Surya woke up before the sun rose today. The night had been warm despite it being middle February. Her eyes wide open, she dazed at the curtains of the window, trying to assess what the time could be. It was dark outside and the street lamp was still burning bright. Wanting to indulge her mind, she played a tiny riddle – 5.30 or 6? It wasn’t bright and it wasn’t dark. It wasn’t cold, neither was it hot, everything was just in the middle, making her think and making her uncomfortable. That she was thinking.
She didn’t realise when did she go back to sleep to wake up again, this time in daylight. The lamp was still glowing like it usually does the entire day but now looked feeble in front of the brightness of the day.
Not wanting to risk her time, Surya looked at the table clock on her side. 8.15. Surya dazed again, this time at the clock. That strange feeling of discomfort returned. It was neither here nor there for her. The passenger train she boarded on Wednesdays was at 11. And unlike the other days, today is a weekly. It’s a slow and stumbling block of vans, that train. Takes a big rumble to reach Rova in all of 2 hours. And then she would have to take the daily mail back home. An hour and a half later than her usual time. And then the 15 minutes back in darkness.
A mental huff collected Surya’s thoughts. Her eyes grew blank as she ventured into the experience of the past. Recollecting the same day week before a week, a second thought overtook the first, “Why cant the mind imagine something, instead of replaying the routines?” Suddenly her eyes widened. Flashbacks of the mind had not played Ravi.
Ravi liked Surya, she didn’t. He is just so ignorant. The best he did to woo her was come up with quick lines, fast ones. They also weren’t too original. Often she had seen memes of the same lines he used. And he could be a pest. You don’t love pests. You love pets.
An hour later the pest Ravi accosted Surya on her way to the station. “Don’t work too hard, what have i built my muscles for?”, exclaimed Ravi when she saw Surya making her way to the station. “Would be better if you had built some muscles in your brain, at least you would have thought of something better to say.” Not looking back at him making a poker unhappy face at her retort, Surya walked continued to walk towards the main crossroad. The mood was dim. As she crossed the temple on the left, a slight bow completed her prayer. That’s what she felt obliged for today.
The passenger mail steamed in literally. Just as Surya was about to board the AC 3 tier, she spied Chawla afar. “Add to the day!”. She thought to herself. Chawla could make things difficult. Not because he would give her a tough time or that he would look at her from top to toe, nor did he ask for cuts or freebies out of her tray. He was a stickler. For rules. Unkind to unlicensed hawkers in the compartments, he was known for shooing them away, sometimes not letting them climb the trains as well.
The train started chugging as soon as Surya entered the AC compartment. She noticed Chawla coming in from the other end and wanted to get off, but today the Mail picked up speed quite quickly. She stood near the door, contemplating jumping off with her bag and items in hand. Surya weighed her options – if she jumped now, would she hurt herself or would she just break the products? What if she hurt herself and break the products as well? Deciding that neither was a good result to a rationale, Surya decided to brace the storm. She entered the cabin and started calling out people to buy her pillows, cheap earphones and magnifying screens for mobiles. With a pillow in her left and the earphone and magnifying screen in her right, she called out, “for 100/- for 100/-, pillow for 100/-, earphones for 50, screen for 150!” Like the song of the cuckoo, she could go about singing this incessantly and now had three different tunes for it. When bored of one she would shift to another.
Surya tried ignoring Chawla as they came closer. Every moment that the distance between them reduced, she tried to hurry up, her movement broken in between by a vague enquiry and hands and legs of people, their slippers or kids. What was with today? Why was it such a drag? Was it even a drag? Chawla wasn’t even sitting today, he just moved from one cube to another standing and asking for the occasional proof of identity. Surya’s heart was beating faster with the perspective of the forthcoming irritation as the distance between them got lesser.
“How much is the pillow for?” A baritone from her back made Surya turn. As her natural action of thrusting the pillow slightly ahead started mobilising, she looked at the two men sitting on the lower berth trying to identify who had called out. The one near the window looked about seven years older than Ravi. He had a crop of set hair flowing from left to right on a squarish face. His white t-shirt and black track pants were shouting that he had boarded the train perhaps from Delhi or a station after it. His cross-legged seating stance near the window confirmed it. Besides him, near the aisle sat a curly haired, as old as Ravi, stumbling out of the charms department with elan. In the seconds that she looked at the two of them trying to make up her mind, her eyes stuck at his lips for a nanosecond that she wanted to go on forever. Broad and curvy, they fit just so well on his handsome triangle face below his curly hair and wide black eyes. The slight stubble around them made them the crown of his looks. Surya hadn’t seen anything like this before.
