Lumding, a nondescript railway station in Assam in the north-eastern India, often wore a sleepy look. On any given day only a couple of trains passed through this junction. With hardly any work Deka, its young station master, found himself wasting his youth in such a place and waited for his transfer to a better station. Anonymity and not neglect was his main concern. A quick glance at the basic amenities at the station told the story of his indifferent attitude towards the job. So what did he do during long empty day hours? Just dozed off, often. But not that day because a call from the district collector’s office had drawn a few worry lines on his otherwise unfazed face.
During the day he ran around to make arrangements for brief stay by a VIP. And in the evening he was pleasantly surprised to find a woman alighting from an Ambassador car. He received her and quietly ushered her in the retiring room. The accompanying police escort waited outside, in the veranda, as she freshened up. As soon as she emerged from the bathroom she found a man waiting with tea and biscuits. A cursory look at the clock gave her a sense of relief. She had only half-hour to board the train.
Chitrangada, the wife of the district collector of the North Cachar Hills was travelling to her parents’ home in Kanpur. Her journey was necessitated by her grandmother’s sudden illness. Somehow she had a hunch that her grandma was on clinging on to the last thread of life. She was sure that her grandma wanted to see her favourite grandchild before she breathed last. Consumed by childhood memories, she forgot to enjoy the hot tea. By the time she realised, it had gone cold. Nonetheless, she drank it in one gulp and replaced the cup on the table.
The dull décor and lacklustre ambience of a railway retiring room could evoke melancholy in the heart of even strongest optimist. She lately had been besieged by her personal differences with her husband whose preoccupation with job had left him with little time either for her or for his family. Her impassioned pleas to accompany her home had been turned down tactfully. Despite his busy schedule she knew he wasn’t interested to go with her. She had reasons to feel so because in their seven years of marriage they had been to her parents’ home only once. Apart from some trivial quarrels theirs was a blissful marriage. Her short journey down the memory lane was cut short by heavy sounds of the boots in the corridor. Within minutes she was at the platform waiting for the train.
It was well past midnight when she boarded the train and fell asleep almost instantaneously as the train moved out of the platform. When she awoke next morning she found a man, in mid-forties, sitting on the opposite seat. For a moment she was irked by a male’s presence but she realised that it was a train compartment and not her bedroom. The man, however, was looking outside the window. And that gave her some comfort.
Half-hour later she found herself a bit comfortable, although either was yet to break the ice. She fidgeted on her seat as she felt an urgent need to redo her makeup but couldn’t. And she hated to revisit the toilet again. Suddenly the train halted and the man moved out. Hurriedly she retouched her lipstick, applied moisturiser and combed her hair. Then she replaced the cosmetics into her leather bag and occupied her seat.
To her pleasant surprise her co-passenger walked in with tea and said handing her a cup, “Ma’am, this is for you.”
“Thanks, I’m Chitrangada,” she spoke gratefully and added, “You can call me Chitra.”
“Chitrangada sounds better.”
“Yeah, for me too but nowadays people find my name quite ancient and everyone calls me Chitra.”
“No wonder. In the age of burgers and colas we are fast losing our traditions and values.”
Thereafter they fell silent for some time.
“Excuse me. What should I call you?” she asked, drawing his attention.
“Oh, sorry. I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Tarun Varma. You might have heard about the gauge conversion between Lumding and Silchar. I’m working as an engineer on the project.”
“I wish the conversion is completed soon.”
“Why? Have you ever travelled on that route?
“No but from my husband I’ve heard a lot about the day journey between Silchar and Lumding.”
“Horror stories,” he laughed.
She said nothing but just smiled.
He spoke apologetically, “I know the day journey is quite long and tiring but perhaps not everyone is aware that the route is an absolute visual delight as the train passes through breath-taking countryside.”
“I didn’t know that,” she expressed surprise. “I hope to undertake journey someday. Hopefully by then trains would have begun to move faster.”
“Surely if your husband is around this place for another four years or so.”
She managed a feeble smile and spoke pensively, “You know that’s not guaranteed.”
“I guess that’s a small price to pay to be a collector’s wife,” he remarked.
“No, no that’s a huge price,” she protested, mildly. “It’s a fallacy the bureaucrats live a cushy life.”
Feeling the hurt in her voice, he immediately made amends, “Sorry. I’ve little knowledge about your husband’s profession.”
During the brief silence she regained her calm. He was relieved. After a cursory peep outside the window he turned to her and enquired, “Chitrangada, what’s your profession?”
“I work in my husband’s house,” dimples appeared as she smiled. “I mean I’m a housewife. Some women, however, call it by a fancy name like a house manager but the fact remains the same and the job similar whether you’re a poor man’s wife or a millionaire’s.”
For a while he looked perplexed and felt stupid at the choice of his question. As far as his knowledge went he knew the wives of most bureaucrats were working women, mostly in the same profession. Oddly his co-passenger was an exception. Curious, he probed further, “So, I guess you’re happy as a house manager unlike many women of today who seek a distinct career and identity for themselves.”
“Some years ago I too was very much like the other girls, full of dreams to achieve something in life and so I did my MBA. For less than a year I worked in a company. Then I fell in love with Neeraj, who was doing his training in Mussorie where I had gone with my friends for holidays. It was an accidental meeting and love at first sight.”
“And you married him.”
“Yeah, you’re right.
“So where was the hitch in your continuing with your job?”
She became pensive and a bit tensed. He waited anxiously for her answer. And when she stirred, he breathed easy.
“On the day Neeraj proposed me he said that he wanted a wife.”
“And he had one,” said Tarun in a sad tone.
