GOWANUS Summer 2000
THE LONG JOURNEY
By Vasanthi Victor
wipes the tears from her eyes. She cannot help it. It is in her nature
to cry whether she is actually sitting in a theater watching the film or
only recalling it, as she is now. Devdas is her all-time favorite.
The old black-and-white classic reeling through her mind one tearful scene
after another makes her weep every time. She takes a quick peek at Shyam
seated beside her. Fortunately he is asleep. They are an old couple and
so well-versed in each other that even if she did try to hide her tears
during a film, which she has begun to do of late during a particularly
poignant scene, he would still turn to look at her, having anticipated
just such a response. She sighs—there are so few hidden corners of the
heart—and peeks at him again. He looks dishevelled and rumpled as he sits,
swaying. They are travelling on the Deccan Queen in the second-class compartment—reserved
berths, so they can sleep comfortably. He will be on the upper berth and
she on the lower. It is not the first time they have travelled together,
not the first time they have used these sleeping arrangements.
How was it that first time...? They were making the trip from Baroda to Bombay with her parents who had come to escort the new bride and groom back to their home and had taken seats on the berth across the aisle from them. Shyam had said, Let me lie with you.
What! What will my parents think?
I don't care what they think. We are married now.
But how could she lie with a man in full view of her parents? She shook her head no, though it did seem strange to lie alone after almost a month of marriage. Still, she would not hear of it. He had given her a miffed look, clearly put out, and climbed to the upper berth. When she tried to say something to him, he refused to look at her, had turned his back and soon was asleep.
Dust and grime sweeps in through the open window next to her, settling on the floor and the dark-green vinyl seats. Stale, stagnant air, peculiar to Indian Railways, clings to her hair and clothes. She brushes herself and re-arranges her saree in an effort to shake it off. But it clings nonetheless. Getting up carefully so as to maintain her balance, she walks down the aisle at a slant against the movement of the speeding train and navigates her way to the restroom. In the crowded passageway she steps over extended legs and then unwittingly onto a bundle on the floor. The bundle moves. She immediately removes her offending foot with an apology, but the mother of the sleeping bundle stares up at her accusingly. Some young men standing near the exits watch her as she approaches the toilet. How can they stand the odour? When she comes out again, re-arranging her saree, they have gone back to watching the Deccan Plateau rushing past. Meanwhile, the toilet smell follows her back down the aisle as she again steps around the bundle on the floor.
Shyam is still asleep. His head moves from side to side with the rhythm of the train. The slippers have fallen from his feet. From a bag under his legs she picks up a magazine and flips through its pages. Out of the corner of her eye she glimpses the furtive looks being exchanged between a middle-aged man and a young girl seated across the passageway, occupying single seats. She continues to watch them and decides there is something illicit going on. A woman who appears to be the man's wife lies dozing on the extended seat near him, and two children share the bunk above her. Kamala decides the girl must be someone's maid or relative. He has not yet made a move. He is waiting for an opportune moment.
She glances at the wife lying innocently asleep. Wake up! she thinks, but who can hear thoughts? She turns her attention back to the magazine on her lap, blindly reading the words, the lines of the page merging into one. Eventually she begins to nod and dozes off like Shyam and the other passengers.
A long time ago, back in her childhood, her aunt—the one with long black hair, shining eyes and dark skin, skin so dark she could not possibly be related to Kamala’s own family, has come to send them off. Everyone is sitting and talking in a loud chatter, the aunt among them, and suddenly the train jerks into motion. No one heard the whistle!
I must get off.
Don't go, Auntie, Kamala says.
Silly girl, I must.
Kamala tries to hold her back as Auntie moves hastily to the exit, crying, Let me go!
Auntie, please don't go! Please don't...
But Auntie pulls her arm free and jumps. The moving train has almost passed the platform, but somehow she lands safely on her feet. Kamala’s mother begins to scold her: What on earth possessed you to act like that? You could have hurt yourself. Naughty girl! But watching the receding shape of her aunt, Kamala pays no attention and waves despondently....
And as she waves she thinks about Devdas, the tragic hero who gradually, scene by scene, becomes an alcoholic. A wayward youth, he has rejected his childhood sweetheart and left the village where he grew up in order to live in the big city. And there he does what other young men do who live alone—he falls into bad company. As he sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, a dancing girl looks after him. She does everything in her power to help him, but he eventually leaves her too, longing for his lost love....
