There were a few scattered passengers along the length of the platform, some with luggage beside them, one with a bag slung around an arm. The wind shivered her to the nails of her toes. People say this is the modern age. Things happen very fast. Life's train runs miles without a stop. It no longer gives off the chug-chug sound of steam engines. The Rajdhani is the right mode. That quick, that unhaltingly, moves the train of life, thoughts, imaginations. The engine of their train lunged into the platform from the distant bushes. It was not a superfast multi-wheeler. Nor was it a bright, colour-splashed toy train of the hill stations. It was very earthy. Faded, amorphous and almost brown. Chitra's companion of seven short days wasn't there yet. They were to tour together part of the countryside in one week. Inside the bogie, the seats were dirty with peanut shells, biri studs, crumpled pieces of paper strewn all over. She couldn't see the other things on the floor. Darkness had set in. More than the wind and the night was the scare of the days ahead. All the work couldn't be done by her alone. So they had planned this trip. Dilip had said they would be friends. She believed this. He had said they would see each other through rough patches, so she agreed to travel with him. This was what friends are for, she knew. He hadn't arrived at the platform. The engine would work its way through the thicket within minutes, on rails that course through the heart of fallow land, pulling along a string of bogies like pearls in an untied necklace. She would be in one of them, forlorn and tired.
Just at the dot when the coaches jerked to abandon their temporal halt, Chitra sat up to see if her friend had come. He was there at the door, hardly able to place his weight on the footboard. The train had geared up very fast. She took in the breath that was about to be exhausted. I was late, Dilip apologised, rather meekly, dragging his bag to the bunk facing Chitra. At least you made it on time, she responded. The night was engulfing every corner of the coach. The few passengers inside, including Dilip, tried to brighten it up by bits of conversation. I wish this idea to travel together had struck us earlier, he said, casually looking at the shadowy compartment walls. Yes, she answered thoughtfully.
Do you know why? He tried to draw her into a dialogue. Why? She asked, with some effort at keeping her eyelids open. Journey by train at all seasons has a soothing effect on her, as if they were sleep-sessions aboard a moving divan. We could have submitted our joint report earlier, he said. I understand that.
And we could have done something else. A bigger project, maybe. I'm not ambitious at all.
We need to be. Do you realise we make the best team?
That she knew, even without being told. They could excel. They were a man and a woman of the current age: sharp, smart and modern.
And what else? She wanted to know.
We could spend time together.
Is that really important?
Yes, after all we're friends, he said.
They were two people journeying to an unknown village. None of them had been there before, not even a hundred miles nearabout it. Because of work they were together, work which had pulled them nearer. They were friends for a reason, a purpose. But why should there be a reason to come together" she pondered. The rhythm of the wheels propping the coaches in the deserted landscape lulled her to lie down on the narrow bunk. A friend was all Chitra needed. Someone to talk to when the natives spoke their dialect, when they sang their melodious but alien ditties. And if she fell sick with malaria, he would have to give her the quinine doses. It did not matter much that he was a man. As she turned towards the wall for a more cosy position, she could vaguely feel or thought she felt, in the dimness of the coach, flushed in a sea of light and shadow pouring in through the cornices of the small-framed railings, a gaze moving lazily over her back. There was no point in her getting conscious of the loneliness of the two of them in this transported sea of humanity. The night was long but she was not travelling alone, that was her consolation. There was someone accompanying her, never mind that person was a man, a species she had not been taught to trust. The train lumbered on with the handful of passengers. Chitra swayed with it as she did as an infant when her mother sang a lullaby. For a moment she would have mistaken the place for her home, safe and familiar, with a bed to relieve all fatigue. In her semi-conscious state she heard Dilip rustling in his seat uneasily. The light of the only bulb overhead was too dim to read the books he had brought. It seems the night wouldn't end, he said, looking at his watch. It will, it will, Chitra murmured, turning towards him. It was not as comfortable a bed as she was used to. Through the nearly shut corner of her eye Chitra read his profile as in a dream. For long years they had known each other. She had his every feature by heart. There was nothing new: the same commonplace nose, the large bright eyes and the frown on the forehead grown deeper with the years. He moved his eyes helplessly as if he couldn't wait till dawn.
