This is the way it has always been: the smell of a railway platform at night fills Akhila with a sense of escape.
The long concrete corridor that stretches into the night segmented by signboards and the light and shadow of station lights. The moving hands of a clock beating an urgent rhythm to the din of mounted TV screens and the creak of trolleys laden with baskets and sacks. The crackling of the public address system as it hisses into life, announcing arrivals and departures. Jasmine wound in the hair, sweat and hair-oil, talcum powder and stale food, moist gunny bags and the raw green-tinged reek of bamboo baskets. Akhila breathes it all in and thinks again of escape. A swell of people all escaping into aspects of richness of which she has no notion.
Akhila has often dreamt of this. Of being part of such a wave that pours into compartments and settles on seats, stowing baggage and clutching tickets. Of sitting with her back to her world, with her eyes looking ahead. Of leaving. Of running away. Of pulling out. Of a train that trundles, truckles and troops into a station. Akhila is seated by a window. Everything but the train is still. The moon hangs at her shoulder and rides with her. She travels through a gallery of nightscapes, each framed by the window. A light in a house. A family huddled around a fire. A howling dog. A distant town. Black oily waters of a river. A menacing hill. A curling road. A railway-crossing with the streetlight glinting on the glasses of a man on a static scooter, hands dangling at his side, heel on the ground, head cocked, watching, waiting for the train to hurtle past.
At the station, portraits replace impressions. Reunions. Farewells. A smile. Tears. Anger. Irritation. Anxiety. Boredom. Stillness. Akhila sees them all. The train begins to move.
Akhila dreams of being there. And not there. Of adding a memory by the moment.
But the truth is, Akhila has never bought an express train ticket until now. She has never climbed into an overnight train to a place she has never been before.
Akhila is that sort of a woman. She does what is expected of her; she dreams about the rest. Which is why she collects epithets of hope like children collect ticket stubs. To her, hope is enmeshed with unrequited desires.
Blue skies, silver linings, a break in the clouds. Akhila knows these to be mere illusions caused by putting on rose-coloured spectacles. She has long ago trodden to shards her rose-glassed spectacles and switched to metal-framed glasses that remain plain indoors and turn photo-chromatic outdoors. Even the sun ceases to shine when Akhila’s glasses turn a dusky brown.
So this then is Akhila. Forty-five years old. Sans rose-coloured spectacles. Sans husband, children, home and family. Dreaming of escape and space. Hungry for life and experience. Aching to connect.
Akhila was not a creature of impulse. She took time over every decision. She pondered, deliberated, slept over it and, only when she had examined every single nuance and point of view, did she make up her mind.
Even the saris she wore revealed this. Starched cotton saris that demanded much planning and thinking ahead. Not like gauzy chiffons and ready-to-wear poly-silks. Those were for people who changed their minds at least six times every morning before they settled on what to wear. Those were for the fickle and feckless. Starched saris need orderly minds and Akhila prided herself on being an organized person.
But when she woke up that morning, stirred out of sleep by a tiny housefly with gauzy wings and a pert black body, hopelessly lost, vagrant and restless, humming and hovering above her face, Akhila felt within her a queer itinerant sensation. An aftermath of her dream the night before, she thought.
The fly settled on her brow for a fleeting second and rubbed its legs briskly. Flies did this all the time; loading and unloading disease and despair. But this one, new adult, had nothing to unburden but germs of disquiet. Akhila flicked the fly off with a sweep of her arm but the fly had accomplished what it had set out to do. A snarl of maggotlike notions swam through the redness of blood and thought till Akhila felt a great desire to board a train. To leave. To go somewhere that wasn’t landlocked like this city of Bangalore. To the end of the world, perhaps. Her world, at least. Kanyakumari.
At Kanyakumari, the three seas meet. The Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. A quiet male ocean flanked by two restless female seas. Akhila had heard of how. it was at Kanyakumari, only then it was called Cape Comorin, that the headstrong and restless Narendra flung himself into the churning waters and the salts of the three seas and swam to a rock upon which he sat resolutely, waiting for answers that had eluded him all his life. So that when he left the rock, he became Vivekananda, the one who had found the joy of wisdom. The saint who taught the world to arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached.
She had read that Kanyakumari had got its name from the goddess who, like her, had put her life on hold, condemned to an eternal waiting. And that the beach there was made up of multi-coloured sand; the fossilized remnants of a wedding feast that was never served or eaten.
Akhila lay on her bed staring out of the window and decided that she would go. Tonight.
Padma wouldn’t like it, Akhila knew. These days her sister was suspicious of everything she did or said. Akhila felt her mouth draw into a line. Padma called it the spinster mouth, Akka’s mouth: grim, determined and brooking no interference.
