He had noticed her the moment she had entered the coach.
How could he miss that dazzling smile?
She was coaxing an elderly lady to shift herself a little so that she could slide her bag underneath the seat. And the way she was going about it, the old lady was behaving as though she was looking for her feet under the seat to seek her blessings.
He wondered if he should walk up to her cubicle and say hello. He was sitting diagonally opposite her in the next cubicle that had two seats. But he decided to wait until the train started. He had no intentions of running into anyone who might have come to see her off.
But he could not draw his eyes away from her. He watched her from behind the curtain that hung next to his seat.
She seemed to have become thinner. Her face appeared angular. There were streaks of grey that were shining through the once jet black hair. And she was wearing a sari! The last detail surprised him the most! He could never imagine her in anything other than jeans and a kurta! Even for the college socials, when all the other girls were in saris, she only wore formal trousers and tops –in silk because of the occasion. Yet, here she was now, actually traveling in a sari.
He felt curious about the dozen odd years when she had transitioned from jeans to saris. He wondered how he would go up to her and start the conversation. Would she remember him? After all he was never part of the popular groups that she usually hung out with.
But he need not have worried because she noticed him almost immediately after the train started.
“Hi Rohan” she called out from her seat. He felt a bit embarrassed when strangers started looking at him.
“Hi Rekha” he said waving out towards her.
“Wait, let me come there. I think the seat opposite yours is free” she said moving towards him.
He found himself responding exactly the same way he used to whenever she singled him out in the campus. His ears were burning and he hoped that his face was not betraying him by turning red. He was thankful for the beard that now covered his face.
“My god!! Look at you! It is almost as though time has stood still. Except for that beard you look exactly the same” she said with a laugh settling down in front of him.
He found his voice finally and heard himself croak “ Hi!! Really surprised to meet you like this suddenly! I almost did not recognize you. You look different”
“Yes. I know. The sari surprises most people who used to know me earlier. But this is what I wear these days. My in laws are rather conservative. They do not like me to wear anything else” she said quietly looking at him.
He wanted to ask her so many questions. But somehow his tongue seemed to have become paralyzed.
“What are you doing these days “she asked him
“ I am the Head of research at Quartet chemicals” he replied.
“Wow!! I heard you got a scholarship to study abroad” she said gazing at him.
He felt disconcerted to have her so close by and looking up at his face. It had been different during those Chemistry practical sessions. They were lab partners.. She was a good student but not brilliant like him. Unlike him, her presence in the chemistry department was more out of compulsion than choice. Her father was a famous chemist who was keen that his daughter would follow in his footsteps.
The only child of the Chief of the National Chemical laboratories she had taken the good life around her for granted. He on the other hand was from a government school in a small town. He was very conscious about his English language skills, taking care to speak only when necessary. But unlike the other girls in his class from the convent schools, she had never laughed at him. She always spoke to him seriously seeking him out as her study partner before exams. He remembered fondly about the few hours that they spent together sitting under the tree near the University guest house studying for the semester exams.
His thoughts were broken as her mobile rang. She took some time to locate it from inside her bag. The phone in the meanwhile stopped ringing. So she called back.
He was amazed at the change that came over her face as she listened to the voice at the end. He could hear a bit of it too. A loud unpleasant male voice saying something that was clearly upsetting her.
“You okay?” he asked her after she put the phone back into her bag.
“Yes” she said quickly. But not fast enough for him to miss the tears welling up in her eyes.
“ Excuse me please, I need to use the toilet” she said getting up from her seat.
He wondered what was the news that had upset her so much. He sincerely hoped that all was well. He hated to see her upset.
He still remembered that day when the news about her father’s accident reached her. They were doing their chemistry practical when she had been called to the Principal’s office. He had followed her to see what the matter was. She had collapsed on him crying hysterically. Her father had died in a chemical explosion in the lab!
He remembered going with her to her house. There had been a lot of people and he had felt completely lost. But he still remembered her tear stained face as she hugged him before going inside, saying “Rohan. I really appreciate this”.
He had hardly had a chance to speak to her after that. There had been the final exams and then each one of them had gone their separate ways. He did not see her at the convocation either.
She was back from the toilet now. Her eyes were red and looking puffed up. She sat down in front of him He watched waiting for her to speak.