Around midnight, the chug-chug of the engine and the rolling of the wheels on rails came to a sudden halt. Dilip jumped up to find the reason. There was neither a station in the vicinity, nor any blockade ahead. Through the window could be seen mounds and mounds of blackness dispersed in cold air. Then the shrieks were heard. Robbers with their faces covered threatened and got their asking. The plunder began. Purses were grabbed, chains were snatched. Chitra froze in her seat. When one of them tugged at her gold chain, she made his work light by handing it over to his outstretched claws. They left like a whirlwind. Why did you give it to them? Dilip asked her as they settled in their bunks like dust after a windstorm. At least they left us unharmed, she said solemnly.
They could hardly have done anything to you.
They were a dozen. Did you see the guns they had?
Those were toy guns.
They were not.
I would have saved you.
And got killed in the scuffle?
His concern was justified. The coach was alive with post-robbery ideas. No one was too surprised to be confronted. The situation was such. Not to talk of night assaults, even daylight robberies were common in that part. They didn't go the sleep until hours after the pillagers left, raising instances when landlords beat up dacoits, burning torches were used to scare thieves, dogs guarded houses and valuables, and neighbourhood watch schemes were planned out by someone or the other whom they knew. They reached their destination much later in the morning, after walking quite a distance from the train stop, over an uneven kuchcha road, and the remaining part on a bullock cart on its way to the market to sell vegetables. It was as if they had landed on the moon. Not a single one of the houses, scattered in the fields, the level land and the banks of the stream had electric lights. From early evening kerosene lamps burned in the rooms, for a few hours until beds for the night were made. Except for owls and bats, no man or animal left shelter until daybreak. During the day, the sun dispelled the dread of the darkness, which again collected as the day wore on. Chitra stayed in a room in the headman's house. The headman wore a knee-length dhoti during daytime and smoked his hookah near the fireplace at night. His youngest daughter Aghuni, eyes as tiny as his and walking on two stilt-like legs, accompanied Chitra to whichever corner of the village she went. Even to the gate of the dormitory where Dilip had put up. During the day, the two friends exchanged notes, met people and observed them with keen hawkish eyes. They would have to prepare a report on the quaint villagers, about a people who belonged to an age frozen in time, as soon as they returned. At night, under the light of kerosene lamps, they scribbled roughs to make things easy later on. So engrossed were they in their assignment that they hardly realised they were being scrutinized with equal curiosity, right from the headman to his eighty-year-old mother and forty-year-old wife, from fishmongers to bamboo sellers, from cane weavers to cattleherds. There was only one subject doing the gossip rounds those days: the headman's guests come from town. The girls noted the colour of her nailpolish which they would get from the weekly bazar as soon as they could get money from their mothers, her salwar-kameez design that was the latest and quite flattering, the cut of her shoulder-legth wavy hair with locks and curls cushioning her lovely head, while the boys admired Dilip's black jacket and brown leather shoes, his Levi's jeans and fascinating moustache. The duo was a prize item for any young person moving the streets over there. On the early morning of the fifth day, Dilip, toothbrush in hand, striped pyjamas and sleeveless vest, was a little shocked to find a colourful pandal in front of the dormitory, just outside the gate, in the namghar compound.
What's the matter here? Everybody is in a festive mood. Decoration and all that? Dilip asked Haren, the cook.
Have you forgotten, Dilip Da? It's Magh Bihu!
Then he remembered it was January, and makar sankranti was just ahead. What all do you do for Bihu?
You know it's all about harvesting and eating and merrymaking. We arrange a feast there. Would you come this time and join us? If you are the cook, then I definitely will.
There are too many experts around. You'll get far better fare. Do come. Who all will be there?