Though he did understand what went on in her mind that moment, he tried to comfort her, “I’m sure you must be having a wonderful life as a collector’s wife.”
Her response was a huge smile. Fearing he might dig further into her life, she looked at him and asked, “Where’s your wife?”
“At home in Lucknow. She runs a boutique there,” his response was plain. “Since I never get to stay at a place for more than six months it’s not possible for us to stay together.”
“Lucky girl,” she mumbled.
“Did you say something?”
He fell silent. Perhaps she had touched his sensitive nerve, she felt. For a moment when she saw his eyes she found a profound sadness in them. She felt guilty for broaching such a sensitive subject with him. His eyes had begun to fill. The man could burst into tears any moment and might need a shoulder to lean on to. That moment she felt vulnerable. So she excused herself and quietly slipped away. At the other end of the compartment she occupied a vacant seat where she stayed there until the arrival of the next station. When she returned to her seat she found him engrossed in a book. His eyes had been wiped clean, she noticed. A little later they had lunch together.
After lunch she opened the bag and took out a pair of knitting needles and a bundle of light brown wool. Then she began to knit. Neeraj, her husband, had purchased the wool and it was his favourite colour. Before leaving home she had promised to knit a sweater for him. Though she had been knitting it for almost a month but somehow she hadn’t been able to finish it. The train journey, she thought, would give her enough time to complete the sweater and surprise her husband with it.
From the corner of the eye she looked at him and found him absorbed in the book. As the train picked up speed so did her knitting, which she had learnt from her grandmother. Contrary to her friends’ opinion she enjoyed knitting. In fact, it acted as a stress buster for her.
Suddenly a waiter appeared and asked them for tea. Both almost said in unison, “Yes.” Then he kept aside his book and was amazed to find her knitting. He couldn’t help but remark, “So you know it.”
“Why? What’s so surprising about it?” she replied, placing needles on the seat and exercising her aching fingers.
“I find it quite strange. I mean an MBA graduate and a collector’s wife reviving a dying art.”
“Oh, I understand. In a way you’re right. Not many educated city girls know how to knit. I learnt it from my grandma who knows so many designs. She is the best in the family. People say that she never repeated a design ever and she must have knitted more than hundred sweaters, pullovers and cardigans. Unfortunately I could learn only a dozen. I hardly get time at home. During train journeys, though, I manage to knit one or two.”
“Your husband is a lucky guy. The feel of a sweater knitted by someone special on a wintry night must be really exquisite. I mean a unique experience.”
“Why? Hasn’t anyone knitted you a sweater?”
“In my family women are too lazy to knit a scarf, leave alone a sweater. My wife, in fact, hates needles. I sometimes wonder how she runs a boutique.”
There she was sitting opposite a man who was so sentimental about hand-knitted sweaters but possessed none. On the other hand, her husband for whom she had knitted a dozen sweaters had never expressed any sentiment like that.
For the remainder of journey they conversed with each other on various subjects and when they got tired of talking, he switched to reading and she to knitting. In between he did look admiringly at her fingers, which moved like a professional’s. And before the penultimate station arrived, she had finished the sweater. He brought her hot tea from the station and both had it quietly. Half-hour later he was to alight at Lucknow. After having tea he began to pack his luggage. One moment he waited anxiously for the next station, and the next he wished his journey had never ended. It just went on and on, forever. Why? He didn’t understand. Neither his mind nor his heart had an answer.
Unenthusiastically he watched faint lights of the villages pass by. His hometown was to arrive any moment.
“Excuse me,” he heard her say.
“Yes,” he turned back.
“I’ve a gift for you. I hope you won’t refuse it,” she had a neatly wrapped packet in her hand.
“What have I done to deserve this?” he asked foolishly.
“It’s for the trouble you took during last twenty-four hours for getting me hot tea from the stations,” she spoke with a pleasing smiling.
For several seconds he remained too overwhelmed to say anything. Later he thanked her profusely and asked with a childlike sparkle in his eyes, “What’s in this?”
“Open and see for yourself,” she shot back.
Hurriedly he opened it and was shocked to find a sweater. It was the same one she had been knitting in the train. Suddenly his heart was weighed down by a sense of guilt. That sweater was for her husband. How could he ever accept it? He argued in his mind and spoke politely, “Chitrangada, though this is the best gift of my life, I can’t accept it. Neeraj is its rightful owner.”
“Believe me. You deserve more than him,” she insisted. “I’ll make him another one.”
“Thank you so much. I shall treasure it all my life,” he wiped his misty eyes.
“It’s not for safe keeping. Do wear it sometimes. I’ll feel happy,” she laughed.
He joined her. Some minutes later when the train halted, he shook hands and bade her good-bye. Outside the station he found the weather a bit chilly and so he instinctively put on the sweater. Half-hour later he was at home with his wife and children. They all were delighted to see him. After freshening up he sat at the dining table as his wife prepared tea.
As soon as she placed cups on the table the sweater caught her attention. She moved closer to him and touched it. “Nice sweater. Where did you get it? I mean who gifted it.”
“Chitrangada,” he said hastily and began to sip tea.
“Isn’t she one of your cousins?” she enquired but just couldn’t take her eyes off the sweater. She felt it between her fingers and had a close look at the design. “Tarun, you know this design is very, very exclusive, the kind a woman makes for someone special.”
“How could you judge that?” he asked.
“I run a boutique and don’t forget I’m a designer too.”
“But you never knitted a sweater.”
“So what?” she snapped back. “A woman can never miss the sentiments that go behind making a garment.”
“All right, I believe you,” his smile hid everything.
“Indeed, it’s a nice sweater,” her smile said it all.
* * *