Friday, 17:57. Tapovan Express rolls in at Platform 1. The rickshaw-vala fumbles to find a five rupee coin in his breast pocket. The train leaves in three minutes. Sakshi can snap at him any moment now, but she controls herself and tells him ‘Laukar kara dada, majhi train sutlela.’ (Hurry up brother, I’ll miss my train.)
Tightly clutching the coin in her right hand, she grabs the yellow rail at the door with her left one and jumps on to the footboard. It’s the fourth or the fifth time in the last two months that she’s had to sprint the entire length of the platform to catch the train. She bends and holds her stomach to catch her breath and curses the rickshaw-vala. He could have honked and zigzagged his way through the traffic. There was enough room to do that. But everyone in this city has to live an easy life and be laid back.
The shortest way from Sakshi’s place to Nashik Road station goes through the old town and she hates the traffic there. Though technically, it’s not traffic; it’s just silly, lost pilgrims walking on the road in every direction, as if aimlessly strolling in a park and dozens of hawkers chasing them, persuading them to buy innumerable things that would please the Gods. She always avoids the old town, except for days like today, when there wasn’t a choice.
For Sakshi, Nashik is a city with good wine, tall hills and countless Gods. Hundreds of Gods, who rest in their temples, which criss-cross along the banks of Godavari and lay in the valleys and hills around the city. A city which is steeped in mythology, the abode for Ram, Sita and Laxman, when they were exiled from their kingdom, the birthplace for Ganesha and Hanuman and many holy rivers, the place where Amrit, the nectar of immortality, fell from the skies after the Samudra Manthan. The mystic tales about Nashik never end and neither the senseless behaviours of people. Sometimes, the city gets under her skin.
She leans on the plywood wall next to the door, still holding on to the yellow rail. The unreserved women’s coach is crowded more than usual today. The long weekend maybe? She takes the same train every Friday to go to Mumbai to be with Aman. But last Friday he messaged in the afternoon:
💬 “hv 2 wrk on Sat n Sun.”
Just in time for her to not leave for the station. They haven’t been talking every day like before. Probably boredom that creeps into a bland, long-distance relationship, that doesn’t diminish after sex on weekends. Thankfully, Dhaval, who sat on the opposite desk, had been broadcasting his plans to trek to Anjeneri hill on Saturday. Sakshi decided to tag along.
‘We’ll take a longer route, it’s less crowded, you’ll love it!’ he had announced at the beginning. He was right, there were hardly any people on this trail. She liked that and the myriad shades of green left behind by erratic, receding monsoons. But the constant chatter bothered her. She did not have much to say, but Dhaval could not stop blabbering.
‘You see that blue-green firefly? Have you ever caught them? Back in the village, we ran in the fields, caught them by their wings and tied threads to their tails. What fun!’
‘Have you ever plucked those wild berries?’
‘What’s your favourite season? I love the monsoons.’
‘Do you know about the striped red ants which come alive in the monsoon season?’
‘Have you ever seen that bird? That one on the bush? They eat snails. Kabaddi is my favourite sport. What’s yours? You know, everyone plays it in my village.’ His stories and questions never ended.
They were on a steep stretch. Dhaval moved swiftly holding on to the small bushes and the stones. Sakshi paused. She sipped on water. She needed some quiet. She had a perfect view of the roaring waterfall on the opposite hill. Just then Dhaval shouted, ‘C’mon yaar, don’t tell me you are tired. You can do this. The view is better here. I can see the second waterfall also, the one on the left hill.’
Can’t you see, I am not talking because I don’t want to talk.
I should have expected this.
She was doubting her decisions.
Why am I here with this wasted windbag?
It must be very hard for you to shut up.
She climbed on.
She hadn’t bought a ticket. There wasn’t any time. The ticket collector, TC, will get in after Igatpuri. If she can manage to hide deep in the crowd, the TC might skip her. And even if he can wade his way through this sea of women and find her, she’ll probably point to a husband in the next coach who is keeping her ticket safe. She has seen many women do that. Or maybe she’ll just pay the fine.
I don’t know.
She squeezes her way through the horde of women, trying desperately to not step on anyone’s feet. The swaying motion of the train doesn’t help. Expletives and curses are thrown at her. She finds a place, near the window, between two benches of gabby women. They are munching on roasted peanuts from a paper cone and discussing the city life. They offer her some, she politely declines. They go on and on about girls who dress in skimpy clothes and lure men, about lecherous men who chase those girls, about illicit affairs, corrupt neighbours, videos of influencers who always tell the truth. Most importantly, everyone knew someone, who knew someone, who had a neighbour whose daughter was spotted at couples’ haunts during college hours until she eloped with a good-for-nothing goonda, stealing her parents’ life savings; or the relative who worked as a mere clerk at the municipal office but got his palms greased for the slightest effort and had recently bought a car with all the shady income.
Sakshi fixes her gaze at the window. Inside, she scorns these women who are so bothered about everyone else’s lives. Every chatty corner is buzzing with similar gossip. The train slowly chugs along the lofty hills of Igatpuri.
The green in the hills outside takes her back to the day of the trek. She sat beside Dhaval on a flat stone, admiring both the waterfalls. The water rumbled, carefree, enlivening everything around it. Dhaval kept on recounting tales of his village, his home, his college, his childhood. Each memory was dear to him. He laughed. And whenever he did, she saw the scar near his left eye melt away. As if the day he fell from a moving bus never happened. As if his mother never sold his pet goat to the butcher. As if his teacher and his father had never caned him. As if sorrow never stayed. His stories flowed unhindered, like the waterfalls on the opposite hill.