All the girls, the headman, the women, men, everybody…… Any special girl for you? Dilip asked with a twinkle in his eyes. What a question you ask! Haren was as shy as a doe. Surely his favourite girl Moina, whom Dilip saw every morning sweeping the frontyard, even at that moment just a few yards away, would be coming to the feast. Somehow the girl got an inkling that she was being discussed and blushed as she raised dust and dry leaves. Dilip wouldn't say no. If he did, there would be no food forthcoming from anywhere else. The dormitory's kitchen would stay cold for at least one whole night. And he also wanted to see all the people together in one place, enough of going from house to house in search of elusive data they were trying to gather.
************** As shadows grew longer below the coconut palms, and the betel-nut trees assumed a gigantic height with twilight just waiting near the bubbling stream, to turn round the corner and make way to where the youths were splitting the beans and piecing meat, the headman sat in his verandah not far away with an elongated face that assumed a thinness seldom characteristic of his vociferous self. Today he was smoking his hookah much before darkness, a little faster, a little tensely, somewhat nervously also. He was regretting having agreed to keep the people from the town in the village. Such a bad influence they were to the young crowd here. Everyday someone was carrying tales to him: they were seen under the banyan, undoubtedly in a compromising position, by someone returning from the haat. Or last evening the two kept his entire household at tenterhooks waiting for them till it must be midnight to have dinner together. Where were they all this while in the darkness? To him, even the whole idea of a girl travelling alone with a man all the way to this place was obnoxious. His Homeguard brother had written to him to take care of them, and so he was going to such length in hospitality, with free food and a safe roof and his youngest daughter to keep Chitra company all day long. But how much could that small frail girl keep guard? So wagging tongues were active twenty-four hours.
You're still sitting at the same place I'd left you so long ago! Aren't you getting ready? His wife's shrill chiding woke him up from the reverie. Who will guard the house? I'll come when the elders gather. He said, thoughtfully. By the time you take a bath and wear washed clothes, they would have reached already. I'm not much interested in going, he said, somewhat dryly. This man, whom she was married to when not even twelve years old, and with whom she had seen a dozen children, had for the first time in fifty years said such a thing as unlike him. She looked at him closely. Are you okay? She asked, piling the clothes on the mudha near him. I'm a little uneasy.
These are the signs of old age. How much could one enjoy in a lifetime? She thought. Leaving him there to do whatever he wished, she went inside to take out from her old wooden box a good set of silk mekhela-sadar for the evening. Being the headman's wife, she had to dress at least decently. The old man sat in his verandah, pulling at the cold hookah that definitely required some pieces of red-hot ember.
That day Dilip and Chitra came to the gate much before they usually did, carrying a load of copybooks and a bottle of water. Heavy bags slung around their shoulders made them look highly knowledgeable. Though the weather was as pleasant as it could be, they were tired walking in the sun with their awesome loads. They were quite amused to find their revered host sitting alone so absorbed in thought. It was a scene to be seen. They hardly ever noticed him in one place for too long. He was a busy man, managing his huge household and village single-handed. But the crease on his forehead as he got up at their arrival did not augur well. In his eyes was a fire that was hotter than the brightest burning coal, activated by a passing wind. Both the friends were extremely puzzled. The headman's demeanour stole their words. Chitra searched for language while Dilip thought his throat had lost its voice box. They were saved by the headman's wife, on her way to the namghar where the feast has been arranged. You two must come along with me, she said.
Chitra was more than willing to leave the house to the moody headman to himself that day and accompany his wife. Things did not seem very cheerful to her.
************** Flirting with one another on the only occasion they freely could, the girls and boys busily walked up and down the cleared namghar ground a few metres outside the prayer hall verandah. They brought the mammoth cooking vessels from the larger households, skinned the white swans for the special mouth-watering meat with black pepper curry, pieced tomatoes for fish in sour gravy, set up the huge fireplace where water began to boil in the vessels and the steam blurred their cheerful profiles. With the evening getting closer to night, more and more people poured in, some to eat and drink, some to talk, some just to be there. Aroma from the food filled the air and turned the gourmet buttons of the revellers on. The older men had the privilege of sipping country liquor first, and from their hand-woven mats they ordered the women to get them a fresh piece of meat or fish to go with their drink. This thing is divine, isn't it? The headman said to one of the village elders about the home made liquor. You needn't mention. I'm always for such entertainment. He was an alcoholic hardened in the habit. More in such windy weather, the headman said.