She rose and went to look at the calendar hanging on her wall. She skimmed the dates. December 19. The year would soon be over, Akhila thought, and then not knowing why, she searched the end of the calendar for the needle she kept pierced through the paper, threaded with a white thread. In readiness for an emergency – a loose hook, an unravelling hem … The needle was gone. One of the girls must have taken it and forgotten to put it back. They did it all the time, no matter how often she told them that it was to be put back. That and the mirror by the washbasin dotted with maroon circles of felt – stick-on bindis which they peeled from their grimy foreheads and stuck back on the mirror for another day – made up her mind for her. She would go. She had to, or she would go mad confined within the walls of the house and the life she was expected to live.
Akhila opened her cupboard and drew out a black and red Madurai chungdi sari. It was cotton and starched but the colours and gold zari made Padma look up in surprise. Akhila had long ago ceased to wear bright colours, choosing to hide herself in drab moth tones. Yet, this morning Akhila was a butterfly. With magical hues and gay abandon. Where is the moth? Why aren’t your wings folded? Why aren’t you trying to pretend that you and the wood are one? Why aren’t you hiding yourself among the curtains, Padma’s eyes asked.
Padma will know then that this day will be unlike any other, Akhila thought when she saw astonishment swim across her face. Let it not be said that I gave her no warning.
‘But you’ve never had to travel on work before,’ Padma said when Akhila told her about her trip at breakfast time. Akhila waited till she had eaten her breakfast – three idlies, a small bowl of sambar, and a piping hot cup of coffee – and only then did she mention the journey. Padma was certain to object; to fuss and even make a scene, all of which would make Akhila lose her appetite. Akhila knew that as well as she had known how Padma’s eyes would narrow suspiciously.
When Akhila didn’t reply, Padma persisted, ‘Isn’t this rather sudden?’
For a moment, a lie crept into Akhila’s mouth: it’s official work. I was informed only yesterday.
But why? she asked herself I owe her no explanations. ‘Yes, it is sudden,’ she said.
‘How long will you be gone?’ Padma’s eyes glinted with doubts as she watched Akhila pack. Akhila knew what Padma was thinking. Is she travelling alone or is someone going with her? A man, perhaps. Padma’s nostrils flared as if she could smell the stench of illicit liaisons.
‘A few days,’ she said. There was a certain pleasure in being ambiguous, Akhila decided when she saw the look on Padma’s face.
All cargo offices smell alike. Akhila pursed her nostrils in readiness. In a moment she would allow herself to inhale slowly. After twenty years of travelling by suburban trains to work and back, she was used to what made everyone else’s face screw up in disgust. She drew the line at fish, though. She waited as the cargo handlers dragged a basket of fish to the far end of the station. When they were gone, she walked towards the edge of the platform and stared down at the tracks. Long metal lines that ran into the horizon. She needn’t have come into the station but she felt she had to see by daylight what was to be the beginning of her escape route. The platform was deserted. Yet, she felt a hollowness in the pit of her stomach as though any minute the train she was to board would pull into the station and it would be time for her to leave. Akhila smiled at her own foolishness. She walked to the reservation counter where Niloufer was waiting for her.
There was a long line at the far end of the counter. A long line of women mostly. Husbands, brothers and sometimes fathers stood guard, hovering in the periphery while their womenfolk stood, hands knotting the ends of their saree pallus, shifting their weight from one leg to the other, waiting their turn.
Akhila read the board above the line. ‘Ladies, Senior Citizens and Handicapped Persons.’ She did not know if she should feel angry or venerated. There was a certain old-fashioned charm, a rare chivalry in this gesture by the Railway Board that pronounced a woman shouldn’t be subject to the hustle and bustle, lecherous looks and groping hands, sweaty armpits and swear words that were part of the experience of standing in the General Queue. But why spoil it all by clubbing women with senior citizens and handicapped persons? Akhila stifled a sigh and looked for Niloufer.
In some previous birth, Niloufer must have been a bee. She was always in the middle of some project. For a while, it was Chinese cooking; then it was tufting; the last one was the Anchor Stitch-kit. All this meant that she was never out of topics for conversation. All one had to do was listen, and she would do the talking. But in spite of her garrulousness, she was one of the few people Akhila liked and respected. She didn’t pry. She didn’t gossip and she was very hardworking and efficient. She wasn’t Katherine. But then, Akhila wasn’t looking for another Katherine.
‘Niloufer,’ Akhila had said as soon as she walked into the income-tax office, ‘can you get me a ticket on tonight’s train to Kanyakumari?’
‘Why? What’s happening there?’ Niloufer’s kohl-rimmed eyes widened. Niloufer liked dressing up. She wore a lot of jewellery, made up her face and chose her saris to match her jewellery.
