Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Strangers on a Train

(Genre: Semi-Autobiographical Fiction, Warning: Long)

We had met earlier.

That was on the train going home. We didn't "meet" really. She came to the compartment I was sitting in, to meet a family she knew. From their conversation, I understood she came from the same town as I did, and was doing an MBA in Delhi - that was rare, and hearing that, I looked up from my book. I could see only her side profile - she looked nice. She was wearing a fairly conventional sweatshirt and jeans. In a minute, she left and I returned to my book. I didn't even know whether she had noticed me.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of some spare time will fantasize about the girls he meets. I have spent countless hours daydreaming of a life with several different girls, some whom I might have only spent an hour with. There is just too much of Bollywood in me to resist it. But coming back to the story, in this case, there was nothing to go on with, I hadn't even seen her face. So, I had to return to my book.

Three weeks later, we met again.

I was going back to Delhi, as was she. My parents had come to drop me as had hers. As it turned out, they knew each other, and our seats were in the same compartment (this is not such a coincidence actually, the business community in our small town is pretty well-integrated, and all seats from a particular station are booked in the same compartment). I didn't recognize her at first - didn't have much time to.

We were supposed to catch a connecting train to another station, where we would board our train to Delhi. Usually, it is a simple affair - we catch a train at our station, and it drops us at the other station in 30 minutes or so, with more than an hour to spare. But, on this day, due to the fog, the train at our station was delayed, and the onward train was not. So we had to take a cab.

I quickly went outside, bargained with a driver and came back to pick my luggage. By this time, like all self-respecting small town businessmen, our parents had agreed that the two of us would share a cab, to split the cost. "Pretend that you know each other so as to not arouse the driver's suspicion", her father laughed. I smiled politely, paid my respects and left. She was already on her way to the taxi.

We got in. I smiled at her, she smiled back. She was not bad to look at, darkish, well-rounded face, and big eyes. Slightly plumpish, but as Snoop Dogg would say, "I like ma woman with sum meat on 'er". Some pockmarks, but a very nice smile and an overall pleasant look. I asked her what she did - an answer I already knew. I told her what I did. She was impressed, I was glad that she was. She asked me about my job, I asked her about her studies. I had my practised lines ready, and they rolled off smoothly. We smiled a lot, and laughed a few times.

I have this habit of advising people on matters concerning their careers. It is almost an addiction, a bad one since it makes me appear condescending, and I have tried to kick it several times, with sporadic success. This time, however, I waited until she asked for some advice. And then, I was short and to-the-point. Evidently, it was good, since she asked for some again on a different matter. I thought, "Wow! This girl likes to hear me speak."

We reached the station with an hour to kill. I got some moongfalis, and we continued our chit-chat. She asked me about my job; I talked about it for a while. We talked about the economy and its impact on the job market. The train arrived and we got on.

Besides us, the compartment had two elderly couples on their way back home and a middle-aged man. We settled down, and were quiet for a while. I took the opportunity to analyse her. She was nice-looking, was a good conversationist, but what I really liked, was the smile. It was full, and was completely participated in by the rest of the face. And most importantly, she showed it often enough in my company.

It was almost two and we decided to have lunch. She opened her pack, I mine and we shared our food. She confessed she didn't know how to cook, I said all I knew was dal-chawal and khichdi, adding a while later, that I could do pasta too. In this way, it continued, I don't remember half of it. We finished our lunch.

We talked of movies, I said I was really hoping to catch Ghajini and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, she said she had seen Rab Ne... and hated it. She had always been in South Campus through grad and post-grad, so we talked of South Delhi. I said I loved going to Priya, she said she hated it. "Because it is so full of guys", she said. I disagreed, but kept my opinion to myself. She loved going to IHC and Dilli Haat, and even though I thought IHC was too pretentious and Dilli Haat too cheesy, I smiled and said I liked both the places, but had been there only a few times. That got her enthu, and she went on for a while about them.

By this time, we were both feeling sleepy, and she said she had been awake till 3 the night before searching for some papers. I got the hint, and suggested we lie down for a bit. We climbed on to our respective seats, and I said sheepishly, "Good night". She smiled.

When I got up, it was 6:30 PM. I looked at her, she was still asleep. I read for a while; and heard her get up. I didn't react, she got down and was busy for a while. After a while, she called me, "Come down". And I did.

