Delhi calls. It calls in low hums and wheezing breath, and people go. Half asleep-half awake, drifting unaware with heaviness in the middle of their chests. To honour disappointments that they have foreseen. To meet people whom they would not get to meet. Delhi calls, and people go.
She had a storm in her head as she set alight a train in the dark. It went rattling through hazy fields, blurry roads, abandoned stations and black glass rivers. Train journeys are different at night. Windows stare back at you, lurking behind them an immense pool of void while wheels beneath roll away on set rails as if running in circles on a round track. It is almost magical, tranquil amidst the chaos of movement, like a Time-machine to skip to a different mindscape or a portal to escape oneself. She set her foot down on the last station. The storm had passed. Or so she hoped.
Google maps showed that she was a forty-minute drive away from the New Delhi Station. It seemed the train had dropped her near the margins and left her to make her way to the heart of the city on her own. Carrying a small rucksack and a brown paper bag, she walked to the outermost platform. Six in the morning, it was deserted. She was to dawn on the city along the sun, she thought. A local train was to come in the next twenty minutes. Two men and a girl joined her on the bench a few minutes later. People were filling in slowly; a Bunch of teenagers in school uniforms, boys in navy blue pants and white chequered shirts and girls in chequered kurtas and navy blue salwar, workers in their fading uniforms, day labourers with their steel tiffin lunch, women with supplies of home-made snacks and pickles with their kids on tow. People from the fringe flocking to migrate to the centre for the day. They will return by night, back to the margins, where they belong. As will she.
She felt her return journey had already started, even before reaching the destination. As if it had all already happened. As if she was reliving a memory. “Do you know which train to take to go to Nagpur?” The girl sitting next to her asked suddenly. It disrupted the rhythm of thoughts in her head. Nagpur? Isn’t it far away? “I don’t know… Maybe, you can ask at the ticket counter,” she replied in an uncertain tone. Two men sitting next to the girl picked up the question conveniently, debating whether one gets a train to Nagpur from New Delhi station or the old-Delhi station. They would put in prying queries in between; “you are going there alone?” “But you don’t even have any luggage!” “How old are you?” She would mumble something to herself in response. There was a stubborn calm in the middle of her brows. Perhaps a runaway? The thought led to a dull pain filling her body. Something about the courage to get away from every individual forming the layout of one’s current existence corroded her being. Is it easy? she wanted to ask the girl. It shouldn’t be, she replied herself.
The train arrived, and people boarded in a bustle. Local trains stop at a halt for only a few minutes. She ended up sitting next to the same girl. A bunch of schoolboys entered the bogie last minute. There were a lot of empty seats, but they preferred standing. They were a rowdy bunch. They laughed, abused and punched each other in good humour. Some of them kept casting curious glances in her direction multiple times. It made her uneasy. She believed boys in a group were the nastiest entities on the planet. But the girl on her side seemed unbothered. She kept looking out of the window, serene, calm. Pain in her body was gaining weight. She felt heavier with each passing halt. Some got off, others got on the train at each stop, waves of people passing by her. But the boys were still laughing, and the girl sitting next to her was still unbothered.
She bolted out of the train the moment it reached the New Delhi railway station. She heard the girl calling for her from behind, her voice getting louder. She broke into a run. She wanted to get away from the girl. Who cares that she seems too young, too naive? Who cares if she finds her way to Nagpur or not? She told herself that she was not responsible. She had problems of her own.
She got out of the station from the Paharganj side. It was lively even in the early morning; taxis and auto-drivers herded passengers to their rides. She walked past all their urges to harken to their calls, almost like a local. Preet would have been so proud.
She knew her way. She had gone through it a dozen times on the phone with her. A broken smile crawled on the corners of her lips on the recollection. “Flip your hair in the air, pay no heed and catwalk straight through them,” Preet would direct her into the imaginary scenario where she had come to Delhi. “Each step you take gets you closer to me. One thousand and eighty-three steps leading straight to the bus station”. She counted her steps till the stop. One thousand and twenty. Preet’s peppy voice made rounds in her head. “Get on bus number 39. Buses are free for women, so you just take a seat (if you can get one, that is). Now, you can put on your headphones and listen to your songs for the next twenty minutes.” Sitting lax on the bus seat, she felt drained of all energy. Pulling out the headphones seemed too much work.
