On a pleasant October evening the platform number four of the New Delhi Railway Station was jam-packed with passengers, their friends and relatives who had come to see them off. They all waited for The Ranikhet Exp to move out. The train whistled a couple of times. The green signal was on but the guard, in the faded dress, chatted with his friends. He showed no urgency. Some passengers had occupied their seats and the rest who knew how the railway functioned, waited on the platform in needless anxiety. A few travellers shopped for the books, magazines, snacks, tea and bottled water. The latecomers with coolies in tow rushed towards the train and searched for their seats.
Finally, the driver’s patience ran out and the train moved with a long shrill whistle. In the midst of bedlam the passengers on the platform rushed in, pushing people in the gallery and inviting their angry stares.
“Thank God! The train’s late otherwise I would have missed it today also. Delhi has become overpopulated with traffic jams everywhere,” a woman in mid-thirties mumbled and then yelled at the coolie, “Bhaiya, berth 32 is here. Get the luggage fast. The train has started moving.”
“I’ve reservation for A 32,” she said to another woman sitting on that seat.
“Yeah, it’s yours. Mine is the upper one,” the second woman said, and shifted to the opposite berth making room for her.
“Take this,” she said handing a fifty-rupee note to the coolie.”
“Thank you, memsahib,” the coolie pocketed the money and jumped out.
Within a few minutes, the train picked up speed and left the city lights behind. It was 9 p.m. Lateness of the train by fifteen minutes had enabled her to board it in time. Through the tinted, unclean windows of the air-conditioned coupe, both the women, with mixed feelings, watched the darkness swallow the city. They were escaping from Delhi for different reasons. One was returning home to join her husband in Nainital, while the other to stay with her mother in Ranikhet after a fight with her husband. After a while they looked at each other, exchanged smiles and got into conversation.
“I’m Divya,” said the first woman extending her hand and found the hand of her co-passenger warm, soft and a bit sweaty.
“I’m Shivani. Shivani Rawat. That’s my maiden name which I insisted to keep after marriage despite my husband’s strong misgivings,” spoke the second woman, who had boarded the moving train.
Both fell silent for a moment.
“I’m going to Nainital to join my husband. I had come to Delhi to look up my ailing aunt,” said Shivani and then put her hand in the handbag and fished out a hand mirror, hair clip and lipstick. She pulled her hair back and put on the clip. Then she retouched her lips, a lighter shade of brown, and replaced the items in the bag. A quick stolen glance at the co-passenger gave her delight and relief. But Divya’s gaze forced her to hide her triumphant grin.
Later, she pulled her legs up on the seat and made herself comfortable. They were the only passengers in that coupe, meant for four, and it gave them the confidence as the other two seats were not booked. After a while, in walked the travelling ticket examiner wearing crumpled white trousers, black coat faded at the elbows and collar, and a black tie. He matched their tickets with the chart, glanced at their IDs and asked them to be alert as a few women were travelling in that compartment. They fumed in indignation on his casual remark on such an important issue of women safety.
“Where do you live in Nainital?” asked Divya.
“My house is a furlong from Naina Devi Temple. My hubby is an author. He is writing about the tribes of Kumaon. The book keeps him busy,” Shivani spoke with a tinge of sadness in her eyes.
“Do you have kids?”
“Yeah, a son. He is in the boarding school.”
Then they shared a brief silence.
“Don’t you think the writers are different from others? I mean no pun intended for your husband,” Divya broke the silence.
“Yeah, you couldn’t be more right. They are dreamers and often lost in thoughts. At times it becomes quite unsettling,” Shivani said with a faint smile. She gazed into Divya’s eyes and asked, “Your hubby?”
“He is an exporter in Delhi. Ours is a garment business,” Divya said, with a forced smile.
“That’s great. I mean being married to a millionaire. One doesn’t have to worry about the money like middle class housewives. I heard the rich men are fun-loving too,” her eyes sparkled as she spoke.
“Hmm, in a way yes if that’s what you mean, but at some point in life the money fails to inspire you. It remains a necessity like eating and drinking. As far as my hubby is concerned, he’s more fun-loving than I can handle,” Divya hid her anguish behind her smile.
“I beg to differ. Money is important to those who don’t have enough of it,” Shivani said.