Someone jostles her and, against her will, she pries her eyes open.
Shyam pokes at her arm. Almost meal
time, he says. Wake up.
As she comes awake she asks automatically, Do you want the puris we packed?
No. I'll wait for the tiffin-carrier. We should be getting it soon at the next station.
But she reaches for the bag under the seat and, unwrapping the package she finds there, mutters, These puris are good. Taste really good with the sabji.
No. We should be stopping soon.
What about your stomach? You know you have a weak stomach.
But he shakes his head in the negative.
Have this moosambi, then.
She offers the orange fruit. He takes it and begins peeling the skin off. When he bites into it, it drips all over his shirt and she scolds him for making a mess. Just like a child you are, she says.
Don't bother me, alright? See, I am eating my moosambi.
The people across the aisle from them smile. And, playing to them, he says, Right? This is how you eat a moosambi. Yes, yes, they nod in assent. Kamala does not look up. Tearing open the puri with her right hand, she scoops the potato sabji and places in her mouth. Shyam watches her with interest, so she offers to share. But he does not want to appear greedy in front of his new-found friends. I will wait. It will only spoil my appetite.
When the train comes to a halt at the next station, there's a mad rush of people entering and exiting. The tiffin-carrier, stainless-steel trays piled in one hand, clambers into the carriage, balancing the trays expertly. At the window a hawker with a snack tray cries above the din, selling his wares from the outside.
How much is it? Shyam yells back.
Saab, teen rupaiya.
Nahi, nahi. Chal.
The snack is cold, not fresh, he tells Kamala. But the hawker belligerently calls: Bilkul fresh. Dake. Sensing an argument, Kamala pulls Shyam away from the window and cajoles: See, the tiffin-carrier is coming our way. The hot tray dropped unceremoniously into his hands by the carrier is piping hot, but Shyam digs into it with relish. The curries have spilled out of their round steel containers, but Shyam exclaims, They have mango pickle!
Don't eat the pickle, it will be too spicy for your stomach.
You leave my stomach alone. Why can't a man have his meal in peace!
She pays no attention to his rebuke and continues with her own eating. When he is almost done he calls out to the chaiwalla. The chaiwalla is alert and quick on his feet. He comes at once and hands her a thick steamy glass of tea. With the tea in her hand, she gestures to her husband: Does he want any? But Shyam shakes his head no. The glass is hot in her hand and it spills a little as the train jerks forward again. The passengers still hobnobbing outside somehow scramble to get back on. The young men from the doorway near the restrooms clamber aboard, laughing together. Comfortably sipping chai, Kamala watches the station slip in slow motion from sight. As the commotion of its leaving subsides, the people inside the cabin settle down to eat and soon care about nothing else. Sipping more chai, she sees the middle-aged man talking to his wife. The girl has moved from her earlier spot and is now seated further away. Like the others, she is eating with her hand, her head bent over her food. The man's children are also awake and his wife, feeding one, murmurs: Take, take.
Shyam gets up to wash his hands at the wash basin at the other end of the carriage. When he returns he smiles at Kamala. Want to play cards? he asks.
He invites anyone who is interested to join them, but they shake their heads. But after a few hands the same few who had just declined to play are gradually drawn into the game. Before long an enthusiastic session is in full swing. Finding herself surrounded entirely by men, Kamala excuses herself. They hardly miss her as she becomes the spectator, watching her husband play. Eventually she loses all interest in the game and reverts to watching the middle-aged man and the girl, who has resumed her earlier position near him. The man's wife has retired for the night, sleeping with the saree palloo covering her head. Except for the card players, everyone in Kamala’s own and the adjoining cabin are making preparations to sleep. She pulls up her legs and curls herself into a comfortable position. The card players lower their voices, and a hush descends on the cabin. One by one, the lights wink off. The middle-aged man rubs his shoulder against the girl. She feigns sleep.
Kamala wonders if the girl has already been spoilt. Someone—an uncle, a family friend—could have made passes, or worse. It happens all the time. Sooner or later, a girl like her, from a poor family judging from her clothes, gets spoilt. Bechari! Still, no point in conjuring up useless thoughts, is there?
Shyam asks, Kamala are you ready to sleep?
No, no. Continue playing if you want.
But he has already turned to the others. What do you say, friends? Shall we call it a night?