‘Does anything have to happen there for me to want to go to a place?’ Akhila retorted.
‘It’s going to be difficult. This is peak season with everyone wanting to go to Kerala on holiday, and there are hordes of devotees on their way to Sabarimala,’ Niloufer said as she leafed through a sheaf of papers. ‘But my friend at the reservation counter will help. Particularly when I tell her it is for you. I’ll call her right away.’
A few minutes later, Niloufer had come to her table smiling. ‘It’s all arranged. I’ll go there half an hour before the lunch break. You can come a little later.’
Akhila spotted Niloufer. She was standing alongside the reservation clerk, talking. They stood oblivious to the crowd and the furious looks darted at them. Akhila lifted her hand furtively. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself, she thought, as she waved her hand. Niloufer’s eyes met hers through the glass counter. Her face was beaming and she waved a ticket.
‘She did her best but the train is full. There are no second AC sleeper or first-class tickets. What she has got you is a berth in a second-class compartment, but in the ladies coupé. Is that all right? You’ll be stuck with five other women who will all want to know the story of your life.’ The gold bells in her ears jangled.
Akhila smiled. ‘That’s exactly what I need,’ she murmured, pulling out her chequebook from her bag.
Akhila was at the Bangalore Cantonment station by half past eight at night. It was only a few minutes away from where she lived. But she was in a hurry to leave. It was as if, once she had made up her mind, she wanted to shake the dust of home off her feet.
‘How can you go by yourself to the railway station?’ Padma had asked when Akhila reached home in the evening.
‘I’m travelling alone, aren’t I?’
‘But it will be late when you go from here.’
Akhila reined in the irritation she felt and said, ‘Don’t worry. There are plenty of autorickshaws and they are very safe. Besides, the station is not all that far away.’
But Padma wouldn’t give up and so the last words Akhila heard as she left home were veined with petulance. ‘I don’t know what Narayan Anna and Narsi Anna will say when they hear of your going away suddenly, and all by yourself too …’
But Akhila had already ceased to listen. ‘Cantonment Railway Station,’ she told the autorickshaw driver with a lilt in her voice.
Ten minutes later, she stood at the entrance of the railway station, skimming the faces in the crowd.
I am here, her heart galloped. A tiny foam-edged wave of pure emotion rushed through her. She felt her lips stretch into a smile. I am part of a ripple that will escape this city tonight. I will board a train and allow it to lead me into a horizon I will not recognize.
Akhila walked towards the stationmaster’s office. Outside on the wall, she searched the noticeboard for the list of passengers. The sight of her name reassured her. Beneath her name were five others. Sheela Vasudevan, Prabha Devi, Janaki Prabhakar, Margaret Paulraj and Marikolanthu. They must be the other passengers in the coupé. Who were these women, Akhila wondered for a brief instant. Where were they going? What were their lives like?
Akhila moved away from the reservation chart to locate her compartment on the position chart. Eleventh from the engine. She shifted her suitcase to her other hand and began to walk towards the signboard marked eleven. All the benches on the platform were taken, so she went to stand by a dripping water faucet. She bit her lip uncertainly. Was this the right place? She turned towards an elderly couple who stood a little distance away and asked, ‘Is this where the S7 compartment of the Kanyakumari Express stops?’
The man nodded. ‘I think so. We are in the same compartment too.’
There was something about the elderly couple that made her eyes home in on them again and again. They radiated a particular calm; an island of unhurried waiting in that sea of fidgety humans. As though they knew that sooner or later the train would arrive and it would be their turn to climb the three steps into the compartment that would take them to their destination. That there was no point in craning their necks, shuffling their feet or manifesting other signs of dissatisfaction until then.
The pong of urine rose and settled with the breeze. Redshirted silver-armbanded porters stood alongside the piled suitcases. A beggar with maimed limbs thrust his tin cup this way and that. An urchin and a dog ran busily from one end of the platform to the other. A bored policeman stared at the TV screen.
The Udayan Express, scheduled to arrive before the Kanyakumari Express, was late. The platform was crowded with people. Alongside Akhila stood a whole family of uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents who had come to see a lone man off. He was headed for Bombay from where he would catch a plane to a Middle-Eastern country.
She wondered what it must be like to be the wife of a man who was away for many years and when he came home was claimed for their own by parents, siblings, cousins, relatives, friends … Akhila looked at the man who carried on his shoulders the burden of other people’s dreams. That she knew all about. That she could understand.
She turned away from the man and watched the elderly couple. The woman wore a pale pink sari with a narrow gold border, a slim gold chain around her neck, and metal-rimmed spectacles. Her hair lay gathered in a little bun at the nape of her neck. A gold bracelet watch gleamed at her wrist. One hand held a water bottle while the other clutched a narrow leather purse. In a few years’ time I will look like her, Akhila told herself Except that I won’t have a man like him beside me.