“Maybe. But for those people who have too much of it, it ceases to have any significance.”
“That’s the irony of life. Isn’t it?”
Their talks ended abruptly. They unpacked dinner, consisting of paranthas, vegetables and pickles, and shared the food. They craved for hot tea but at that late hour it was difficult to get as the next station was far away and the train had no pantry car. So, they had to curb their urge.
Putting the leftover in the plastic bag they stood up and threw it in the dustbin. While Shivani returned to coupe, Divya went to the toilet. Since neither of them felt sleepy, they resumed their conversation.
Divya, the more talkative of the two, took the lead and asked Shivani, “Tell me, how is life with a writer? I mean how exciting it is.”
“It’s OK, sometimes thrilling but often boring. I guess it would be with any man. Marriage is a complex and intricate relationship. Every couple goes through with its highs and lows,” Shivani was nonchalant.
“I meant it’s so romantic for a woman to have someone write poetry for her, give her a poem and not flowers on her birthday. It’s so different, so out of the world,” Divya said.
“Yeah, once in a while, it’s a nice feeling but women like to be pampered with the clothes and jewellery,” Shivani winked.
“Yes, but the ornaments have no real meaning in life. To me the honest relationship is more important,” said Divya.
“What do you mean?”
“Being honest to each other and not cheating your spouse by sleeping around with others,” Divya clarified.
“Is it an issue in today’s world? Adultery had become commonplace even in the small towns and cities. How can one keep a check when both spouses travel often for work and deal with the opposite sex every day? It’s human to succumb to the temptation,” Shivani expressed her reservations.
“Whatever you might feel and say, honesty in the relation between spouses will remain an important issue as long as the civil society exists,” insisted Divya.
“Maybe what you say has a meaning, but to me it seems funny that people should view faithfulness as the sole virtue upon which the relationship should hinge,” Shivani argued without much conviction.
For a moment they stopped as the train passed through the station. The engine let off a loud whistle. Both peeped out in the dark and tried to get the name of the station. The night often did strange things to different people. It aroused awe in some, melancholy in some and romance in others. But they, Divya and Shivani, sought something different from the above.
Divya stood up, opened the bag and pulled out a steel thermos flask. She asked Shivani uncorking it, “Would you care for some coffee?
“Arey, why didn’t you give it with dinner?”
“Oh, it slipped out of mind then. I recollected when I saw the station.”
“Thanks. Coffee is my weakness. I can drink it anytime of the day or night. In fact, if one wakes me up in the middle of the night and offers it, I won’t refuse,” Shivani’s face lit up.
“I hope it’s hot. The company advertises that their flasks keep drinks hot or cold up to twenty-four hours. Let’s check their claim,” Divya said pouring coffee in two glasses.
“Wow! It’s hot. Thanks,” Shivani was ecstatic.
They sipped coffee at leisure, exchanging smiles in between. Shivani had a great passion for coffee and she often had it with her husband in the lawn and in the balcony, watching the sun set behind the distant hills. Those moments were precious for her, as he often discussed with her the theme, characters and plot of his novel. She listened to him in rapt attention and gave her suggestions, which he never forgot to include. He valued her ideas and admired her intelligence.
“Where have you got lost? Thinking about hubby,” Divya interrupted her thoughts.
“Yeah, you’re right. Coffee reminds me of him. He discusses his book with me over a cup of coffee,” she sighed.
“Lucky girl. At least your man has time to drink coffee with you. My hubby doesn’t have time to sit with me even for a few minutes. I often eat alone. I can’t recall when we last had dinner together. For him money and business come first. I get the last priority,” Divya complained.
“You are being harsh to him. Though I’ve no businessmen in the family, I empathize with them. After all, running business requires a lot of time and hard work,” Shivani remarked.
“You’re right but earning money isn’t everything in life. He ought to give time to me too. I don’t know how to spend time alone in a large bungalow,” Divya complained.
“Maybe you should join the kitty parties or spend time in social activities about which we read in the newspapers and magazines,” Shivani said.
“I wish I could but I’m not like them. I grew up in a small place and my mindset is different. I’m averse to the parties and social work. I find these things a big sham.”
“But to me the media and the peer attention that come with social work are quite exciting.”