Having made up her mind that the enquiry had come from the curly, her hand thrust the pillow towards him, her eyes in a gaze. Expecting him to take the pillow from her hand for an inspection, her wrist started loosening its grip on the pillow, when two things shook her world out.
Curly hair, thick lips swung his head towards his right in a half no – half-point towards the man on the window. At the same time the baritone sounded again, “no, I want it” coming from the side of the window.
Surya’s gaze shifted reluctantly from the curly to the middle-aged man on the side. He was bespectacled and a decently protruding tummy defined his middle age. He peered at Surya, from between his square chashma frame and wondering why she was peering at him incredulously, he asked again, “how much is it for?”
“Sau rupay”, Surya replied, almost half willingly, her eye darting from the curly to the uncle. “Saab” The pillow changed hands – in a swift one-hand pull, the glassy took it out of her hands to his.
“Accha hai?, kaam aayega?”, the glassy asked.
“Haan sir, aayega, acchi cheez hai”, came the reply from this girl whose eyes were still flickering between the curly and glassy.
“Yar, things like these are so important in a journey. As it is the berths are so uncomfortable, on top of it, they’ve stopped providing pillows in Indian railways. A man wants to sleep, he should sleep comfortably at least. We run about so much in our life, at least these few moments in the train can be full of peace and comfort….” After this Surya lost the chain of what Glassy was rambling. Her eyes were stuck on Curly, who was busy looking at his phone screen, his headphones on. He hadn’t noticed this mild commotion and seemed least interested in the going on’s of the world. If only he could look up, and see her standing, looking at him. If only, he asked her what the price of the pillow was and whether she would discount it a bit? She would happily reduce a huge Rs 20, and perhaps another magnificent Rs 5 if he insisted. After all, she would have melted, one couldn’t blame. And then he might have asked her what the mobile screen enlarger would cost? Or perhaps she would have pushed it, after all, it was something he needed, life is simpler if you have a screen expander, if you don’t have a big screen that is.
But he didn’t. Instead, he preferred looking into his stupid phone. And left her to build these castles that weren’t really even in the air.
“But this really isn’t a pillow!”, Surya gradually walked back into consciousness and she saw Glassy’s face emerge from the blur of her vision. “Isn’t it?”, he asked again. “This really isn’t a pillow. It’s something else.” He said.
“Sir, its a pillow only, you can test it”, Surya replied feebly.
“Test I will, it looks like a pillow, but..”, Glassy took the pillow and put it behind his head in the sitting position itself. He tried adjusting his head in various positions against the pillow, then took it behind his back and tried the same. “It is comfortable for sure..but”, his baritone sounded amongst the wrinkles of his face. “What is it?”, he asked Surya with a tone of finality, holding it in his left hand in front of her.
“It’s a pillow sir”
“Accha..?”, With every passing moment, Glassy’s interest appeared dissolving into confusion. Just like Surya’s intent. For the first time, she wasn’t interested in the sale, she was interested in the man beside one where the sale could be. She just couldn’t understand what was happening.
“What is written here?”, she came back out of the same blur to see Glassy closely inspect the pillow, top to bottom, vertically and then turning it in his hands. “Sir, I don’t know, we don’t make them, we just get them from the boss.”
“But, if you are selling, you should know na!”, Glassy said looking at the pillow and then glancing at the woman sitting across him. “We are spending money, at least we need its worth” he carried on.
“Sir I really don’t know, how would I, we are not that educated”. “Besides, it’s a pillow, it works well as a pillow, we also use it at home.”
“This seems like…”, Glassy and Surya both turned their necks to the woman on the berth in front of them. “It seems like a…”, she seemed amused, her eyes fixed on the pillow. She looked young, perhaps the same age as Curly, in shape, only that the shape was round. She mumbled something and started to smile at the pillow almost condescending it now. Surya and Glassy continued to look at her as they waited her to spell out her verdict. “It’s a swimming tube!”, she shrieked loudly bursting into laughter.
“A what?”, Glassy asked her again looking at her first and then the pillow
“A swimming tube! they are selling Swimming tubes as pillows!”
