Praful banged the door shut violently. The frame trembled, the glass in the window next to the door shivered with a tinkle of alarm.
Unheeding, he ran down the steps and did not stop until he reached the bus stop. He did not want to go anywhere. His was using the bus stop as a refuge; it gave him an illusion of purpose. He threw himself down on the cement bench under the awning. Thankfully, the shelter was deserted. Had someone been close enough, they might have seen the rare spectacle of an adult male in a public place, with tears glistening at the corner of his eyes.
Though he was woebegone as he sat there brooding, it certainly was not his habitual state. His face was a testimony to the sunniness of his disposition. His mouth’s upturned corners spoke of the laughter that bubbled within him. His alert eyes usually danced with impish gaiety. The dimple in his left cheek played hide and seek with the smile that played forever on his lips. Contrarily, it disappeared when he smiled and held the fort when the smile was gone; like now.
He sat there, brooding for almost an hour. It was lunch time. He began to feel ravenously hungry. Mulishly, he decided not to go home for lunch. Let them worry, he thought grimacing peevishly. He decided to punish ‘them’ by letting his hunger rumble like an aggravated tiger in his stomach. He shifted his position irritably. The stomach growled louder.
A few minutes later, he couldn’t bear his hunger pangs but he was determined not to go home. He knew he hadn’t brought his wallet so he riffled through his pockets for a chance currency note. He found a tenner crushed almost into pulp. It probably got washed a few times along with his jeans. Gleefully, he congratulated himself on his careless haphazardness and took off towards the railway station which was the only place where he would find something filling in ten bucks.
The station was deserted in the drowsy afternoon heat. He wandered around, eyeing the snacks displayed at the stalls. Nothing attracted him. He was almost out of the covered area of the platform when he saw a sari clad girl sitting on the floor with two cylindrical steel containers selling warm idlis with chutney. The aroma of chutney drove the hungry tiger into frenzy. He rushed to the girl and asked her to give him a plate.
As he stood on one side, tucking into the fluffy, moist idlis and polishing off the tangy chutney, he idly looked the girl over. She sat huddled into the wall behind her, wrapped in a clean sari of a somber hue. Her skin was dusky and smooth as polished marble. Her nose was short with delicate nostrils. Her chin was a soft curve melting flowing down from her delicate cheeks. Her eyes….. Here Praful drew a blank. He couldn’t describe her eyes because she kept them lowered- even during their brief transaction.
Curious, he kept hanging around after he finished his idlis. He loitered aimlessly for over an hour. Many people came to buy idlis from her but not once did she raise her eyes. Soon her containers were empty and she set out for home. Carrying her now empty containers in a large misshapen and grimy bag, she walked slowly out of the railway station and was soon lost in the crowd.
Praful developed an inexplicable passion for idlis. Every afternoon promptly at four, when the station was almost deserted, he came to eat a plate of fluffy idlis. If she noticed his regularity, she didn’t show it. He began noticing other things about her.
She had two saris; nondescript but always spotlessly clean. Her midnight black hair was tied in a thick plait which hung below her waist. Apart from a pinkly twinkling nose pin, she wore no other jewelry. A thick black thread hung round her slender neck. Her voice was gentle and mellow.
She had many regular patrons. For ten rupees she served them five fluffy idlis and as much chutney as they wanted. She never grumbled if they wanted more than a reasonable amount of chutney. If someone was very hungry, she gave them an extra idli or two at no extra charge. She opened her ‘shop’ at three o’clock in the afternoon; by six her stock would be wiped out. This was when the station was almost deserted during those three hours. It seemed as if she deliberately avoided the crowds.
He noticed that selling idlis wasn’t just a way to make money for her. If it were, she’d have been a lot more casual towards it. She was feeding people, giving them solace through her simple, wholesome food. She never used her hands to lift the idlis from the container but fastidiously used a pair of steel ice- tongs to hold them with. She served the food wrapped in her concern, tempered with her silent blessings. There was an aura of restfulness which wrapped itself around her as snugly as her sari wrapped her slender frame. She gave away a part of her soothing presence with each plate of idli she served.
She never smiled except when she was serving a couple of ragamuffins who came demanding idlis from her every evening. The two boys weren’t related to her in any way though they called her akka (sister). They never paid her nor did she ask them for money. They talked nineteen to a dozen with her, telling her everything that happened to them all day. She’d listen to them with all her attention, dispensing love, advice and reprimand with an even hand. The three of them would smile and laugh happily. It was clear that she had affection for those two boys and looked forward to their visit. Even to them, she did not raise her eyes.
Praful couldn’t understand his fascination with her. Twice he tried to find out where she lived, but he lost her in the crowd each time. There was a resigned sadness about her which made him wonder what her life was like. He had been visiting her makeshift stall for over fifteen days now. Yet he was no closer to unravelling her mysteriousness than he had been on the first day. Every day as he walked over to the station, he practiced what he would say to her- beyond asking her for idlis and handing over the money. Every day, he carried his unuttered words back home, kicking himself for being a gauche fool.
The next day when he reached the station, she wasn’t there. He waited, his stomach craving the familiar snack. She didn’t come. He hung around until all the regulars came and left. The two boys were deeply disappointed when they didn’t find her. They wondered where they would get a meal from, that day. They emptied their pockets to see if they had enough money to buy some food from one of the other vendors. All they managed to come up with, between them, was a scant seven rupees. That would barely get them a samosa each, if that. They were almost in tears.
