Disclaimer: This is an absolute work of fiction.
A/N: I considered splitting this chapter into two parts, given it’s length, however, decided that it might break the flow plus it won’t create enough suspense for you all to beg me for the next part 🙃. Just kidding…I sincerely hope it is worth your time. Happy reading and thanks again!
Without my realising it, a couple of anxious months had passed by and softly humming a tune to myself, I clambered my way down the road to the railway station. My footwear pressed softly into the sand leaving a trail of footprints behind, for I had soon ascended the cemented floors of the station, the brick red stretching across, with the railway track running beside as if it was a race no one out of the two could win, or were even willing to, yet couldn’t bear to end. This part of the station was always unusually empty; one would think it wasn’t in Delhi.
Having spent nearly every day with Chetan since our fortunate, or rather as he called it, unfortunate meeting, I’d taken a strange liking to slippers and I clapped my way across to the odd bench placed right at the point marking the middle of the stone platform that continued for a long way ahead. I liked the bench, it was a forlorn one, much like the others in appearance- peeled paint and scribbled handwriting- yet it had a lonely look to it, unlike the others that were always filled with impatient passengers grumbling about the train’s technical delay or sometimes their stomach did the grumbling for them, as I could see was the case with a passenger who was gorging on a samosa that he probably bought from the shop nearby. I never trusted that stuff, it looked os unhygienic. The bench was placed at such a strange location that no passenger could possibly board any of the trains in time if they chose to sit there, and therefore I was attracted to its emptiness. I’d always been known to like things that the crowd didn’t, perhaps the simple side-effects of having lived in a not-so-developed city all my life, or perhaps the ones of not having a life as normal as most kids my age did. After all, they did not whizz about from Haridwar to Delhi and back every few months, or whatever duration circumstances allowed.
For the past few weeks, it had become an unspoken agreement for me and the porter-boy to meet here if we both happened to be at the station at the same time. I’d often find him chewing away at a piece of gum or rolling a cherry seed in his mouth as he stared across the grimy tracks with an expression that would have scared any pigeon away if they chose to look long enough into his chocolate brown eyes with their own red ones, in this case however, the brown ones being scarier when it should have been the other way round. He didn’t mind the fact that they were scared by it, it rather seemed to amuse him. Once, on an impulse, I’d asked him why he hated them so much.
‘When I was five, a pigeon had stolen the toffee that I’d kept aside to eat later, on the railing of our house in Rajasthan. It had pushed it aside with its tawny beak, and giving me a smirk, it had flown off. It was my favourite toffee,’ he’d narrated sadly, clearly still perturbed by the incident. I hadn’t the faintest idea as to what to say after hearing that. I could neither express sympathy nor plight nor amusement, and hadn’t the heart to tell him in his upset mood that pigeons don’t smirk. So much for being an army man’s daughter and knowing what to do when all fails, I couldn’t even mould my face into an expression. It probably looked like my face muscles weren’t voluntary.
In spite of his almost twenty-four seven arrogance, I’d found to be Chetan good company. He was like the brother I never had, and his jokes were certainly better than any other 13 year-old’s that I’d heard, the others being absolutely lethal from much experience. Moreover, what added to my happiness was that dadi seemed to enjoy his presence and that of his father. She told me he reminded her of papa, in many ways- their childhood, their smiles, their army spirit. These few words of hers were enough to cause a storm of emotions in me. I was missing my father terribly.
It had been exactly eight and a half weeks since we’d received the call stating the fact that my father would disappear for the next year or so unless injured, in that case, he’d come home. I was still heartbroken and found melancholy in literally everything I did, his thumbprints seemed to have left traces all over the snow globe that Delhi was. In every corner lay a memory, and for me, pain of the separation.
Earlier, we’d spent every night in Delhi laughing, for he always managed to take out some time out of his busy schedule so he could spend a night or two in the dusty cottage that was our home in Delhi, in spite of having spent almost the entire day with us and having his own duties to take care of. We’d sit on the front porch, perching on bamboo stools and he’d tell me all sorts of tales- ranging from his childhood about how he used to steal sweets from the kitchen, to the time of his training about his fellow colleagues and their escapes from tight corners, and of my childhood about my first words- Bharat, he told me. ‘You made the country proud from birth, Anu,’ he’d say, a smile ever so gentle on his face.
Dadi would laugh heartily, telling me all about his antics and playfulness. It was one of the most beautiful things in the world- sitting on the grass, staring at the moon, and he’d tell me that the one thing that gave him comfort in Delhi was that we both would look at the same moon at night. I’d been using the same tip for the past week to keep me going. I’d stare at the white circle and think of my father, fighting away on the border, every day for him being a thin, blurred line of hope. Did he think of me? Did he miss Delhi? How was our army holding up? Could he be injured? My insides squirmed at the mere thought of it.
His absence was more notable than ever, even the vehicle horns did not oblige to make my life slightly less silent. In the past few weeks, I’d spent many a night stroking his brightly polished trophies, beautifully arranged on the mantel of the drawing room. As a tear would fall onto their shiny surface, I’d be reminded of his triumphant tone when he would tell me all about the wars he’d fought and training in the army. It was like a story that I’d never get tired of hearing about.