She looked out of the bus, the sun had started climbing up the sky, painting each leaf on the trees with a golden sheen. It hurt her eyes. Such a cool soft breeze. Morning’s fresh air, what a shame. The city was waking up, sweepers and little heaps of litter dotting the side of the roads. Children in school uniform, heading to the bus stops. Early risers with sweaty t-shirts out on a brisk walk. World marching towards another morning. Pain in her body had started centring in her chest, a dull pulsating pang with every heartbeat. What would she say if she got to meet her? Suddenly she was on the verge of tears. It was all so meaningless. What was she even doing here?
“As you get down, you will see a long narrow alley. The main road is a bit elevated, so if you stand on the road, you will see all the way to the end. It leads to a park.” Kanahiyanagar stop came and passed. She couldn’t get off the bus. She remembered their last fight. It was for the meeting place. Preet wanted to meet at a chic bar and go clubbing. While she wanted to meet at a cozy cafe and go to an art gallery. They were very different people. It was miraculous how they had met and been together for so long. It was absurd. She got off the bus at a random stop after one hour of bus ride, crossed the road, waited for bus number 39 for another half an hour, took the bus back, and got down at Kanahiyanagar stop this time.
She could see a green patch at the end of the narrow street. It was like walking through a matchbox in which matchsticks were parted in two sides to make a path in the middle, an over-stacked matchbox; full of cobweb wires and skeletal electric poles. There were shops of all kinds on this street. Imported leather boots, hand-made earrings, precious stones, fabric, groceries, gristmills, watchmakers, crockeries, and tailors, it was like walking through a fair. Roads laden with fresh cow dung and stray animals could magically manage auto rickshaws and cars passing simultaneously. She walked and walked. It was longer than it seemed. The sun, now gazing vertically down her head. She was amazed that she could still feel hunger.
She sat on the bench under a mango tree near the south entrance. Preet passes through this park twice on all weekdays. Once in the morning on her way to school, and then in the afternoon on her way back. It will be wonderful to see her in a saree, a pretty school teacher. She will look great in blue. Mosquitoes and crickets were giving background music to her imagination. How would it be to get dengue from sitting here and dying in this pursuit? She wondered. It was peaceful in the park; approaching autumn and the voice of fallen leaves swishing with every gust of a light breeze. What would she say when she gets to meet her?
As the watch on her hand showed one o’clock, her heartbeat shot, and there were waves of emotions twisting in her stomach. She would get optimistic for a moment, and feel utter despair the next. She felt like she had prepared herself a recipe for severe heartache. How stupid of her to get all the way here. All of this for what? She might not even remember the promise.
Preet would always grumble about how her parents didn’t allow her to wear dresses, and she would always promise to get her one. A blue dress with white wildflowers. She planned to hand her the brown bag and walk away without a word. There was nothing to say, but it was already half-past one. Maybe she went through a different way. They were not destined to meet after all.
Around two in the afternoon, a dull pain had started seeping back into her bones. Now that the excitement and anxiety were dying out. She saw a silhouette from the corner of her eyes; A woman in a saree. She froze on the bench. It was Preet. Walking past her. The bag, the brown paper bag, she fumbled around her in haste, but it was not there. She saw another shadow walking next to Preet. It was her brother, a nosy schoolboy who snooped around her sister’s phone. It was he who had told Preet’s parents about their relationship. Preet hated him. They walked out of the park in minutes.
She doesn’t remember walking back to the bus stop through the street in the backdrop of the setting sun. She doesn’t remember bumping into people on the way. She walked past the sweet shops and golgappa-chat vendors, past the multitude of lights and sparkling steel utensils, past the street dogs and balloon sellers, past the televisions showing news of a dead girl in a blue dress thrown out of a running train headed to Nagpur. Blue dress with white wildflowers.
She took a night train back to her place. “How was the conference, beta?” Her father asked the next morning. She looked at the chubby man with a pot belly. He has worked hard all his life. So has Preet’s father.
“It was alright, Papa,” she replied.
Deepali is a research student at the Department of English and Modern European Languages at the University of Allahabad. She is working on the performative aspects of memory in Literary Studies and is interested in Post-Human theories and New Materialism. Her keen sensibility of not belonging anywhere makes her a blahksheep. She identifies as a story collector and can often be caught hunting for herself in other people’s stories.