the train this time. She wanted to do it for her own sake. She ignored all the comments that her friends had made about getting her daughter to do potty on a moving train. And her mother in law’s concern about securing her while they would be asleep at night. All this seemed trivial to her. Don’t hundreds and thousands of middle class travel on the Indian railways everyday. Her mother never lost her when they took their annual trips to Kerala every summer.

Days long journey to Kannur through the arid Indian terrain marked the beginning of summer for her. Her father would explain the geology of the rocks and the rain shadow of the Deccan. It would generally be a monologue. She would write down the names of stations and rivers in a free pocket-sized diary. After the nightfall she would delegate this job to her father.

Until she became old enough, she slept with her mother on the same berth. She would sleep with her head on the side of her mother’s legs and they accommodated themselves. She wondered if her mother had washed her legs after going to the lavatory and with such thoughts would transcend into sleep. She would wake up in the morning and inquire if the job was done. Looking at the empty lines in the diary she would look for her father, who would still be asleep on the top berth. Her mother would insist not to wake him up and explain, “Who boards the train at night? The driver didn’t stop because he didn’t see anybody waiting on the platform.” Young Sudha would be perplexed but would fake a convinced look.

Even though she did the bookings a month ago, there was no confirmation as of yet. She decided not to bother with it. It is only February, no where close to Onam or Vishu. It isn’t time for vacation yet. Foreigners would have come and gone in the month of December or January.

“Why should it not get confirmed? I see no reason why?” She told Rahul, upon his inquiry.

“Yeah? I can book the flights it’ll not take time, that is if you want me to.” Rahul said looking away to conceal his concern.

Sudha kept on checking the IRCTC website for updates. She had convinced herself that the website have forgotten to update their tickets. When self doubt seem to dawn she decided to use the tatkal option. The morning she had to book the tickets she woke up early enough to finish making tea and Kava’s breakfast. She placed her laptop along side a cup of tea and waited for the time to pass. She logged in exactly at ten and typed in the abbreviations, LTT for Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and she typed in KPQ in the arrival space for Kannapuram. This is a small town in the Kannur district of North Kerala. The railway station at Kannapuram had only two platforms. There is no overpass and passengers were legally expected to cross the railway tracks if they arrive at platform no. 2. Sudha didn’t mind all this. The one and only one ticket window with no conspicuous queue in front of it. Empty precast benches no one eager to sit seemed to her that enough was provided for the populous here.

Multiple attempts to log in had locked her out. She cursed the website and feared if her father in law had heard her. She called Rahul.

“I don’t understand why they want to tormet me.”

“Who?” Rahul sounded worried.

“The IRCTC people. I logged in time but the website got stuck. So I closed it and logged in again. I did that couple of times, but anyway long story short. We don’t have time, can you book the tickets through tatkal?”

Sudha’s phone buzzed. The sms read, “its done”. Relieved she began packing again. There wasn’t much to pack, atleast for herself. She had enough clothes in the cupboard where her mother dutifully kept a rack clear for her. Clothes that seemed out of style or the ones that her mother in law didn’t approve of to be worn here were stowed there. Even after six years of marriage she had not learnt how to dress up to her mother in law’s satisfaction. Besides packing Kava’s clothes and board books, she had to pack a few packets of powder bought from the Chedda store in Matunga. Soyabean atta, bajri, jowar and big sized green gram, which she had read were very beneficial for diabetics. Her mother has been a type 1 diabetic for the past 20 years. The knowledge of which was guarded like a secret from family and friends, only at the insistence of her mother. Sudha would say “What’s there to hide? People get diseases all the time and some die. What’s the big deal?” But her father always said “She is entitled to her privacy, we should respect that. Moreover what do we gain from telling everyone?”. Sudha’s only worry is how her mother would avoid the sweet tea and payasam during social occasions. People would insist and she would succumb. Sudha’s mother-in-law would always insist to take boxes of motichoor ladoo, kaju katli, gathias or chevadas. But she would merely say, “Now you get all these things there too” thinking life would be easy if only she could speak the truth. Instead she would say “Oh these grapefruits! They don’t get it there”.

