Udhampur fast local roared into platform no. 2, right on time. The waiting crowd moved en masse, latching onto the door handles to grab an empty seat, and crashed against the passengers who were stepping down. Chaos engulfed the entire place, & the mob thrashed and carried people forward – but a keen observer would notice the symphony hiding behind this curtain which put everyone in the right place at the right time of departure.
He took a sigh of relief when he felt a surge of electric power in the car floor, and in seconds the train was piercing through the slums, sewers, and skyscrapers of the metropolis. He was fortunate to get a window seat in the airless, sweat-drenched car, and as the briny sea wind grazed through his hair, his thoughts transported back to a bygone world.
“Stop it”, he said irritatingly. She stopped playing with his hair and sat down in dejection.
“Don’t get angry, Kavita. Hey, Kavita, hey”, he bowed down, “Here, take it.” She slapped his bent skull turned away with a sullen look.
“Come on”, his voice softened, “I was just a little irritated.”
“It’s not about that,” she murmured.
“Babe, I can’t hear….”
“Why can’t you ever talk about marriage?” Her voice made the nearby benches take a notice of the young couple and he put a hand on her mouth. “What the fuck was that?” he grunted in anger.
“You…. you don’t understand.” She walked away.
“Wwww…wait. Kavita, wait.” He caught up to her at the gate, but before he could say anything she gave him a piece of her mind, about their relationship and its future, and by the end of it he was too exhausted to not get convinced and go along with her.
“So, you will come on Friday, meet my parents?” she chirped.
“Yes. I will.”
A small kid waving popcorns in the face of every passenger got his attention. He gave him a wry smile and handed some money without taking anything. He wasn’t much older than that kid when he had first met Kavita. Like all the other kids in that town, their parents were refugees. He and Kavita went to the same school, played the same games, read the same books. When he got addicted to gambling and cigarettes in college, she also helped him pass all the exams. Along the way, they fell in and out of love only to realize that they would probably never find someone better than each other. They had grown up together like intertwined branches, and it made perfect sense to spend the rest of their lives together.
“Pudhil station, Thana. Next station, Thane.” The announcement broke his reverie. The crowd thinned, and he decided to stretch on the emptied berth and get some rest.
“You want to marry my daughter?” Kavita’s father spoke over the dining table.
“Yes”, he tried to loosen the ill-fitting shirt collar. The old man stared at his daughter, then turned towards him.
“What does your father do?”
“He has a….”
“Small general store.” He smirked at his wife, “Making losses for the past two years.”
“Sir, I know my father isn’t as rich as you. But I am going to give government exams this year. I will clear bank PO exams easily, and then maybe…”
The old man spat on the floor and then spoke in a calm voice. “My servants earn more than your father. And you dared to ask my daughter’s hand? You are nothing but a loser, as big a sucker as I have ever seen. Your only achievement is that you somehow seduced my idiot daughter, but it ends right now. I wouldn’t trust you to clean my shit, and you want to be my son-in-law? Get the fuck out of here before I call my men.”
With tearful eyes, he looked at Kavita for support, but with a bowed head she continued to eat in silence.
They broke up the next day. He left for Delhi within a week, never to hear back from her ever again.
Someone poked at his shoulder. He woke up to a burly middle-aged guy was shouting at him for some space on the wooden berth. He sat back up and helped the man fit his luggage. “How long will it take to reach Udhampur station?”
The man tapped his watch, looked out, and spoke, “This is Udhampur station.”
He barely got off the train before it started the round trip for the city. He looked around at the desolate platform, dust covering everything in sight. Years ago, he had vowed never to come back to this place as he boarded a train to the city. Sighing deeply, he heaved the heavy bag on his shoulder and started walking towards the exit.
Outside, much hadn’t changed in the time he was absent. Under the old banyan tree, cigarette shops and tea vendors hosted weary travelers and lazy cab drivers with equanimity. The police station probably hadn’t been painted since he left, and the hoarding welcoming visitors to Udhampur was still a little skewed.
He walked up to the old shop and ordered tea. It was a lazy afternoon and the owner, a middle-aged widow, was bored. Soon, their topic of conversation shifted from politics to home.
“You grew up here?” the woman asked.
“Yes. Tilak Nagar.”
“What was your father’s name?”
When he said the name, a smile came over her wrinkled face, “Acha, you are his son. I heard you left to go study. What are you doing these days?”
