“Eclectic, interesting…will fill you with hope and resolve!” – Pick up our new short story collection, Women.Mutiny
It is another thing that you do not want to look at the one opening in front of you, that you are not able to gather courage to take that first step, that you are so attached to your previous road that you do not find any other road worth it.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Darkest Nights; Brightest Stars”. The story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The first winner of our December 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Namrata Singh.
“Madamji, careful, you seem to be in a hurry to meet the creator.”
Naina, as if caught red handed, jerked backwards, looked back, holding the door rails of Sampoorna Kranti headed from Delhi to Patna. At 3 am, the three-tier compartment was wrapped in silent darkness except for a dim tube light near the lavatory and a wailing infant whose mother struggled to feed on the narrow berth. The midnight moon in full bloom kept a close eye on Naina and her intentions when the young voice jolted her out of trance.
“Go, sell your magazines if there is anyone awake. Secure your meal for tomorrow.” Under the dim light and the raucous, metallic shriek, Naina’s bloodshot eyes reviewed the tall, dark-skinned figure barely twenty with neatly parted hair, the length of the 1990’s actor Rahul Roy, wearing loose sky-blue shirt and deep blue jeans. The dusty, black bag hung over the shoulder complained of its load silently. The current issue of Amar Ujala peeped from the broken zip cover. A half- eaten patty lay in a crumpled plastic wrap in the hand.
“Madamji ji, why do you get angry? You were leaning out and the train is speeding away. If your head hits a pole or your grip betrays you, the skull will crash into million pieces. Life is for cashing and not crashing,” said the figure in an accent, a cocktail of human care, jest and philosophy.
The voice erased the initial misgiving about the gender. Naina gave her a look, irritated at the words unsuitable for someone of her age.
“No philosophy Madamji, just humanity.”
“Life is not led by philosophy. When reality strikes, the first thing to escape out of the window is this very philosophy and then you realize it is better to crash and end it,” said Naina with indignation.
“Madamji, you seem to be more learned than me but in my 21 years of life, I have been living a reality and I know that it’s all about a choice…to cash or crash.” The voice answered, with a maturity of someone who has lived the seasons of life.
Naina felt strange. At 2:15 am, somewhere between Allahabad and Mughalsarai junction, the train seemed to gallop like a horse. Her mission had got interrupted by an unwelcomed intruder whose looks belied the words she spoke. Strangely, Naina felt the rush to continue the conversation. Her mission lay disturbed and distracted.
“You talk well. What is your name? From where?”
“UP, Madamji. My parents named me Gujiya. Right now made of semolina stuffing. Hahaha. People like ‘khoya’ ones, but very soon I won’t be ‘khoya’ anymore…I will find myself” Gujiya looked at the dark shadows outside and back at Naina staring at her. “I was born on this train. This train knows me more than I know myself.”
Naina laughed at the pun of ‘khoya’ , the bon mot from a girl so young, barely 22, she thought.
“Really? That would have been some experience for your parents. Hmmm…. you know, I love trains too. Hanging on to the window railings of these trains, as far as I can remember, each journey has given me a story, some outside the window and some inside. My suitcase is replete with stories, all conceived during a train journey.”
Naina sat on a big plastic bundle kept near the greasy washbasin. “You know Gujiya, if a writer was to have a never-ending supply of stories for a lifetime, she should become a train passenger. These bed holders, the steel tiffin cases, aloo bhujias with mango pickles, the iron trunks, the worn-out suitcases, the stained window railings and the unwanted middle berth, all carry a silent story, I have heard them many a times and I continue to.
“Really Madamji ? You are writer it seems. Is your book published? Do I already have it in my bag?”
“Writer? Hmmm. Yes, I guess, I am one but that is not what people want or think I should be. By the way, you seem to be an educated girl, you know about writing and publishing…”
“Madamji , I graduated from LBS college, Mughalsarai this year.”
“Impressive. How come…”
As if already knowing the question, Gujiya answered “My Babuji worked in the pantry car of this train. He retired last year but I cling on to this train, still.”
“To sell Chacha Chaudhary?” Naina tried not to ridicule.
“What Madamji? Don’t judge this book by its cover. I sell these magazines only after I have read them all. I know why Rahul Gandhi hugged our PM on the day of no confidence motion, about Imran Khan’s election victory, 4 million illegal immigrants of Assam, Priyanka Chopra marrying Nick Jonas, and how Cape Town in South Africa came close to turn into a dry city.”
“Whoa. Genius. Not bad.”
“Madamji, my Babuji spent his life working on this train. I was offered a job of a helper here, but I refused. On this very train five years back, Babuji and myself met PN Mustafi, IAS, Danapur, and we saw our first dream of writing UPSC, right here where I am talking to you.”
Taking out a thick magazine of Pratiyogita Darpan, half-yearly series, with Narendra Modi on the cover page, Gujiya remarked with an air of self-assurance, “Ask me,” for few seconds their eyes met, “anything.” Naina had never witnessed such confidence coming from someone so unsuitable for it ever in her life, such conviction which she yearned for in her life.
She smiled, pulled her phone to see the time. Barring few passengers who got up to attend to nature’s call, Naina and Gujiya were the only dreamers who stayed awake. The strong ammonia smell around the lavatory disappeared when the train passed the mustard fields and filled the air with fragrance.
