It was a muggy month of mid 1990’s. My parents both doctors lived extraordinarily busy lives. Amongst us, the children was my sister Gul, studying in Amritsar to become a dentist, and my younger brother Kaka, younger to me by whopping 8 year age barrier. He had yet to hit the freight train of teenage years, and was still innocent with no beard and a voice of sweetness of boyhood. Then there was me – troubled in ways, strangely aloof at times, not-so-typical teenage girl. My only open sin so far was that I was way too attached to my friends. That worried my dad because he didn’t want me to get hurt. Both my parents had learned that there was no such thing as lifelong love and friendship. Life got the better of these, they said. I had yet to find that out as my friends were my world.
It was a travel day for all of us. That meant there was more than normal chaos. That also meant more people had fallen sick and had come knocking on our door to avail the services of Dr Gill. That had been an age-old problem. Our household was a running show of “Murphy’s Law”, anything that can go wrong , will!
We lived in a small town that had only one major road on which we lived. It was a quaint little town where elders of the society converged on “The Mall Road” every morning and evening watching the sun rise and fall. As birds chirped away the elders sat on concrete benches, discussed topics such as politics or gossip, whatever be the flavor of that day. The road, surrounded by gardens on one side and residential homes on the other, smack in its middle had an ice cream shop. In this small town, everybody knew Dr. Gills. And, courtesy to them, we were called “Dr. Gill’s children.” We could not hide either.
To top the usual travel day mess of avoiding Mr Murphy and his law, we had complications embedded in the heart of our plan. We were all traveling to Delhi but at different times of the day and from different places (what were we thinking?!). My mom left in the 6am morning Shatabdi train to get things in order before rest of us joined her. Gul, my sister, was traveling east in the evening Shatabdi from Amritsar, good hour and half west of us. We-Papa, Kaka and I planned to hop on the same train from Jalandhar. We had a row of 4 seats reserved.
It was 20 mins to the train departure time and all the patients had just been taken care of and sent home healthy. The only trouble was we could not find the car keys. We scrambled around, our throats getting drier and drier. I even had a secret battle with God – “Waheguru, Why you hide keys?” And, all I heard back was loud laughter in return!
Anyhow, the keys revealed themselves, I don’t know owing to my secret angry dialogue with God or for some other mystery surrounding our lives, other than God. We rode with Papa in the fastest ride of our lives falling left and right screaming loud Aaaahs….making the 25 minute journey in little over 10 mins.
As we hurriedly dragged our luggage running towards the platform, the fast blue Shatabdi was pulling out of the station! We watched it slip away like a still from a movie. And, just like that the freight train called “the last one hour” of my life came to a screeching halt.
Coolies in red shirts slipped by left and right. The murmur from the crowd sounded like bees on a farm. A child was crying somewhere out far behind the stained walls of the market around the station. The birds were flying away, and the honks from cars went on and on. Such was the state of my mind, subjected rudely into my present longing for the past 5 minutes to rewind and my aching feet to climb atop the train I was supposed to be on. And, instead I stood there on the platform listening to the unwelcome present. My mind was uttering a flurry of unfinished questions.
“But Gul is in the train finding three empty seats next to her…” “But how do we reach Delhi now…” “But how do we inform Mamma…” “But…”
Or I wondered if I should just let Papa worry about it.. After all, it is the grown-ups full-time job to worry and sort things out. We were still children (at least treated that way) and fiercely sheltered. But we did worry. We worried a lot. I don’t mean the messed up teenage worry I was in the middle of. I meant children of all ages worried to some degree. We worried for our parents safety and if the world was really out to get them! We worried about school, unfinished homework and above all my current state misery – unfinished train ride.
So, I worried while Papa talked to the yawning guy on the other side of the window. He bought three new tickets for some Chhattisgarh overnight slow train with scheduled 6:30 am stop at Delhi the next morning instead of earlier planned 10:30 pm arrival Delhi that night. Our quiet moment ended suddenly thereafter. Now we were rushing for this slow train standing on the other platform scheduled to leave at 6:30pm, minutes away. But we made it.
Now this story was before the days of cellphones where simple phone call would have taken the next wrinkle out of our lives – “Hey, I missed this train, now on this one, Don’t Worry!” Short and Sweet!
Gul knew we were not on her train. We too fully knew what mess we were in. One person oblivious of all, and in her happy zone was Mamma, in her world all order was in place in all of our worlds.
When Ludhiana station pulled in, Papa informed us that he will call Mamma from a phone booth and inform her of the revised itinerary and to pick Gul from the train station (unlike previous expectation of us coming home on our own). With that he left.
Kaka was using his humor techniques to alleviate the gravity of the situation. I had an unfaltering gaze from the window searching for a running shadow resembling my dad’s as the train emitted the final horn signaling departure.
No Shadow, No Papa, just random faces walking past each other, none towards the train. I couldn’t sit still inside my window sleeper booth. There was commotion inside my being. So, I walked to the door with Kaka following me. He was munching on a sandwich, holding the rest of it in his hand. My eyes sifted through the crowd. The sun had set and it was now dark. No sign of Papa. The situation called for some action. I couldn’t just wait. I turned to Kaka and said.
“At any cost, do not get out of the train. Stay in our booth with the luggage.”
“I’ll be back.”
I let the train slide by. Kaka no longer laughing, or joking, wearing a serious look one of worry. Now worry had reached a carefree 8-year-old heart. I walked fast in the opposite direction of the train, looking for Papa. When train picked up speed, I knew it was now or never. I could not abandon little Kaka. I was now the adult. I envisioned it all with a lump in my throat, I climbed on to an overcrowded non-A/C coach car or someone helped me climb, I can’t say. Train was now moving at full speed.
The coach car was so crowded with men there was no space to stand or figure a way out to where Kaka would be freaking out at this very moment. Right alongside our air-conditioned car I could not have imagined existing a car without A/C of course but with so many people that there was no room to sit down. One stranger witnessing the horror on my face enquired, and understood. I needed to go to the AC side. He led the way making room for me to pass. Following him, I prayed fervently no longer fighting with Waheguru, I couldn’t risk making God more angry! “Waheguru, may there be papa there!” I repeated like a saint. I opened a shrine inside my head, shoved back tears, folded the hands – the whole nine yards, as I followed the stranger, my feet trembled and I could hear my heart pounding inside my chest, an organ I had happily ignored ever existed right inside my chest. It made its presence felt abundantly especially now when I reached our car to find a bunch of men standing by Kaka looking down. When he looked up and saw me, he said softly,
“I thought I will now go alone to Delhi with all the luggage.”
I could see a stream of dried up tears on his cheeks.
“Oh No! Oh No! This could not be happening. No Papa, just me and Kaka now!” rang voice inside my head.
I slumped into the space next to Kaka and wept like a baby, not the newly pronounced adult, the actual 16 year-old, but a baby.
Right then, Papa emerged from behind the crowd, I called “Our Misery Audience.” I leapt up and hugged him. He looked shocked and surprised.
“I wouldn’t have missed this train at any cost, you know that right?”
I did not know. I did not care. He was back and everything was going to be ok.
And, it was. I slept soon after. Our eyes were cloudy and hair ruffled as we climbed out next morning from the slow Chattisgarh train. I never thought about the journey we did not take again, for the one taken was far more significant.