Now she was juggling with a couple of mini footballs to pack, so she set the priority. Potty seat, laptop and then the fruit. She set the heavy swollen suitcase out her door, waiting for the driver to carry it down the stairs. “Aa shun? Only one bag?” her father-in-law looked surprised. Sudha always thought it uncool to carry so many bags while traveling. That reminded her of gujarati families and their quintessential behavior of traveling with so many bags filled with farsan. Meanwhile she chose not to comment, where a small smile would do.

Trains were never on time, she remembered from her childhood days. Her parents would talk to their friends about how late the trains were when they got back from their vacation. It was like one of those weather talks, everyone had something to say. Her father would compare notes with Nambiar Uncle.

“We should have arrived at Pune at midnight, but we reached only at 5 in the morning.” her father would say disappointed.

“Oh once you are more than 3 hours late, they will begin to sidetrack you at every station.”

“I know, by the end of the day you will be 12-15 hours late”.

Rahul was checking the reservation chart for their names. He called out their bogie number to Sudha and she began walking down the LTT platform. Kava’s head was perched on her shoulder and she seemed musing at this fairly crowded place. The train was already at the station and the stench of defecation and urine overpowered the air. She dodged the potters riding the big luggage trolley. Freshly arrived migrants from the northern states spread themselves out on the concrete floor. Children of these migrants began begging while they were at it. They eyed Kava, scanning her clothes and her hair clips.

Sudha found the 2 tier AC compartment and stood a bit away to avoid the stench. She tried to put Kava down but she curved her legs and protested. She spotted Rahul from afar, it wasn’t his clothes or his physicalness but something about his walking. He was rather paddling, like those ducks at the Joggers’ Park. Unbothered by what was going around him, his eyes eager to find Sudha’s face in this sea of people. Rahul mostly wore the free conference T-shirts everywhere else but his office. He sported the “JavaLava 2.0 Bangalore 2010”. She hated this T-shirt because it reminded her of the fierce argument both of them had in December that year. Kava had gone beyond her due date, just like her current nature she clung to Sudha’s womb. Despite Sudha’s efforts with yoga and duck walking, the baby seemed happy to stay put. Rahul who had arrived way in advance at his in-law’s house was now getting impatient. The first two weeks seemed like a detoxification routine, breathing in the cleanest air ever in his life. But with Sudha ready to go any moment and no where he could take her, he felt like he was in a house arrest. His only solace was walking down the market where he understood nobody and could not read anything. All the names of the shops were written in curvaceous fonts. There were hardly any people on the roads after sun down. The street lights weren’t sufficient to light themselves. Nights were more darker or so it seemed to him. He was in need of a desperate change from this world which practically seemed stopped to him. Just when he was growing restless the Java conference came up in Bangalore. There was no potential for discussion with Sudha.

“I am not going for entertainment, it is also my work.” he looked into Sudha’s tears filled eyes.

“What? You want to leave me in this condition?” And there she released it causing a deluge from her eyes and nose.

“Well I am attending just two days. And not just that the doc said there’s some waiting still.”

“Did you come all the way to attend this conference?”

“What’s there to worry? Your parents are with you and Bangalore is not far away, just a few hours. Moreover the hospital is only walking distance from here.”

Perhaps Sudha was more worried about what her parents will think of him, leaving her like this. Sudha’s water broke that night when she slept in her bed alone.

Sudha felt her phone in the front pocket, by the time she moved Kava from right to the left hand it was calm. Since the day Kava was born her phone only buzzed. Keeping in mind the increased noise levels around, she toggled her ringer bringing the phone to life. There were already three missed calls from home. She promptly called her mother to say that everything was alright which was her default statement. But her mother wouldn’t settle.