‘Someday,’ he’d say, eying a medal that hung on the wall, ‘I’ll hang up your medals on these walls and I’m sure your mother will smile at what a wonderful young woman you turned out to be. She’d be so proud of you, Anu. And of me, for that matter, for taking care of you all by myself.’ He’d give weak chuckle. ‘You’re so much like her.’ I’d hear his voice crack, and the words at the end were mere whispers. It was like his lips were moving, but his heart was doing all of the talking. My father rarely cried, yet the memory of his wife seemed to still hurt him. While he tried to hide it, on many nights while he’d think I was sleeping, I could see him from behind the drawing room curtain,holding her photograph and staring at it, touching it, as if it would allow him to reach out to her, as a tear would fall from his eyelashes to her own long ones on the photograph. It was a void in his heart that would forever remain, yet he was so selfless he gave me love even out of the emptiness. Every morning, after puja, he’d put a white flower in front of her pic and apply tilak on her beautiful forehead, right between her perfectly arched brows, and it seemed to me, she’d smile at him as he did it. Although I never got to know my mother, I often wondered what it would have been like to have one, however felt almost guilty for the thought, thinking about the sacrifices dadi and papa made for me.
As I stood amidst the dust of the station, I wondered whether he would be proud of me right now, with the way I was behaving. I knew the answer was no, yet I could have liked to hear him reply to the question in his sweetly raspy voice, even if it was going to disappoint me, even if it would make me cry. I knew I was not handing the situation well. I felt empty, when I should have been feeling proud of my father for fighting for his country. When I should’ve been praying for our country, I always snuck in a prayer for my father’s well being as well. I felt slightly ashamed yet not enough so to change it all. No distractions seemed to distract me, no matter how hard I tried. I stared at my shoes. They were my favourite ones, papa had bought them from Connaught Place for my birthday. It had been 3 years, yet they were determined to still fit me. Even if they hadn’t, I could have never let them go, for they were made not out of strands of cotton or leather, but memories. Lots of them, weaved together. Woven so tightly would not the fiercest of winds tear them apart, nor would I ever let them. For memories were all that I had with me when the ones creating them with me weren’t.
I suddenly heard a familiar voice behind me, accompanied by the slapping of slippers against the ground. It didn’t take an oracle to figure who it was. Only he was stupid enough to make that much noise, but his stupidity was what made him unique.
I rolled my eyes. Having spent many days together, I’d taught him some basic english words, and he’d insisted on knowing adjectives in the negative so he could use them to insult me. I had once tricked him into calling me smart, yet he was on high alert ever since his father pointed out my tricks to him, because in spite of being on my team, uncle had a habit of ratting the other person out, the other person sometimes being Chetan, at other times, me. He’d learnt the word ignoramus a few weeks back when some foreign tourist was babbling away on the phone, (‘Why were you even eavesdropping?’ I’d asked him, bewildered.) and having learnt the meaning from some random woman in the station for he didn’t trust me enough to ask me, he’d been calling me the same every day owing to fact that I’d ignored him at our first meeting. Although I tried in vain to explain to him this wasn’t the proper use of the word, he was having none of it. ‘Ignoramus I say, ignoramus it shall be.’ He declared. I decided to encourage the poor boy. Never mind the fact he wasn’t pronouncing it all wrong.
I gradually gave up. Plus, it was also for my own selfish benefit: any time someone called me Anu, all I could think of was my father’s raspy voice whispering it, for he was the one who’d given me the name. I could hear the warmth in his voice every time he said it. I’d been having nightmares about the war, but I didn’t tell anyone, for Chetan was a true solider- he wouldn’t understand- and I didn’t want to worry dadi any more than she already was. She spent most of her days in the station as well, talking to Chetan’s father or plugging in earphones and chanting the divine name. Sometimes, I could sense her nerves as she stared blankly into space, perhaps thinking of her son holding a gun by the border. Dadi was an intriguing woman. In spite of the 12 years I’d spent with her, not a day there was when I didn’t learn something new about her. Although she was incredibly worried, she tried not to show it. Yet, on certain nights, I could hear her sobbing away in her room, it broke my heart to see a woman so strong as her like this.
I coughed. He’d snapped me out of my peaceful moment with myself, something I did not like. At all.
‘Find some other name already.’ I said, turning around. I’d been ready to jump onto the tracks to cross over to the other side, another platform. In spite of it being illegal, it gave me a feeling of accomplishment to cross it, it made me feel victorious. It was quite safe as well, or seemed to be, at least- no train ever came to this part of the station. It came with its cons, though. Most people stared at me like I was a hooligan, although a well dressed one at that. Oh well, as Chetan said, better be nicely illegal if you have to be illegal.
‘It’s better than the ones you tell me to use.’ He rolled his eyes. Clearly, the ‘smart’ incident was still on his mind. He was known to hold a grudge, the pigeons episode had taught me that quite well. ‘Plus, I’m not in the mood to study today. I’m wearing new socks.’
