Why is my train rolling backwards? I look back at the platform. The kid in oversized T-shirt is still perched on his suitcase, peeling oranges while his parents buy tea in earthen cups from the Chaiwala. The stationary platform effaces the illusion conveyed by the departure of the neighboring train.
“Chai!” the tea seller’s voice booms in my ear as he stops by the window, encouraged by my prolonged gaze. I avert my eyes to the inside of the compartment. Grandpa, still wearing his thick glasses, is dozing off, his usual stern expression softened by sleep.
The stranger sitting opposite me tears open a packet of chips and begins munching, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. He is not dashing but his face, framed by dark curls is interesting if you look long enough. The green wheat crops reflect in his nutmeg irises. His face is smooth and young despite the slate-gray circles under the eyes. Are they hereditary or are they from sleep deprivation? With his paprika-flecked fingers he removes a strand of hair from his eyes, blinking from the spice.
His fingers are long and artistic. I imagine him painting me as I lie in bed- much like Venus in, ‘Venus at Her Mirror’ by Velazquez, whom I wouldn’t know if my sister weren’t in Art College.
“Do you want some?” the stranger asks, extending the bag of chips towards me.
I shake my head, cursing myself for staring at his hands. A cart with fresh oranges and guavas stacked in pyramids, stops outside my window. The fruit seller, intently eyeing his antique balance, weighs some guavas for a woman. My mouth waters when the woman digs her teeth into the fruit’s pink flesh. By the time I make up my mind to buy, the horn blows and the train lurches into motion. Grandpa’s head lolls from the jolt but he continues sleeping.
Families run alongside the train to exchange some last words with passengers. Two young women rush to catch the train. Their suitcases teeter perilously on a porter’s turbaned head, as he follows them hurriedly. After fast-forwarding past the chaotic platform, the train traverses the rural landscape. Framed by electric poles and wires, the seemingly unchanging farms swirl in the wind like Van Gogh’s brush strokes.
Tomorrow morning I will be at my all-girls’ school, feigning interest at whatever romantic tales of their vacations my friends relate. I wish the train journey would go on forever and I never reach school for I have nothing to share - no story at all.
“Where are you going?” the stranger asks, crushing a paprika-stained paper napkin and tossing it onto the hinged table between us.
“Dehradun,” I whisper, cautious not to wake Grandpa. He reproached my sister once for asking the name of a storekeeper’s son, and telling him to work at the store more often. She claimed he was efficient, unlike his dad.
The stranger looks at me as if he has something more to say. I feel myself going weak under his gaze. The dust from the open window soils my white collar. I make a note to change the shirt and wipe my ears before reaching school. The teachers are sticklers for cleanliness. My braids are coming loose and wisps of hair lash at my face. It would get all entangled from wind and grime by the time I brush it tomorrow morning, but who cares. A Beatles song drones in my head, ‘Love, Love me do.’ I close my eyes and feel the cool wind beating against my face.
This is how exhilarating the wind might feel if I were riding with the stranger on a motorcycle, pressing my breasts against his shoulder blades as we weave recklessly between cars. The tinkling of a bicycle bell brings me out of my reverie. The boy riding it is trying to race with the train. I chuckle in spite of myself.
“Which school are you in?” the stranger asks. His eyes linger on the crest of my blazer making me squirm.
“Woodridge Girls’ School,” I whisper, turning my head so that acne near my nose is hidden from him. There is a nervous excitement building inside me.
“Sorry,” He tucks his curls behind an ear, as if they obstruct his hearing, “Which one?”
Grandpa’s head is hanging on his chest. In order not to wake him, I write down the name of the school on a corner of the newspaper lying at the table. Even as I tear off the corner and hand it to him, I worry that he might think of me as too forward. An oncoming train whizzes past shaking Grandpa out of his slumber with its alarming speed, and the stranger slips the note in his jacket’s breast pocket without reading it.
“Is anything wrong?” Grandpa asks, looking at him and then at me.
“No. Why?”” I reply, unsure if he suspects anything.
“Then stop frowning.” He blows away the dust on his glasses, and then wipes them with the end of his white kurta. “Pass me the newspaper.”
