Amrita made her way through the crowded platform to the Ladies Compartment. It was the Kurla Local, the train that she caught every day. Weaving through the thick crowd of people, she deftly moved ahead.
She had to reach home on time. It was already very late. The sun had set and the night sky was full of twinkling stars. She had to get dressed for her niece’s fourth birthday party. She had gotten a new dress stitched specially for the occasion. It was a glorious green suit with a bright yellow duppatta. The combination brought out her happy-go-lucky personality very well. She had carefully wrapped her niece’s gift almost a week ago. She knew she would be reaching home late and will not get any time for last minute decisions.
Her job, working at the South Mumbai branch of ‘Get Well Soon N.G.O’ left her exhausted. She didn’t have any strength left to go an extra mile for her family. The truth was, she went too much of extra miles for the people her N.G.O helped. She dropped them to the doctor’s clinics, picked up their luggages, helped change their dressing, uplift their depressed mood, and had impromptu gatherings for the sick. Her work was only limited to handling the accounts but she did so much more.
No one had told her to do all that. She did everything of her own accord. She loved helping fellow human beings. Her behavior did not go down well with her folks. In her quest of being helpful to society, she had almost forgotten her family. Her mother often complained that she was not at all bothered by her daughter’s behavior toward others, but was rather disturbed about her behavior towards herself. “Amrita ought to think more about herself,” were her mother’s exact words.
Now climbing aboard the train, Amrita smiled. She was living for herself. Her mother just didn’t understand as yet. When she saw a smile on a young girl’s face as Amrita bought her a giant soft toy, the joy that filled her heart was something that she couldn’t explain. Not to others. Not even to herself.
She sighed. It was difficult. She did her best to please others. But a person could only do so much. She wished there were others like her out there, who cared about someone’ feelings and were not selfish in their desires, who would, in a heartbeat save someone’s life.
But unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Even in this crowded train, no one spared the other a glance. No one got up to offer their seat to a needy person. Everyone had a different definition of “needy”.
Amrita sat on her usual fourth seat; the small space enough for her tired legs to relax.
She checked her phone. Two missed calls. Both were from her sister. She quickly sent a reassuring message to her sister. She wasn’t going to miss the birthday party of her one and only niece. She was on her way.
As she put her phone away, she heard a harsh whisper. The lady right opposite her was furiously whispering on the phone. She seemed to be having a fight.
Amrita couldn’t make out the words but she didn’t miss the tears that the lady was trying hard to blink away. She looked away, a stone set in her heart. Why was it that some people were happy and the others didn’t get an ounce of happiness? Of course, happiness was a very relative term, but looking at the lady made her feel protective towards her. She definitely didn’t look happy.
She stole a glance at the lady. The tears had escaped her eyes and were copiously flowing down both her cheeks. The lady wasn’t making any effort to wipe them away. She still had her right ear pressed to the phone. She wasn’t speaking, only mutely listening. It looked as if whatever the person at the other end was saying was making her cry harder.
As Amrita debated what to do, she noticed that the train had begun moving. Two stations had flown by without her noticing. She quickly looked at her fellow passengers. A middle aged woman with a young daughter, both staring out of the window; an old lady shooting furtive glances at the crying lady; two college girls discussing their upcoming assignment, completely oblivious to the happenings in the train. Amrita’s neighbour, on the other hand was looking at the crying lady, an uncomfortable expression on her face.
Good, Amrita thought. So she could approach someone if they were required to help the lady.
As the next station approached, the middle aged woman alighted with her daughter, freeing up the window seat. The old lady scrambled and sat there, leaving distance between her and the crying lady. Amrita’s neighbour got up and sat on the seat behind Amrita, showing her back to the crying lady. The two young girls had moved on from discussing assignments to cell phones.
Amrita sighed. This was not good. Shifting in her seat to make herself comfortable, she looked at the lady. She was no longer crying. Her tears had dried on her face. Her expression had changed from a sad face to a determined one. She had switched off her cell phone. Not noticing Amrita’s gaze, she got up and approached the door. Amrita craned her neck; the lady threw her cell phone out. Then she calmly came back and resumed her seat.
Amrita’s thoughts were in a scatter. What had just happened? Did the lady just throw her cell phone out? What if someone wanted to contact her? Why would she do something like that?
Amrita looked at the lady again. She knew that only she had seen her throwing her mobile away. The other passengers were not bothered. The lady had shut her eyes. Amrita’s only window to her feelings was gone.
Maybe throwing her mobile had made the lady feel better. Amrita tried to reason with her mind. How could she approach the lady without upsetting or angering her? As she was racking her brain for an idea, the lady opened her eyes. Quietly, she got up and made her way toward the door, leaving her small purse on the seat. She looked around the compartment to see whether anyone was paying her any attention. Amrita pretended not to notice the lady’s movements. She was staring at the purse that the lady had left behind.
What was happening? What was she planning to do? Why was she standing so close to the door?