He seemed nice enough. The well-tailored clothes, the horn-rimmed spectacles, the still muscular body, the pleasant features, the manner in which his hair had receded, the way he stood at his wife’s side, they all seemed to suggest a non-aggressive confidence. The couple looked like they belonged together.
What is it about marriage that makes it possible for a man and a woman to mesh their lives, dreams and even their thoughts in such a complete fashion? Her parents used to be like that. They even resembled each other with broad high foreheads, a slight hook to their noses and a cleft in their chins. They liked their coffee sweetened with two spoons of sugar and their curds set just so. It had to taste almost milk-like.
Often her mother only had to think about something, and her father would voice exactly the same sentiment within the fraction of a second and her mother would say, ‘I was about to say that.’
He would beam at her then and guffaw with pleasure, ‘That’s because we are so well suited. We are two bodies and one soul.’ And her mother would smile back coyly.
When she was a teenager, Akhila remembered reading a novel about a couple who were passionately in love with each other even after many years of being married. Years later, she could recall neither the name of the book nor its plot. All she remembered was a line: The children of lovers are no better than orphans.
As a child, her parents’ togetherness did not vex her. She was part of that enchanted circle as well. But as she grew up, their playfulness, their affection, the obvious pleasure they found in each other’s presence made her feel excluded. Later, it embarrassed her. But they remained completely oblivious to her mortification. And even if they sensed it, nothing would deter or diminish what was practically a lifelong love affair.
When her father died, her parents had been married for almost twenty-two years. Every year thereafter, on the date of their wedding day, her mother wept. ‘For our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, your father had promised to buy me a diamond nose-ring. A diamond for the queen of my heart, he said. He loved me so much,’ she would moan. With every passing year, her mother’s grief seemed only to increase.
She had lost more than a husband. He had been part of her life from the moment she was born. As her uncle, he had carried her in his arms, pointing out butterflies and crows, the moon and the rainbow, the wonders of nature. In many ways, it was only natural that he should be the one to show her the wonder of being a woman.
Akhila’s mother married her father when she was fifteen years old. He was twenty-four. Akhila was born two years and eight months later.
‘But Amma, how could you have agreed to marry your uncle?’ Akhila asked her mother once. ‘It’s so unnatural.’
‘What’s unnatural about it?’ she had demanded angrily. ‘It is a perfectly accepted norm in our community. Who do you think you are to question it?’
Akhila was only fourteen. But even so, she heaved a sigh of relief that there was no uncle waiting in the wings for her to grow up.
Her mother threw her a dirty look and suggested that she go out and bring in the washing. ‘An idle brain causes idle thoughts. Dangerous thoughts,’ Amma said darkly.
‘When you have finished folding and sorting the clothes, iron them. But leave your Appa’s shirts for me. He is satisfied only if I do it,’ she added.
Akhila grimaced because she knew that it wasn’t so. Her father didn’t care who ironed his shirts as long as they were done. But Amma liked to perpetuate this myth about a tyrant husband who was easily annoyed and could be placated only by her complete devotion. Unlike other men in the neighbourhood who let their wives rule them. Like Karpagam’s father.
Karpagam’s mother taught dancing. Every evening between four and six, she gave lessons to the children in the neighbourhood. At the end of a year of lessons, her students knew enough to participate in school dancing competitions and win a few prizes. So she had plenty of girls coming in for dance lessons. Besides, she only charged thirty-five rupees a month per student. She made enough money to be able to buy little trinkets for Karpagam and herself. Maybe that’s why Amma kept her distance from Karpagam’s mother. Amma didn’t like anyone who was different from her.
One morning, when Akhila was about nine years old, Karpagam brought to school a foot-long pencil with a cunning little pink plastic hand attached to its end. Akhila immediately wanted one like it.
‘Where did you get it?’ she whispered when Karpagam showed her how she could scratch her back with it.
‘My mother brought it for me,’ she said, giving her back another long drawn out scratch.
‘What does it cost?’
‘Six rupees. But Mother bought it at Moore Market. She bargained with the shopkeepers and got it for three rupees. Its real value is six rupees,’ Karpagam said, giving Akhila the pencil to hold and scratch her back with.
‘Doesn’t it feel lovely?’ she asked, seeing the pleasure on Akhila’s face.
‘It’s beautiful. Can I take it home with me for a day? I’ll show it to my mother and ask her to buy me one as well,’ Akhila said, caressing the lines of the pencil hand as if it were a real hand. To have and to hold.
