An Encounter with a Stranger

 

This took place when we were newly married. My father-in-law had a job which involved transfers every few years and we made an attempt to go and visit my in-laws whenever we could avail leave from our respective jobs. That particular summer they were posted at a place quite far from where we lived. While we took a flight on our way out, we decided to take the train on the way back. It was not a short trip by any standards. It involved a 72 hour journey across the country, but we were young and enthusiastic, there were no children in our household at that point, and we set out on the train journey as if on some adventure.

We boarded the train that morning after a hearty breakfast. After a lot of debating we had opted to spend the extra money and book ourselves into an air-conditioned coach rather than a non air-conditioned one. Many a moment we were glad we had decided to do so as it was peak summer and the heat would have been suffocating during the three day journey. As we settled ourselves into the coach, which was to be our home for the next 72 hours, we looked around curiously at our co-travellers.

There were four berths in that cubicle, which had a thick curtain at the entrance, giving it the impression of a small room when pulled across. One was already occupied by a middle-aged man when we entered the train. He smiled pleasantly at us and made every attempt to co-operate as we arranged our luggage under the berths. As we sat exchanging basic pleasantries like names and destinations, we also remarked about the fourth empty berth.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity and a group of about five people entered our little cubicle. There were two women and a man, probably in their mid thirties, and another couple in their twenties. Each carried a piece of luggage of some size. My eyes widened when I realized that they were about to settle those luggage in our cubicle. My husband and I looked at each other silently, wondering how these five people were going to fit themselves into this berth meant for one. After they had settled the luggage, they smiled at us and all but one left the compartment. After sometime, one of the women returned with an elderly man in tow. In his eighties, the gentleman still had a twinkle in his eye. He was settled into the single empty berth and then the lady turned to us and explained that their entire family of about a dozen people were travelling to Mumbai to attend a wedding. While they were all in the adjoining non air-conditioned coach, they had opted to splurge the extra money required to procure a berth in an air-conditioned coach for the oldest member of their family. When the train gave a jerk, signalling the beginning of the journey, she requested us to keep an eye on him and let them know if anything was required. She soon left to join the rest of the family in the adjoining coach through the connecting passage.The octogenarian was a gregarious individual and we had soon struck up a conversation with him. By early evening I noted that every couple of hours, a family member came by to give him something to eat and drink, or if nothing else, then to sit and talk with him. By next day it became apparent that his youngest son-in-law was the most frequent visitor. Not only did he come by often but his visits stretched longer with every visit. I soon realized that he wasn’t coming over to check on his father-in-law out of concern, but mainly due to the fact that the coach we were in was an air-conditioned one. He would come into the coach, inquire with his father-in-law if all was well and then promptly climb up to the upper berth and snatch a nap. Other than pick a fight over the issue, there was little we could do to stop him, and as it was such a long journey , we were hesitant to kick up a fuss. By the evening of the second day, the old gentleman had got comfortable with us and chatted about his origins and life. We exchanged many a story and in the course of these he told us with a twinkle in his eye that his youngest son-in-law was a bit of a scoundrel and there was nothing he could do about it because of his daughter.

That bit was proved to us the next morning when we stopped at a junction. It was a ten minute halt and most people alighted to stretch their legs and pick some snacks and meals. When the train stopped at the station, the old man was napping and his afore-mentioned son-in-law was sitting next to him, reading a newspaper. On seeing the station roll by, he quietly but deftly picked out a hundred rupee note peeping out of his father-in-law’s shirt pocket and slipped out to the station. When he turned and saw the rest of us watching him, he put a finger to his lips and smiled. It all happened so quickly that I thought I had imagined it. I glanced at my husband and could see that even he had witnessed what had happened. On his way out he asked us to tell his father-in-law that he would be back later in the day. The elderly man woke after the train left the station. After a while we could see him patting his shirt pocket, probably trying to locate the money which he had kept there. My husband casually asked him what he was looking for? Agitatedly, he replied that he had kept a hundred rupees in his pocket for personal expenses and now couldn’t locate it. It was a difficult moment for us. We were in a quandary. We could see the agitation on the face of the elderly man in front of us. Yet we could not just tell him that it was his own son-in-law who had snitched that money. My husband and I looked at each other and silently reached a consensus not to disclose the fate of that money. The next time someone from his family came over, he asked them to help him search for the missing money. It was an unpleasant situation to be in, but we had no option but to remain silent.