We continued talking, among other things, about common friends in our town. Both of us had left several years back, and people whose names sounded familiar and whose faces were a blur, were brought into the conversation. We talked of our town and the changes it had undergone, and what the future heralded.

She was smart, and well-articulated. With most girls, my conversations have been very monologue-like. Either I go on and on, or am too tongue-tied to speak. With her, it was different. I waited my while to speak, she did too. I was funny, and she laughed. There were gaps in the conversation, but were broken naturally. It was comfortable.

It grew very dark. We had our dinner. After a while, the lights were switched off. The train was due to arrive in Delhi at 5 AM, and the entire train went off to sleep for the night. We tried to continue talking, but slowly became aware that we were disturbing others. Then she asked if I wanted to watch a movie; I said, "Sure". And she took out her laptop, and a pair of earphone. I browsed through her laptop, and came across South Park. I looked at her incredulously. She smiled, and said she had just started watching the series and loved it. I grinned.

We started watching Season 3. She had one earphone and I had the other. I was very aware that we were next to each other shoulder-to-shoulder, but she was comfortable, and slowly I forgot too. We laughed silently and kept watching one episode after the other, finishing the entire season. By that time, both had started feeling drowsy and the laughs had become infrequent. I suggested we go to sleep, and she agreed. "Good night, sweet dreams", I said.

I couldn't fall asleep. In all these years, I have hardly "clicked" with anyone. Most chances have been disasters, and even the few that went ahead turned out to be false alarms, eventually. I blame myself for it, sometimes the person overawed me, sometime the occasion did. But mostly, it was my own nature. Regardless of what I truly thought I was like, I came across as insensitive, creepy, dishonest, and it pained me. So, I had given up trying; resigned to let my parents find some girl for me, whose life I would probably go on to destroy.

But now I decided to retake the initiative. I would ask this girl out. I liked her, she didn't seem to despise me. I would wait for the right moment in the morning, and do it. Maybe, I could drop her to her hostel, and arrange to meet again. It could be done, why not!

And on that note, I went to sleep.

I woke up and looked outside. It was very foggy. It was 5, but the train was nowhere near Delhi. It had been delayed by a few hours. She was up too. I said "Good Morning", and we exchanged information about the train's delay. We figured we were about 4 hours late. Good, I thought, I have more than enough time to make my move. We busied ourselves for a bit, before settling down again.

She asked me what my future plans were, and I told her the truth, that I didn't have a clue, but wanted to do something good, and leave a legacy. I asked her about hers, and she said, she always wanted to run a shop, maybe get into retail now. I also said I wanted to travel a bit, and see the world. She said loved Pune and wanted to settle there.

We had refrained from discussing our personal lives as yet. I didn't have anything to say, and for some reason, was loathe to ask her about hers. I would find out eventually, anyway.

We had a bit of namkeen and biscuits. The fog was still thick but the train was making good progress, and we neared Delhi. I decided to make my move.

"How will you get to the hostel?", I asked.

"Oh! Don't worry. I'll get there", she said dismissively.

"Oh!, but I can drop you if you need me to. It's on the way", I said quickly.

"Well, I have a friend coming to pick me up", she said slowly, and smiled.

"Oh!". I got the message.

"Haven't spent 5 years in Delhi for nothing, have I?", she said and smiled.

To say I was hurt would be wrong. I hadn't invested any emotions in it yet, and the only feeling I had was the one similar to seeing Australia defeat New Zealand in a close match. Stacked against odds, to come so close and lose. That's the kind of feeling I had. I recovered quickly.

"Good", I said.


The train pulled in. We exchanged good-byes and I rushed out. We didn't even exchange phone numbers or email ids.


Captain Subtext said...

Completely ignoring the disclaimer that is part of the genre specification at the beginning, how difficult would it be to contact her anyway, if she is from your town, which is as small as you say it is.
Carpe Diem, or Carpe Dame, or whatever!

Nice story.

Wanderer said...

[captain subtext] this is inspired from actual events, and reality being different, the answer to your question is in the negative

this is being written more to develop a writing style in preparation for my essays

please to give critical comments on the writing style:
1. does the story interest you?
2. does it come across as credible?
3. does it tell you something about the protagonist?
4. where does the plot weaken, become loose? other mistakes? other improvements?
5. what all can be done to make it more interesting?