Karpagam hesitated. ‘I have to ask my mother …’ she began.
‘I promise to bring it back tomorrow. Look, if I get a pencil like this, then we can scratch our backs together,’ Akhila said in earnest.
‘You are quite silly,’ Karpagam giggled, tickled by the thought of the two of them going at their backs with their pencils. Perhaps that was why she let Akhila take the pencil home.
Amma was annoyed and then furious. ‘Karpagam’s mother can buy her all kinds of things. Karpagam’s mother has an income of her own. I can’t afford to buy you such useless things. Do you realize that Appa works so hard and in spite of it, we find it difficult to make ends meet? And I do not want you bringing other people’s things into our home. What if you break or lose the pencil? Where will I find the money to replace it?’
The next day Akhila returned the pencil to Karpagam. ‘What happened?’ she asked. ‘When will your mother buy one for you?’
‘She said she can’t afford to buy me things like your mother does,’ Akhila said.
But all day and later all night, Akhila thought about it. If Amma had a job, she too would have money of her own and she would be able to buy her the things she needed without troubling Appa about it. But what could Amma do to earn some money?
The next morning, Akhila heard her mother singing under her breath as she went about her chores. It was a holiday and so Akhila had all day to prepare herself before she approached her mother with what she considered was a master move.
‘Amma,’ Akhila said when she thought Amma seemed in a receptive enough mood. Amma was combing her hair and singing softly. ‘Why don’t you give music lessons?’
Amma looked up in surprise.
Akhila hastened to explain. ‘You sing so well and Appa always says that you have one of the best singing voices he has ever heard. Why don’t you teach music like Karpagam’s mother teaches dance? Then you would have some money of your own …’ she finished lamely, wondering if she had said too much.
‘I don’t approve of what Karpagam’s mother is doing. All kinds of people come into their house. Brahmins and non-brahmins. Do you think your father would allow such comings and goings on here? Don’t you know how strict he is? Anyway, do you think your father would let me? “If I wanted a working wife, then I would have married someone like that,” he told me when we were first married. “I want my wife to take care of my children and me. I don’t want her so caught up with her job that she has no time for the house or for taking care of my needs.” And that’s all I wanted to be as well. A good wife.’
Amma had her own theories on what a good wife ought to be like. First of all, no good wife could serve two masters – the masters being her father and her husband. A good wife learnt to put her husband’s interests before anyone else’s, even her father’s. A good wife listened to her husband and did as he said. ‘There is no such thing as an equal marriage,’ Amma said. ‘It is best to accept that the wife is inferior to her husband. That way, there can be no strife, no disharmony. It is when one wants to prove one’s equality that there is warring and sparring all the time. It is so much easier and simpler to accept one’s station in life and live accordingly. A woman is not meant to take on a man’s role. Or the gods would have made her so. So what is all this about two equals in a marriage?’
Amma left all decisions to Appa. ‘He knows best,’ she said. ‘We have never had to regret any decision that he has taken, even when it was on my behalf.’
Which is why, when they had been married a few years and Amma inherited a small piece of land in her village, she had watched her husband sell it without a word of dissent. Several years later a cousin had written to tell her that the same piece of land had been sold for ten times its original price. ‘If we had kept it, we would have been able to buy a small house of our own,’ Amma sighed.
When Akhila sighed along with her, she changed her expression and said, ‘Mind you, I’m not saying that your father made a hasty decision. Who would have known that the land prices would soar so high and that too in a place like Mettupalayam?’
Amma’s family was quite rich. But she was the daughter of a first wife who had died when she was eleven years old. Her mother had died trying to give birth to a baby boy who hadn’t survived either. A year later, her father married again. He was too smitten by his second wife and the sons she produced easily and regularly at eighteen-month intervals to bother too much about a daughter. When Amma was of marriageable age, he arranged for her wedding. A very austere one with Appa. After all, it had been arranged and settled many years ago. In fact, the moment she was born.
There was enough of everything, so no one had any reason to find fault, but there wasn’t too much money or jewellery or anything that was of any enduring value. The piece of land had been her only inheritance from a father who left everything else to his sons.
But Appa had been adamant that she have nothing more to do with her family that had treated her so shabbily and he decided to sell the land. ‘From now on, I am all you have,’ he had said. And Amma had accepted that happily. After her mother’s death, no one, had loved her as much. And this was to her another declaration of how much she meant to him.
Many years later, Akhila mentioned to a colleague and perhaps her only real woman friend, Katherine, that her mother was also her father’s niece. Katherine had stared in shock. ‘But how can anyone marry their uncle? It is incest!’ she had cried, her mouth a round ‘O’.
‘I suppose it is incest,’ Akhila agreed. ‘Maybe that’s what made them so comfortable with each other.’
