Everybody jostles to get a seat by the window in a train. It facilitates easy access to fresh air and outside panorama. While the competition to avail one normally involves rushing ahead through the corridors and affecting an ungainly fall along with the luggage on the seat with the alacrity of a hare, much to the chagrin of others not endowed with such smartness, it can, at times lead to heated exchange of words or altercation.
I like to sit by the window as well. Apart from the obvious reasons, for me, it provides the opportunity to read without getting distracted by the movements in the corridor.
That wintry morning however, when most of the passengers were looking for ways and means to squeeze in their limbs into an innermost sanctum within their being somehow, many such seats remained vacant in the compartment. I settled into one of them. Barring the intermittent voices of the tea-hawkers, urging people to taste their tea in the cold, the compartment was silent. Most of the passengers, dressed in thick woollen sweaters and mufflers reclined on their seats with their eyes closed or looked out like some docile creature caged by the web of cold. I wasn’t feeling sleepy but the constant chugging of the train lulled me to sleep.
The voice of a little girl woke me up from my repose. She was chirping away, sitting on the lap of her father, a burly man with a thick moustache which for a moment, made me believe it to be part of the dark monkey cap, he covered his head with.
The girl went on asking an array of queries. But her father was dozing.
“How long would the cold last?”
“Why is the sun moving along with the train?”
Her father answered some of her questions and went back to sleep. But the girl wouldn’t let him. Scarcely had he replied one query, she would come up with a fresh one. By then, the man would be back to his dozing-self. The girl however, was in no mood to let him enjoy his sleep and kept on pestering.
The vermilion sun soon turned bronze-yellow. The air inside the compartment lost some of its sponginess. As it became brighter, I fished out my hardbound book and started reading.
The girl in front however, went on with her show. The questions became incessant, extorting answers by repeating it again and again. Her father, yawning constantly, wobbled in his state of somnolence like a paper boat in a puddle of water.
After one such query elicited no response from the father, who had perhaps treaded deeper into the zone of slumber, the girl nudged him all over the body. But through the thick layers of woollen garments, they were not enough to wake him up. Exasperated, the girl jabbed at his nose and mouth, the only exposed part of his body within the striking distance for her then, drawing the poor fellow out of his sleep.
A firm rebuke from the angry man made the little girl remain silent for some time. She watched nonchalantly at the fellow passengers. When the tea hawker went away after serving the tea, she leaned to look through the corridor. Her restive self was no longer ready to be rooted to her father’s lap. Making furtive glances at her father, she slid down his legs, stood on the floor and made a move to go.
The person sitting in the far end of the seat caught her on the way. Meanwhile, the father woke up and grabbed her. By now, he had seen the writing on the wall. He just couldn’t afford to go back to his dozing-self.
The girl cried to let her go.
Helpless, he looked around the compartment, at the faces of the people. Finally, his eyes stopped on me. I smiled, more out of sympathy at his plight than anything else. He smiled back but I didn’t know why, I saw a hint of sardonic intent in it.
“Hey dear, be a good girl, will you?” He said. The girl didn’t pay heed to him.
“Do you see the uncle,” He continued pointing at me, “If you don’t behave yourself, the uncle sitting there will ask you questions. And you will have to answer it. See, he is armed with the book.”
A sudden pall of gloom fell on the face of the girl. She glanced dreadfully at me and the book. The father, realising the effect it had on her smiled, as if to appreciate his own ingenuity.
“Look, he has already adjusted his specs, the moment you are into any mischief, he will ask a question,” He warned.
For the rest of their journey, the gimmick he conjured up so smartly kept him in good stead. A slight misconduct in the form of asking for something or moving around the seat and corridor would be put to rest just by indicating at the magic wand–me and my book. From time to time, the frightened girl would cast surreptitious glances my way. Feeling guilty, I put my book aside. It however, neither discouraged the man to use his wand nor scaled down its effectiveness whatsoever.
As their station approached, the man became bit condescending and got busy in collecting the luggage. This reduced the girl’s sullenness, as also mine to certain extent. But there was no stopping in her frightened glances towards me till they got down.
Opening the window, I tried to locate her in the crowd. But the train was already leaving the station. The crisp air and the magnificence of the mellowed sunshine proclaimed the innocence of nature. I opened my book to read, but couldn’t. Through the black and white of the pages, I saw the girl’s scared face, sans some of the innocence.