She clasped her hands, “So good to hear. After your father died, your family disappeared. It is good to know you are doing well.” While she dealt with a customer, he finished his tea and stood up to leave.
“Oh wait, I forgot to ask. Are you back for some work?”
“Yes. I am here to meet an old family friend. Does Prakash Jain or anyone in his family still live here?”
“Prakash Jain? He had a stroke a few years back. Everybody else in the family either left or is dead, except for his daughter. I don’t remember her name…”
“Kavita”, he spoke absent-mindedly.
“Yes. Kavita. They still live in the old house….” He left before she could complete her sentence, but not before leaving a hefty tip behind.
The cab dropped him right in front of the cast-iron gates. Memories of that fateful night flooded back into his mind. The naïve, young hopes in his eyes, the borrowed set of clothes, the incessant humiliation handed out by her dad, and her silent co-operation which ended with him running away.
He stood in front of the gate for a long time before pressing the bell. After a couple of minutes, a woman came to the gate and stood behind the grills. “Sorry, we are not looking to buy something.”
Her voice had changed, it wasn’t as chirpy as it used to be. The eyes had lost their usual shine and her face looked worn down by age and sadness. There was a lump in his throat, so he decided against speaking and only smiled. They stared at each other for a long time, and then her jaw dropped.
She opened the door, “Is it you?” He nodded and entered inside.
For the next half hour, they talked while she made tea. She had gotten married into a rich family soon after he left, gave birth to two kids, and became the perfect housewife. He told her about his preparation and eventual success, his marriage, and the first kid. They laughed and joked about their lives and gossiped about lost friends. But never did they try to talk about the time before he left, and it was clear to both that they had turned into complete strangers over the years.
“You still haven’t told me the reason for this sudden visit”, she smiled and handed him a cup of tea.
“I just wanted to see your father.”
“I…. I….I heard he was sick. Uhm…. dad told me to see how he’s doing.”
“Oh, that is so nice of him. And you too. He doesn’t get many visitors these days. He’ll get happy.”
“I actually never expected to see you here. I thought you would be at your in-law’s place.”
She put her cup down. “I haven’t been there in the last two years. Just taking care of father, he isn’t able to do even basic stuff since the stroke.”
“And the kids? Don’t they live with you?”
She mumbled, “They live with their father.”
He didn’t want to pry into her personal life, but it made the ensuing silence worse, so he spoke up. “What happened?”
“What happens in every marriage these days. We got separated. There were some issues.”
She averted her eyes, “He had some… addiction problems.”
“The bad ones. And, whores. Gambling too. And when there were no drugs he drank too much.” She sighed, “He is kind of unstable.”
“And you let your children stay with this maniac?” his voice strained.
She opened her palms in front of him. He sighed and lit up a cigarette, passing it to her. She took a long drag and spoke, “His household looks after them. He never comes back from the city and I think he doesn’t even care for the kids. But his parents love them, and they will make him do anything to keep the kids. Anything. So I have made my peace with it, at least they go to good schools and have a future this way. It’s hard for me to make ends meet, let alone raise two kids. And I get to see them once a month. I guess it could be worse.”
“Yeah. I guess it could.” They didn’t speak for some time. “When was the last time you saw him?”
She tried to remember. “After I left their house, I think once. When he came to drop the kids off one month. At least a year ago.” She clasped her hands, “The kids will be visiting tomorrow.” She looked at him, “You should stay, they will really like you. A police officer and all” Her laugh still ringed the same in his years.
They smoked in silence for some time. “Oh, I completely forgot. You had come to visit dad na. Want to see him right now? He is a little ill but…”
“Sure”, he said eagerly.
The old man had shrunken over the years. The stroke had left him paralyzed on the left side, and Kavita told him that he had a tough time remembering things lately. She left them alone to bathe and cook some food. He sat down beside the king-size bed and took the patient’s hands between his.
“Do you remember me sir?” he whispered in his ears.
The old man opened his eyes. There was no sense of recognition in them.
“Sir, do you remember me? I came to your house one day and asked for your daughter’s hand? You threw me out and called me a loser? Remember?” He clenched his jaws and stared into the glassy oculus. “I know you remember it, there is no way you have forgotten about me.”
The old man couldn’t speak or move, and his face was a deer in the headlights. A stranger was shouting at him, and his feeble brain couldn’t understand the reason.
“Do you remember me?” He was angry this time. “You called my father a beggar? You piece of shit, how can you forget something like that?” The old man stayed motionless, the glassy eyes never flickering.
