Throughout the way to the railway station, they were talking to each other.
My fatigue was clear on my face. But when my parents realised we were nearing the railway station, they stopped talking. After a brief silence ensued.
Mom caressed my head on her arm. Papa looked at me. And somewhere in that look, I found pity. Didi didn’t attempt any eye contact but stuffed an extra chips packet in my bag that she had bought for herself.
Mom said, “The next few weeks are not easy. Typhoid can be dangerous. Take every caution with what you eat. Do not—”
She was cut off by another sentence: “Maintain a proper routi—”
“Sleep on time. Do not eat poha from unhygienic stalls.”
“I already said that.”
“Okay. Can’t I repeat?”
“Worst of all, don’t lose your medicines in your laundry.”
“And be regular with them.”
“More regular than your studies.”
“Got it?” (in unison)
“Got it,” I answered.
I was listening and listening and listening. I didn’t get a word of what they said. I was merely looking out of the window. I could only feel the wisps of air caressing me. I could hear its mild sound. And understand it, in a way a leaf understands its detachment from a tree.
But I could not focus for a single moment on what the other people in my car were speaking.
I stepped out of the car slowly with my backpack and Allen bag strapped on my back. After a few steps, I realised something was amiss. I turned back and waved a short goodbye. They were staring dumbstruck at me as wild gibbons would on seeing an aeroplane in the sky.
Mom’s moist eyes. Papa’s folded hands. They had to drop my elder sister at her college within time, so they were in a hurry. Also, it was not the first time that I was leaving for Kota.
Typhoid had made me come back one nauseous night in a cramped general compartment where people sat jam-packed like caged hens. Typhoid and jaundice ruin hundreds of college selection dreams in Kota. And walking in the narrow lane towards the railway station, I realised amid slow steps, “This is it. Here you are. 18. Adult. Responsible. Alone. All that you had and had not desired in the past few years. There it was. All out in front of you in the form of unending horizons. Of equally desolate railway tracks.”
I could not accept the realisation I was meant to. About one of the basic essences of our being: solitude. The day we leave our home for our bellies and needs other than bellies. We are all by ourselves, out on the road.
And then I thought, even after one’s marriage, even in a ‘committed-forever’ relationship, even with your controlling or ‘mushy-mushy’ girlfriend, deep within, we know that this is it.
And it was far more dreadful for those heading to cities, where they could no longer be their self. No longer be a human being. Instead, they became machines with stopwatches around their neck.
There and then, I remembered one of our dreamy nights – how Rahul, a hostel mate had told me with that faraway look, “I felt what I was embracing was a kind of silence, gradually and stealthily increasing in intensity all around me. It masked most of what there was to see, observe, learn or enjoy around me.”
I had reserved the upper berth seat. Shuffling my bag to one side, I settled or tried to settle on my seat. I lay. Sat. Extended my legs. Crossed them. Rested my back against the seat. I could not settle.
I saw someone around the same age as me with the same coaching bag strapped to his back. He settled in the berth opposite to me. I was facing him now.
“First time?” I asked.
“First time.” He affirmed enthusiastically with the fake smile as I had.
The first time.
“And yours?” He asked.
I pretended not to hear him. I did not know whether I had lost that year’s time or not. I was going back to Kota after a gap of two months.
The train had started moving. I was pulled from my thoughts. One moment, I was searching for something in him. The very next moment, I was climbing down the top berth.
I looked out of the windows, trying to spot any crevices and spaces to see the other people outside. My other people. Reaching for the door outside of which my hometown seemed to pace back. Or I was moving forward.
Somewhere in the struggle, I caught a glimpse of the narrow lane connecting the road to the railway station. Our white Alto had not left. Waiting for the train to leave the tracks, it was still there.