“I find it boring; in fact, vulgar and farcical.”
Their discussion was getting serious, so Shivani changed the topic, “What about your kids? I mean where they are?”
“I’ve none. We haven’t decided yet. Perhaps we will plan in a year or so,” Divya’s voice deepened with sadness. Though she wanted child, her husband had shown no interest so far. He had avoided the issue for the reasons best known to him.
“Oh, it’s good to have kids because when husband goes away they give mother a good company.”
“Yeah, but I can’t produce them alone. I need his help,” Divya gave a mischievous grin, bringing smile on Shivani’s face.
“Isn’t it strange and funny that it’s the woman who carries the child in her womb, still she has no say in the matter when and how many children she should give birth to? It’s always the man who has the last say.”
“Yeah, it’s a man’s world whether we like it or not. So, next time when God asks for your choice, request Him to make you a man,” Shivani teased.
“No, I didn’t mean that. I’m better off as a woman,” Shivani shot back.
Loud rattle of the bogey wheels and the shrill engine whistles interrupted their talks. Disruption had become a routine. When the train crossed the station or the bridge, it made loud noises in whose din it was impossible for the women to hear each other.
"What’s the time?” Shivani asked.
“11 p.m.,” said Divya, “I hope I’m not keeping you awake. If you want you can go to sleep. I’ll take some more time.”
“No. I’m not sleepy,” said Shivani.
“Where do you plan to spend your holidays?” Shivani asked.
“With my mother in Ranikhet. She is alone at home. It would be great to spend some time with her.”
“And where’s your father?”
“He lives alone in Mumbai. He left my mother a decade ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right. I’ve forgotten him long back.”
“If you don’t mind may I ask what led to their break-up?”
“I’m not sure. I was twelve years old when I came to know of his decision. I was in the hostel then. Mother came and told me that father and she had filed for divorce and soon they would be separated. Since father wasn’t keen to take me with him, the onus of raising me up fell upon my mother.”
“I don’t think so when I read about the thousands of girls who carry on with their struggles without any parental help. At least I’ve my mother to take care of me.”
“That’s the spirit. I like your philosophy of life,” Shivani tried to cheer her companion up.
“What philosophy, yaar. I keep up a positive attitude,” Divya smiled.
Shivani felt relieved when Divya regained her pleasing demeanour. She was thankful to God for giving her a great childhood with loving parents, though she was the third child after two sons.
“I understand how hard it would have been for you till now,” Shivani empathized.
“It’s sweet of you,” Divya said.
“We get one life and we should enjoy it well. I’ll pray your hubby spends quality time with you in future,” Shivani spoke with an endearing smile.
“How can I complain? I’m to blame for my present condition,” Divya’s past shadowed the glow on her face.
“Why? You shouldn’t say that.”
“Perhaps you don’t know. I had someone who loved me and cared for me until I dumped him because of my stupidity.”
“You mean this is your second marriage.”
Shivani waited with abated breath to hear the story. Divya looked out in the cold darkness of the night and began, “It was six years ago. After my post-graduation I worked in the Imperial Hotel in Nainital as a receptionist. The job was to tide over the financial crisis my mother faced. She had no bank balance or property, except for a modest house in Ranikhet. Though some people advised her to ask maintenance from my father and if he refused then file a case against him, my mother refused to approach him. She was too proud to ask him for alimony. My mother would have preferred to die than beg money from the man who had dumped her for a younger woman. I respected her decision then. In fact, I respect it more now.
Neither did I meet my father, nor asked him for any monetary help. I didn’t want to see his face. It’s a different matter that he never bothered to contact any of us either. Our lives were better without him. Mother shifted to Nainital where we rented a house. After about a year I met a man who had come to the hotel for the seminar on the wild life in the Himalayas organized under the aegis of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Later, I gathered that he was an important speaker during the seminar because of the extensive research he had done on the subject.