When we finally reached our destination, the old man was so happy to be in our company for the three days it had taken us to travel the distance, that he invited us to join in the wedding celebration a couple of days after. My husband and I had got fond of this sprightly old man and agreed to do so readily. We did attend the wedding reception. And that was it. Neither party kept in touch. The old man became part of a regular train journey. But even now after two decades, whenever I think of train journeys I have taken, this one never fails to cross my mind. And what stands out is the sly expression of the son-in-law in that moment when he was pulling out the hundred rupee note.

 

 

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Rishikesh

Beginning of a much awaited,and much needed holiday. Albeit a short one,but a welcome one. Destination: Rishikesh. About 250kms from Delhi.

 

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Pahalwan dhaba. Food served fit for a pehalwan. Crisp,stuffed parathas,topped with fresh makkhan (butter)…and served with fresh dahi (yoghurt). Complete only with freshly made crispy jalebis and milky masala tea.

 

 

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We passed many big and small towns on the way. All decorated to entice shoppers just one day prior to Diwali.

 

 

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Bull’s Retreat. Our home for the three days we spent in Rishikesh. Homely and welcoming, Named after Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar, soldier-explorer-mountaineer-adventurer, Bull Kumar goes by so many descriptions, it’s hard to pin him down! The “Bull” moniker comes from his cadet days with reference to his fierce resolve, and muscular build. And it has stayed with him ever since.

Seen here also is the resident dog, Aasa, a gentle, friendly and amicable creature. Easy to be with and happy to give company.

 

 

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Bonfire bonhomie. Cool pleasant evening. Good wine. Better company. Crackling fire.

 

 

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The Ganges or the Ganga. Mother Ganga to Indians. Cleanser of souls. Prayers are offered to her every evening. The Ganga Aarti is famous and attracts most visitors. Even if one isn’t particularly religious, the calm atmosphere is contagious. Sitting on the steps next to the Ganga, one finds oneself introspecting involuntarily.

 

 

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These are little leaf baskets filled with flowers, also holding incense sticks and nestling a tiny tub of camphor. As dusk approaches, one is supposed to light the camphor squares and then gently release the baskets of flowers into the river, thereby offering our prayers to the Ganges.

 

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The rounded rocks, stones and pebbles on the riverbed, and alongside the river just beckon you to come and sit on them. To dangle your feet in the oh! so deliciously cool water. One wonders what stories these stones would tell if they could speak.

 

 

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Rishikesh, sometimes nicknamed “Yoga Capital of the World”,has numerous yoga centres that attract tourists. It is believed that meditation in Rishikesh brings one closer to attainment of moksha, as does a dip in the holy river that flows through it.Sure enough, on one of our walks , we came across this group  practicing yoga on the riverside.

Game of Shadows

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This image begged to be captured! I had been cooking lunch, and after setting the large pot of curry to simmer, went out to the living room to fetch something. As I turned from the sitting area, I was stopped in my path by this stark image on the wall.

This is the wall facing my kitchen door.which is the arch one can see in the picture. The light which puts the grills of the kitchen window in prominence has been reflected off a car parked on the side opposite my apartment building. The shimmery effect and the squares of highlight was the steam rising from that pot of curry simmering on the cooking range.

The play of shadow and light was so dramatic that I just had to shoot a picture. And yet I could see that I hadn’t managed to capture the magical shimmer that the steam had created on the wall, just like the ripples of a gentle, gurgling stream.

When one thinks of perfect…one imagines that it means there will be nothing ever like this. But when one is referring to nature, it is full of thousands of such perfect moments, most of them at the most unexpected places.

 

 

Where did you lose your smile?

She paused in the doorway of the huge room, and got the reaction she had expected. Everyone stopped doing and saying whatever they had been doing and saying for a full second, so perfect did she look as she stood there.

Every strand of hair in place.

Eyes perfectly made up.

The rouge on her cheek bones hinting at the exact shade of a blush.

Her dew lips just begging to be kissed.

Back ramrod straight, she wore a dress which clung lovingly to her every curve.

A perfect picture she made.

But wait.

Had the twinkle in her eyes died in the heat of the hair dryer?

