Crisp, white hair and an ivory salwaar kameez; she looked out-of-place in that over-crowded general compartment of the evening train. How she managed to find enough space for herself as well as her small duffel bag, is beyond me. People were everywhere, arms poking out towards the roof to desperately hold on to anything (and anyone) who would prevent them from flying straight into their neighbours’ face. It was chaos, the worst kind; that too in the most humid October the decade had ushered in. All around her, women wearing cheap saris and men yelling loudly blundered on. Fresh air refused to enter the compartment and tempers ran high. But she seemed unperturbed by the ensuing bedlam. She calmly gazed out of the barred window at the brightly lit station, darkness creeping around in corners where the light bulbs were too old to work. The movements inside the small stationary box resembled a small-scale war’s. Except her corner, which was calm and peaceful.
“Filtered and chilled water for ten rupees, sahib! Drive the heat away with cold and soul-soothing water!” A shrill, nasal and boyish voice reached before the owner of it was revealed. The little salesman had woven his way through people’s legs, collecting their careless curses in the empty backpack hung loosely on his back.
“Idiot boy, look where you’re going!” a dark, heavily moustached man struggled to turn around enough to look him right in the eye as he yelled. In a place crammed with all the varieties of humans that walked the Earth, only this tiny offspring of poverty attracted her immediate attention. She smiled at the back of his head, which was another three heads away from her. She sat watching, deeply interested in the goings-on. A woman on the upper berth kept pleading loudly to her husband to buy her crying son a bag of our salesman’s water. Husbands, as you might know, turn deaf to their wives’ voices, especially when their wallets are empty.
“What’s your name, miyan?” the lady in white nonchalantly asked the struggling boy. He had somehow managed to score a customer who sat idly in the farthest corner, perspiring heavily.
“Ashok Kumar, madam! Water?” he shoved a bag in her face.
“Yes.. Come sit here for a while, talk to me. The train won’t start for another fifteen minutes.”
“I have to sell all this before I return home tonight, madam.”
“I’ll buy them all. Come sit.” She ruffled in her duffle bag, looking for money.
The boy’s greedy eyes travelled along her fingers, inside the small pocket.
“One hundred rupees, madam…”
He dumped the plastic bag full of water bottles into the already crammed space beside her feet and stood awkwardly. The world around them still kicked and pushed, but the woman had bought the attention of the little boy. They remained, for the next few minutes, in a bubble that remained unaffected by the malevolence of humanity that took up the whole compartment. Might as well because nobody seemed to bother about them at all.
“You should really sell your time at a higher price than ten rupees a bottle, miyan! Or they’ll think it’s worthless. I had a little brother like you once, you know! He was as hard working as you and he told me to stop worrying about the work. What a sweet boy he was, Ashok! Just like you!”
Ashok’s initial disinterest was poked roughly by curiosity. Kids tend to follow this vixen a lot.
“What happened to him, madam?”
The white eyebrows suddenly gained a thousand pounds as her wrinkled brow furrowed and she looked down at the plastic bag full of water bottles.
“Someone took him away from me. I looked for him for such a long time. My husband didn’t understand why my little brother was so important. Men never do, because they can never feel like a woman can, you know. They wanted me to stop looking for him, but how could I? So they locked me up for a long, long time. I’ve just gotten out. Do you think I should look for him again?” An ancient heart cried miserably for an answer.
“I have a sister, madam. She is very small, but she laughs when I play with her. If she got lost, I would never stop looking for her.” The boy simply stated like it was the simplest possible solution even a moron would figure out.
A smile illuminated the lined face of the old woman, just as the train tugged them gently forward with a pull. “Thank you, Ashok miyan!”
“I have to go madam, my mother is waiting.” He ran surprisingly fast through the ever-thronging crowd of middle-aged men, women and sleeping children. The woman in white went back to her seclusion, with the most defiant expression on her pallid face. The thirsty child on the upper berth, meanwhile, kept wailing. Exasperated and desperate, the woman looked down to beg for water from a fellow traveller. Her exhausted eyes fell on the ivory feet and detected the bag full of water. Her eyes shone with delight as she commenced her pleading, now to a different Lord.
“Please have mercy on my child, memsaab! He is very hot and thirsty and I don’t have any money to buy him some cold water. You have so many bottles; please give me one for my child… God will bless you!”
The old lady obediently looked up at the dark face stained with forced tears. She smiled placidly and handed the whole bag of water to her, saying she didn’t need any of it.
“Thank you, memsaab, you’re a Devi, a true Goddess! Thank you!” the mother cried with joy as she hurriedly snatched away the bag. A big and bulky man from the initially ignorant crowd witnessed this exchange and yelled with a jeer, “What a crazy lady! She bought the whole stash of bottles!” Everyone in his direct vicinity joined in the collective mocking.
“No, no… They released me yesterday. Why would they release me if they thought I was still crazy?” she serenely looked on at the laughing crowd, before turning her back to them. The train picked up speed as it rushed out of the station, carrying a wide variety of humanity in its belly.