By Susheela Menon
I remember it like it was yesterday. The train left Chennai Central with a steady chug while my mother prepared to open her packets of lemon rice with pickle that my aunt had lovingly wrapped in withering banana leaves.
The tragedy of being a South Indian in a train was the accompaniment of very peculiar smelling food products that never failed to attract the attention of most passengers sitting near you. “Lemon rice?” asked the portly Mr Ganguly. “And that too with small mangoes peekle!” One could see the amount of drool the very sight of pickle was generating in his mouth.
“Haan. Chahiye (want some?)?” my mother asked in her Malayalam accented Hindi. There was a lot of fuss over spoons and plates as my father directed this scene of passing some lemon rice with pickle to Ganguly saab.
Just as the bald, toothless and very dignified looking Ganguly saab extended his palms, my father added in a couple of rice fries without thinking about how Ganguly saab would eat them. Mother’s gesticulation went unnoticed by all but Ganguly saab, who grinned and gave the hard, crunchy fries back. He picked his plate clean and refused to give it to my mother, who then spread the trash bag for him to put his plate and spoon in.
The majestic Deccan Express hurtled towards Kerala, South India, crossing towns and villages one barely registered. I refused to participate in the rather noisy discussion that included angry thumps on the seat from Ganguly saab, who was apparently annoyed with his neighbors in Kolkata. “I ask you, Chondran shaab,” he spat, “in theese day and world, how can shomone speet or urinate on balls!” The last word, along with most other words, was characteristically mispronounced by Ganguly saab. “And theese loaphers dare to make phun of us. We are a highly literate people, Chondran shaab, and we speak barry good English.”
My mother nodded her head while crumpling the rest of the disposable plates, spoons and cups. These would have to be stuffed into the bag and thrown out the door at some point. I quickly turned towards the window. I had suggested that we buy food from the pantry. Mother didn’t listen. Now I couldn’t be bothered with the trash bag. I just wouldn’t do it. “I bheel halp, shishter,” Ganguly saab said, and my mother promptly declined. “Why you must do when our young daughter is here!”
I climbed up and rested my head on an arm. I could hear Ganguly saab trying to get up. I also heard the rustle of the trash bag and closed my eyes. I did hear my mother’s tired voice drifting away with the wind and the steady chug of the Deccan Express. I pretended not to hear.
Early morning brought with it the usual cacophony of tea-sellers, snack vendors, a few children begging for food and a street singer with an unusually loud drum. I looked down and closed my eyes again. Mother had got out a new bag, which probably had a vast array of breakfast items that were made for us before we boarded the train. Father was combing his hair. Ganguly saab was nowhere to be seen. “Perhaps he is stuck in the bathroom,” muttered my father. “He did complain of pain in his knees and also a bad back,” Mother added. “Why does he travel all alone? Poor old man.”
As morning wore on, Ganguly saab’s absence disturbed all of us. We saw his pillow, blanket and his dirty blue bag that had a damaged zipper. The heat slowly started rising along with our panic. Father scrambled across to other compartments and I was asked to check all the seats but Ganguly saab was missing. A lady with a red hibiscus in her hair told us that she had seen the old man dragging something at night. The bag didn’t look big, she said. Just that he had trouble walking with it in his hands. “He was probably too weak to lift things. Very unsteady gait,” she mumbled.
Perplexed, we all hurried over to the door and pulled it open. Nothing. “We will wait for the next station to arrive and inform the station master,” Father declared. Ganguly saab probably lost his balance trying to get down somewhere. “He told me he was going to Trivandrum though,” Mother thought aloud. “Why then would he go near the door in the middle of the night?”
We sat together unable to talk about anything else. My heart was racing. My eyes kept searching for the bag my mother had kept under her seat last night. The bag I was supposed to help carry. It wasn’t there anymore.
(first published in ELLE Singapore’s ELLE Writes competition, November 2013)