Amrita already knew all the answers. Quickly, she made up her mind. Grabbing the purse, she walked towards the door. She tried to calm her thudding heart. Approaching the lady, she saw that her feet were halfway outside the train.
Panicking, Amrita said hoarsely, “Excuse me ma’am, you left your purse”.
The lady turned around, her hair whipping her face. She has really beautiful hair, Amrita thought.
She stared at Amrita. There was no expression on her face. Her hand was loosely curled around the door handle. The other hand was hanging limply at her side.
Amrita swallowed. This lady needed help. She hoped that her intervention would prevent her from doing anything drastic.
“Your purse,” Amrita said again, trying a polite tone, holding out the purse towards the lady.
The lady looked at her purse; hanging from Amrita’s outstretched fingers. Then she looked up at Amrita. Seeming in a daze, she stepped forward and accepted her purse.
As she moved away from the door, Amrita exhaled heavily. Trying to keep her voice light, she asked, “Are you alighting at the next station?”
The lady didn’t say anything. Amrita continued enthusiastically, “It’s my niece’s birthday today. She’s turning four today! I’m very excited. My sister is throwing a party and I am going there now.”
The lady flicked a glance at Amrita but otherwise remained mute. “I was in a fix about the present for Kajal, my niece. She already has many dolls and I didn’t want to gift her one more doll,” Amrita babbled. She described the jigsaw puzzle that she finally settled on as the gift in detail to the lady, explaining the endless search and the perfect wrapping paper. She moved on to Kajal’s attire for the evening. She was dressing as a fairy, complete with a tiara and a wand. She continued with portrayal of the menu for the party, giving relishing descriptions of the desserts.
The lady finally turned towards Amrita, her mouth in a scowl, her eyes flashing annoyance. Turning her back on Amrita, she went and sat in the next compartment, which was closer to the door. She sat near the window, blocking Amrita’s view of her.
Amrita debated her next move. She ran to her seat and picked up her satchel and two bags. She made her way to the lady’s seat and plopped down right next to her.
This time, the lady’s eyes were flashing fire. “I never got to tell you about my job,” Amrita said cheerfully, as if they were in the middle of a conversation. The lady turned her head towards the window, resolutely staring at the passing darkness. Amrita started with her job journey, telling her everything from her college graduation till her realization that she wanted to go into social work. She knew that the lady was irritated, maybe even angry. But at least, she wasn’t near the door anymore. And if she had to go that way, she would have to pass Amrita.
“Next Station-Kurla,” blared a woman’s voice from the speakers in the train. Amrita’s breathing became heavy. She couldn’t leave the lady. No, she wouldn’t leave her alone. What if she boarded another train and…. No! Amrita couldn’t even let her thoughts finish.
The train pulled in at the station and everyone alighted. Soon, it was only Amrita and the lady in the train but both of them didn’t move. The same train was scheduled to depart for CST in the next fifteen minutes. New passengers were boarding the train as Amrita and the lady sat silently next to each other.
“You should leave now. You will reach late for your niece’s birthday party,” the lady said softly to Amrita, not looking at her. Amrita sat up, stunned. This lady had heard everything she had spoken.
“What about you?” Amrita asked.
“I’ll be fine,” she replied.
As Amrita started shaking her head, the lady spoke, “I will truly be fine. That moment has come and gone. Thank you for….thank you.” Her voice was subdued.
Amrita opened her mouth but nothing came out. The lady smiled, a dimple appearing in her right cheek.
“Really. Go. Don’t keep Kajal or your sister waiting. And you have a packed day tomorrow,” her voice was kind and she stood up from her seat.
She walked towards the door and stepped on the platform, Amrita scrambling behind her. Suddenly she remembered that the lady didn’t have a phone. “Do you want to call someone?” she asked.
The lady raised her eyebrows and blushed, “No,” she shook her head.
“But,” Amrita protested as the lady waved her away.
“I live close by. I will manage”.
“Okay,” Amrita said in a small voice. She started walking away from the lady but only after a few steps, she turned to check what the lady was doing. She was standing and staring at Amrita.
Amrita walked back to the lady and enveloped her in a fierce hug, “Please take care,” she whispered. Pulling back, embarrassed over her emotions, she pulled a card from her satchel, with her name and details of the N.G.O where she worked. “If you need anything, please call,” she pushed the card in the lady’s hand.
The lady blinked away tears, staring at Amrita. She nodded dumbly.
“Okay. Bye,” Amrita cleared her throat and walked away, wondering when and if would meet the lady again.
The lady, meanwhile, looked at the card, a smile on her lips. Boarding the train again, she stood at the door. Opening her purse, she took out a mobile phone. Dialing a number, she pressed the phone to her ear.
“This is Cadet 637 reporting in. Suitable, if I may say, perfect candidate found for ‘Project Humanity’”, she spoke.
“Details,” the voice on the other end barked.
“Amrita Lokhande, 25, works at a N.G.O”.
“Good. Let’s bring her in,” the voice seemed pleased.
So was the lady. Hanging up, she resumed her position on the seat as the train began moving.