Sunday, October 24, 2010

Before I Sleep

Once every month, Kaushik visited his parents in Ahmedabad and spent a weekend with them. On the preceding Fridays, instead of his usual backpack, he carried a duffel bag to office, so he could go straight to the train station in the evening. This was such a Friday.

His colleagues nodded and smiled with their eyes on the bag and made the requisite observations.

“Going to Ahmedabad tonight?”


“By air? Or train?”

“Train. I avoid flights to Ahmedabad. They reach after midnight and make a mess of my sleep and my parents’.”

“How long does the train take?”

“Seven hours, thereabouts.” Then he added, “Miles to go while I sleep, evidently,” and smiled benevolently in response to his colleagues’ blank expressions.

He left office earlier than usual, his bag swaying proudly from one shoulder. He knew he would reach the train station early, so early in fact, that he could make another trip to office and still be back in time. But he knew of a cozy little restaurant near the station and enjoyed spending a couple of hours there. It was a place he had discovered many years ago and had then forgotten and lost until recently when he had stumbled upon it once again. He had wondered how it could have so completely slipped his mind, for he had been a regular visitor there, in a time when he considered saving fifty rupees on a meal important. When this was not the city he lived in, but travelled frequently to, necessitated by work and B School admission interviews. And each time he came, it was here that he had his dinner before boarding the train back home. So when he found the restaurant again, he resumed the ritual.

It is a place that revels in its incongruity. A tastefully tiled courtyard, open at the top, overseen by three resplendent sodium-vapour lamps. More than a dozen rickety steel tables, most of them unoccupied and visibly rusted at the edges, spread around the area, trapped between quartets of dust-coated finely carved bamboo chairs. Men in faded maroon shirts and khaki trousers, the ends of their shirts heavily crumpled from being tucked in earlier and now irrevocably stained with oil and grime from being repeatedly used as makeshift napkins, tending to the orders of the handful of customers.

It was a warm night and Kaushik chose a seat next to one of the standing fans. It blew his hair into frenzy and reminded him that he must have a haircut in Ahmedabad. The fan emitted a continuous creaking sound, evidently from a lack of maintenance and lubrication, and it tore into the sweet melodies of Belle & Sebastian that were presented to him through the IPod. He wondered if he should shift to Joy Division and turn up the volume so the fan would become inaudible or at least less conspicuous in the industrial clamour. He sighed and asked to be shown to another table instead. He ordered a Dosa and a Coke and settled down to reminisce about Ahmedabad.

Ahmedabad, he had always lamented, was a city without character. It just lay there in the heat and sand, a cluster of short plain buildings with wealthy, peaceful people in them whose principal pastime was eating vegetarian food in expensive restaurants. It was a city that, if lived in, offered all that was nice and comfortable but never any romance. One could live in Ahmedabad for decades and then simply get up and leave, inconvenienced only by the movement of one’s belongings. It was not a city one could write about. Kaushik was certain there would never be great literature produced for it in the way that there was and could be for Mumbai or Kolkata. It was like having to write about a bunch of regular people with regular jobs and good money instead of a struggling artist in Paris or even a cheerful farmer in the Italian countryside.

It was ten years ago that Kaushik had left for Dhule. He had, since, become a visitor to the city of his childhood. He had returned briefly after his graduation, for two years, and found all his friends either gone or no longer friends. He had spent those two years forging new friendships and had then moved to Lucknow. Now another four years had passed and all that remained of his life in Ahmedabad, were his Mom and Dad.

Kaushik reached the train station with a half hour still to spare. He found a bench on which an old bespectacled man sat clutching a walking stick and speaking to a middle aged man, ostensibly his son, who stood next to him. Kaushik sat down on the other edge of the bench and placed his bag in between. The two men turned briefly towards him and then resumed their conversation.