When I hand it to him, he clicks his tongue, in stern reproach for the torn corner.
The train gradually zooms in on the action of a new station. People jostle to get on before it even halts. The train almost stops at the newspaper stand and then rolls along a little further until a food stall becomes visible from the window. The smell of fried food wafts in. A man sits on a wooden bench eating pooris and spicy potatoes. I swallow, cursing my proclivity to gain weight. An apparition of the stall owner behind the oily fumes shoos a beggar girl away from his customer. The girl, no more than ten, and dressed in a torn and dirty frock, comes to the stranger sitting opposite. He waves her away and lowers the glass of hi window. She expectantly moves toward me. I hand her a fifty-paisa coin.
“Do you want anything from the station?” Grandpa asks drinking water from a bottle.
He goes out to the platform and smokes a cigarette, puffing out plumes as grey as the color of his closely-cropped beard.
“How large is your school?” the stranger asks leaning forward.
“It’s quite large.” My voice comes out all croaky and I clear my throat. “It was built ………”
“No, I mean how many students?” He smiles.
“Five hundred,” I say, aware of him surveying my thumb as it goes over my fingers. “Roughly.”
“What sports do you play?” he asks, nodding his head.
“Hockey and volleyball.” Through his open jacket, I see ‘Sampras’ printed on his T-shirt and assume he is a tennis fan like me. He catches me scrutinizing him and I lower my eyes. ‘Someone to love, someone like you.’ The Beatles can’t get out of my head. My mouth turns into a smile, and to conceal it I fumble for my burlap tote.
The train starts moving. Grandpa is not in the compartment. He is not at the cigarette stand either. Worried, I rise to see if he is in the corridor but he returns smelling of tobacco. Before sitting down, he checks the baggage in the compartment to make sure nobody has left an unidentified one.
I see the toy seller at his stand of various hand-made brightly colored toys, rattling them to attract customers. I turn back and continue looking at him until the view diminishes. A little boy waves at the train. I fight the urge to wave back for I don’t want to come across as childish.
“Here’s your bubblegum.” Grandpa tosses it in my direction.
“You know, you shouldn’t be smoking, since you are on blood pressure medication?” I say, popping the gum in my mouth.
“Hmm. I know,” he says resting his head against the back of his seat, and looking out the window.
The sun is making its way toward the arc of the Earth, ready to explore the other side. The stranger yawns. I yawn too, kicking off my black shoes and crossing my legs up on the seat. His eyes rest on my knee, or probably my thigh, sending a warm feeling through me. The thought of ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ from my friends as I tell them this, makes me want to giggle. I think I will explode if I don’t distract myself with something serious, so I pick up the newspaper.
“Do you mind shutting the window?” the stranger asks wrinkling his nose as a stench floats in from the sewer outside.
I fumble to close it but it doesn’t budge. He comes to help. I breathe in his musky cologne. From where he is standing, he can gaze into the recesses of my cleavage, as I am not wearing a tie.
“I will close it,” Grandpa intervenes, waving the stranger back to his seat and pulling the window down. I avoid rolling my eyes.
Before sitting down, the stranger takes off his leather jacket and hangs it on the peg above the table, half covering the mirror there.
A tiny spider mite, near where his jacket is hanging, stirs a little and then becomes still. I see plenty of those at school. I drum at the wall to see if the arachnid reacts to the vibrations. It doesn’t, but I manage to get the stranger’s attention. He looks away immediately. His brows have lost their arch from some deep thought. He chews his dry lips, biting off a piece of skin from his upper lip and wincing in pain. Then he draws it in to soothe it with the tongue. Is he thinking of me? Shit! I am staring again. I avert my gaze to the spider mite but it turns out to be just a speck of paprika, maybe from the chips.
The darkness outside makes the window reflect the inside of the compartment. The acne near my nose is ripe, thriving on the dirt and engine soot in the air. My hair is awry and I decide to fix it. Sliding open the compartment door, I walk through the corridor to the bathroom.