“Rohan, that was my husband. He is such a jerk!” she said
He wanted to ask her what made her marry and stay married to such a man? He did not remember her as being a meek or vulnerable girl. As the Vice President of the Students Union she was a strong and confident girl. He did not know what had turned her into such a person.
“ I know what you are thinking! Sometimes, I myself wonder” she mumbled.
“If someone those days had told me that I would become something like this I would have laughed at them” she said fiercely
She turned to look out of the window as he waited for her to resume talking. But she did not seem inclined to speak any more.
“ Tell me do you have kids” he asked her trying to engage her in a conversation.
“Yes “ she said. That dazzling smile lit up her face once more. She dug into her bag and took out a photograph of a young boy “ This is Aditya. He is five years old”
He looked at tiny version of Rekha herself. The same curly hair and the light eyes. The same dazzling smile.
“He is very sweet” he said returning the photograph to her.
“What about you ? Do you have children” she asked him.
“Yes. I have a baby daughter” he said opening his wallet to show her the photograph his wife with the baby.
“Oh, is that your wife? What does she do?” she asked him
“Yes, that is Anuja my wife. She is a home maker” he said quietly.
It was slowly becoming clear to him why she might be staying married to the “jerk” as she referred to her husband. But he was still unable to understand why she had married someone like that in the first place.
“ I got married immediately after college to Jai” she said as though reading his thoughts.
“Papa had taken a lot of loans for financing an invention that he was privately working on. When he died, the technology was yet incomplete and the debtors were beginning to make life difficult for me and Mama. Jai’s parents had a business and they offered to clear the debts if I would marry their son” she said looking out of the window as though speaking to herself.
He did not know how to react. He wanted to tell her something but did not know how or what. So reached out and held her hand. She closed her hands over his and held on to it tightly.
He dared not speak as he was afraid that it might spoil the magic of the moment. He was dimly aware of voices in the background. He wished he had been there to help her when she needed someone. But then that was a different time in their lives. There had been the intention to help but he was not sure he would have had the resources.
He wanted to tell her about the many letters that he had written to her but never had the confidence to post. He still had them tucked away somewhere among the things in the cupboard in his parent’s house. He had tried to contact her through common friends but she seemed to have disappeared without a trace.
He tried to imagine her life with a dominating boor of a husband. It was not something that was pleasant or easy for him to think of.
She suddenly withdrew her hand from his as though realizing what she had done.
“You are a good friend Rohan. You have always been there for me. I still remember you coming home with me on that awful day” she said smiling at him through her tears. He was surprised that she had remembered.
“You were never like the others. There was something so sincere and earnest about everything that you said or did” she continued. “ I had hoped one day that I could take you to meet my father. Both of you would have liked each other so much”
He in turn wanted to say how much he had waited for that invitation to meet her father , his hero. But he kept quiet.
“No one understood what Papa was all about. My friends thought he was an eccentric man. Mama still blames him for dying like that and leaving her with debts. My husband and inlaws call him a fool whose debt they had to redeem” she said softly.
She looked away again at the speeding landscape outside. He wanted to say something but somehow it was difficult to penetrate the silence that she seemed to have suddenly surrounded herself with.
He did not know how long it was before she suddenly moved. She was getting up and going towards the seat under which she had stored her luggage.
“Rohan, my station is due in another five minutes. I need to go” she said as she came out with the luggage.
He followed her to the door as they waited for train to pull into her station. He pulled out a card from his pocket and handed it to her saying “ This is my card. Please call me if you need anything”
“No Rohan, thanks. I don’t think I will need that card. My life is complicated as it is. I do not want to involve you in these complications” she said returning it to him.
“ And yes, please go inside. My driver is expected at the station to pick me up. He might say something to my husband if he sees us talking and that would make life difficult for me” she said urging him to go back to his seat.
He returned reluctantly to his seat and watched from the window as the train entered the station. Among the many people who got off the train was a slight young woman in a printed silk sari with her hair pulled back into a bun behind her neck. A man in a chauffeur’s uniform came forward and took her bag from her.
Was it his imagination or did he see her looking back towards his window as she walked down the platform?
Poor girl.. what a long journey it had been for her!