Fiction: A Disastrous Journey

Shernaz Wadia

Shobha didn’t watch Doordarshan too often, but “Yaadon Ki Mehfil” was one programme she tried not to miss. Those songs from the golden age of Hindi cinema were beautiful and packed with memories. One evening she and her neighbour Ishita were enjoying the broadcast, gossiping between mouthfuls of chips and samosas. After a break when they were both enthralled with a particularly juicy bit of gossip, she shot up from the recliner like a pea from a shooter, instantaneously switching off the television.

 

“Shobhi I like that song! What’s wrong with you?” asked a bewildered and irritated Ishita.

“No. Not that song ever. Even you wouldn’t want to hear it again, had you been there with us that day,” whispered Shobha trembling like a leaf in a storm.

“Which day… what are you talking about… be more specific? Are you okay?”

Shobha was quiet for a long while as she traveled decades back to her school days. Then she began to speak. As Ishita watched and listened to her, she became aware of the eeriness, which had suddenly befogged their pleasant evening. Shobha spoke in a strange voice that seemed to come from somewhere far off. Not distant just in time; distant in space and being too. It was like a disembodied voice that came out not from her mouth but her glazed eyes. Ears magnetized, Ishita listened transfixed.

~ * ~

 

Humming to myself I waited on the crowded platform for our train. I was happy despite the crowds, as we were going home for the Christmas vacation. It would be a short one, but it followed on the heels of the longer one for Diwali. After this holiday it would be a grueling three and a half months before the summer vacations. Tra-la…I was in the final year, so it would be the last term! Every time I grumbled about the boarding my mother admonished, “Once these days are over you’ll miss them.”  How would mama know that I longed to be free of the nuns!  They breathed down my neck to mould me into one of them minus the habit.

There was bustle and flurry as the impending arrival was announced by a loud bell. I ran to my younger sister sitting on a bench with our bags.  Picking them up, we greeted the thundering train with excited smiles as it entered the station; thick, black smoke billowed from the engine. Meera and I waited patiently, away from the jostling and shouting as people tried to get in pushing back those who were trying to alight. Ours would be a short journey. Less than two hours and it wouldn’t matter if we had to go standing by the open door. Young and reckless, we thought this was a fun way to travel. We jumped aboard as the train was about to move.

Seeing there were seats available, we put our bags up on the luggage rack and became   comfortable. I smiled at a little baby sleeping in her mother’s lap. “Children look so angelic when asleep. I hope this one and the little toddler there don’t wake up till we get off”, I whispered in Meera’s ear. Meera was already bored and the monotonous, metallic crunch of wheels on steel was lulling, so she put her head on my shoulder and fell asleep.

I took stock of our co-passengers. Diagonally across from me was a young boy.   Probably in the last year of school and not bad looking at all; I avoided his eyes though. He carried a portable transistor radio which, like the electronic gadgets of today, was a craze then. He was playing it rather loudly and so the usual tempo of conversation was muted.  I ignored his side-long glances.

The toddler began to stir shortly. His young mother seemed to be a village belle, unsophisticated and probably superstitious too, from the big black dot on the child’s temple to ward off the evil eye. He was wide awake now and clamoring for attention. Near them sat an elderly lady who kept chewing paan when she was not snoring.

Next to Meera sat a middle-aged couple. The man was engrossed in the day’s newspaper and his wife in knitting. Once she looked up at the sleeping infant and smiled at its mother. The man in the window seat opposite was uncouth. One leg up on the seat, his slipper flung across the aisle he constantly picked his nose. Taking out a bidi from his pocket, he lit it, belched loudly and stared at me as he smoked. I glowered back wanting to throw out that bidi and teach him some manners. Every few minutes the woman chewing paan would lean across him, stick her head out of the window and let fly a jet of red spittle. My hair stood on end each time. How disgusting can people get?

The top rack was stacked with tin trunks and cloth bags filled to bursting. Sleek travel bags were not even a distant dream in those days and plastic had not taken over India. One cloth bag, lumpy and precariously perched, lurched a lot with the train. As I kept a wary eye on it, the young fellow stood up, rearranged the luggage and sat down with a silly smile when I thanked him. He notched up the volume of the radio and looked tellingly when a love song was playing. I didn’t know whether to slap him or laugh outright at his idiotic expression. I again chose to ignore him.

The toddler now got down from his seat and stood holding his mother’s knees.  She kept talking softly to him and he cooed back or laughed contagiously when she tickled him. Every now and then she would bend down, kiss and hug him and say “Mera laadla. Mera shonu beta”, and glance proudly at the appreciative co-passengers. And boy! Did she try to stuff him with food even when he didn’t want to eat! “Mother will do the same with us, during these ten days”, I mused. “Aren’t all mothers the same!” 