The platform bustled with purpose and emergency. Presently, a local train arrived and a mad rush ensued. At the end of it, most of the people on the platform had emptied out into the train and when the train left, the place settled itself into a different, calmer pace. Kaushik had often noticed how people waiting for long distance trains behave differently from those waiting for local short distance ones. When Kaushik’s train arrived, people moved with more composure, secure in their knowledge that their seats were reserved and there wasn’t the need to win them over the trampled bodies of fellow travelers and competitors. After he’d located his seat and rid his, now aching, shoulder of the bag, he exited the train again and peered over the reservation chart pasted on the compartment’s door. He scoured the sheet for his name and when he found it, looked at the names immediately above and below his. It was his Dad who had first suggested this to him as a method to find out if he could hope for the company of women on the train. He now religiously followed it.

He was pleased to note that there was a Nisha Chaturvedi, female 24, on the seat opposite his. Over the years, when he had found himself in similar circumstances - and there had been many - he had rarely ever even bothered to introduce himself. Most of the females had turned out to be unattractive and married and they usually carried a baby or a self help book in their arms. And yet, he waited expectantly each time, eager to catch the first glimpse of these unknown women, letting his mind create hopeless fantasies of one day finding a Julie Delpy on the train, reading Georges Bataille.

Kaushik often wondered what he would do if were actually to find a girl like that. Would he have the courage to propose what Ethan Hawke had proposed? Or even the courage to at least start a conversation? And if he did, how would the girl react? Wouldn’t she look at him incredulously and ask him to fuck off? And how would he feel if she were to do that?

When he was only beginning to watch foreign language films, he found it weird that in so many films, when a man proposed intimacy with a woman who was not similarly disposed, the woman, instead of reacting with shock and hysteria, tenderly pushed him away, with gentle apologies even, sometimes even allowing his lips to brush lightly with hers. Kaushik found it, at the time, a case of downright western callousness and immorality. And then he became interested in Ritika and spent those hours thinking about how he could approach her and what she would say. It was then that he realized how incredibly compassionate the reactions of the women in those films were. It is perhaps one of hardest things for a man to do – to profess his love and attraction to a woman and thereby willfully place himself in a situation where he and his ego are so thoroughly exposed, so pathetically defenseless. A situation where even the slightest hint of mockery and disgust in the woman’s reaction could bruise his self esteem so badly, so indelibly. And under those circumstances, to allow a man to salvage his pride, to offer him a graceful way out. So incredibly compassionate those women were indeed!

He felt the train shudder and then move slowly. He sighed. Nisha Chaturvedi hadn’t appeared. She would possibly aboard at the next station, still an hour away, by which time he would have almost certainly dozed off. He rummaged in his bag and found the novel he was carrying, opened it, read a few lines and then shut it again. His thoughts drifted back to Ahmedabad. His Dad would be waiting for him at the station the next morning. He would comment how Kaushik had put on even more weight, an observation that his Mom would echo when he reached home. He would just smile and mumble something about how he did not care. Tea would be ready and so would be breakfast and the three of them would spend a pleasant hour together, after which his Dad, whose weekly break occurred in the middle of the week, would leave for work.

It occurred to him suddenly, what would have happened if, instead of their marriage being arranged as it was by their respective families, his Mom and Dad had met on their own all those years ago. Would they have fallen in love with each other? If his Dad had proposed marriage to her, would she have reacted hysterically or tenderly pushed him away?

He tried to recall incidents from his past, the oldest that his memory would allow him to fetch, of the two. For a very long time, he knew, he was completely oblivious to the possibility of love between his Mom and Dad. For him, they existed in order to love him and that was all there was to it. That there could be a relationship between the two of them, that need not include him, did not even occur to him until he was into his teens. One day, he clearly remembered, his Dad asked his Mom if she wished to have a pair of Diamond earrings and Kaushik stared at the two of them uncomprehendingly for it had never crossed his mind that his Dad could care for his Mom enough to buy her gifts as, or even more, expensive than the ones he bought for his son. The next day they went shopping for the earrings; Kaushik was with them. This, he found, was his earliest definite memory of them as purely a man and a woman capable of finding joy and happiness in a world without him.

He picked up the novel and began reading again. By the time the train entered the next station, he was fast asleep.

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