‘I can’t understand what your religion is all about.’ Katherine shook her head. ‘You consider eating an egg a sin. But it is perfectly acceptable to marry your uncle!’
Akhila could see Katherine’s point of view but for some strange reason, she felt she had to defend her parents. Explain what their marriage had been like. ‘They were very happy together. The happiest when they were together. Sometimes I think it was because they had always known each other. Imagine, my mother must have dribbled down my father’s back when she was a baby. Perhaps even peed all over him. She must have heard his voice crack and seen the first hairs on his upper lip.’
‘All that’s fine. But you don’t have to marry your uncle to be close to your husband,’ Katherine had argued. ‘In that case, you might as well marry your brother.’
‘No, that’s not what I mean. But you know what, a few years ago when I still wanted to be someone’s wife, I would have agreed to marry anyone. Even an uncle,’ Akhila had said, only half in jest.
Akhila glanced at her watch, impatient for the bell announcing the arrival of the train to ring. The Udayan Express had come and gone and now the platform was filled with passengers for the Kanyakumari Express. The elderly couple had moved a few paces ahead. She wondered how long they had been waiting there.
The man was beginning to look restless now. He asked the woman a question. She nodded her head. He edged out of the crowd and went up to the kiosk at the entrance of the station. He returned with a soft drink for her. She took a sip and offered it to him. He shook his head.
Why am I wasting my time watching them? Akhila pursed her lips. Here is proof of everything that my family has told me. A woman can’t live alone. A woman can’t cope alone. She was saved from further rumination when the signal changed. The headlight of the train moved towards the station and the PA system announced its arrival. Akhila picked up her suitcase and gripped its handle in readiness to board.
The swell of passengers surged forward as the train drew to a halt. Akhila felt fear propel her. The train halted here for just two or three minutes. How would all of them board the train at the same time? She elbowed her way through the crowd. When she got to the door, she discovered the elderly man there. He was helping his wife climb up the steps into the carriage. ‘Go on, get into the train quickly,’ he said, turning towards Akhila. He held the other passengers back while Akhila hefted her bag and found her way into the compartment.
The ladies coupé was at the beginning of the carriage. She entered it and looked for her seat number. There were six berths in the coupé. Three on either side. She had a lower berth. But, for now, all six passengers would sit on the lower berths till it was time to sleep. Then the middle berth would be raised from its place against the wall and fixed to the upper one. Akhila stowed her bag beneath her seat and looked around her. The elderly lady was opposite. Her husband had pushed a suitcase beneath the seat and was blowing into an air pillow. When it was puffed and plump, he patted it and put it beside her. He raised the window and adjusted the catch so that it wouldn’t slam down on her hand. ‘Do you want help with your window?’ he asked, turning to Akhila.
She smiled and refused.
‘You will be alright, won’t you?’ he asked, turning to his wife. ‘When you are ready to sleep, pull down the wooden shutters. That way you’ll get a good breeze and you don’t have to worry about anyone snatching your chain or earrings. Don’t forget to take your medicine. I am in the same compartment, so don’t worry, I’ll check on you often.’
When he was gone, the older woman gave Akhila a wry look and explained, ‘We reserved our tickets only two days ago and this is all we could get. He doesn’t even have a berth.’
‘Looks like there is one empty berth,’ Akhila said. ‘The TTR might give it to him after all. They don’t mind elderly men in the ladies coupé.’
‘The berth is already taken. She is boarding at the next station or the one after that, they said.’
The train began to move and Akhila looked around her. She thought of what Niloufer had said and smiled to herself ‘Five women, incessant chatter. Can you handle that?’ Niloufer had teased.
A slim pretty woman with bobbed hair and eyes like shards of onyx sat next to the elderly woman. Was she a doctor, Akhila wondered. She seemed to be examining everything and everyone. The woman caught Akhila looking at her and smiled. A brief tight smile that took the edge away from the intensity of her gaze. Akhila smiled back and shifted her glance. Sitting next to Akhila was a good-looking woman with a light complexion and a trim figure, dressed in a manner that suggested money. There were gold bangles on her wrists and diamonds in her earlobes. Her fingernails were long and painted a dull pink. She looked like she hadn’t done a scrap of work in her life. Akhila wondered what she was doing in a second-class compartment.
‘Where are you going?’ The woman asked her.
‘I’m going to Kanyakumari. What about you?’ Akhila asked.
‘Kottayam. There is a wedding there. I was supposed to have driven down with my husband but he had to go on business to Bombay and he will be flying in from there to Kochi.’ And this is all I could get at short notice, her expression said, even though the words remained unspoken.
‘What about you?’ the elderly lady asked the pretty woman next to her.