So it’s used in swimming?”
“Yes! It is given to beginners to stay afloat in the pool. I guess they must also be using it as a life saving instrument in other places.” the Rotund replied.
Glassy and Surya were now gazing at each other. Then they gazed at the pillow and finally again looked at Rotund on the opposite berth. Her laughter had subsided but that look remained – that one look of amusement. She was now looking at Surya and in a few seconds, Surya felt Glassy was also looking at her. She turned to see, Glassy was looking at each other.
“I don’t know sir, we don’t make these, we only sell these,” Surya exclaimed.
“Kamaal it is, what all people can do to earn money.” Glassy’s baritone was now starting to sound like noise to Surya. “Everything in the country is a jugaad, I tell you. Do anything, sell anything, all is jumla.” Rotund laughed briefly and kept oscillating her eyes between Surya, Glassy and the pillow, waiting for the next to happen.
“You don’t make it doesn’t mean you should not know what it is, and if you don’t know what it is then why are you selling these? I mean there has to be some sense of responsibility, isn’t it? How can you sell a swimming tube as a pillow?” Glassy started a tirade.
Surya stood transfixed. More than Glassy’s tirade, and its perspective on the ethics of sales and its process, Surya was concerned that by now, Curly had taken off his headphones and was looking around to assess what the commotion was all about. He looked at Rotund smiling, Glassy speaking, the pillow in Glassy’s hand waving as he spoke and then finally at Surya who was standing in between the two berths with stuff in her hand. He saw Surya looking at him, unable to comprehend what had been happening.
“Tell me, does it seem proper to you?” Everyone looked at Glassy who by now had assumed the air of someone who was just got saved from being robbed. “Does it seem proper for you to ask people to part with their hard-earned money like this? I mean where are we going as a country? We work so hard and at least we deserve to given products that stand the test of quality.”
Surya saw Curly look at him, the pillow and then at her in one swift glance. He kept looking at Surya as if waiting for her to answer. Surya was looking at Curly and her heart was beating louder than the wheels on the rail track. Completely dumbfounded, Surya didn’t know what to say, from some corner in her heart, she imagined a voice telling her, “izzat kharab nahi honi chahiye (honour shouldn’t suffer).” But then the same voice inside her didn’t tell her what her answer to Glassy should be. She didn’t know what swimming tube was. She just knew this was a pillow, it could be deflated and inflated as and when the user wanted. Like she did sometimes at night for her mother and sister back at home. Like she did for the customers who bought the pillow before today, from the time that she had been selling them.
“Haan ji!” Surya came back from the blur again, Glassy was looking at her with a beam on his face. “What do you say, sister?” His eyes darting from Surya to Rotund and back.
“Sir, I don’t know what a swimming tube is, I only know that this is a pillow,” Surya mumbled.
“Pillow only, it is not”, Glassy said, repeating it, “Pillow only it is not Madam!!! Pillow is different, it is different. This is not pillow.” With the last statement, Glassy dealt a heavy blow, he looked at Curly who was now smiling slightly. Glassy offered the pillow to Curly in an attempt to take him on his side. Curly took the pillow, saw it front and back, inspected it and handed it back to Glassy.
He nodded his head into a slight no, a wry smile emerged on his face at the context of this entire conversation and looked at Surya.
Surya heart sank.
Curly’s eyes had a disinterest, in the pillow, in Glassy, in the train, in the sun and the moon and the sky. His eyes had a disinterest in Surya.
“Take this”, Glassy extended the pillow towards Surya, “I can’t decide whether to take it or not.”
Surya started to take the pillow, and completed the transfer with her right hand. She was too feeble to fight back now. A sale was lost, a look was lost. Her heart ached, more from the disinterest that she saw in Curly’s eyes than the fact that the sale had not happened. Her turn around just about to start, she stole a glance at herself in the small rectangle mirror on the cabin wall in front of her. She was looking at herself, and her sad black eyes. Her sad, black eyes took her to her own heart. The heart that was now full of despondency, despondency that questioned her being. Why was she Surya, the girl who sold pillows and keychains and screen extenders in a train? Why was she the daughter of her mother? Why was she born here? Why wasn’t she anything but what she was right now?
“Buy it, sir, it’s a nice thing, gives a lot of comfort in long journeys.”
Surya was suddenly woken up from her self inflicted stupor of self pity.
