Fifty years ago, I was a young college student taking a long train trip to central India. It was a bit of an adventure. I was born in Nagpur and lived some initial years there. Now my family lived in Kolkata, but, come vacation time, we traveled often to Nagpur to visit my aunts who lived and worked there. What made it an adventure in my mind this time was I was traveling alone for the first time. My mother had some concerns, but my father sided with me and felt I could do it without a mishap.
He had offered to come with me to the railway station, but I insisted that I would take a bus by myself. I said my suitcase was small and light, but the real reason was I wanted to feel mature enough to do it all by myself. The huge crowd waiting for the train was intimidating; it seemed the whole town was going west. When the train came, the jostle-and-shove to board was awful. What saved me was that the porter I had hired, a wiry and sturdy man with a blue shirt and a red turban, nimbly jumped into the compartment, occupied a seat and then hollered for me to follow his athletic feat. I fought my way in and gratefully took the seat he offered. This apparently was the protocol for securing a seat in an unreserved compartment.
After I had paid and generously tipped my lithe savior, I heaved a sigh of relief and looked for a way to store by my light-but-not-so-small suitcase that stood awkwardly in the passage. Where to put it? The upper bunk was packed with myriad suitcases, bags and bundles. I spotted a small opening next to a green suitcase, but I needed to move it to a side before my blue baggage could fit.
I didn’t want an angry reaction from the owner of the dislodged suitcase. I faced the other passengers near me and meekly asked whose suitcase it was. It was then that I noticed the person who answered. She was a young woman with a long braid of hair, with an open book in her hands. She wore a plain white sari with a green border that matched her green blouse. As she agreed to let me move her suitcase, with a quiet smile, no less, she seemed winsome to me, despite the serious look her rimless glasses gave her.
I thanked her and, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, asked her what she was reading. I had a surprise when she let me see the book. It was a collection of Rabindranath’s stories, in English. When I wondered what had interested her to read it, I got to know more about her.
That got us talking for a while, for I immediately recognized six of the stories that I had read in Bengali. I loved the way she talked. She spoke softly, modestly, but there was no mistaking her firm perceptions about the characters. When I jokingly said that she reminded me of the heroine in a Rabindranath novel, she eagerly wrote down the title of the book, meaning to locate it.
I was so wrapped in the conversation that I had forgotten my mother had packed some sandwiches for me. When the other passengers started on dinner, I offered to share my sandwiches with her. She seemed to have better stuff and she graciously shared her provisions with me.
I don’t know how long we talked, but I remember that all the passengers went to sleep one by one. We attracted attention as we kept talking, but we lowered our voices. The lights dimmed. A cool breeze came through the windows. She passed me one end of the long shawl that she had at one point wrapped around her shoulder. I felt close to her.
We were tired but we didn’t want to stop our exchanges. She would whisper a comment and I would whisper back. By then we were muttering just a few words, less to say anything than to tell the other that we were there for the other. That is my strongest recollection of the quiet, magnetic person I had met by chance.
When I woke, the train had stopped at some station and other passengers were ordering tea from hawkers on the platform. She was still sleeping. I had a cup of tea by myself.
She had clearly not slept much at the wedding house, and came awake late as the train was entering a junction station where it would stop for twenty minutes. We both ordered a modest lunch and ate together.
When the train entered the large Nagpur station in the afternoon, there was the typical bedlam of passengers, porters and people who had come to collect their relatives or friends. I saw her surrounded by four persons eagerly collecting her green suitcase and her handbag, while I was being hugged by my aunts. We looked at each other. Did she make a gesture to say she was still thinking of me? It seemed so, but I wasn’t sure.
I never saw her again. I never again spoke a word to her. We had been innocently negligent to share contact details. Yet, even after fifty years, there remains the vivid, enduring memory of a pretty woman, with a long braid, who wore a white sari and spoke softly but surely, and reminded me of a sad, self-possessed heroine of an unforgettable novel.