The girl on the Ranikhet Express

A love story, set inside a train..

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The train jerked to a stop. The boy awoke, startled. The old lady opposite him smiled and told him “station aa gaya beta!” He rubbed his eyes and saw the honeymoon couple stacking up their luggage.  There was another elderly couple which he hadn’t seen the night before. Were they Mr. and Mrs. Bakshi? He looked around. Seema was nowhere to be seen. He looked down the narrow aisle. She wasn’t there! Had she gotten off at the earlier stop? But he remembered her telling him last night that she was going to Kathgodam. He could not believe that it was only last night he met the girl. Last night …

..The air was warm and dry when he got off the auto at Old Delhi railway station the previous night. 10.10 pm, his faithful Titan watch told him. He checked the giant electronic screen hanging above the entrance to the station . Ranikhet express to Kathgodam. 10.40 pm. Platform 8. There was still time enough to grab a quick bite at Come Sum restaurant.

When he reached the platform at 10.30, the train had already arrived. He checked into his seat A3 20 and stepped outside to do his customary scan of co-passengers on the reservation list stuck on the side of the door. He had this weird fascination for on-the-road love stories, especially on trains and himself wished to be a part of one! Perhaps that’s why he liked Jab we met and Dil hai ki maanta nahi so much.  But he realised that some things happen only in the movies. The laws of probability fail in the real world. He quickly scanned the list.

500

A3 17 – Maya Srinivasan – 62.

A3 18 – Shilpa Singh – 25. A small smile.

A3 19 – Prabhjot Singh – 26. The smile disappeared.Probably a newly wed couple off on their honeymoon to Nainital.

A3 21 and A3 22 – Mr. and Mrs. Bakshi, an elderly couple in their forties.

He sighed! Somethings are not meant to be. He climbed aboard and sure enough there was the honeymoon couple and the old lady. The Bakshis were nowhere to be seen. The Ranikhet Express let out a loud hoot and the journey began. Maybe the Bakshis were boarding from a different station.

On a train which departs so late and is scheduled to arrive at 5.10 in the morning, passengers usually wait for everyone to settle down and go off to bed early. As if on cue, Mrs. Srinivasan raised the middle berth, made her bed and retired for the night. The honeymoon couple couldn’t take their eyes off each other. And they sure seemed in a hurry to reach their hotel. After 10 – 15 minutes, they climbed to their respective top berths. The boy glanced at his watch. 11.27 pm. Ghaziabad came and went but there was still no sign of the Bakshis. He too was feeling a bit drowsy now. He could feel his eyes telling his mind to sleep. The eyelids slowly began to droop …

…Suddenly he could smell a whiff of perfume. He shrugged off his sleep and looked up. It was at that moment when he saw the girl. She was about 5″4, hair straight and slightly curved at the edges which dangled delightfully just below the shoulders. Sharp face, high cheekbones, bright eyes. She was wearing a white Kurti and light blue denims. She came and sat just a few feet away from him. She couldn’t be Mrs. Bakshi.  He was wide awake now.

She pushed her luggage underneath the seat and turned. She caught him staring at her.  He quickly looked away, and had this sudden urge to open his rucksack and find something which he himself wasn’t aware of.  She pulled out a book and started reading. Of course, that’s what he was looking for as well! A book! He took one out ever so slowly and pretended to read. He stole a quick few glances at her but was careful enough not to overdo it. Just 3-4 glances every 15 seconds. She seemed engrossed in the book and did not look up even once. She was indeed quite pretty. In a span of 5 minutes, he thought of 500 ways to initiate conversation and all those cheesy corny pickup lines he had read about. He finally settled on one and was about to speak when she giggled. For the first time, he noticed the book she was reading. Three men in a boat! The funniest book he had read thus far! He smiled. This was his chance.

“Ah! Finally! I was wondering how long it would be before you laughed or giggled! When I read that book, I used to laugh every 2-3 minutes!” The girl looked at him from top to bottom and replied with a straight face “and I was wondering how long it would be before you realise the book you are supposedly reading is upside down! Unless of course that is a special trait you have!” At that moment, the boy wished he could disappear into the bathroom and hide there till the morning. He was tongue tied for a moment but said “umm..oh..yaa..some sharp eyes you have! My mind was actually preoccupied in something else “

“Lame explanation! But I think I know where your mind was preoccupied as well”. There was added emphasis on where.

