(Attempting another piece of fiction to bring out the innocence of romance in the 90s.)

She stood near the door of the compartment taking in the cool breeze. In an hour, the train would cross over into Tamil Nadu and the monsoon would fade into nothingness as dry air would gush in to take its place. The smell of wet earth mingled with the salt of her tears as they streaked down. She was leaving her family to take up a job in a far-flung city.

The train sped past gathering momentum as the day bid adieu and faint twinkling stars came into view. “Oh, it’s Coimbatore already,” she thought… another 28 hours to reach her destination. She looked up into the face of a lanky man who looked at her and when she met his eyes, looked away. It was just 7pm and he was already brushing his teeth. “Perhaps an early sleeper,” she judged.

She stood for a few more minutes and while making her way to her berth, bumped into Mr. Lanky again. This time it was a game of pehle aap as she waited for him to climb up to the upper window berth while he apologetically hung on the first step to allow her to pass.

She smiled and sat down. It was one that played on her lips in an amusing way. The kind that stopped short of becoming a laugh. A smile that could create a flutter. She stopped smiling and began to make small talk with the children in the coupe. And before she knew it, was caught in a boisterous game of Antakashari. Mr. Lanky who was diagonally opposite did look up from his book a few times, the smiles now more pronounced than before. But he showed no sign of coming down. Obviously Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Great Indian Novel’ was more interesting than Bollywood songs sung off-key. Their eyes met and this time, she looked away.

As the night passed, iddlis, theplas and sandwiches were shared by people who were strangers before a certain train camaraderie took over and created bonds that would only perhaps last as long as the journey. And by 11pm, the only sound heard was the train rocking its temporary residents with its strange lullaby.

By 5am, she was up. On her way to the bathroom, she saw that Mr. Lanky was fast asleep and had covered himself up to his eyes. She smiled and just then he opened his eyes and smiled too! She practically raced to wash her face and then went back to get a change of clothes. Which was quite unusual as she never changed from her normal attire – jeans and an oversized tee. She changed into a fresh tee and Mr. Lanky was still on the upper berth, looking slightly bemused.

Just before Vijayawada station, she rushed to the door again to throw coins into the Krishna river and make a wish. But Mr. Lanky had beaten her to it and held out his palm, willing her to pick them up. She picked one, closed her eyes and threw it into the river. When she opened her eyes, she saw him doing the same. “Was he mocking her?” she thought angrily as she made her way back to her berth.

She spent the next couple of hours with her nose buried in a book though her mind hardly deciphered the words playing out before her. Each time she looked up, she could see him looking at her with a half-smile playing on his lips. She dozed off for a while and when she got up, it was 5pm. It was time to start packing. She stuffed whatever she had kept outside into her backpack. Mr. Lanky had got down from his upper berth. An uncle who was sitting beside her asked, “Are you getting down at Nagpur?” She nodded and as she walked towards the door, she could sense footsteps trailing behind. She opened the door and braved the warm air. “Hi! I am Rajan… I am a major in the Indian army. I like you. Can I have your address please?” he asked her in English and then switched over to Malayalam, “Thettidherikarathu, (don’t mistake me), can you give me your address?” Normally, she the feisty feminist type would have given him an earful but all that came out of her mouth was, “House No.12, ___Road, Nagpur-3” And then the train screeched to a halt. She ran back to her berth, carried her bags and got down. He was already on the platform, still smiling. Her cousin came in a couple of minutes and on seeing him, he got onto the train. She turned back, and saw the smile again!

A week later, there was a letter waiting for her. It began, “Dear friend on the train…” One that held promises of many smiles… that would last a lifetime.

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6 thoughts on “The smile

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