Is this not living in exile? Trying to find a home away from home?
Did both us of willingly choose this? Or is it circumstances?
He misses home, food, friends, the quiet. He finds it, the quiet, in the hills and the greens. Simple life, simple dreams.
I want that too.
I want to be you. I want you.
The train crosses Igatpuri. The TC is not here yet. Maybe she’ll get away with it. I hope they are not checking tickets at Dadar station. It could be a hefty fine in the city. Can’t do much now.
‘Samosa le lo. Samosa le lo. Dus ka do. Dus ka do.’ (Samosas for sale, two for ten rupees.) A young boy, with a plastic tray in hand, is selling her favourite snack. Skilfully, he moves through the packed alley between the benches. Sakshi is still clutching the five rupee coin in her left palm. She buys one and munches on it, lost in her thoughts.
She was restless yesterday evening, unable to concentrate on work. In her head, she was making plans for everything she would do in the city. Dress up, eat some good Chinese or some good seafood, watch a movie, meet new people, go to a club, dance, shop, live a life. Dhaval came around asking if she wanted to go to the Mela (Carnival) near the river. She needed a distraction. She agreed.
Smiling faces of Ram, Sita and Laxman on a large billboard greeted them at the entrance. Hanuman was floating beside the three while lifting a mountain in his palm and a gada (mace) on his shoulder. Flashing yellow and red LEDs adorned the gods. Many bowed their heads as they entered. Dhaval did the same.
There were long queues for everything, the rides, the food stalls, the game stalls, but nothing would dampen Dhaval’s spirits. They went on bumper cars, rode the swirling cup and saucer, played the darts and even jumped on the carousel. Dhaval screamed with joy on every single ride. She bought cotton candy and he held her hand as they pushed in to find a good viewing spot in the maut ka kuan (well of death). Daredevil riders zoomed on their motorbikes and cars on vertical wooden panels, defying gravity. Dhaval jumped, cheered and stupidly clapped throughout the performance.
You are such a daffy kid. Grow up, dude.
‘You know that they are risking their lives for your entertainment and petty money, right?’ she said blankly.
‘Ya, but they are so daring! I wanted to be that when I was a kid.’
His bright eyes and claps irked her more. She looked away at the noisy cars, the motorbikes and the senseless audience that roared at yet another insane trick in the ring. The cotton candy crackled and melted in her mouth.
20:42. The train stops at Kalyan. The women sitting around her on the benches get off here. They wave to her before they leave. She finally gets to sit. A little more than an hour to go before she is home. She gazes outside the window. Tall buildings, apartments, offices, all stacked like matchboxes one on top of the other, clog her view. She sighs. She is in the city. The stench of the slums itches her nostrils. She covers her nose with her hands and continues to stick her head outside. Each window in those narrow houses fascinates her. Bright TVs, tiny kitchens, metal pots, single beds, printed sheets, shirtless men, shabby kids. She could imagine those women who sat next to her, living in these houses; going back to the TV that blares with intense music from the overdramatic soap operas, to the tiny kitchen and metal pots which they one day hope to upgrade, the single beds where they squeeze in with their kids, while their husbands sleep on the floor, the new colourful sheets which they would have recently bought from the bazaar, their husbands who are trying as hard as them to make ends meet and their cheerful kids, for whom they wish for a life not like theirs. Their stories are real. They do not resent life as I do.
The yellow and the red lights outside, remind her again of the Mela, the Ferris Wheel. Dhaval sat next to her, strangely silent and not smiling this time.
Is he scared of heights? Or is tired?
She didn’t say anything to him and looked on, at the shimmering lights, of the city, of the meandering river and at the ones that adorned the Gods at the entrance. Is it the Gods or the plain, wide-eyed people or the river or the hills that bring serenity to this city?
She was breathing easy, her shoulders brushing on Dhaval’s crisp white shirt. Her arms touched his naked skin as the swing moved. The city lights twinkled.
Nashik is beautiful.
21:05. The train bellows a loud horn, it leaves Thane.
Am I missing Nashik already? It’s barely been three hours since she left. She smiles. There is something about it that’s soothing. Even the Gods chose it. It can be home when you are exiled.
Dhaval, he chose it too.
He is just himself, all the time. How are you not scarred by this world? Why are you never angry?
Can you teach me how to be that simple?
21:28. She gets off at Dadar. Outside the station, she can still smell the faint aromas of the flowers which lay near some bin, discarded, after the day’s flower market. Wake up early tomorrow and walk to the flower market. Don’t miss it this time. She takes a rickshaw home. Aman is not here yet. She scrolls through her phone. Facebook, Instagram, Tinder. Left swipe, right swipe, right swipe..
It’s too humid. Typical Mumbai weather. She takes a shower and zips up her green dress. The short dress makes her appear taller. She likes that. She puts on her silver earrings and matte red lipstick. She has everything, wallet, phone, keys and a tinder date. She takes a rickshaw, feeling more settled now. She knows what home is, she knows where home is, she is just not going in that direction yet. She is still living in exile.
Akanksha Sri is an aspiring writer, a plant mom, and an experimental home chef who wants to move to a farm in the next few years and watch the seasons go by. Recently, the pandemic and some introspection helped her to push the pause button in life. Now, she writes about the could-have-beens and would-have-beens of life and dabbles with doodling and painting.