“How is Kava? I want to talk to her.”

“Does she know that she’s coming to meet Ammama and Achchan?” Then followed lots of instructions.

“Don’t give her any food from outside. You can’t even trust the bottled water that they bring in the compartment. They might just fill it from the toilet for all you know.”

“I’ll be careful, don’t worry. Moreover what’s safe for me is safe for her.”

“I don’t know all that but be very careful at night. Don’t you go off to sleep. Wrap a dupatta or something around her and fasten it to your waist.”

“Oh come’on. Am I not standing here and talking to you? Did you ever lose me?”

“Those days were very different and besides we used to travel in sleeper class.”

“Alright, whatever. My hands are aching now. Am keeping the phone.” Sudha attempting to cut short.

“Oh why? Isn’t Rahul there with you?”

“Ofcourse he’s there. Where is he going to go? Bye now.”

She slid the phone into her front pocket and positioned Kava’s dangling head who was fast asleep now. Rahul got into the compartment first with the luggage. His sneakers squeaked on the vinyl flooring of the compartment. They shared their booth with two other Portuguese, who were on a back pack trip to Kerala.

The girl on the side booth looked visibly excited in the company of these caucasians. Looking for every opportunity to make these strangers feel at home. When the food arrived she introduced it with their names and warned them to stir away from the pickle packet. When their ears began ringing with the pungent spices of the curry, she shared some of her shiro. Sudha and Rahul shared a glance and began looking elsewhere.

The tainted glass windows of the AC compartment took all the fun away from Sudha. Everything looked yellow from one side and blue green from the other. She got eager to tell Kava stories that her father used to tell her. But the constant motion and the humming noise of the AC put her to lull.

Rahul killed all the time reading magazines that he usually never got time to read. He would pick up Kava when the hawkers came cooing “kaapi, kaapi”, “wadai wadai, perupu wadai”, sometimes even following them through compartments. Occasionally he got down with her at the stations where the train halted for a longer time. When she got cranky they would simply look around if there were any other toddlers in the train to give her company or just go to the wash basin and wash their hands. She kept on asking for her rocking chair and refused to eat. All the blue curtains in the booth seemed to constrain her. Sudha couldn’t sleep with Kava working out like a rolling pin. She got up before her alarm and looked at the watch, it was 6.10 in the morning. Just then her mother called.

“Hey were you sleeping?”

“No Mom what do you expect?”

“We’ll see you in an hour’s time. You should begin keeping all your luggage near the door.”

“There’s one whole hour. Don’t worry we’ll see you then.”

Kava seemed glad to be up and out of the blue enclosure. Rahul held her in his arms and showed her the paddy fields. She clung to him and giggled when the chill wind blew on her face. Both of their eyes looked puffy, refreshed and Sudha saw their resemblance. While she was wondering why her parents didn’t live few hours away.

They got down at platform number two. While crossing the tracks she saw her father’s car slowly pulling up. Kava was excited to see them and tried to curl around her mother’s legs. She thought her parents looked a tad bit older than last time and was wondering if this feeling was mutual. In the car her father started talking about the politics and weather to which Rahul seemed attentive as usual. Her mother sat next to her in the back seat, so that she could cuddle her granddaughter.

“Mom where can I get a potty seat here? I didn’t pack her’s this time.” Sudha asked her mother.

“Potty seat? I don’t think you get these things here. This is not a big city like yours.”

“You must get it somewhere, at a baby store or something like that. What do kids do here?”

“They just take ‘em to the paddy fields in their backyard.” her father said laughing out loud.

“Why didn’t you get it?” her mother asked.

“Oh there wasn’t much space in the bags. Its kind of a bulky piece.”

“You shouldn’t have packed your clothes.” her mother clarified.

“Its not my clothes, I got you some grapefruits. They are good for you.”

“Grapefruits? Why did you even bother? These things are available now here.”

Sudha rolled the window down and mouthed the fresh air.

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