The women were resentfully taking care of the drinking bout of their men, keeping a tab on how many bowls had already been served. The young people had slunk away to the farther end of the ground, Chitra and Dilip sitting curled up in their shawls in a corner, facing the fire burning in the middle to keep everybody warm. The headman thought he saw Dilip sitting with his arm around Chitra. Actually they were sitting with at least a yard of space in between. Children nowadays don't have any shame, the headman told his companion.
That's all bad influence of the town, he replied.
Why did you say so?
Your guests, look at them. Our children would learn all these and create problems for us. The headman noticed Dilip whispering something in Chitra's ear. It was about the novel experience they were having in the village, seeing so many of them together, and the merriment they analysed in anthropological terms. The hapless headman could hear none of this. They are a bad influence on the young people, he thought. The two friends joked and laughed with Haren cook who brought them a few pieces of choice meat he wanted them to taste, so that the final judgement of his culinary expertise would be passed, what if the village elders always sneered at his curries and dals. It was the first day when so many got an opportunity to ask them so many questions accumulated over so many days, and a milling crowd slowly separated them from the headman's view. The headman shrugged his head from shoulder to shoulder to see through the human curtain, but that was impossible. He was appalled. The future of the village was at stake. Their future generation should not mingle with the outsiders. His head, swimming in a sea of liquor, imagined monstrous shapes in the darkness invading his folks. They came in trains and trucks with jute bags hanging from their sides, and the copybooks were their weapons of destruction, pens were their missiles. What's the matter? Do you want to go home? His wife asked him seeing his intoxicated face. I'll go whenever I feel like, he said. He was no kid for such inquiries.
* * * * * * * * * That night, after everybody had eaten and the feast was over, when dark clouds had collected gloomily overhead as if to accompany the cold wind blowing, people had to stay back a little longer to pull away the headman from hitting Dilip badly with his walking stick. The old man had suddenly got up from his seat, walked across the space between them, beyond the burning fire, dragged Chitra from her seat so that the two were not together, applying his stick to the young man all over. Nobody understood what the matter was. He kept saying 'Send him away, send him away', nobody knew where. Chita felt sorry for her friend of so many years. Instead of taking care of her, he was getting beaten up and needed protection. She told everyone there she was okay and knew him well since a long time. She hardly knew of the stories the headman had heard from all the people who met him now and then, and the distorted facts that causing such bad mood in this nice man. They both knew work only and were trying to finish it as soon as they could, oblivious to the inferences people made of them, which were so different from what they themselves were jotting down in their notebooks. The next day morning, it was difficult for Dilip to resume work in such an atmosphere. The cook and the hostel mates kept to themselves. He too did not take the initiative to speak to them. He quietly took a bath but did not eat anything, hesitant to go the headman's gate to fetch Chitra. Finally she came over, as if nothing had happened. She wasn't critical of anybody at all.
Let's go, she said.
To work, have you forgotten?
I haven't, but after last night, do you think we should continue? I've packed my things.
We just have to stick around for one more day.
How can we return with our work half-done? She too was right.
Of what? What have you done? He was drunk, you see. Just forget everything.
But they won't.
They've already forgotten. Things are as before.
How do I believe you?
You will see it. Come and eat something there.
At the headman's gate, seeing the whole lot of people gathered there, Dilip was badly shaken. He almost slipped in the puddle of water the rainfall had created last night just in the middle of the gate. Chitra gave her hand for him to hold and not fall in the mud. Before he decided between her hand and the puddle, his legs gave way and he was wet and yellow with earth. What have you done? Why didn't you hold my hand? She almost screamed. Don't you see the people over there?
They are in an elders' meeting. But we're still friends, aren't we? Why think of what people say? He looked at her with widely open eyes. Smiling, but a little unsure.