And what had happened to her nose?

Was it naturally upturned or had she learnt to turn it up at the salon as she sat getting her manis and pedis?

Did she lose her smile when she took off her mask after her facial?

Where did you lose your smile, oh my darling?!

 

Markers of Time

Contrary to my heading, this is no philosophical jotting. Instead, its quite the opposite. It is a bit of my daily schedule which I am sure many of us share. My day begins around 5.45 am. By the time I meander into the kitchen, after washing out the sleep from my eyes, its 6am. The best way to know if I am on schedule is to glance out of the kitchen window. I don’t need to look at the kitchen clock which is to my right. If I look straight ahead out of the kitchen window, I can see the little boy from the next building waiting by the side of the road, waiting for his school bus with his mother. Yes, there is his bus which rolls by at exactly 6.05!

The next school bus to whiz by is the one whose rattle I can hear before I can see it. This is at 6.20. This is the time by which I have started preps for my daughters school lunch.

6.45am Another school bus goes by signalling that its time for me to poke my daughter out of bed.

7.20am Yet another school bus goes by, marking the time when I get breakfast started.(So many school buses! Whew!)

Mind you, I don’t need to look at the kitchen clock the entire morning. I just keep track of the buses. The flip side being that if by any chance any of these buses are late, it will put my entire schedule out of gear.

When my daughter and I step out at 7.50am we know we are on schedule when we cross paths with a lady who we have concluded is a teacher at a nearby school. I have used the word, ‘concluded’ as my daughter and I have never spoken to this lady but have reached this conclusion based on daily observation of dressing style and the books she carries in her arms.

My day is interspersed with many such markers of time. So many of these have been around for so long, that I take it for granted that they will be around forever. This is probably the reason I rarely wear a watch and even on that rare occasion that I do, I forget to glance at my wrist for the time.

 

When the chick flies the nest

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We dropped off our first born at his university yesterday. My first chick flew our nest. As I hugged him and said my goodbyes till his mid-term break, my throat was thick with unshed tears. I got into the car and could feel this tug on my heart. As we headed away from the campus, I realized that the tug I had felt was not a new sensation. It wasn’t an alien one, but on the contrary a familiar one. I had felt it many times before.

When I had left him in the care of a baby sitter when I first went back to work after his birth.

When I first put him into the bus,which would take him to nursery school on his own.

When I dropped him off for his first sleepover at my parents’.

When he crossed the road first time on his own with me standing to one side keeping a keen eye on him.

When he took an auto rickshaw to go to his friend’s house alone.

When he stayed out for an evening with his friends and returned home around mid-night.

Somewhere along all these years we both, my son and I  have been unconsciously readying  ourselves for this day. Testing his wings. And I know when my 12 year old reaches the day, when she too flies the nest, my heart will go through the same motions all over again. Today more than any other day my father’s words ring true. When my son was an infant he had told me in a very positive manner, ” Consider yourself to be your children’s caretaker and nurturer, not their owner. It will be easier to let them fly when the time comes.”

The lessons in letting go comes in different packages, but by far this is the toughest of them all. After all didn’t someone once say,” having a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

 

 

A Moment

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As I went to my window to draw the shades, I glanced out onto the road. There at my gate I saw this little tableau which captured my attention. A group of four women sat very close to the gate. Comfortable and engrossed in their conversation. If proposed to one, the setting was hardly a comfortable one, and the location and facilities the most inconvenient, but there they sat, as if seated in a well-recommended restaurant. These are women who work as housemaids in half a dozen households in our area. Most of them average four to five households a day, beginning work at around 8.30 in the morning and winding up only by 6 in the evenings. Here they had gathered after a hard day’s work. This was probably the only bright patch in their day when they met their friends in the same situation, before they each headed home to prepare dinner for their waiting families and do their own housework before retiring for the day. As snatches of their conversation drifted up to me, I realized that they were having a cheerful conversation about the latest film which had been released and riling one of their friends about something. They looked genuinely relaxed and happy for that moment.

On some days the most mundane scenario makes one revisit some basic rules for a happy mind. Watching them,I thought once again how important it is to find at least one happy moment to appreciate in a day. And while some may think….one? ,one realises when one has to actually practice it on a regular basis, there are days when even that one moment comes to mind with great difficulty.