‘I’ll be getting off at Coimbatore,’ she said. Her voice was as sweet as her face and yet something about her made Akhila feel uneasy. ‘And you?’
‘Ernakulam,’ the elderly lady replied.
The woman at the farthest end of the coupé sat curled towards the door. She seemed completely oblivious to the rest of them in the enclosed space.
They stared at her. She wasn’t one of them. She didn’t look like one of them. It wasn’t that she was dressed poorly or that there was about her the stink of poverty. It was simply the expression on her face. As if she had seen it all, human fickleness and fallibility, and there was very little that could happen that would take her by surprise. In contrast, their faces, though much older than hers, were unmarked by experience or suffering.
Besides, they were sure that she didn’t speak English as they all did. That was enough to put a distance between them and her.
The woman next to Akhila opened a small basket and took out a few oranges. ‘I didn’t want to leave them behind at home to rot. Here, have one,’ she said, holding out the fruit.
‘My name is Prabha Devi. What is yours?’ she asked no one in particular.
Prabha Devi. The elderly lady was Janaki. The pretty one was Margaret. And she, Akhila, Akhilandeswari.
The woman by the door had waited for the ticket collector and then she had climbed to the top berth and gone off to sleep. For some reason, Akhila knew it made them all feel better that they didn’t have to include her in their conversation. That they didn’t have to pretend they had something in common with her. That because they were all women they had to group themselves with her.
The scent of oranges filled the coupé. And with it a quiet camaraderie sprung between them.
Akhila kicked her sandals off, curled her feet under her and leaned against the window. The breeze ruffled her hair. The moon hung by her shoulder.
‘My grandchild gave me a bar of chocolate. To nibble at during the night,’ the elderly lady said smiling. ‘Would you like some?’ She offered the bar around.
Akhila took a piece of the Kit Kat and tore off the silver foil. Margaret shook her head ‘Not for me. I have to watch my weight.’
Janaki shook her head in disbelief. ‘Why do you need to watch your weight? You are slim enough.’
‘I used to be fat. Not plump, mind you. Really fat,’ Margaret said. ‘When I went on a diet, I had to give up a whole lot of things and now I think I have lost the taste for chocolate. I used to love it. Not anymore …’
‘I don’t eat chocolate either,’ Prabha Devi said, passing the chocolate back to Janaki. ‘My son is seventeen years old but he is still like a three-year-old when it comes to chocolate. Each time my husband goes abroad on business, he brings chocolate back for my son. My daughter stopped eating it when she discovered that it was chocolate that was causing her skin to erupt. Sometimes I think she spends all her time in front of the mirror checking her face for a pimple or a blemish. Now she demands that my husband bring her back make-up from a store called Body Shop.’
‘What does he do?’ Janaki asked.
‘We have a jewellery business,’ Prabha Devi said. ‘I shouldn’t be saying “we”. He has a jewellery business. I am a housewife.’
‘Nothing wrong with that. I’m a housewife too,’ Janaki said. ‘What about you?’ she said, turning to Margaret.
‘My husband is the principal of a school. I teach chemistry in the same school,’ she said.
‘Do you find yourself arguing about everything?’ Prabha Devi giggled and then suddenly, as if conscious what she had said, covered her mouth with her hand and tried to explain, ‘It’s not just the house; you share a workplace too.’
‘We had our problems at first but now we know enough to deflect tension when it occurs. To separate the school life from our home life. It took us a long time but we manage pretty well now. Guess what? My daughter studies in the same school too!’ Margaret said with a chuckle.
‘What does your husband do?’ the elderly lady asked, cocking her head at Akhila.
‘I am not married,’ Akhila said.
‘Oh.’ Janaki lapsed into silence. Akhila could see Janaki thought she was offended. She took a deep breath.
‘I am forty-five years old and I have always lived with my family,’ she said.
Prabha Devi turned towards her. But it was Margaret who spoke first. ‘Do you have a job?’
She nodded. ‘I work for the income-tax department.’
‘If you don’t mind me asking you, why is it that you didn’t marry?’ Prabha Devi asked, leaning towards Akhila. ‘Did you choose to remain unmarried?’
What am I going to tell her? Akhila wondered.
Suddenly it didn’t matter. Akhila knew she could tell these women whatever she chose to. Her secrets, desires, and fears. In turn, she could ask them whatever she wanted. They would never see each other again.
‘I didn’t choose to remain single. It happened that way,’ she said. When she saw the curiosity in their eyes, she elaborated, ‘My father died and I had to look after the family. By the time they were all settled in their lives, I was much too old to marry.’
‘You are not all that old,’ Janaki said. ‘You can still find yourself a good man. The matrimonial columns are full of advertisements by men in their mid- and late-forties seeking a suitable mature woman to spend their lives with.’