“Well, you have a sharp mind as well then”

The girl smiled. “By the way, the book you are reading, ‘the case of exploding mangoes’ is also very interesting.”

And that’s how it started. A discussion on books and favourite authors and common books.

Her name was Seema Bisht. A common surname in Uttarakhand he felt. Indeed, she was born and brought up in a place called Lansdowne in Uttarakhand. A lovely hill station.  He had not been there but he knew a lot about the state since he had already been there a half a dozen times. An honorary citizen of the state, as his friends jokingly called him. This was his seventh visit to trek across the Kuari pass. She had already been there, done that. In fact she rattled off a list of must do treks. And the discussion veered onto places travelled, treks completed and favourite sights. Interspersed with humorous anecdotes and stories. So far so good! Somewhere in the distance, the train whistled loudly…

She had done her M.A in Economics from Delhi School of Economics. He was even more impressed. And the discussion took on tones of latest trends. Movies. Life in a small town vs life in a metro. He felt good. But she stifled a yawn! She said ” I think we better sleep. Will see you in the morning! Good night.” The boy wished time could slow down and reluctantly wished her good night and dragged himself to sleep. But as soon as he hit the bed, he wished time would hurry up. He couldn’t wait till the morning…

…but today morning she was nowhere to be seen. He asked Mrs. Srinivasan. She also had not seen anyone wearing a white Kurti. He got off the train and looked around the platform. No luck. He now checked the passenger list of his entire bogey again.  There was no one called Seema Bisht! He was confused. He needed a hot cup of tea. He took a ten rupee note from his front pocket and was about to pay the vendor when a note fell to the floor. It was white in color and he opened it. There was a cell number on it with the initials S.B! Seema Bisht! She must have slipped it in when he was asleep. Whenever you are confused or frustrated, ek garam chai ki pyali always helps. In one way or the other. He quickly dialled the number. “The number you have dialled does not exist. Yeh number astitva mein nahi hai.” He dialled again. Same response. What the hell was happening! And just then, someone tapped him from behind…..

…The boy awoke, startled! Mrs. Srinivasan was tapping him from behind. She smiled and said, “station aa gaya beta!” The boy looked around. There was the honeymoon couple.  And an elderly couple who were probably the Bakshis. And of course there was no Seema! She was a part of just a strange but wonderful dream. He smiled, got off the train and checked the passenger list once again ….

When Love and Hate collide..

Mumbai is Maximum City because of the migrants, the several hundreds who pour into this city from all parts of India. And Mumbai in turns offers them a chance to make a decent livelihood, provided you are willing to work hard and smart for it. And yet, several share a typical love-hate relationship with this city. An open letter from Mumbai to its citizens regarding this relationship..

To,

Whomsoever it may concern

You tell me that I am pathetic and terrible. You tell me that I am a big gutter that is full of shit!. You tell me that I am maddening and a pain. That I cause you to tear your hair out in frustration. How would you feel to be abused relentlessly? But that, my friends is the sad reality I have to grapple with almost everyday as you complain 24/7 about major aspects about my personality – the infrastructure, the traffic, the sanitation problems, the high cost of living, the overcrowding…But at the same time, defying logic, you love me as well. You love the buzz, the vibrancy, the culture, the people, the money and the magic, the spirit..you and I, we share this unique love-hate relationship.

I am not oblivious to the problems you state. But I ask all of you, is it my fault that I am seen as a land of opportunity, the commercial capital of the nation, a land which promises the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Is it my fault that so many of you come to me and take solace in my loving embrace that I have always provided for so many years? Is it my fault that there is no really viable alternative destination which can lend a shoulder to me and provide similar opportunities? Is it my fault about the apathy shown by your elected representatives who have neglected me?

But you continue to blame me and abuse me and yet you continue to live here. It may be because some of you have lived with me and loved me too long and going and settling anywhere else is no longer an option. Some of you have learned to adjust with me like sitting on the fourth seat on my local trains. And some of you are forced to stay with me because you know that the opportunities I provide are not available elsewhere. But your abusing and adjusting at the same time, alternating bouts of hatred and love have continued to confound me.