Ours was a chance meeting. One day when I was at the reception I saw a bearded man wearing the kurta pyjama walk up to the counter and ask me about a foreign delegate. My first reaction to his bucolic appearance was of amusement and surprise. I wondered what that rustic man was doing in a three star hotel. I tried hard to suppress my smile but couldn’t escape his sharp eyes. Perhaps he was in a hurry and so he didn’t say anything then but in the evening when I returned to resume my duty I found a note lying for me. It read:
The world is not what our eyes see but, in fact, the truth always remains hidden till such time it’s explored. And a few people have the time and courage to explore the truth while the silent majority lives a life based on false notions and convictions.
That note stung me like a bee and for the next few days I stayed dazed and felt ashamed. The man had read my eyes and interpreted my smile. I got attracted to him and so, I obtained his whereabouts. After a while we began dating and a few months later we got married. He was a writer but I considered him an explorer. Before writing on any subject he would go to any length to explore the facts and details, and then undertake the writing. I hope he doesn’t resemble your hubby?” Divya looked at Shivani in the dim light of the compartment and asked.
“No, no. He is not a fastidious man as you’ve described. In fact, he is too lazy to work on the details. He is a writer but the similarities end there,” Shivani said nonchalantly.
“What is he passionate about in writing?” Divya asked to clarify a few of her concerns.
“He writes fiction for which he doesn’t do much research. By the way, you were telling me about your first hubby,” Shivani reminded her.
“Yeah, I told you how we met and dated. He was a compassionate man who had a soft corner for the poor. When we walked together he would stop and ask people on the street how they earned their livelihood. Often he would give them money and move ahead. What surprised me the most was that he needed money to build the house but that didn’t deter him from helping out the poor and needy.
And one day the lady luck smiled on him and he received a huge royalty for the book. With that money he purchased an old bungalow on the hillock in Nainital, wherein he shifted with his meagre belongings, consisting of a box full of old clothes, an old typewriter and some books. I helped him in setting up the new house and then to my utter surprise and delight he proposed me. I accepted and the following month we got married in a simple ceremony.
My life was blissful for about a year. Living with a wonderful man in the beautiful hill station was a dream. During the weekends we went for trekking in the mountains and spent nights in the forlorn gaddi huts. It was a prolonged honeymoon that lasted about a year,” Divya paused to take a breather.
The word, ‘honeymoon’ made Shivani blush. Unable to control herself, she asked, “If you don’t mind, may I ask you something personal?”
“Hmm,” Divya nodded.
“How was it with him? I mean…” Shivani couldn’t hide her awkwardness.
“You mean physically,” Divya waited for a moment and then spoke with a grin, “Yeah, he was good, nothing out of the world but passionate and frequent. I had never visualized my life without him. We lived a contented life but were often short of money, about which he never complained but I felt the pinch. I wanted to acquire better things for us but he wasn’t interested. For him the life revolved around his books. And when he worked on the manuscript he forgot everything—eating, drinking, shaving, bathing or talking. When I whined, he would urge me to go for a walk around the lake and leave him alone.
And during an evening walk around the Naini Lake I met a handsome guy. Perhaps he had approached me finding a melancholic woman sitting by herself. He was dashing and confident. At the first instance he introduced himself and asked me for coffee. Though I was hesitant to go with a stranger, his courteous behaviour bowled me over. While sipping coffee I stole many glances at him and found his persona exude a strange magnetism, which was difficult for me to ward off. Thereafter, we met several times as he was holidaying alone. Those days were trying times for me, both mentally and physically, as my husband was busy and gave me little time. His neglect willy-nilly pushed me into the waiting arms of another man. And we overstepped the boundary of our friendship on the last night of his stay. He promised to marry me after I divorced my husband. The man gave me dreams, real big dreams of life in a metro. He owned a huge house with a battery of servants and earned loads of money.
The lure of lucre and his physical prowess were too tempting for me to leave and hence I planned to dump my husband, a penniless writer, who had little time for my emotional or physical needs. So, I started working towards achieving my goal and in a couple of months my persistent nagging and howling threw our lives asunder. To my delight one day he suggested that if I wasn’t happy with him it was better for both of us to separate and end the bitterness that was destroying our lives. With a smile he signed the divorce papers and we separated on an amicable note. Next day I resigned from my job and moved to Delhi. We were married in the palatial house of my new husband.
I couldn’t believe my luck of marrying a prince and living with him a fairy-tale life about which the girls read in the story books. We went for our honeymoon to Switzerland and after that I accompanied him on many foreign trips. And then one day my world, which I had built with fidelity, honesty and hard work fell apart when I found out that my husband was sleeping around with not one but many girls. The man is a womanizer.
