The previous parts:
I never knew we’d get to meet one of Mamata Banerjee’s pet babies- the Duronto train from Delhi to Chennai. I only wish they’d spelled it phonetically as Dhurauntho (pliss to correct me if am wrong) to prevent the non-bangla speaking folks from pronouncing it as Toronto or Doronto and feeling proud about a western association:)
Barely after 5 minutes of our settling down, a massive Pathan set his gargantuan foot inside the bay and his voice matched his size. He held his ticket 8 inches away from my eyes asking me to inspect if he was in the correct coach and seat- “Yeh thuhrty saevan hai?” (is this seat no.37?). I said yes and pointed at the two seats opposite ours. He muttered a thanks, parked his luggage and disappeared for a few minutes. When he re-appeared, there was a purdah clad woman behind him, with a veil drawn over her face, revealing only her eyes behind a netted mesh. He showed her the seat and he set about arranging his bags. I loved the hazelnut eyes of the woman and kept turning to make an eye contact with her. No luck:(
For convenience, let us call the gentleman Mr.P.
Ten minutes after the train started, Mr.P asked me if the AC was on and why it was so hot… He was profusely sweating.. Again I answered in the affirmative and told him that it will take a while for the AC to take effect.
The conversation between the couple was mostly one-sided with him speaking rather loudly while the lady was barely whispering. In a language that was neither Hindi nor Urdu. Another 15 mins later, Mr.P pulled out a double bed-spread from his bag and said that his wife wanted to sleep, so if we did not mind, he’d put up a screen from top to bottom. He tied one end to a tray-like stand near the upper berth and the other end to the curtain rings of the curtain already present in the train, making it one neat L-shaped enclosure for the two.. Of course we had no problem but were baffled nonetheless! So a screen went up and the couple were well shielded from the ‘public’ gaze.. And it was time for Vyas to ask his trademark questions- Amma, why this? (pointing at the makeshift screen). Because aunty is tired and wants to rest without being disturbed- I answered.
Another 10 minutes elapsed before Mr.P peeped from between the two curtains, holding the folds together under his chin. He wanted to know the distance between Delhi and Chennai.. The hubby told him that it must be a little over 2000 kms.. “Tooooo thoscend…?” he dragged and shifted his gaze to me.. I became the official translator for a while after which he decided that routing was costly and it was best to direct the questions to me. More questions followed, like what time does the train reach Chennai.. Why Duronto has 5 stops if it is a non-stop train etc.. I was racking my brains for an Hindi equivalent of ‘5 technical stops’, failing which I had to explain that the stops were necessary to load food, fuel, etc.. He nodded to imply that he understood.. My translation services were availed by the stewards too to help them serve Mr.P..
Mr.P would peep out, ask a question, get an answer and would withdraw into his cocoon:) The next time he peeped, I literally did a ‘me first, me first’ kinda thing by asking him a series of questions.. Turns out, he is from Afghanistan and the lady was his wife. This was their first trip to India and they did not know anyone in this part of the world. He kept pulling out a travel guide and asked about several places including Chennai, Mysore, Vellore and B’lore and would disappear behind the curtains. Puzzling. It was very tough keeping Varun from pushing the screen aside and I was hoping that it didn’t come off. The little rat peeked into the curtain every 10 mins saying “kanom, dho ikken. naan vandhuten!” (basically hide and seek!). The couple didn’t mind and I let him be.. Vyas was itching to ask me something and I think I knew what was coming. As both my boys have swallowed loud-speakers at birth, I had to tell him something important before he uttered blasphemy. The moment he came near me, I had to caution him with:
Me: Before you ask, I have something to tell you. Listen. The uncle and aunt sitting opposite us are from Afghanistan. Kabul. They are visiting India for the 1st time on some important work. You must take care not to speak or say something that might offend them. For instance, the curtains, their attire, terrorism, Bin Laden…(and to think that he was killed 35 hours later!)
Vyas: (before I could finish): Amma! I know ! What can they do about all that!
Me: Not that Kanna.. I’m happy you understand.. I just wanted to emphasize that any inadvertent remark is not welcome.. and you might not know if you are saying the right thing.. We must make them feel at home.. They are here the first time..
Vyas: Ok ma. I just wanted to know how they came to Delhi.. and where they live.. and what language is that?
Me: They took a direct flight from Kabul where they live. The language might be pushthun… Am not sure. Will ask him the next time he comes out.. You can ask him too. But in Hindi;)
He went back to the window seat on the side berth and probably forgot why he’d come to me in the first place:) I do not know if I was right in cautioning him thus but I did not want him saying something rude or inappropriate.. This was the first time he was traveling a long distance with people from a neighboring country.. The kids hear/see bits and pieces of conversations the adults have, are exposed to more information- right and wrong- in school, and make their own theories… It is sad that even adults sometimes try to fit people into templates… Vyas knew and understood the Mumbai terror attacks.. he has heard the news channels scream, adults discuss about the Pakistan connections… He has heard of Saddam Hussain and Bin Laden.. I have told him about Kabul and Khyber Pass once when he caught me wiping away a tear after I turned the last page in the book, ‘The Kite Runner’..
I do not know if he remembers what I’d told back then, but there is no taking chances with kids. Such generalizations might already be weighing heavily upon the innocent people from these countries.. A question like, have you witnessed bombing or have you been part of the war, would really have turned something inside me if I were in Mr.P’s place.. And to carry home the knowledge that even children associated war with their country and its citizens, would be too great a burden.. Maybe I was/am over-analyzing.. But I felt very light after talking to him..
It was a little over 11 PM and the kids had fallen asleep, and I snuggled beside Varun after a visit to the loo. And then it dawned on me that the lady had not once stepped out to visit the rest room!! How is that possible, specially when you have been gulping down the coffee, juice, soup, water, everything the railway folks have been shoving our way?!! The very thought seemed to make my bladder feel heavy again!
to be contd….