I wait there, wishing that the stranger would follow but he doesn’t. A middle-aged woman comes out smelling of jasmine soap. The rocking and the rattling of the train are quite exaggerated in the bathroom. The rhythm will stay with me as I sleep in my cold bed at the school dormitory tomorrow. I undo my braids, letting the waves conceal the roundness of my cheeks. My cheeks and ears burn and my eyes turn soft and narrow as the thought of the stranger kissing me crosses my mind. A jolt throws me off balance, and I swear under my breath. Then, with my hairpin, I scratch, “I love you, stranger, 31st Jan 1994” on the vandalized wall.
“Where are you going?” Grandpa asks the stranger. When it gets dark, grandpa likes to interrogate his fellow passengers and make sure they are not public enemies.
“Dehradun, sir.” The stranger says.
“Are you visiting someone or do you live there?”
“I live there.” He says picking up the paper from the table, “Do you mind if I borrow this?”
“No, no. Go ahead.”
It’s hard to see the stranger behind the folds of the newspaper.
“What do you do?” Grandpa asks him.
“I have a sporting goods store,” he says lowering the paper. Then he steals a glance at me and adds, “I supply to several schools in the area.”
I nod foolishly, tracing with my finger the embossed letters IR (Indian railways) on the blue faux leather seat, focusing on the flavorless gum tucked in a corner of my mouth, and the painful acne aggravated from chewing it. I look outside but the inside reflects back. I feel hot and sick, and try to open the window, but it doesn’t budge, so I take off my jacket. How stupid I am.
Cupping my face against the window and pretending to look out. I blink away my tears. I feel mortified not because he doesn’t care about me, but because he knows about my crush on him. If only I had refrained from giving him that tangible evidence with the name of my school. How desperate the act seems now. I wonder if he thinks I have a dubious character. I cringe, and Grandpa’s words, when he saw my sister flirting with the storekeeper, echo in my head, “Your mother would have been ashamed of you.”
Neon lights glare in my eyes as another station approaches. I am glad the stranger is not getting off here for it gives me time to remove the note from his jacket, still hanging on the peg between the windows.
When the attendant serves dinner, the stranger leaves the compartment. Grandpa puts the steel plates on the seat between us.
“Are you not going to wash your hands?” I ask, hoping to get Grandpa to leave too.
“I was going to,” he lied, “what about you?”
“I already did a few minutes ago.”
He lingers looking in the burlap bag for something.
“Hurry up. The food is getting cold,” I say even though the steam is still rising from the rice and curries.
“I am looking for the soap,” he says eyeing me curiously.
“Here,” I find it and give it to him.
When he leaves, I close the sliding door, then take my blazer from the seat and pretend to hang it on the peg. In the mirror behind the stranger’s jacket my face appears pale. I can hear my teeth thrashing the gum in my mouth. My heart is pounding even though I am only taking what’s mine. In one swift motion, I grab the piece of paper from the stranger’s jacket. A fifty-rupee bill falls from the pocket onto the floor. I turn around and see Grandpa slide open the door.
“Is this yours,” I ask, picking up the bill, my heart thumping.
“Where did you find it?”
“On the floor,” I throw the bill on the stranger’s seat, “Maybe it belongs to that guy.”
“Let’s eat,” he says settling down.
I spit the bubblegum wad into the paper crushed moist in my fist. The smell of the stranger’s musk has transferred to it. I pull out another strip of soap and make my way to the basin.
“Where are you going now?”
“To wash my hands.”
In the corridor I see the stranger running his wet fingers through his hair, and feel relieved that I may never cross paths with him again. I wash my hands and splash water on my face. Blood from the burst acne, stains the white shirtsleeve when I wipe my face. I squeeze out the pus, and the pain alleviates.
I don’t look at the stranger again until the next morning before getting off the train. He puts his hand in his jacket pocket and hesitates for a moment, then tosses his weighed-down curls off his forehead, before turning toward the exit. His tapered jeans, perhaps not freshly laundered, sag on the butt as he drags his suitcase behind him. My smug satisfaction, as I watch his leather jacket hang on his scrawny shoulders, outweighs my disappointment at not having a story to tell my friends.