I stared at his feet covered in purple socks, a pink stripe at the front. While the pattern appeared girly, it somehow seemed to suit him. After all, all hues look beautiful on Krishna, and if there was ever his lookalike, it could be found in Chetan.
‘Don’t judge me. They make the station brighter.’ He crossed his arms, as if posing for a picture, modelling his new socks, which apparently were also his favourite ones at the moment.
‘I agree.’ And I actually did. The station was indeed very dull, plus nothing could compare to bright socks. They were one of the few joys of my life. Bright socks made days brighter, plus who didn’t like bright days?
‘Besides, it may be the last time you’ll see them in a long time on my feet, or on any other’s, for that matter, I’m not going to give them to anyone. Anyway, so stare away all, you can, while you can.’ He flicked a wrapper out of his pocket and onto the track.
I caught on immediately. What could he mean? A long time?
‘What? What do you mean?’ I asked almost involuntarily.
‘Rajasthan.’ He said, shrugging. I raised my eyebrows, while my heart sunk down into my stomach. I knew the answer. The army. Of course, it had to be. Why else would he go?
‘The confirmation letters are coming in every single day, a few of my father’s acquaintances received them as well. We may very well get ours today evening.’ He fiddled with his slipper, whose straps were coming loose. ‘Or who knows, father may have received it already and is rushing along to the station to tell me the good news.’ He grinned. I froze.
Good news. I wanted to say something. Yet I could not say a word. I simply stared. I felt slightly sick to the stomach. How could he be so calm?
‘Aren’t you scared?’ I asked, when I finally gained the courage to speak.
‘Your father going into the army, of course. Aren’t you scared for his life?’
‘Why would I be, when he is simply giving mother India a fraction of the love that she’s been giving to all of us? Why would I be, when it guarantees a morsel in the mouths of my mother and siblings? How could I be, when it is my dream to die in her arms?’ He looked me directly in the eye. It wasn’t bravado. I knew he meant what he said, and for the fraction of a second, I felt ashamed to even ask.
I was left speechless once more. Perhaps my problems are really not the biggest ones in the world, I thought. Wow.
‘We may go any day now.’
‘Oh.’ I struggled to speak. I was still shocked, although the effect didn’t wear on as long as it had after the phone call. I drew in a deep breath. Meanwhile, Chetan rushed along the platform to a passenger struggling with their luggage.I saw him do it everyday, I was used to it, so I looked away and stood up. Giving him a shout and a wave from across where I was, I gently patted my clothes free of dust, stuffed my hands into my pockets and with my mind clouded with questions, shock and sadness, I made my way home. I still couldn’t believe how calm he was. It didn’t seem to faze him at all. Perhaps he had just pictured it so many times it was an ethereal reality for him. I couldn’t have known. After all, I’d known him for only a couple of months, yet, it still hurt.
I froze at the gate of the station. “Dadi!” I screamed. I’d left my grandmother at the station without informing her of my departure.
The day followed and the night set in along with the nightmares. Many worried sighs later, erupting from either my mouth or that of my grandmother’s, the dawn set in and slowly, so did noon. I felt a strange urge to go to the station as soon as possible. It was a gut feeling, whether for the good or the bad, I couldn’t tell. I wolfed down breakfast within minutes and then ran to the station with dadi at my heels, huffing.
‘What’s wrong, beta?’ She panted. I felt bad for taxing her like this in her old age, but this time, it was an emergency. An urgent one at that.
‘No time to waste dadi. They could have left!’ I panted in reply.
‘Why? Why would they leave? Who, though?’ She clutched at a stitch in her side after balancing her spectacles on her nose. I rushed back and helped her walk. Or, more like jog.
‘Rajasthan, dadi. He could have got his letter this morning! They’ll leave…They’ll leave without saying goodbye!’ I felt my voice crack. Goodbye, Anu. The words repeated themselves in my head. Now is not the time, I told myself. You need to rush. You need to reach them. Fast.
My grandmother kept ranting on and on about what a great thing and it was not good to or not a good omen to be so impatient and unhealthily worried by something so celebratory as this or simple soothing words saying all would be ok, yet I found no solace in her words, however beautiful they were. Finally, we reached the part of the station where Chetan and his father usually searched for customers needing help with their luggage and found uncle’s beaming smile come into view. At first, I almost felt relieved but I realised something: I hadn’t seen him smile like that since I’d told him Chetan could now introduce himself in proper English, which for him was a huge moment. Could it be because…? I told my mind to shut up. Negative thinking only makes things worse. I soon saw the cause of his happiness, for it was being waved in his hand, a sheet so white visible even from the other end of the platform. I broke into a run again. I needed to get there.
As I neared further and the vision cleared, I realised I couldn’t have missed the army logo from even all the metres that we were standing apart. I could see him, waving the sheet about in his hand. I saw him.
Yet, I saw no thirteen-year old leaning on a pillar on the platform, no mouth chewing on a piece of gum or rolling a seed in their mouth. Or even if a mouth was doing so, it’s owner was not whom I was searching for.
I couldn’t see Chetan anywhere.