And then I ask myself – how did I become what I have become today? This thriving and yet decaying paradox? And the answer dawns on me – humbly and simply. I am just a collective noun, a representation of a unique people. An assimilation and a melting pot of all of you and the values you embody.You are the ones who have made me famous and have given me this vibrant, dynamic, cosmopolitan nature. You are the ones who have turned me into the city which never sleeps. But it is equally true that you also are the ones who have the power to elect your representatives responsible for governing me efficiently and protecting me. You are also the ones who have created the garbage and the traffic jams, the pollution and the greed…Most of you have good intentions. But most of you are too busy in your daily lives to do anything about it. It’s not that you have not tried – the victory in the battle to preserve my open spaces and your intense and continuing pressure on the govt. over the state of my potholed roads fills me with hope. But much more is needed. You know that as well.

I hope that you realise that I am only as helpless as you are. You have made me what I am today. And only you have the power to prevent me into turning what I am now becoming – decaying and crumbling.

Yours (hopefully),

A city of dreams/nightmares,

Mumbai

The Secret

Paradise Road – Why it is so aptly named..

Our mind is still a nomad. Its ability to wander off at the slightest possible excuse is unparalleled. Just the other day, while registering for a website, the webpage prompted me to “please select a Secret question”. The drop down menu presented a list of questions. The first one asked me – “which city would you like to retire?”

Almost instantaneously, the subconscious conjured up a slideshow of jaw-dropping images of a place we had been to and at the same time, remembered a question asked on the same trip,  a question quite unusual and yet earnest – “Can you keep this a Secret?”..

Almost three years have gone by since our visit to New Zealand. My wife and I reminisce about the trip often, marvelling at how lucky a country can get. He must have been in an extremely generous mood when He created this island, placing it in one corner of the planet which perhaps led to it being populated with so few people, and perhaps one reason why its beauty endures to date.

One of the most vivid memories of that trip came out of something we hadn’t even planned for, as it happens quite often. On the day we were scheduled for sky-diving, we woke up with a spring in the step and butterflies in the stomach. I guess jumping from 15000 feet had something to do with that.  But a phone call from the agency informing about a 99% chance of cancellation due to inclement weather was hugely disappointing. Nonetheless, the 1% chance of the weather clearing turned us into Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption, filling us with hope…

And so we set out,  knowing that in all likelihood, the highlight of our trip was about to turn into a nondescript footnote. A few kms out of Queenstown, the highway showed a fork approaching to the left, veering towards the high mountains visible in the distance. The GPS lady, aware of the same, directed to turn left after 500 metres on to Paradise road. Paradise Road. I repeated to myself. Let us see where does this lead to…

The road, which began with a gentle slope, gradually started to ascend as the mountains forested with tall trees and crowned with shimmering snow showed itself on the right. The road firmly hugged the imposing mountainside, as if afraid to let go of its shelter and comfort. On the left, suddenly out of nowhere, the dense green canopy gave way to the icy blue waters of Lake wakatipu. Straight ahead, we could still see the clouds looming, gradually descending, eager to kiss the mountain tops. It was an image I had dreamt of numerous times. In all probability, we would have painted it when we were kids – a road curving around a mountain, running alongside a lake…

I found it difficult to keep my eyes on the road, much to the concern of my wife. Sensing her worry, a few minutes later, a shoulder opened out on the road towards the lakeside, wide enough to park a few vehicles and ogle at the vista on offer; the blue of the lake and the green of the mountains yonder. We obliged gleefully as we trod gently on the soft gravel to the edge of the lake. The elements had worked hard on the pebbles, giving it a wonderful smooth roundness. I picked up a few flat ones and as I threw them into the lake, I felt my heart leap as it bounced once, twice, thrice and Splash!  And after sitting on the shore, hand in hand with my wife and only the gentle sound of the waves for company, another image from childhood flashed across my mind..

A cold gust of wind shook us out of our reverie and we continued on our journey. The clouds were now descending rapidly and just a few moments later, enveloped everything in its path. We felt like we were in a cotton field as the clouds wafted past. A few twists and turns later, they gave way to a drizzle, and that surely washed away the 1% hope with it. But we decided to carry on. Paradise road, with its bewitching views was too compelling to resist. The scenery was consistently spectacular as the roads went up and down past mountains, streams, dense forests and green fields on one side and the Lake on the other. The gentle rain and the car wiper played with each other, making a nice symmetrical pattern on the windshield…

The appearance of a few houses suggested that the town was now not far away. We passed a couple of relatively busy junctions and brought the car to a halt opposite a quaint looking cafe, which seemed straight out of a western movie set. It was still drizzling slightly and the weather had turned cold and nippy. We zipped up our jackets, hands shaking and teeth chattering. We called the skydiving agency only to hear what we already knew. They were sorry about the cancellation. We thanked them and smiled to ourselves. The disappointment had long gone… If it were not for that one percent hope the agency gave us, we would have not made this journey..