Now I realize how important it is to have a man devoted to you and you alone in mind and body. Despite all his shortcomings my first husband was an honest man and valued loyalty high in marriage. Having burnt my fingers I repent now that I left him at the spur of the moment, hankering for a wealthy lifestyle. What my first husband gave me perhaps I would never get in my life ever. I still remember he would come running to me and share his first thought of his new book. I would listen to him and give my stupid suggestions, which he often found useful. He respected me more for my intelligence than body. On the contrary, my present husband treats me like a good body, which satisfies his carnal desires when at home because while he is away he buys sex.
Divya paused to wipe her moist eyes. The story had moved Shivani who waited for Divya to regain her calm before clarifying a doubt, “If you are in a bad marriage, why don’t you leave him?”
“It’s not that easy. How long can I hunt for Mr. Right and then what’s the guarantee the next man would be a good human being? More so, I’m tired and have no heart for experimenting all my life. Continuing in the present relationship in a way is my atonement for hurting a good man. Good or bad, for me the life would go on like this,” Divya sank in the sea of sadness.
“Suppose your first husband were to forgive you and call you back in his life tomorrow, what will be your response?” Shivani’s abrupt and strange question pulled Divya out of her melancholy.
“God can’t be so generous again after watching me botch it up the first time,” she was despondent.
“Forget it. Sorry, I bothered you with my story. Tell me something about your hubby. Are you missing him?” Divya forced a smile on her face.
“When I think of him I wonder how he can be so lazy. You know when I’m not at home he would make a mess of the house and live in it without any hassles. Used plates and cups would lie all around the house. More clothes would be out of the cupboard than inside it. The sheets and pillows would be lying everywhere; in the drawing-room, bedroom and study. To my surprise, he doesn’t behave that way when I’m around. In fact, it’s cute of him that he makes sure to clear the mess created by him before I enter the house. I can visualize what he would be doing at this moment. He would be cleaning the rooms, and replacing the clothes and books in the cupboards and shelves. Prior to my arrival he would tidy up the house. He would be changing the sheets, pillow covers, dusting the house and refilling the empty water bottles. He would keep awake tonight in my wait and greet me with red eyes when I meet him tomorrow. Though clumsy, he is cute and takes care of me in a true sense. With him I find happiness in small things of life. I love my man and would never leave him,” Shivani spoke but felt foolish for saying the last sentence, which could hurt Divya.
“How stupid of me? You are telling me about the man whose name I don’t know,” Divya said.
“Abhinav,” Divya prompted.
“No. Abhishek,” said Shivani. Both women sighed with relief.
“Nice to know you are happy in marriage. I wish you both long years of togetherness,” Divya said and made a conscious effort to search for her watch in the handbag. Then she said with surprise, “Oh my God! It’s past midnight. We should catch some sleep otherwise your hubby will blame me for keeping his sweetheart awake throughout the night.”
She looked at Shivani and winked. When Divya went out of the coupe for a while, Shivani took out a piece of paper and scribbled a note, and then pushed it in the inner pocket of Divya’s handbag before her return.
“Aren’t you going to the washroom?” Divya asked.
After sometime they switched off the night lamp and slept. Next morning they woke up when the train stopped at Kathgodam. They alighted and looked for the coolie.
“Thanks for the nice company. Keep in touch,” Divya hugged Shivani.
“Sure, give my love to auntie. And if possible drop in at my place when you come to Nainital,” Shivani said handing her visiting card.
Divya placed it in her bag. They exchanged affectionate smiles and parted.
In the evening at Ranikhet, Divya while searching for something emptied her handbag on the bed and was surprised to find a paper. She opened it and read:
You would be shocked to know that the man you had left some years ago is with me. I mean I’m married to him now, though he has changed a lot in the past years. After you moved away from him he has lost much of his originality. You’ve lost a good husband and the world a good writer. What I’ve is a simple, good human being. Be assured, I will take good care of him as you would wish to.
Divya read the note again and again, tears rolling down her eyes. Later she prayed for both, Abhinav and Shivani.
* * *