Praful couldn’t bear to see their misery. He dug out a twenty rupee note, handed it to them and walked briskly away before they could thank him. After a few moments of shocked silence, he heard them shouting in unison, “Thank you bhaiya (brother)!” Without turning around, he waved to them and continued walking.
She wasn’t there the next day, or the next, or the next. After a week, he gave up hope. He didn’t see the two boys after the first day of her absence. He had to struggle hard to make himself stop going to the station. Just before four every day, his stomach would start rumbling and his nostrils would be full of the aroma of idli-chutney. He would sit distractedly in his room, prowling round restlessly wanting to break something into pieces.
What had happened to her? Was she all right? Was she sick? He didn’t even know where she lived! Why hadn’t he made a greater effort to find her home?! He must surely be the laziest chap on earth! How could he be so casual? His parents were right, he took things too easy. He never applied himself. He was careless, irresponsible and heedless. A slip of a girl… and he couldn’t find out where she lived for godsakes! What kind of a man was he? He was filled with a lively feeling of self- disgust!
His mother began to notice a change in him. Now when she scolded him he didn’t argue with her trying to justify his inconsiderate and casual behavior. She could see that for the first time in years, he actually listened to what she was saying instead of brushing her homilies away. Wonder of wonders, he genuinely made an effort to be more responsible towards himself and the rest of the family. She held her breath, silently blessing the thing that had brought about the change in him.
For a few days, he went halfway to the station but the possibility of not finding her there was too painful for him to deal with, so he turned back. A few days ago he had gone all the way to the platform but it was after six. She was not there. He berated himself for being a coward but he couldn’t bear to go ever again. It had now been almost two months since he had gone to the station. He decided that idli- chutney was not a snack worthy of his mature patronage; it was food for children, he told himself.
He was on one of his half-way sojourns to the railway station again today. He needed the walk, he told himself. Just as he was about to turn back and retrace his steps home, he saw the two ragamuffins in the distance. He’d never seen them outside the station. It shocked him inexplicably. He looked wildly around, disoriented. He didn’t want to meet them, to be reminded of her, to be reminded of her absence. Willingly, he’d have thrown himself from a bridge- or a skyscraper- just to avoid those two boys. They were chatting away animatedly, happy and carefree. A flood of resentment sloshed in Praful’s heart. How callous these boys were! She had disappeared and they didn’t give a damn! Fickle- minded little brutes!
Oh damn! They had spotted him! He turned on his heels abruptly and hurried away, almost breaking into a run.
“Bhaiya, wait!” cried the pursuers behind him.
“Please bhaiya, wait!”
Praful began to run. He wasn’t going to let them get in his face. Bloody scoundrels! They probably wanted more money from him! Blood- suckers!
He ran faster.
“Bhaiya, akka was looking for you!” The boys shouted in desperation.
Praful skidded to a stop. Akka!! What the…!? Were these boys making fun of him? How dare they!? He’d settle them in a minute! The cheek of the brats!!
Within minutes, the boys caught up with him, completely out of breath. He stood in the middle of the jostling crowd, hands on his hips, the very picture of an angry and deeply offended bear. The boys were not fazed by his aggressive demeanor though.
“Come”, they said briefly. Holding on to each of his hands on either side, they half- pushed, half- dragged him along. A few yards before the station gates, there were a line of shops from which many road- side eateries operated. In one of them sat the boys’ akka demurely serving idlis from a huge steel pot. Praful was dazed. She was here all along!
“Akka, look who we found!” the boys declared proudly. Without raising her eyes, she gave a smile that spoke volumes of her delight.
“Raghav”, she called her sole helper in the shop, “give the boys an extra plate of idlis today.” With that, she came out from behind the counter and stood silently before Praful, her eyes lowered as always. He waited for her to say something; she did not. He stood tongue tied too. A lifetime went rollicking past.
Hesitantly, she held out her right hand, palm upward. Her fingers slightly curled, she held her hand in front of him as if asking him for something. She still wouldn’t look up, say a word or give him a smile. He was even more confused. What did she want? They stood thus while a few more minutes walked away from them.
He had no idea why, but he felt compelled to place his own right hand over hers, palms touching. As soon as he did that, she gave a soft sigh, as if she had been holding her breath which she had now exhaled. He closed his fingers around her small cool hand, his thumb and index finger circling her wrist. He pulled her towards him. She still wouldn’t lift her eyes.
Gently, he lifted her chin. She allowed her face to be raised…but her eyes were still lowered, covered by her long-lashed eyelids. He waited; he had all the time in the world. He was not moving until he had looked into her eyes.
Another chunk of time sidled away. They breathed together: in and out; in and out. Finally, she raised her eyes.
He met himself in their warm brown depths.
But there was more, a lot more, in them. There were some old sorrows and a few new ones. There were a horde of questions and a bevy of answers. There was loneliness and its succour, together. And there was uncontainable happiness spilling wetly over her soft cheeks. He inhaled deeply and her fragrance filled his senses. She rested her head on his chest as he tucked her head under his chin and held her close. She was home, where she belonged. And so was he.
Even blind eyes can be enchantingly lovely, he told himself.