The train had started from Chennai on time. I had gone there for a job interview at a University and was returning back home to Delhi. It was going to be a long journey of 30 hours. The University had paid the train fare for the 3rd AC coach. To this date I don’t understand why I had accepted the train fare when I had the option of booking a flight and reaching home much ahead of the train. I, however, do not now regret my decision to undertake that journey. Every journey has a meaning and happens for a reason. Maybe I just wanted to use my entitlement and was seeking some personal time to relax and reflect on the train. At home, my family was anxious about the rather long train journey and kept advising me to take the flight instead.
I had got an upper berth on the side that held six berths. There were men on all of the other 5 berths. There was a young girl on the upper side berth opposite mine. She seemed to be in her mid-twenties and was less bothered by the gender imbalance in the coach than me as she was absorbed in her phone. I was hoping that there would be more families in the coach traveling together to Delhi. But I was wrong; the coach seemed to be dominated by men who appeared to be mostly traders.
“It’s ok! This too shall pass like everything else,” I thought. “It is only a train journey and I’ll be home tomorrow.”
I had never been too comfortable in the presence of too many men at the same time. I found my solace in the girl on the opposite side berth and looked at her often. On the upper berth right opposite mine was a man who appeared to be in his forties. He kept looking at me and the girl incessantly. It was an uneasy feeling that made me restless. But every time I turned around and looked at the girl, she was chatting away on her phone and didn’t seem perturbed by the scene around her.
I thought the man was creepy as he kept staring at the two of us. I was a married woman in my late 30s and was feeling threatened by his invasive gaze. My body language had stiffened but the younger girl couldn’t be bothered to respond to his gaze. After dinner the girl pulled up her curtain to conceal her berth and found her privacy. But there was no respite for me so I pulled up my blanket to cover my face to avoid seeing him.
I tried to sleep but sleep evaded me. Random thoughts crossed my mind and I felt suffocated. I tried to focus on something nice and also counted sheep. I must have dozed off lightly, around 2 am I heard some chaos in the train. I realised in my semi-conscious state that the train had been stationary for quite some time. This was unusual since it was a superfast express that halted at limited stations. Some people had switched on the lights and I woke up to find out what was going on.
The creepy man announced loudly that due to heavy rainfall, a bridge ahead of us on the route had collapsed and we all could not proceed with the journey. It would take some time for the train to go back and find an alternative route to get to its destination.
“What a journey! And now this!” I thought nervously. This was a completely new situation for me, a rather eerie one. I was in a coach full of men and the train had halted in the middle of the night and in the middle of nowhere. We could not proceed ahead. It seemed like Murphy’s law was in force and everything that could go wrong was going wrong. I looked frantically at the girl. She was looking around too but didn’t seem as nervous as me. The men around us started walking towards the door. It was pitch dark outside. There were no lights as far as our eyes could see.
The girl looked at me for the first time during the journey. It seemed like the gravity of the situation was finally dawning upon her. I shifted on my berth closer to hers and said to her in a hushed tone, “what are we supposed to do now?”
She gave me a clueless stare. The men around us were discussing that it was going to be difficult for the train to go back as some of the areas we had crossed a few hours ago were now flooded and it would take some time for the flood water to recede. I cursed myself for not taking the flight.
The girl and I had now got off our upper berths and strained our eyes to look outside the window. Huge drops of rain were pelting on the window-pane and we couldn’t look much further. We overheard people saying that they would de-board the train and spend the night somewhere in the nearest settlement and come back to see the next morning if the train was ready to depart. We were at the border of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. A village in Maharashtra, the nearest settlement, was a kilometre away from where we had halted. The train rolled slowly and halted again at the little station at the Chunala village which was not its usual stoppage point.
It was a dark station with a dim yellow light. Most men de-boarded the train and were strolling on the platform. It was raining outside. Most of our compartment was now empty. We decided to get off at the platform with our little back packs.
There was no ladies room at the platform as it was a very small station. There was no station master, or food stalls either. We were feeling quite helpless, wet and cold. It was perhaps the most eerie night of our lifetime. At least for me it was. We finally saw some women from other compartments – they were few and far away. Most of them were with their partners and children. Some children had started crying.
At around 4 am some locals from the village arrived at the station to attend to the train. The station master offered to open up his room and some of the others for the few women on the platform. His was a small and dark room. He spread out a durrie for us to stretch out on the floor. The girl and I huddled together into his room while the other women went in to a neighbouring room. We could hear the raindrops pelting on the tinned roof of the room.
For the first time the girl introduced herself. She was an airhostess with a reputed private airline. She worked at Chennai and was going home for a vacation. I asked her why she had chosen to take a train instead of flying back home.
“I am always flying, so I thought let me enjoy a train journey on my vacation. Scarcely did I know that the train journey would turn out to be like this. There has been a sudden cloud burst in some areas” she said.
“Well! You are quite courageous and didn’t seem affected by all those men in our coach,” I quizzed her.
“Well what was there to be afraid of? They can just stare. As long as they don’t touch me I am not bothered,” she said confidently.
I was beginning to admire her attitude. She was much younger and also much more attractive and youthful than me but she gave a damn to the men who stared at her.
“You know when you fly, you meet such men every day,” she said.
“They stare at you and check you out in a way that makes you want to disappear in thin air! How long can you let that affect you?”
“I wouldn’t be able to pursue my career if I started taking the male gaze so seriously,” she jested winking at me.
“Amazing! I love her attitude,” I thought.
“But have they never transgressed their limits as passengers,” I asked curiously.
“Oh yes you have a few of them. While most of them will stop at checking you out in all the “vital places”, a few want to be “friends” with you.”
“There was a passenger, a lesser known industrialist who once told me that I am the most attractive woman he has ever met,” she giggled.
“He gave me his visiting card and said that I should go to meet him sometime. He claimed rather suggestively that he could do a lot for me,” she added.
Blood rushed to my face as I heard her speak.
“That’s scary shit,” I said alarmed.
“It is a bit unnerving when you have just started but you learn how to handle it after a while on the job,” she added.
“All my female colleagues have had such experiences,” she said.
There was a loud squeak in the room. A rat had just run across the room brushing past our feet. We both jumped up squealing with laughter. A rat was less scary than the men we had as co-passengers on the train.
We spent a sleepless night in the room with the rat and it was morning soon. At 6 am both of us called our respective homes and were advised to head to the nearest airport and take the earliest available flight. The bus journey to Nagpur was a refreshing one. We stretched our hands out of the window to play with the rain-drops. We felt secured in each other’s company. The flight to Delhi was relaxed too. We both dozed off trying to catch up on the sleep we had missed out the last night.
All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am. But not all journeys are meant to be forgotten. Some of them occur to teach you deep lessons in your life. The train journey from Chennai and the night spent at the railway station at Chunala was one such experience. The creepy man who stared at us, the girl who didn’t care about it, the kind station master, the squeaky rat and the pelting rain drops, all had lessons hidden in them for me. The greatest lesson however, was from the bold girl who was my co-passenger on that journey. Her sapphire was bluer than mine since she had learnt and mastered the art of cutting out negative, invasive energies from her life.