Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The One With You

I went through the reservation chart pasted by the door of the train compartment. The TTE (train ticket examiner) smiled.
‘You have the compartment nearly all to yourself, sir…just the two at the other end.’
‘What a pity!’ I said with feigned grief. The last thing I wanted was bad company, say, a noisy family with kids and packs of food.
‘I will try to get you interesting company, if I find any.’
We laughed together at the usual promise. I entered the compartment.
I got some work done before dinner. The attendant made my bed, or should I say berth, after that. He seemed happy with the tip. He warned me that there would still be a collection round the next morning. He wished me good night and left. I returned to my work.
He did not return that night, not even to lay the bed for the other who got in at the next station, around half past ten.
‘Are you a writer?’
‘Not really…just time-pass,’ I said.
It was not the first time and it would not be the last, but some company just hits off on the right note, how exactly I can’t say, but like the other similar encounters, I knew it would be a good long night of chatting.
We talked about books. We did not have much in common. It was worse in music. “Hotel California” came up, and the talk of satanic verses around that. Movies and television shows turned out to be “our thing”. It was good ol’ English stuff mostly, some domestic stuff thrown in to discuss plagiarism. We did not touch politics, not until later and even then it was not exactly about politics.
We laughed a lot. It was the laugh that really made me connect, with hindsight. Sincere, it reached the eyes and those were beautiful eyes.
I knew we would get to the personal stuff. How many times have I confessed all my sins to some poor soul traveling with me? It always started with family and ended with love.
This time, it started with love. This time, the other took the lead.
‘I was very young then, just into my teens, and love was not even a top priority then. She came to me.’
I watched those eyes. A small laugh entered those, quickly followed by sadness, the two lingered. I listened for long without uttering a word.
‘We were in some crowd, a cultural festival or something of that sort. Even today, I remember the way she looked at me. It was as if she had always known me, it was also as if she had known we could never be together. Her smile had joy and sorrow. She held my hand. I guess you know how that feels, when a love’s hand is in yours, the soft grip firmly hanging on, how it tugs at your heart.’
I nodded.
‘When did you first fall in love? How was it?’
‘Eighteen, nineteen…’ I said, ‘I think I fell in love because I felt it was time I fell in love. Either that or I thought she seemed like a worthy catch.’
‘It was somewhat like that for me…after her. There was the first lust at first. All I can remember is her body. I had a name for her then. When we met, she knew my name and all that I had was a name which I couldn’t use because it was so obviously lust-fuelled.’
We laughed.
‘Then, I had what I might call my first love. No woman has ever been so honest. Sadly, for me not for her, it remained absolutely platonic. I just could not think of her sexually. But I would still call it my first love.’
I enjoyed listening without having to say much about myself, watching the eyes light up, dim, and the hands so expressive.
‘Then, there was the one who must have been a true love. I blamed myself when she died. I later blamed her for keeping me away.’
I was confused. Which her? But, I did not interrupt.
‘There was the comic tragedy after that,’ the laugh turned bitter, ‘to be expected to love a woman I knew I could never love. God, that was cruel.’
We slipped into a long silence.
Then it came, the question, out of the blue. ‘What do you ask when you meet someone?’
‘How are you?’ I said.
‘You should ask…who is the one with you?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Do you know why people are scared of ghosts?’
I shook my head.
‘They never leave you. She never left me. At times, it is like she is me. People have noticed it. When I am so different, kind and angry and sincere and so trustworthy, I really am not like that usually. Give me that paper.’
I handed over the day-old newspaper tucked in the side-pocket of my backpack.
‘Look at his eyes,’ I looked at that frequent face, ‘the smile, even his anger, never reaches there. It is so empty. He is a person with no one with him. All you can see is a vacuum, the lingering danger, the darker stuff yet to be unleashed.’
‘What’s or who’s in my eyes?’ I asked.
‘You tell me.’
We laughed.
Did we sleep that night? Did we touch? We did not have to.
The next morning, the attendant woke me up with my breakfast. The other berth was empty by then. I stood up and stretched while the attendant arranged the tray and laid out my breakfast. The TTE appeared.
‘I will be getting off next station. Sorry I could not find you decent company this time too.’
We laughed.
I was surprised. I had heard the sincere laugh from last night. I turned to look at myself in the mirror. I saw sadness along with the smile in my eyes.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Coffee With Another

Everything would have been fine if I had not been thirty minutes early. But, she had mentioned in our last call that she might finish off her tasks early.

There I was, on the opposite side of the road, in front of Shalimar Hotel, staring at the Fidalgo, our agreed meeting point. I saw my wife sitting within Fidalgo coffee shop, with a strange man. I did not know what to do. I do not know how long I stood there staring at them.

I did not hear the woman's words till she repeated it. I do not know how long she had stood by my side staring at the same scene.

'Is that your wife?' she asked, her head tilting towards them.
I nodded.
'That's my husband,' she said. There was anger in her eyes. 'We should do something.'
'Let's have coffee too,' she said.

We went to the coffee-shop of Shalimar Hotel. Minus the two glass walls and the road, we could have been two couples sitting at the same table, my wife and that man, this woman and I. I ordered a latte. She had an expresso and a slice of apple pie. I did wonder how she could eat at such a moment.

Fifteen or twenty minutes went by. Then, the man turned his head. He saw us. He got up angrily, his chair falling backwards. My wife saw me too. The man came out of Fidalgo, raced across the road, not minding the traffic screeching to a halt or the loud curses. He entered Shalimar. He came to our table, mad with rage, nearly frothing at his mouth.

'What the f***?' he snarled at me and his wife. His wife got up defiantly. Before she could say a word, he said, "Don't you utter a word!"

He grabbed her hand and they walked away. My wife got to the table then.

All she had to say was, 'Aha! So, she left you to pay the bill, huh? I too had to pay. That creep had two chicken puffs, one samosa and a chai. What do you have to say about that?'


Quote from the reference: "I'm a 52-year-old, white, college educated, atheist, left-wing, married woman ... and there's no way I would have a one-on-one meal/drink with a man who was not my husband. Not even a Starbucks."

Moral of the story: Enjoy coffee on your own. If your spouse agrees to pay, take her/him along.