Stifling a yawn, I glanced at my watch; another half-hour to go. Oh god! This express train is crawling. I wish it would pick up speed - my thoughts raced. I smiled. The welcome we would receive! Papa would be there at the station with his car and at home mom would be busy preparing our favorite dishes…and darling little Ankit!  He’d be all excitement. Oh, what glorious ten days these would be!

The only attraction on returning to school would be Paresh - my oh so sweet friend and classmate!  He had gifted me a lovely handmade card on the last day of the term.

Was I imagining it or had the train really picked up speed? The compartment and all in it reeled and pitched even more with its momentum.

And then pandemonium broke loose! (Shobha had become paler if it was possible.)

A metal portmanteau fell from the luggage rack and fatally hit the toddler’s head. Screams, blood and a lifeless kid’s head lolling in the doting mother’s lap!  She couldn’t believe he was no longer the lively shonu beta of a few minutes ago. She sat there, alive but dead, stony eyes uncomprehending.

Meera too was wide awake now. We held each other tight and wept. There was blood splattered on clothes and faces as it spurted from the cracked little skull.  ‘Life can somersault without a moment’s notice’, I thought. ‘Here we were total strangers and now we will all stew in the same pot because of this tragedy’.

There was so much chaos in those few seconds no one knew what was happening or what to do. The train sped on.

“Arrey, whose box was it?” “What will happen now?” “Someone pull the chain, stop the train. Call the police. Blah, blah…”

“Sorry I am very sorry. I had put the bag up very safely. I don’t know how this happened,” “Forgive me. I didn’t know this would happen. I didn’t do this on purpose”, wailed the woman with the infant, above all the din. She had put her baby down on the seat as she shook uncontrollably from fear, shock and disbelief. How could she look the dead child’s mother in the eye? What would she do? She was all alone and every one was shouting together and accusing her. Words tumbled out of her mouth and hung in an incoherent babble in the disastrous air.

“He, he is the one to blame,” she screeched pointing to the youth. “Yes, yes. He had shifted the luggage around. Don’t blame me…” and she wailed even louder.

Color faded from the young man’s already ashen face. His radio, fallen out of his hand continued playing, somewhere below the seats. Police and jails swam before his blurred eyes at the woman’s accusation. And there were others joining her.

Then there was a sudden flash of movement. The dead child tumbled out of his mother’s lap and in the same instant the little infant went flying out of the window. And she sat down, looking with a crazy, demented glare at the woman she had avenged. In that shell-shocked, incredulous, open-mouthed moment the only sound, other than the clatter of the train was of the song blaring from the forgotten radio –  suhana safar aur ye mausam haseen…

~*~

 

The song that sent an icy chill down Shobha’s back whenever she heard it again! The song of nightmares, decade after decade, never allowing her to forget that gruesome journey! The mellifluous song that wreaked havoc in her life! How many more people’s memories have it blackened, wondered a horrified Ishita. Would she be able to enjoy it ever again? Canny, how an event can cannon ball into lives decades later, some not even remotely connected to it. Is this what is meant by the ripple effect?

She was petrified. She didn’t know how to handle Shobha’s ‘condition’, so she called up Meera, in the meanwhile doing her best to calm the distraught woman. They both looked like denizens of some ghost town when Meera rushed to her sister’s side. She comforted her, gave her a tablet along with a mild sedative to soothe her nerves. Once she was asleep, the other two women walked out onto the balcony. A cool breeze and a serene moon shining in the evening sky were a balm for Ishita’s traumatized nerves.

“Meera, how come you are so brave about this whole incident? You were there too and being younger I feel it should have had a more devastating effect on you. You must have nerves of steel.”

Meera sighed deeply. “The truth is the infant wasn’t really thrown out the window. We had almost reached our station and as the train slowed, the woman grabbed the baby and jumped out. She broke her leg, the baby remained unharmed and her bid to run away with the child was foiled. All she wanted was to take away the offspring of the woman who had made her childless. Of course, her loss was irreparable, but still what happened was an accident. Life goes on and we must move along with it.”

“Then, then Shobha…? Has she imagined it? How was she soon afterward?”

“She went into shock for months after this gruesome incident. We tried all we could to make her aware of the facts, but she believes her version. Even psychotherapists are foxed. Strangely, but fortunately now she remembers this incident only when she hears that song. Thank God it is an old one and not heard too often.”

“Does Paresh know about this?”

“Naturally. He was the only one who could bring her around during those harrowing days immediately following. Shobha missed the whole of the last term that year, so she lost a full year of studies. But Paresh stood by her and helped her through everything. He is an angel sent from heaven, especially for her.


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