Nisha Mehraj is currently teaching English Literature to secondary school students in Singapore. She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University. She describes a love of India and the dream of living there someday.
‘Tea madam?’ asked the tea-master.
She shook her head and continued digging through her handbag for her purse, frustrated, wondering if she had left it on the train. She turned around suddenly and counted her luggage.
‘Three,’ she confirmed and walked in further under the shelter, dragging her red Elle bag with her.
‘Tea very good madam, try one?’ the man asked again.
She ignored him.
‘It’s boiled water if that’s what you’re worried about,’ someone said.
She looked up and saw him and felt something leathery. She pulled out the coffee-stained, off-white pouch and looked inside for coins, dropped a rupee into the payphone and took out a small piece of wrinkled paper from her pocket.
‘You are standing under his roof you know. The least you could do is drink his tea,’ he said.
She didn’t look up. She cradled the phone under her chin and pressed some number.
‘Hel-,’ she listened and placed the receiver down violently. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, mentally counting the miles she had travelled to be where she was. She bit down on her teeth, unable to hold her breath any longer and released the air suddenly. She blinked away the tears. He was staring.
Wrapping her shawl tightly around her, she sighed.
It was ten at night. The railway station was packed. Trains had been cancelled due to the heavy rain and passengers were stranded. The railway tracks were starting to flood and people were crowding every nook and cranny. The sound of the rain and the non-stop chatter was starting to give her a headache.
She looked down at her sandaled feet. Her nails were brown from mud and some had dirt stuck underneath them. Closing her eyes, she prayed hard for the rain to stop and the trains to start functioning again.
Everyone around her stank of cheap beedi and body odour. Some women dragged their wailing children and large suitcases across the platforms, leaving the station. They squeezed through bodies, pushing to be the first to get out.
‘I’m afraid he’s going to ask you to leave in a while,’ he said.
‘I’ll go when he says something,’ she said.
‘Finally!’ he smiled checking his watch and nodded, pretending to be impressed.
‘Listen, I’d really appreciate if you would just leave me alone,’ she said.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Because… because I’d rather be left alone,’ she said.
‘It’s raining like hell, the call’s not helping and you want to wait the next five –‘
‘Five? You think it’ll last five hours?’ she asked, shocked.
‘Yeah, I mean look at it,’ he thought for a while. ‘Five, definitely,’ he said.
‘What makes you so sure?’ she asked. He shrugged and started to say something. ‘Oh god!’ she sighed, looking at the rain. ‘I was scheduled to be in Chennai by four in the morning! I have a fu – a meeting! At eleven!’ she said.
‘Your meeting would probably be cancelled. It’s much worse out there,’ he said.
‘Damn!’ she adjusted her shawl around her shoulders. She mumbled something under her breath and looked up. He was smiling at her.
‘I don’t know how you people can put up with this,’ she said and turned her back to him. ‘It’s screwed up. I just want to go home,’ she whispered to herself, feeling her eyes well up. She cleared her throat and swallowed back her tears.
The radio crackled in the background, barely audible over the sounds of chatter and the heavy downpour. ‘Illam pani… grrr…bzzz… neram…bzzz…illaigalil magarantha kolam…’ Cups clattered and the giant steel stove hissed every time a fresh splash of oil touched its surface. The place was warming up a little from the heat and smoke.
The strong smell of ghee and sambar made her dizzy with hunger.
The water level was rising as streams of water ran down the platform and dived onto the tracks. She bent down and folded her jeans up roughly, feeling wet and sticky. She brought her nails to her mouth in irritation and stopped. Her usually manicured nails were already bitten too deep and looked disgusting.
‘Anne, mutteh thosai. Nalla kozhe, kozhenu. Thirupi pohdahme,’ he placed his order to the tea-master. ‘You are not hungry as well?’ he asked her. She didn’t reply. ‘Look you’ll feel much better with some food in you,’ he suggested.
He remained standing by the pillar, his hair wet and greasy. He kept brushing it back and looked straight ahead. He smiled to himself while sipping the tea. His striped white shirt was undone to the third button. He had roughly folded up his jeans to his ankles and removed one of his sandals to wipe his foot against the folded part of his jeans. He looked like he had been travelling a long time but his eyes had no trace of tiredness. He looked calm and happy stuck in the storm.
He ran his finger down the bridge of his nose and smoothed down his stubble. When he caught her studying him, he winked then chuckled, seeing her roll her eyes. His grin was small and private. He seemed so happy being him. She envied that comfort.
‘Are there any ho- I mean lodges around here?’ she asked.
‘No. No hotels and no lodges,’ he said.
The place was getting more crowded, with more people coming in only to realize the trains had been stopped. The speakers were blasting the announcement over and over again in grammatically incorrect sentences. She sucked her tummy in in hunger and watched as a small boy handed the man his plate.
The egg was runny and spread evenly over the flour. He poured sambar on top of it and tore the soaked pancake easily with his fingers. He then dipped it between tomato and coconut chutney before chucking it into his mouth. She swallowed her saliva.
‘I’ll get a stomach ache if you keep staring like that,’ he said, not looking up from his plate.
‘I’m just looking,’ she said. ‘You come from here?’ she asked.
‘Ummhmm,’ he said chewing. ‘I’m Indian,’ he said with his mouth full.
‘No, I meant this place,’ she said. Cows roamed around, looking for shelter. Some climbed down onto the tracks and walked aimlessly, mooing painfully. She looked around to see if anyone noticed them but everyone seemed preoccupied.
‘This is part of India,’ he said.
‘Hah? Yes… Of course. Barath Matha ki Jai,’ she said softly and sighed to herself.
She sat down on her brown trolley bag and counted her luggage again.
‘Rendu idilli,’ he ordered some more.
‘You must be really hungry,’ she said.
‘No, I’m just trying to make you more hungry,’ he said.
‘I’m fine,’ she said.
‘Yeah, I can see,’ he said.
She noticed a blue sling bag resting atop the wooden showcase behind him. Maybe he was a photojournalist.
‘What do you do?’ she asked.
‘I didn’t ask you any personal questions,’ he said, blowing on his steaming cakes of idillis.
She looked away, annoyed. No one spoke for a while. He ate his food quietly. He washed his hand under the water running down from the roof and chatted with some people standing around. He went into the shop and came out again with a lit cigarette.
The rain poured down fiercely. It both frightened and mesmerized her in its abundance. Little children made paper boats in newspapers and chased after empty bottles that floated around. She sighed to herself and closed her eyes.
‘You know what you’ll remember?’ He didn’t wait for her to respond. He sucked on his cigarette and moved closer. ‘None of this. You might think of the long wait in the train. You’ll be relieved to be finally moving away from here. In a few months you might recall a few faces and random stations,’ he coughed. ‘But you see after years go by, all you’ll remember is that you were stuck some place where it rained like hell!
‘And what did you do?’ he waited. She shrugged. ‘You just… waited,’ he finished.
‘Maybe,’ she said.
‘See that is what happens to me,’ he said lightly. ‘And I’m going to remember you. You in this…’ he stopped and continued looking at her. ‘Well, I got to go,’ he said suddenly. ‘You have a good trip,’ he said and took the bag off the showcase. He saluted the tea-master and waved at her. He pushed past people and disappeared into the pool of bodies. She turned back and stared at her red Elle bag for the longest time before getting up and walking towards the tea stall.
‘Tea, nalla suuda,’ she said and smiled.