Gujiya flipped few pages of the magazine and kept it back in the bag. “I gave the prelims this May,” disclosed Gujiya.
“You did? Good.” Naina looked back at Gujiya. “I gave too. Mine is the last attempt and I am sure of not getting through.” Naina’s voice hadn’t felt so lifeless.
“Fourth attempt…hmmm…but why so sure?”
“Big question Gujiya. My small answer is, I don’t know why but I am sure. My father was a constable at Danapur police station. You know how it is in Bihar? When a child is born, he/she is most probably named Deepak, if he is a male, considering he is the light that will dispel the darkness or Kiran, after the famous Kiran Bedi. My parent named me Kiran and assigned the same dream which Kiran Bedi had achieved. In 10thgrade, much to their displeasure, I changed my name to Naina. The name has a song to it and I was the lyrics of that song. Did it change my destiny? No. I was the next IAS in making. Back at my place the only alphabets the child is ever taught in any language-Maithili, Bhojpuri, English or Hindi is U-P-S-C. IAS is the 100% solution, like LIC –Jeevan ke saath bhi, Jeevan ke baad bhi. Each Bihari family slogs to secure this one dream which will ensure happiness for the next seven generations. I came to Delhi, just like you, after graduation from Patna University. I was barely 21 and while my bag was stuffed with pirikiya, thekua, nimki, money from a broken FD and General Studies guide, my heart felt burdened. Parental expectations felt like bricks on my heart under which my stories got buried. With each failed attempt, my babuji’s health deteriorated and I felt smaller. His confidence and pride kept sinking, his dream of lal batti dimmed. I have failed him, failed myself. I have become so small that I can get lost within myself, never to be found again.”
“So, you are going back home now?”
“Home? Ummm…. Y—e—sss. Going. Finally. No other way.” Naina tried to conceal what her eyes easily revealed. Nine years of life at Nirankari Colony room with five other UPSC aspirants from Bihar had been a nightmare. Scarcity of money and hope is a fatal combination. The former hits the stomach, the latter nails the heart. For Naina, both resources fell short after her first unsuccessful attempt. She scrimmaged to survive.
“Hmmm. Madamji, shall I tell you something?” Gujiya paused, glanced over the lines on her palm and added, “The roads never end.”
“Gujiya. No philosophy again. My road has ended. You have no idea how ….”
Before she could finish that Gujiya remarked earnestly, “I have to get down at Mughalsarai in 10 minutes. When this train returns tomorrow, I would board it again…until I reach my destination. Madamji, I don’t know much, but I want to tell you before I depart that the roads never end. It is another thing that you do not want to look at the one opening in front of you, that you are not able to gather courage to take that first step, that you are so attached to your previous road that you do not find any other road worth it, but the fact is… that life may be filled with problems, but LIFE is not a problem. To see life itself as a problem to be finished through suicide, is to err disastrously. It’s a dark night today but look at the bright stars.”
“Gujiya…how did you…?” Naina stammered, embarrassed seeing her thoughts and intentions laying bare. The train started to decrease its speed and minutes later, it pulled at Mughalsarai station to the waking cacophonous chorus of squabbling birds and chaiwallhas from all corners.
Gujiya zipped her bag, splashed water on her face, combed her hair with a small, white pocket comb and got ready to step down.
“It was good talking to you Gujiya. I wish you a good life.” Naina tried to conclude.
“Madamji, your road is lying in your suitcase. Go and open it. The first steps are the hardest but necessary. The roads never end.” Saying this Gujiya stepped down and disappeared in the crowd.
Naina stood at the gate for few minutes. Once the train started for Buxar, she returned to her seat knowing very well that Mughalsarai station had changed the course of her life.
“Madam, your tea,” the pantry guy greeted Naina after 45 minutes with a sleepy smile.
Sipping from her cup, something struck Naina and she called for the pantry guy who was serving tea to passengers in the next compartment.
“Do you know Gujiya? Her father used to work with you?”
“Oh! Gujiya, ji madam.”
“She was born on this train?”
“Born…hmmm…yes born. An orphan, who cleaned the floors of the train. Our senior colleague Darbar ji saved her when she was trying to jump off the train. She would have been barely 10 or 12. Since then Darbar ji became her foster father. I still remember the day the incident happened. Gujiya had sobbed through the night on Darbar ji’s lap clutching a gujiya in her hand which Darbar ji had given her to eat. “I want to die,” said the young girl nibbling on to the gujiya.
“You will make your own road. It is in your hand. Look at your palms and see the lines drawn here. The roads never end, remember Gujiya.”
The name changed her life. He took her home, made her part of his family, enrolled her in a school and she is now a graduate. The girl is sheer magic. From broom to books…her confidence is unmatched.
Naina looked dumbfound. Destiny unfolds in strange ways; Naina was stumped at the way it had revealed itself few hours before.
“Wow! At first I thought she was a boy. She dresses like one.”
“Madam ji, that is one wound I don’t think will heal. She was raped the day Darbar ji found her hanging on to the handrail near the door.”
Namrata Singh wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: shutterstock
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