Yes, yes. No use keeping the missus up. Shyam responds, Anyway, it was a good game. Someone lying down nearby shushes them. Goodnight, Shyam whispers with his fingers to his mouth. Then he asks Kamala if she needs anything before climbing into the upper berth. Slouching down into the vinyl, she murmurs, Turn off the light.
Though it is quiet now, she cannot sleep. In the dark she imagines bedbugs are on the crawl. She sits up straight and searches for any sign of them, then slouches down again. The Deccan Queen chugs along, rocking and swaying in a desultory fashion. Kamala can hear a few snores already and wonders if some of them are her husband's. Swaying to the rhythm, she begins to drift off herself....
Her parents would be proud. A granddaughter in America! And, Kamala, you are going too, they would say if they were still alive. But right from the start she has been uneasy, and long before it came time to board the train she felt full of apprehension about the trip. Shyam tried to reassure her before they left Baroda. It is official now, Kamala, he said. The documents are prepared. We must leave in a few months or the visa will expire. And what about Rita? She will be waiting for us.... Besides, think of all the fun you will have with your grandchildren.
She paid no attention to his words. Instead she thought about the photos Rita had sent from New York. The snaps showed them all smiling happily. The photos were taken in different locales and in the many different seasons of the New World. In one they were bundled up because of the cold, Rita and the baby both. All around them was white with snow. Though Kamala peered hard at the photo she could barely make out the baby's tiny face in all the heavy clothing he was wrapped in. How could she, she asked herself, live in such a cold place? She had only to look at that poor baby. He looked so pale, his skin, she imagined, turning white! She has always been such a warm-blooded creature, a woman accustomed to heat beating down on her. So brown she'd grown over the years. Living in such a cold place she'd have to be wrapped up like that baby. How could she, of all people, bear to walk with her feet covered? In Baroda, she went barefoot. Her saree flew freely about her as she went about her daily routine. In New York (Rita, bless her soul, had always been a good daughter) she wouldn't even be mistress of her own house. What would she do with herself?
She told Shyam her bones would ache with cold. The sun could not shine in such a cold place. Imagine me, she said, bundled up forever. But Shyam, turning a deaf ear, brushed aside her concerns. You will be fine Kamala, he said. Anyway, your place belongs with me, and I have agreed to go to live with our daughter and her family. When we leave here, after we arrive in Bombay, we'll drive to the airport and catch our plane. We'll fly in a jumbo jet. Rita, he said, will take good care of us. See! She has already booked our tickets. Who else is there to look out for us in our old age? Come down to earth, Kamala, he said.
Suddenly sitting up, she looks about her. Where am I?
Then she slaps at the bedbugs, twisting this way and that, trying to find a more comfortable position. The girl she saw earlier, now crouched on the floor, is sleeping with her head on her knees, rocking with the motion of the train. The man must certainly think she is asleep because his hand has crept up under her skirt. The girl suddenly becomes very still but doesn't raise her head or move at all. A little later she begins to rock again, lifts her head and glances at him shyly. He gets up and heads for the restroom. When he comes back the girl tries to move closer to him, but when he looks around he sees Kamala. Their eyes meet, then he looks up at his wife who is sleeping in the berth above him. He doesn't seem to care if a strange old woman sees him.
Kamala silently calls him louse. Louse, louse. Doesn't he care that he's being watched? And that girl, letting herself be used like that. What kind of people travel in these trains anyway? Shyam should have booked seats in a first-class coach. But then she remembers how there weren't any sleepers available.... Stop! she tells the bedbugs, stop biting me.
In the morning the cool air and the jolt of the train coming to a stop wakes her. Shyam is bright and cheerful when he finds her already awake as he comes down from his perch.
Did you sleep well? he asks.
The bedbugs kept me awake. Don't they ever bite you?
I slept fine. Did you want a cup of chai, I am going to get one.
Maybe later. I have to brush my teeth and freshen up.
Come with me outside, then, and use the wash basin on the platform.
So, wrapping herself up and adjusting her hair, she steps out into the cool morning air.
There are people asleep on the benches and the cold floor of the station. Such people, she thinks bending down to rinse her brush and wash her face at the faucet, pass their whole lives in these places.
They find there will be a minor delay and decide to stretch their legs a bit. From nowhere a beggarwoman accosts them: Amma, mai gharib hoo. Mujhe paisa dede. She has one child on her hip and, pushing forth another, she repeats the words till Shyam, annoyed, fishes out some change from his pocket and drops it in her cupped hands. The woman thanks them both, touching her hand to her forehead as the child at her hip stares up at them with big black eyes.