“And you still have a long way to go.”
Surya completed her turnaround to confront this new voice. As the words sank into her mind, she was surprised, “a benefactor?” Her turnaround complete, she came face to face with Chawla, the TTE, who was now looking at Glassy, smiling, his black coat, tad dusty and hands full of paper reams and a pen.
“Accha!” Said Glassy.
“Haan”, replied Chawla.
“But its not a pillow!”, said Glassy to Chawla
“What difference does it make, it works well as one and you get good sleep. The quality is good, it wont tear easily. The best part is you can customise it, fill it as much as you want. Later deflate it and keep it in your bag. Very handy for the future.” Chawla said, looking at Glassy and the berths turn by turn.
“You seem to be so convinced..as if you also use!”
“I have two..”, Chawla smiled. “And besides it’s just Rs 100/-. What is Rs 100 for days of comfortable sleep? Sleep should be without compromise.”
“Plus sir, it will help her, it’s as it is so difficult to survive these days”, Surya looked at Chawla saying this. Her mind went into a daze.
“Han that is there. This is a time of good days, its good if you even survive, leave alone grow”, said Glassy and burst into a laugh joined by Chawla and Rotund. Curly just had a smirk on his face.
“Ok, how much did you say it is for?”
Surya mumbled, “Rs 100”, to be rebuked by Chawla, “Say it loudly girl! SAU RUPAY! Should I sell for you now?”
“Sau Rupay”, Surya said looking at Glassy.
“Yes sir”, With this Surya looked around for a place to keep her stuff, so she’s could take out a fresh pillow and air fill it. Space was now a constraint, the berth was full of people and the alley with Chawla. A slight movement was about to become a commotion when Curly got up and walked towards the door.
Now there was ample space to complete the sale. But Surya didn’t have the heart for it. She sat on the berth, pulled out a fresh pillow and pumped air into it She handed it over to Glassy and he started inspecting it. Satisfied with it, Glassy took out his wallet and with his right hand fished for a Rs100/- note. When he found one he handed it to Surya.
Surya got up and bent to pick her stuff up, when she heard, “I’ll also take one”, She knew this voice. She turned back to see Rotund looking at her, smiling. “It will be a good qissa to share, I just need proof.”, she said blinking her eyes at Surya naughtily. “Yes, didi,” said Surya and sat down again to pull out a fresh piece. “No no, give me the one that you are using only..as it is I won’t use it. This is just for memory” Surya handed over the pillow in her hand to Rotund, who handed her a Rs 100/- note.” Surya nodded her head and as she started to walk towards the door that Curly had gone towards, she heard “la beta, give one to me also.”
Surya turned to see Chawla taking out a Rs 100 note and extend it towards Surya. “Keep it on 49 in A3. You will go there now na?”, Chawla said as dryly as he could. Surya nodded her head.
“Now toh you must be happy! Rs300/- from one cabin!”, said Chawla smiling at the reams of paper in his hand.
Surya didn’t know what to say. 300 was a good start.
“Ok, go now and get off the train at the next station.” Chawla said with a stricter tone than earlier.
Surya nodded in agreement and looked at the door through which Curly had walked out. She saw him standing at the door looking outside. His hair flew in the gentle wind of the train, his eyes were dreamy and his lips parted just a bit. Surya looked at him and knew she had lost her heart. It was confirmed, sealed and stamped now. What needed to be thought of was how to reclaim it?
As Surya looked at Curly, she suddenly felt that he had turned his head at her and in a nod signalled her to come to him. Not able to believe her eyes, Surya squinted them a bit and then saw him raise his hand and signal Surya to come towards him. Surya’s heart leapt. “Go go fast!”, it told her. As Surya walked towards him, she thought of the things she could tell him, and the things she wouldn’t. While walking towards him, she fixed her dupatta and her hair in a quick flick of her hand. He was just a couple of paces away, she wished she had a perfume. She swore to keep one with her from here onwards. As her hand extended it self to open the door, it crossed her mind that to clear her throat before speaking.
Surya stepped out of the AC compartment into the open area. Curly was standing, in all his glory, one hand on the door rail and the other holding his phone.
He looked straight into Surya’s eyes with his own beautiful black eyes and squeaked, “didi, how much is the screen magnifier for?”
Surya’s gaze turned from Curly to the scene outside the door. The train was slowing down; a station was about to arrive.