We stepped inside the cafe ordering coffee and hot chocolate. As we took our seats inside the cafe amidst the laughter of people, we realised how sometimes the best moments are the ones which aren’t planned. Obviously the baggage of expectations was missing which could be one key reason for the delight in the unknown. You could plan all you want but in the end, you may still fall short. As the beverages arrived, my wife echoed the cliché running in my mind; “so that’s why wise men say, the journey is sometimes far more important than the destination and to enjoy the little moments that lie enroute..” The first sip of hot chocolate was almost like nectar as the warmth seeped through the bones. I smiled as I dunked a soft juicy marshmallow in the hot chocolate and took a bite, “perhaps the wise men were not aware that hot chocolate and marshmallows awaited them at the end of the journey. They might have changed their mind..”

As we were paying the genial lady behind the counter, she asked us where we came from. India. And it was then she smilingly asked us to keep this place a secret despite knowing the futility of her request. To keep this gem a secret would be doing a disservice to this wonderful place. The road to Glenorchy deserves to be driven on and experienced. And whoever chose the name, chose wisely indeed. Paradise Road. It is the closest to paradise you might get…

Walking in the rain…

An ode to the romance of the first rains..

I had a few meetings lined up in town today. After finishing the last one, which was quite close to Marine Drive, I decided to walk for sometime on the promenade and take a cab after a while to VT station. But no sooner had I passed the imposing NCPA apartments, was I already questioning my decision. It was past 6 pm but the sun was still blazing down mercilessly. The placid waters of the Arabian sea were reflecting the sun light with such intensity that one could not look at it without squinting. By the time I reached the Air India building, I was already sweating profusely.
 
I decided to take a cab from opposite Oberoi and just then in the backdrop, I saw dark clouds closing in from the east. They looked ominous. And something inside me said “Wait! Keep walking'”
 
I decided to take a detour and buy something for home and took a right into the leafy sleepy boulevard of CCI lane, home to the Brabourne stadium. I reached 210 degree centigrade just outside Samrat restaurant – a favorite hangout spot when we were in college and picked up freshly baked bread and biscuits. Steeping out, I realized that the clouds had mobilized their army in far greater numbers. But still the humidity was quite stifling.
 
Again, I decided to take a cab from outside Churchgate station as I passed the landmark Satyam gift shop on my right. But, as if angry with this decision of mine, the clouds started to rumble. And I found myself telling me – “Keep walking!”
 
I had hardly walked a 100 metres when I felt the first drops of rain. I looked up. The sky was completely dark grey now. Not a speck of blue on the horizon. I smiled. People around me quickened their pace. Why were they in a hurry?! I reached Flora fountain. The famous Vada pav wala on the corner and the Booksellers on the corner adjacent to Amex bank were quite well prepared as a nice blue canopy had already been put up unlike a half dug up road on the side.
 
I went past the Standard Chartered building and other colonial era structures on Fort and it was now drizzling steadily. I smiled even more broadly. A few umbrellas popped open around me. A few makeshift umbrellas were created out of office bags, books and handkerchiefs. Why were the people walking so quickly?! I looked up and felt the raindrops falling gently on my face. I found myself humming – ” Raindrops keep falling on my head…”
 
The clouds rumbled again. And finally opened up. A torrential downpour began just as I reached Mcdonalds. ‘Am loving it’ I told myself! It was a fantastic scene. The BMC building loomed straight ahead and the magnificent Victoria Terminus ahead on the right. People realized there was no point in running anymore. For a moment, they turned school kids again as they forgot their worries and soaked in the rain. For a moment, their troubles seemed to have been washed away by the rains. The beautiful smell of wet earth wafted through the air. Sounds of laughter and excited chatter could be heard all around. The temperature had dropped considerably. The sky began to turn on a hue of yellow and orange, a portrait that only the monsoon could paint. It was a magical sight. Pure unadulterated joy!
 
I reluctantly entered VT station dripping wet and caught a train. A guy sitting next to me was updating his status on Facebook – “First rains!! Am loving it..” I looked at him and smiled. He simply smiled back..