‘If you ask me, those men are looking for a housekeeper – someone to cook, clean and fetch for them. If she is happy the way she is, why should she marry?’ Margaret asked.
‘Are you happy?’ Prabha Devi asked.
‘Is anyone happy?’ Akhila retorted.
‘It depends,’ Prabha Devi said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. ‘It depends on what you define happiness to be.’
Akhila leaned toward her and said, ‘As far as I am concerned, marriage is unimportant. Companionship, yes, I would like that. The problem is, I wish to live by myself but everyone tells me that no woman can live alone.’
‘Why should a woman live by herself? There is always a man who is willing to be with her,’ Janaki said, taking her glasses off and rubbing the bridge of her nose. ‘Didn’t you ever meet anyone you wanted to marry?’
‘I did,’ Akhila said and a faint shadow settled on her face. ‘But it was not meant to be.’
‘Why?’ Prabha Devi asked. ‘Why was it not meant to be?’
‘We were not right for each other. Besides, these days, getting married is hardly on my mind. All I am trying to do is convince myself that a woman can live alone.’
‘You should trust your instincts,’ Margaret said. ‘You have to find your own answers. No one can help you do that.’
Akhila paused for a moment, then began again. ‘My family said that, if I talked to other people, they would tell me how stupid it was for me, a single woman, to want to live by myself. But I expected my family to say that. So I pretended to them that I would talk to a few people. I was certain that I wanted to live alone and I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. But one night, I woke up with a start. My heart was hammering in my chest and I was paralysed by a nameless fear. How can I? I asked myself. How can I, who have never spent a week away from my family, survive a future alone? What do I know of running a household? What will I do when I fall ill? Who will I turn to? What do I know of life?
‘And then, when I entered this coupé and saw all of you … I know you are all married … I thought that if I talked to you … it would somehow help me make up my mind.’
Prabha Devi and Margaret looked at each other in amusement. Then Margaret peered at her fingernails and said with a sly grin, ‘What if I tell you that you should live alone, but she,’ she gestured to Prabha Devi, ‘tells you that you can’t live alone. That you should continue to live with your family. What will you do then?’
‘Don’t mock her,’ Janaki said. Janaki, who could very well have been her mother and theirs. How easily they slipped into familiar roles. Mother and three daughters. Two siblings ganging up against one.
‘She is serious. Can’t you two see that?’
Akhila shrugged. ‘I don’t know if you will be able to help me. But you must tell me what you really think. Can a woman cope alone?’
‘Is it advice you are looking for?’ Janaki asked.
‘I don’t want advice. I just want you to tell me if you think a woman can manage alone,’ Akhila said in a low voice.
Janaki peered at her face, searching her eyes. Akhila sat there saying nothing. Janaki sighed. ‘They,’ she said gesturing to the other two, ‘are closer in age to you. You should speak to them. Their opinion will mean much more than mine. I am the wrong person to talk to. My husband and I have been married for forty years. That’s a long time for a couple to stay together. How can I tell you what it means for a woman to live alone?’
There was silence in the coupé. For a moment, Akhila had thought they had established a connection. Foetuses jostling within the walls of a womb, drawing sustenance from each other’s lives, aided by the darkness outside and the fact that what was shared within the walls wouldn’t go beyond this night or the contained space.
‘I don’t know enough about the world or you to offer advice. All I can do is tell you about myself, about my marriage and what it means to me,’ Janaki began suddenly, slowly, as if every word had to be chosen with great care. ‘I am a woman who has always been looked after. First there was my father and my brothers; then my husband. When my husband is gone, there will be my son. Waiting to take off from where his father left off. Women like me end up being fragile. Our men treat us like princesses. And because of that we look down upon women who are strong and who can cope by themselves. Do you understand what I am saying?
‘Perhaps because of the way I was brought up, perhaps because of all that was instilled in me, I believed that a woman’s duty was to get married. To be a good wife and mother. I believed in that tired old cliché that a home was a woman’s kingdom. I worked very hard to preserve mine. And then suddenly, one day, it didn’t matter any more. My home ceased to interest me; none of the beliefs I had built my life around had any meaning. I thought if I were to lose it all, I would cope. If I ever became alone, I would manage perfectly. I was quite confident about that. I think I was tired of being this fragile creature.’
Akhila searched Janaki’s face. What did she mean by ‘was’?
‘But you have changed your mind now. Why?’ Akhila asked.
Janaki patted the air pillow as if it were her husband’s hand and said, ‘Now I know that even if I can cope, it isn’t the same if he isn’t there with me.’
LADIES COUPÉ. Copyright © 2001 by Anita Nair. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, NewYork, N.Y. 10010.