Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Gang of Girls

I distantly heard a strong feminine voice. "Seat No 39 is mine". It took me a moment to recollect that i was stretched out on the seat in question. I opened my eyes, trying hard to peer through the blur and locate the source of the voice. Well built lady of around 35. I could say that she was kind hearted, but at the moment she had a stern expression on her face. Directed towards me. And that makes me uncomfortable. If it was a mean face, I'd have been less bothered. Maybe tried to talk back. I was only lying down stretched across the side berth, the main berth was completely empty and she could have easily settled down there first. But then this was not that sort of a face at all. This one said that it had seen a lot, but had seen through all of that very gracefully. I really would have floundered trying to pick issues with such a face.

"I drowsed off" i said apologetically quickly clearing off my stuff.

Of course that was not the case. I'd boarded the train at Delhi and was overjoyed to see the side berth completely empty. Even the main berth had just one occupant. An elderly muslim gentleman to whom i'd quickly said my hellos. I settled down and soon made my bed, even though it was just 5 PM. I'd had more than a few late nights with work and was looking forward to sleep, getting gently cradled by the steady rocking of the rails. " A lot of Gujrati travellers in our berth- boarding at Mathura"- so informed my till then only co-passenger. Maybe indicating that my sleep preparations were perhaps a bit hasty since i was spreading out across the whole side berth. In my tiredness and anticipating the prospect of a gently rocking bed made me ignore him, saying something like "I hope they have cancelled their tickets" before surrendering myself to sweet slumber.

And here i was, being rudely awakened within 2 hrs. Whats more, as i was clearing out her side of the berth, i realized there was a trail of people behind her- all following her lead and rapidly lurching towards my berth with a minimum of 4 jholas each. A gang of about a dozen. Dressed in woolens from head to toe, with mufflers et el. Energetically chirping in a language i could barely make out. Though they were hardly inside the train, there were multiple headcounts listing kokli-ben, radha-ben, geeta-ben, leena-ben loudly underway. Being conducted by a number of them at the same point in time.

Out of the lot, the most aged were quickly sat down on available seats. They were perhaps the most agitated as well. In Mathura, for reasons best know to the railway babus there was only a 2 min stop for the train. 120 secs for passengers with trunks, suitcases, beddings etc to alight and then passengers with even more luggage to board from the platform. Anyone who's ever seen people travel on Indian Railways would say that's cutting things too short. And when its a case of 12 elderly lady teerth yatris, travelling back home with their cartons of laddu's, pedas's, and cans of Ganga Jal, it became impossible a time to meet. Geeta-ben got left behind at the platform, and Kokli-ben had to pull the chain. And the really elderly Leena-ben, sitting right opposite to where I was, got agitated and let out a loud wail when the train lurched. Of course, at the same point in time, Heera-ben, Kanta-ben and her bahu Himadri all had to try and assuage the loudly wailing Leena-ben by letting out wails even louder than her's. I was of course, fully awake by this time.

I realised the best course of action would be to settle down quietly and watch this blow over as best as i could. I was scared- just because everyone around me were agitated and excited. They were old, i was young. I could fathom no reason for their excitement. The train had stopped, Geeta- ben had easily boarded, but the headcounts were still on- the irritating assurances were still underway. I soon made good efforts to make myself as inconspicous as possible and settled down stiff on my side of the berth. But of course it couldnot last. Not when you are being surrounded by 12 agitated elderly ladies.

A suitcase was thrust on my lap. Could i adjust it under the seat? Whose shoes are those? Why are you travelling with a mango crate? Are they already done with serving coffee? Where do you work in mumbai- or are u still studying? Prism towers? son works there..JP Morgan. Leena-ben, mujhe toh aapna beta mil gaya. What is your seat number? Do u really need those two cushions...can u pass one here? Do they serve jain food on board? Have you been using these blankets for long?

Within 10 mins, i was left the most agitated within the compartment. The ladies meanwhile had quietly settled in, and were soon at home. In between answering their questions and adjusting their luggage i realised they had efficiently allocated space amongst themselves, very civil-ly shifted the muslim uncle to the next compartment, showed the TT their tickets, taken a count of all jholas, and had now settled down to examine each other's day's shopping. Soon the compartment's atmosphere transformed into one resembling a family drawing room. Within a span of 10 mins flat.

I quickly spotted my chance and rushed to the top berth, book in hand. Surprisingly my newly discovered mothers didnot try and stop me. Lying down on the side top berth gave me a safe ring side view of the action happening downstairs. Things were getting lively. Away from their men-folk for a short while, the ladies were keen to have a good time. Himadri was incessently getting teased on receiving a call from her husband by the octagenrain Heera ben. Kanta-ben shot back by enacting Leena Ben's expressions on her wedding night- 50 years back. Sweets, farsans, and Pepsi was being passed around, and whats more, also getting quickly gobbled up the elderly gang. It seemed as if all of them were acutely aware of the fact that only for a day, they had left behind the world of their husbands, kids, grandchildrens and other's myriad concerns. Heart ailments, blood pressure, thyroid imbalances, joint pains were were also forgotten. Tonight, the life inside the compartment, alongwith their friends, was entirely their own. Maybe tonight was the kind of night for them that came only after decades. Tomorrow they return back to their apartment households in Mumbai back to their existence designed to support others. But tonight, as i imagined looking down from the top berth, all the wrinkled, weather beaten, mottled faces had a curious glow. It was excitement. More closer than that, it resembled the look on a kid has who anticipates a chance to do a lot of unrestricted mischief with friends. To be able to see that on the face of 12 grandmoms at the same point in time was a blessing.


AJ... said...

har baar jab tu blog likhta hai.. im inclined to say this is even better than the previous one...

awesome read...especially the bit on the facial expressions on a wedding night 50 years back :-)

juhi said...

As always..awesome stuff...extremely well written...and brought back memories of our last adventure together at the New Delhi Railway i understand why you insisted on my reading this! :-)

Believe me, a set of 12 grannies and their daughter(s)-in-law is the last thing that i could have taken that day on that platform or in that train!!! I guess, i should be thankful now that "these set of "bens" " were not there that day! :-)