The drop earring glistened as they caught the slanting rays of the evening sun every time Urvashi tossed her head in irritation as she waited on the cast iron bench at the crowded platform no.7 of Bombay Central station. Her two fancy suitcases stood on castors by her side like ballerinas on tiptoe trying to avoid the grime that coated the ground beneath them.
A few feet away, on a frayed sheet spread on the ground was little Renu guarding the weather beaten aluminum trunk. Her mother sat beside her trying to soothe the bawling baby in her arms. Renu was fascinated by the colors those crystal earrings threw about. Like the rainbows she had often seen encompassing the emerald rice fields in her grandmother’s village. Fields that began at her feet and stretched right up to the horizon. She too had many shiny beads all packed in a rusty toffee tin that had a picture of a gori memsaab wearing a large frilly hat sitting in a garden holding a parasol in her delicate gloved hands.
That madam on the bench looks just like the one on my treasure box, the same dark eyes, rosy lips and delicate white hands, thought Renu. She’s so pretty and she has golden brown hair that bounces and waves about every time she moves.
She looked ruefully at her own two plaits tied tightly with bright yellow ribbons that she had been quite proud of this morning. Her mother would never let her go out with her hair loose. Even if she had, Renu doubted if her locks would ever dance about like that.
And, ah, what earrings! They must surely be diamonds. But the glass beads necklace that mamu bought for her at the Mahim fair last month shone just as much if she held it up to the sun. She was carrying it with her today to show her grandmother, Nanima, along with the rest of her treasure. For Nanima was the only person on earth who realized the true worth of her jewelry. Nanima would give such happy exclamations over each glass bead, brass finger ring, colored stone, copper bracelet and steel pendant that Renu held up one by one for examination. Then Nanima would embrace Renu, hold her very close and say, “You are my brightest gem, my heera.” There Renu would stay cuddled up, snug, relating all the stories of Bombay’s fast cars, illuminated shops, large bridges, and tall buildings, till she finally fell asleep and her Nanima laid her down on the mat and covered her with a soft quilt made from her old nine yard saris.
Renu’s mother, Kamala, looked at Urvashi too while gently rocking and hushing the baby to sleep. She seemed so angry about something. She seemed to have everything…and such a handsome young man that’s come to see her off…. wonder if they’re married. She doesn’t wear a bindi…no bangles and no black beads round her neck either…
“Pathankote se ane wali gaadi aur teen ghante deri se…train arriving on platform no. 7 is running three hours late and will arrive at……..” loudly crackled the ancient loudspeaker overhead waking up the infant who promptly began his piercing wail and Kamala went back to rocking him back and forth in her arms till the wail became a whimper and then turned into a deep sigh as he put his head onto his mother’s shoulder and his thumb into his mouth.
“Sha…this is unbearable,” exclaimed Urvashi throwing down the magazine she had been fanning herself with, “that means it won’t depart before ten thirty.” She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, picked it high over her head and tied it in a knot. She crossed her arms and looked around in exasperation at the growing crowd on the platform. Her frown deepened as she saw Rajeev approaching.
“Cheer up, Urvi. You must be famished. Here I’ve got some sandwiches…have a bite now and keep the rest for the journey.”
“Go away.” She said.
“Come now, we’re adults. Mature sophisticated adults that too. You were the one who wanted out. I’d made you a more than reasonable proposition. Let us not part on a bitter note.”
She just bit her lips and stared into the distance where the tracks met and diverged again to go in different directions.
“These things happen and when they do we must be practical. I’ve transferred enough of my assets to your account. I didn’t need to, mind you. But I want to be fair. You are beautiful, young and now well off too. You’ll find someone else. And if you ever want to come back to our home you’re always welcome. But I won’t give up Reena. I love her deeply in a way that you will never understand. I am committed to her to the exclusion of all others. If I must choose, you know what I have decided.”
“Go away just now.” She said under her breath.
“Not even a small thank you?” he smiled the smile that used to take her breath away and she saw the sadistic glint that only she could see.
“Go, or I’ll scream.”
“You’re getting hysterical,” he mocked, “I’ll just say you’re insane and bundle you out of here and believe you me no one at this platform will raise a finger to stop me.”
“Please leave me alone, Rajeev.” She had tears in her eyes now.
“I have no need of you anymore. Nor do I need to woo you. Let us shake hands and I’ll go…no? All right then. Good bye and may we never meet again.”
She shuddered as he planted a short kiss on her cheek. He laughed and went away with long languorous strides winding his way through the luggage and the crowd on the platform.
Kamala was watching these proceedings intermittently. How much he must love her and how happy they must be, she thought when she saw him deposit the food packet by Urvashi’s side and leave her with a kiss. To her simple mind these seemed obvious signs of affection.
Renu’s father returned from the tea stall with pakoras and pav bread wrapped in newspaper. He sat down besides Kamala and opened the packet. Since both her hands were occupied with the child he put some pakoras in the pav, added some red chutney and a fried green chilli for good measure and held it forward for her to bite. Then he waited till she finished the morsel and held the bread up again. When she finished eating, he took a tall brass glass from their cloth bag and went off to fill water for her from the drinking water taps on the station.
Urvashi, intermittently watching these proceedings, thought, …how much he must love her…and how happy they must be. For a while she forgot her own troubles and, as she watched this small family living out their lives on that frayed Sholapur sheet spread on the platform, it seemed to her that in some way she herself participated in their family. She wondered how this journey would end. She had the appointment letter from Doon school in her purse. She was leaving all her baggage behind. She’d never traveled by second-class- airconditioned before. For years now all her traveling was by air. Now so many hours in the train! She tried to brace herself but couldn’t help the tears that threatened to well up again.
Renu had never traveled by second-class-airconditioned before. For all her years her traveling to the village had been in the unreserved compartment. But now Bapu had become permanent and he had a family pass! They said it was so lovely and cold in there…and there were curtains on the windows too! And she would get to spend so many hours in the train! She wondered if the pretty madam would sit near them. So she looked at her again and she noticed her tears. With the guilelessness of a twelve year old, Renu went up to Urvashi.
“Aap ro rahee hain?” She asked.
“No child, I’m not crying,” lied Urvashi weakly but she let the little girl take her hand in hers as she sat down beside her.
“My nani stays in Pathankot and she loves me very much and my name is Renu. What’s yours?” said the girl.
Urvashi smiled and they started talking. In fact it was Renu who did most of the talking. All Urvashi had to do was nod. When she nodded her drop earrings sparkled and she saw Renu’s eyes light up as she looked at them. And she remembered her own little Medha who’d always want to pull these earrings off and put them in her mouth.
And then that awful night. It was close to midnight. She was pacing up and down the hallway. Baby Medha was sleeping in her arms and the bell rang repeatedly. Rajeev stood at the door more drunk than usual.
“Why does it take you so long to open the door you incompetent…you and that creature will always stand in my way. Stop looking at me like that….get out of my house; it belongs to Reena just as I belong to Reena now. You understand? You…” and he pushed her. She clutched at the railing, the child slipped from her hands and she fell down two flights of stairs.
“Aap phir ro rahee hain. Rukiye hum kuch dikhaenge,” said Renu.
She went back to her bag and fetched her toffee tin. She opened it and took out a string of multicolored glass beads. With a very big smile she asked Urvashi to keep it and said that it would make her feel much better.
Urvashi unclipped the earrings from her ears, put them in Renu’s palm and closed her tiny fingers over them.© anjali purohit 2008
(Published in Good Housekeeping and in the anthology Indian Writing from Across the World)