Between now and forever

Arjun got down from the train and looked around. It was a small station in the middle of nowhere.
He looked at his watch – 5.00 AM! Almost an hour since the train had halted there. He wondered what the matter was. There were others like him – irritated co passengers from the train who were also pacing the platform.

“What seems to be the matter?” he asked a middle aged man standing outside the next coach.

“There has been a derailment up ahead. A goods train” said the man rubbing his eyes sleepily.
Arjun made his way to the station master’s room. There was no one there. He looked around for someone who could tell him how long they were going to be stranded here.

It was chill. His breath clouded mistily around him. He needed to drink something hot. The jacket he was wearing was meant for the AC inside his coach and not for a roofless railway platform in the middle of the ghat section in the South Western railway sector.

He headed for the sole tea stall, a few yards away.

The stall owner was doing brisk business as a crowd of passengers had already gathered around it. He was also giving out some informal updates on when the train was likely to start. “Not for another two hours. The emergency rescue team reached the derailment site only an hour ago. The area is a ghat section. Not easy” he said cheerfully as he passed around paper cups filled with hot steaming tea.

Arjun paid for his cup and turned around to walk towards a less crowded spot. The people around the stall were suffocating him. Balancing his cup in one hand, he tried to put his wallet back into the pocket of his jeans. Not easy.. some of the liquid split out!

“Ouch! Please be careful. You have spilt hot tea on my feet!” said a woman’s voice angrily. Words of apology quickly rose to Arjun’s lips and froze!

No ! It couldn’t be !

He walked a little further away and turned back to look at her. The morning light was creeping out of the horizon and enveloping the platform in a soft golden glow. And in that golden light, he saw the face that had etched itself in his memory.

She had changed. Her face was thinner and she had cut her hair short. But the same determined chin thrust out of her face!

How many years had it been her wondered.. Four? Five? Five he realized after he did the calculation in his head.

He watched her as she sipped the tea out of the cup, holding her palms cupped over the rim. An odd mannerism.. almost childish! He had commented about it the first time they had met.

He had not wanted to meet her. He did not believe in arranged marriages. But after thirty two years of waiting around for his dream girl to waft into his life, he had allowed his sister to bully him into meeting a “girl”.

He had been distinctly uncomfortable as he had sat around at a Bangalore coffee shop waiting for her. He had seen a photograph of hers. A rather ordinary looking girl, neither dark nor fair. A sharp nose and a chin that thrust itself forward. A face that would easily be lost in a crowd. But then neither was he a film star!

However everything changed the moment she walked towards him. She had a smile that dimmed the world around him. It enveloped him in a warmth that made him feel very special.

“Hi I am Riya” she had said extending her hand briskly as he had stood up uneasily. After the initial awkwardness he had settled down. She had done most of the talking while he had listened quietly, nodding his head at appropriate intervals. Her voice was like honey and her eyes danced as she spoke.

She worked for a NGO. She had easy air of confidence that came from knowing who she was. A rare quality, he had never observed in any other woman. She was dressed simply and wore minimal make up. He was thankful for that because, women who were all dressed up irritated him.

They had talked for a couple of hours. The liked the same books, the same kind of music and the same movies. Unlike other women who wanted to know about his “prospects” as an astrophysicist she did not ask him the inevitable question about why he was working in India or why he had no interest in going abroad.

He was almost certain that she was the girl for him. It was when he was about to ask her about meeting again and getting to know each other better that she asked him something startling.
“Arjun, I have a request. Please don’t say no” she had said gazing into his eyes.

He shook his head smiling. She probably had some views on dowry or the marriage ceremony. Or may be she wanted him to shave his beard. Whatever… he was ready to agree to anything that she was going to ask!

But what she did ask for, left him stunned!

“Can you please tell your sister that you are not interested in me? Say I am not fair enough, or I am very opinionated… whatever” She said pleadingly.

“But.. why? I really like you” he had stammered.

“Arjun, it is like this. I am involved in another relationship. He is married. We are waiting for him to get a divorce. If my parents get to know of it they will be very shocked! I have been trying to reject all the marriage proposals that they have been coming up with. But yours will be a difficult one to say no to . If you refuse on the other hand, I can buy some time at my end” she had confessed.

He had been in a fix. To say “yes “to her would be saying “no” to his hopes.

But yes, he had said. He had told his sister that he had found the girl “most uninteresting”. A lie that had haunted him through the past five years .

He stole a glance in her direction. She was standing outside the door to her carriage. He wondered if he should speak to her. Would she remember him? Was she married to that chap now? Was he on the train too?

To hell with it!! He decided he had nothing to lose. He wanted to speak to her.

“Riya” he said softly walking up to her.

“Hello.. Arjun isn’t it?” she said as a  smile suffused  her face.

There! She had remembered his name. It was a good omen.

“How are you?” He asked her.

“Good. And you? I hope you are married to a nice girl now” she said with a soft laugh.

“No …! Haven’t found anyone yet. What about you? Are you married?” he asked

Her face clouded over. Did he imagine it or did she  avoid looking at him.

“No Arjun. I have started my own NGO. It requires a lot of my time. I don’t think I can manage marriage and my work together. So I have chosen to stay unmarried” she said softly.

“What does your NGO do” he asked her.

“We work with Tribal communities along the Western Ghats on health and livelihood issues” she said, her eyes lighting up in the way that he remembered from his dreams.

“Let us sit under that tree there. You can tell me more about it” he said pointing to one end of the platform.

“Okay” She said walking along with him.

They spoke for two hours or may be more. Dawn gave way to morning. Packets of idli and vadas followed the cups of tea. They almost missed hearing the clanging of the bell at the station announcing the departure of the train. They just about made it to her coach as the engine hooted!

The coaches were not connected. His coach was further down. He wondered if he could make it as the train started pulling out of the station.

“Hey Arjun, get on this coach for now” she said pulling him inside.

For now.. yes certainly!

It was a long enough journey

Between now and forever, there were immense possibilities!

(This story is for my friend Anu. She complains that most of my stories have unhappy endings. )