When they return to the train the young men are at the same spot by the exit doors they occupied yesterday, smoking Charminar’s and Lucky’s. Kamala walks past the man with the roving hands. His wife is sitting next to him, now wide awake. Kamala glares at him as she passes, but he ignores her, staring out the window. His wife begins to rearrange her saree and comb her hair, apparently without a care in the world.
As they sit down on their seat, the card-players wish them good morning.
Good Morning! Shyam replies. Good Morning. Have you had some tea? Very good tea here.
No, Sir. We are only now getting up. Where are you going? To Bombay? they ask.
All of us here are headed there as well. Whereabouts do you live in Bombay?
No, no. We live in Baroda. At least, we used to. My wife and I are flying to New York. Our daughter has invited us to come and live with her. We are grandparents now, you see. And he beams proudly.
To New York! How lucky to be travelling abroad, they say. You must be rich.
Shyam, still beaming says, Hardly rich. Lucky, yes, that I agree. Isn't that right, Kamala?
She responds with a wan smile.
The card players begin discussing the ups and downs of life in a city like Bombay. How, with the cost of living going up and up, a person should consider himself fortunate just to own a flat. Flats are so tiny and so hard to find that one can barely manage a sneeze in one of them. In between, someone tries to get their address in New York, but Kamala nudges her husband. Surprisingly, he comes up with an excuse not to give it, though she is convinced it is she who has averted a disaster. What if a relative of this stranger suddenly lands on Rita's doorstep? Just like that, out of the blue. It could happen, perhaps it happens all the time, one just never knows these days. She congratulates herself...she has stopped him just in time.
Look, look, she says suddenly. Do you see this station?
As the train creeps slowly past a non-descript platform in the middle of nowhere, Shyam asks, What about it?
It's like the one in Devdas, she says excitedly.
Devdas? What are you talking about? And he looks at her carefully. But she is back in the emotional scenes of the old black-and-white classic playing in her mind: Devdas passing from town to town, wandering by rail. He comes back to the town where his childhood sweetheart still lives. She is married now to a widower with two grown children, is well-respected and leading a comfortable family life. Devdas is sick and perhaps already dying, his liver abused by years of drinking. He finds a rickshaw driver to ferry him through the night in a worsening downpour. Unable to continue on, the driver abandons him as Devdas in a delirium calls his sweetheart's name.
In the morning people begin to gather around the tree where he has been found lying atop the cement platform. As they mutter among themselves about his identity, a servant from his sweetheart's household overhears them. He tells his mistress, There's a man lying in front our house uttering your name. Who is he? she asks. Devdas, or some such, the neighbors are saying. The sweetheart runs in anguish out of the house, her step-children following. They try to prevent her from reaching the crowd gathered outside. Shut the gates, shut the gates! they call to the sentry. She reaches the main gate just as it closes and she collapses on the railing, sobbing. Outside, Devdas breathes his last, miserable to the end.
Kamala wipes a tear from her eye. Dilip Kumar played the hero, and what was the name of the actress who played his true love? She can't remember. But it doesn't matter...they don't make pictures like that anymore. She sighs and shakes her head.
All around her, people are beginning to gather together their belongings and are busy tidying up themselves and their children. With the end of each passing mile they begin to shake off the lethargy of the trip and look forward to their destinations. Shyam tells her excitedly, We are drawing closer...the end of our yatra. Somebody from across the aisle reaches out to shake his hand as if they were old friends. Kamala looks around for the girl, but it is hard to find her in the crush. Suddenly she spots her. The middle-aged man is trying to slip a note to her, but the girl is hesitant. He tries to force it on her, stepping very close, but she makes no attempt to take it from him. Louse! Kamala hisses, pulling her saree tightly around her and adjusting her hair. Shyam turns to ask what is the matter? She smiles and shakes her head.
The train has slowed to a crawl, and
from somewhere a whistle blows. Coolies wrapped in red turbans swing on
to the sides and clamber inside. Then there is a loud babble of voices,
some of them annoyed and some confused. She hears the crunch of brakes
and the last sudden shriek of the train as it finally comes to a halt.
(Born and raised in Bombay, India, Vasanthi Victor now lives in the California Bay Area with her husband and children. Her fiction has been published in anthologies and online in IndiaWorld and Monsoon. One of her stories is scheduled for publication in the Canadian anthology Bolo! Bolo!)