“You have no idea who I am. You have no damned idea of who I….” It took some time for him to properly process this development, and he chuckled when it happened, which soon turned into a full maniac laugh. He pressed the hands even harder. “All those years, all those sacrifices, so that I could stand before you and spit on your face. Who’s the loser now motherfucker? Huh, who’s the loser now you son of a bitch?” His voice was getting louder with every sentence.
The old man’s face had turned beet red in pain, but he continued to press harder. “But you don’t even remember me. So, what is the point of doing all that? Because you don’t even fucking remember me. All that, all of that for nothing. Nothing. You mothe….” He heard the IV needle connected to the patient’s hand broken in two.
Blood started to leak, and he quickly rejigged the needle. Suddenly, the old man put his right hand on his shoulder. He looked at the broken face which twisted in agony as it tried to speak. No sound came out, but he could read the lips a little. “don’t…… hit……. her………”
He cleaned the blood and adjusted the sheets just in time for Kavita to enter. She was wearing a beautiful blue dress that hugged her body tightly, highlighting her bosom and hourglass figure. He had often told her that she looked better without makeup, and she wasn’t wearing any today. Blood rushed into his head, leaving him dizzy for a second.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Yes, everything’s fine.”
“Okay. So then could you maybe help me in the kitchen?”
While she cut the vegetables, he made the dough. Something had broken the invisible barrier between them, and the conversation flowed freely now. He kept trying to pry about her marriage more, but she kept talking about the time they had spent together. Her voice melted the iciness of his heart and they reminisced all the good and bad of the time they had spent together.
They ate the dinner in silence, a habit he had developed living alone and preferred even after marriage. After dessert, she bought two glasses and a half-empty bottle of single malt on the table.
“You never used to drink when we were together.”
She made two pegs and sat down. “You left one day and became a ghost. Do you still think I am the same person that I was back then?”
He could have said a lot, accuse, blames, and swear at her as he had always imagined. But he didn’t dare to do it anymore.
“Play ‘Come and get your love’ by Redbone.” She shouted.
As the 70s funk tune filled the room, Kavita took his hands with the polished poise of a prima ballerina and they danced to old tunes – Bee Gees and Abba. In the middle of it, he realized that he never had had such fun in a long, long time. By the end of it he was delirious, drowsy, and drenched in sweat., and in that one dizzying moment, all that mattered was the woman standing in front of him.
“Did he ever hit you?” he had to ask.
There were tears when she spoke. “Everyday.”
Instinctively, he grabbed her waist and kissed her on the lips. Instead of pushing him back, she welcomed it, like a weary traveler in the wasteland who finds a wellspring. They kissed for a long time, his hands exploring the smoothness of her back, the smell of her hair still unchanged. It was the passionate kiss of two long-lost lovers, and suddenly he didn’t want to run anymore.
They stayed in the embrace for a long time before he broke it. He tried to excuse himself, but she called him back and they kissed again. “I’ll just check if dad’s asleep. Don’t go anywhere.”
He sat up, trying to catch his breath. He looked at the pictures spread across the room, photos of couples, kids, and entire families. A-frame on the left wall caught his attention, and as he went closer to get a better look, he saw the face of a man in it that he knew very well.
It took Kavita longer than usual to put the old man to sleep. By the time she came back, he was gone, the door left ajar to signify his presence mere moments ago. She could still hear his footsteps on the road, racing away just like he had all those years ago.
He ran with all the strength he could muster now. He ran as if he had seen a ghost, but only because he had. He ran till he could run no more and then collapsed on the side of the road.
He called up his subordinate once he could breathe again. “It is me. What is the name of the civilian I killed in the Borivali drug bust last month?”
“Sir, but the investigation is over. You will join from tomorrow? Why worry about some low life?”
“Just answer the goddamn question.”
“I think his name was Rakesh Jain. Why?”
“Did he have any family?”
“Are sir. The committee said you shot him accidentally, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t worry…”
“Motherfucker just answer what I ask. Family?”
“Yes, parents, wife, and two kids.”, the reply was prompt this time.
“Were they informed?”
“Parents were informed and we send the ashes, but the wife doesn’t live with him. Same old shit. They must have told her, but I don’t know.”
“What is the wife’s name?” his voice started to choke.
“Kavita….” the phone dropped down. He left it on the street and walked back to the station, just in time to catch the last train to the city. Only this time, he had nothing left for coming back.