Suneetha Balakrishnan writes in and translates into English and Malayalam. Her latest publication is the Malayalam translation of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. She is an independent journalist by profession and works from her home in Trivandrum, India. Her debut novel, set in her paradoxical home region, Kerala, awaits a publisher.
Portraits across the Window
She watched the bogies chug out in slow rhythmic dance, each passing scene an accelerating cameo as the train gathered speed. A blotched sky in dull grey moved into view followed by an empty platform dotted with dusty merchandise on tired cartwheels. On the upper berths, her father-in-law’s snores competed with those of her husband. Her mother-in-law reclining on the other lower berth did not snore, but slept with her mouth open and the saree’s edge cautiously pulled over her greying hair even in sleep; her dark chequered hanky was spread over her eyes and covered most of her face.
She counted their bags once more from her prone posture on the lower berth. She could see the two tin suitcases into which various household articles and basic condiments had been packed for their new life ahead. Then there was one red duffle bag with some clothing and two cane baskets, the last containing food to last them through the journey. Two black duffle bags full with her trousseau were stuffed under her berth and she put her hand out to feel one of them, the other was tucked away too far for her reach. Left with nothing to do, she trained her eyes upon the platform again.
The edge of the platform on the other side was now visible and she was drawn to a spot that looked yellowish and dripping, probably a food packet that was spilt, she could not make out from her post. Human odours had started to mingle with the morning smells and she wished she could step out and breathe some fresh air, and stretch her limbs too. This was the third morning she had spent on the train and other than the guided trips to the lavatory with the reticent mother-in-law, she had not moved from the seat. The stop at this station had been more than twelve hours if she guessed right. Their train was halted here last night, since a landslide had blocked the lines on their route ahead.
The morning was cool and she felt her eyes close but sleep was far, the images that came back to her were from the home she had left behind. The slow life of the cow-herd people, the sounds of milking, butter-making and other dairy chores, some days of school, and one image that stayed back with her of the young school master. He had come to her house to request, nay, almost beg her father to send her back to school, days after she had dropped out. She had hardly cared but for the teasing her friends had started about how the young Masterji could not live without seeing her.
It had also led to an animated discussion among the women in the community about how long girls should attend school and when the discussions were just crossing boundaries, the elders of the village had put a stop to all the chitchat with the reason the Masterji wanted her back on school. The school’s pupil count was running low, and it would close down without the minimum number. So back to school she had gone, to help a common cause, ostensibly. The year had passed without incident, but for the tiny tugs in her heart as the Masterji greeted her at school or when their paths crossed while she delivered the milk at the co-operative.
The school closed down that year in spite of her contribution. But she never forgot the Masterji. Clean shaven, tall, fair-skinned and soft-spoken; as against the boys of her village, coarser, darker and as moustached as nature would allow them to be at that age. Their speech to their women was just as to their herd, short commands to call them to their respective confines at most times; the endearments reserved for favours expected. She had despaired of the suitors for her in the village, and resisted them as much as she possibly could. After a couple of years of desperation and frustration in the family circles, when a soldier came looking for a bride to their village, she was the chosen match.
The match for the very man that now lay snoring on the upper berth, with whom she had had little contact in the five days they were married. They had been travelling since the wedding day. All she could remember was the warm hand that held hers while she climbed up the steps to the compartment, and the strong sinews that stood out from the slit of his striped shirt. She had looked up and met his eyes for a moment; brown, warm and deep, and in an unexpected moment he winked. She had blushed and looked down in confusion, but the moment held on for what seemed a long second. The slight male smell of sweat from his body, the heat that it radiated, the tremor that it sent through her heart, held unbroken till her father-in-law had called out for help. They had gone on to sit on opposite seats as if they had been strangers and they had not had a chance to exchange even a glance for the two days and two nights they had been travelling together.
Her reverie broke with a sudden movement. New sounds of chugging engines and loud voices and new smells of smoke and re-opened food containers were taking over, and the platform was wakening itself again. After a flash of slowing pictures, a train finally stopped at the other platform. The bogeys took their time to decide which of them was to fill her vision and the chosen one shuddered in its track, finally sighing to a stop. Just opposite her, one window was pulled down and so were the shutters, but the other was open and welcoming, a baby stood on its knees at the seat, and a young woman with a round chubby face held fast to its waist murmuring endearments. The baby smiled now and then and the young woman kissed it repeatedly in an expression of pure happiness. Vendors pushing their ware snipped her view and the resonated echoes of motherhood at intervals. Behind her she heard the thud of feet and looked up to see the man she was married to looking at her. She glanced quickly at her mother-in-law, who had started to snore gently now, her mouth still open. Her father-in-law was unrelenting in his stertor and drowning his wife’s feeble attempts as well. Her man stood tall and confident now, looking down on her in open admiration. She smiled and tried to sit up, but the berth above offered her little space. He mouthed softly,
-you want to freshen up?
She stood up and then bent down again to pick up her mug and tooth brush that was hung down with a twine, then followed him along the narrow corridor. At the door, he nodded at her to go on into the toilet and leaned back on the door, crossing his arms, seeming to relish the breeze that blew in. When she came back, he seemed to have washed his face and was wiping his neck with a coarse towel. She did the same with her saree, and as she tried to walk on, his left arm created a barrier in her way.
-what’s the hurry, they are still sleeping. Come and stand here, it’s breezier.
She moved shyly to the place he was indicating and immediately felt that tremor in her heart again. She wished she was bathed and fresh, and wearing a new set of clothes, and alone in a room with him.
-missing home? feel like you want to see your people? feel like you have lost all of them forever?
His voice was deep, and she could feel the warmth of his eyes on her face, and right then the wind blew lifting her saree from its place across her body. She felt his gaze shifting on to her contours. She blushed as she had before and broke away from him, rushing to her seat. Adjusting her saree, she crept back into the space on the lower berth. The window across the platform was still open but the baby had gone, so had the young woman. A man was sitting with his back to the window, reading a newspaper. She tried to see if the baby was on his lap, but she couldn’t look beyond the newspaper spread across her vision.
She shifted the gaze to the vendor’s cart and wondered if she should ask the husband for a favour. The hot samosas were making her mouth water, but her elders were still asleep and it didn’t seem courteous to eat when they hadn’t even woken up. Her man had still not returned to the upper berth. She considered the option once more and slowly dragged herself out again, checking if the mother-in-law was awake. The gentle snores continued to rise even after she pulled her feet up on the lower berth once more.
An announcement sounded on the public address system, and the people standing about on the platform started boarding the train waiting at the opposite platform. She looked immediately at the window, but the man had disappeared. In the rising crescendo of noises, she thought she heard the baby crying, but none of them appeared in view. The whistle sounded and the train shook a little in its readiness to move. The slow rhythmic dance started, and as the bogey pulled out, the man appeared at the window once again, this time looking out as he folded the newspaper. And as she watched his eyes widening in a flicker of interest, the train gathered speed and she lost her picture to a sudden blur of tears this time. Then she felt a tap on her shoulders,
-samosas? and tea? get up…