Disclaimer: This is an absolute work of fiction.

Chai, Chai, Chai, Chai! A vendor’s low-pitched shrieks filled the train compartment. Garam garam Chai!

I sat up straight and comfortably seated myself in one of the chairs of a compartment in the Shatabdi, which was whizzing from Haridwar to Delhi in a movement fast as it was enjoyable. The train was rocking me side by side as if lulling me to sleep, and I could hear the distant rumble of the train engines and a few jerks as the train changed tracks. Unlike most people who glued themselves to the windows in a train, I simply stared at the strangely yet intricately patterned metal floors of the train. In spite of being 12 and an artistic kid, I found no joy in the mist clouded windows of the train, unlike my grandmother, 64, a subtle and quiet woman, who stared out the window like it was her last hope. I didn’t quite understand the point of it- one could hardly see a landscape and admire it if it was rushing by at a rate of km/h. It made me feel dizzy. It made me dream dreams, which I didn’t like at all, they made no sense. I preferred a deep dreamless sleep over dreams any day. My grandmother held a different opinion, however. She made me sleep lightly and uncomfortably so I could dream dreams that would help predict the future.

The train ride was a usual incident for me, we did it very often indeed since I was young. While the little city of Haridwar completed our needs perfectly, in Delhi lay another one of my needs and a piece of my heart- my father.

My father was a colonel in the army, a position prestigious to me even if it wasn’t to whoever gave them to the others. He was the most calm and subtle person ever, just like my grandmother, except for the fact he had not at all inherited her extreme inner fan girl for superstitions. Stout as a rock, on  his resolutions and decisions, he’d committed himself to serving in the army as soon as he turned eighteen. Even now, he was the earning member of our family and I’d look up at him, my eyes full of admiration and inspiration for him. Growing up without a mother was tough, she died soon after my birth, but my grandmother filled that void and also partly my father’s, for he had a long absence from the house for most of the year.

All I had left of my mother was a dusty photograph on the mantel of the living room, in which she’d smile at me, showing off her crimson saree. From what I could see, she was absolutely beautiful. Stunning, even. She had sharp eyes and the most joyful smile ever, my father used to tell me. Her trademark Kajal could be visible even in the photo as I fingered it lovingly, almost wanting to reach out to her. I felt no pain, no hurt, only burning questions. After all, I hadn’t really known her as a person, only my late mother. Why had she been taken away so soon? Did it prove my father’s motto true, that good people die only for good? And what was her reaction when she held me in her arms?

But this wasn’t what was floating about in my head during the train journey. All I could think about was my father. I was seeing him after a gap of nearly an year, and in our lives, that was quite soon. I could remember a time when a couple of years had a passed and my father had not come home. I’d been sleeping by cuddling with his blanket for the entire duration, but I never told him it was often wet with tears in the morning. I was an army man’s daughter. What would he say if he found out his daughter cried at night, simply because I missed him? The burning question in my mind was, How would he greet us when we reached?

It was usually a bright smile and the warmest hug ever, the first to me and another to my grandmother. She would tease him about placing his parents second and we’d all share a jovial laugh. Cups of sweet tea shared at a nearby stall, everyone saluting my father in his uniform and looking at me, sipping away at my lemonade like I was some princess. I felt like one, most certainly. I was so proud of my father it was crazy.

The green of the trees outside mingled into one moving patch, much like the ones on my father’s uniform. I was trembling in trepidation to meet him, but the train did not share my enthusiasm as it stopped rumbling and the journey came to a halt. The engines screeched as if eager to rush us out of the compartments. I decided to fulfil its wish and stood up to retrieve our luggage from the overhead bins. I stared. If I used to have any doubts about my room being dusty, they all disappeared upon seeing the racks.

I tugged at my grandmother’s arms, who lay asleep beside me, perhaps hoping to see some predicting dreams. I could not quite understand this pointless practice, but who was I to criticise the decision of a family member, not to mention one much older than I was.

We scraped our way across the train to be greeted by the bright, almost burning light outside. Delhi, however beautifully crafted and planned would always remain just that: Delhi. A place crowded by vicious skyscrapers and filled with money. Sprawling with manors and bustling with apartments. The most stylish and expensive cars flitting about on the road like common dragonflies. There could be a few people out there rolling in bundles of cash.

There weren’t any such people at the station, however. The station, although crowded seemed empty and void of any happiness. Travellers staring tiredly at the grimy rails and postered walls. The rumbling of wheels against paved stone. Sunlight illuminating the peeling paint on the benches. I had almost raised my hand to call a porter when a ringing came up in my pocket, broken by the low note of my grandmother’s voice claiming it was hers.

‘You placed your phone in my pocket again?’ I asked her incredulously. 

‘It’s deeper and has more space than my purse. It’s a fair deal: you’ve stuffed my purse with the mint leaves you said you’d chew on the train, and you haven’t even chewed one of them! Anyway, pick it up already.’ She flicked a strand of hair behind her ear. One would hardly believe she’s a grandmother and not some superstar owing to the time she took to get ready. There were often mornings when I was late to school not of my own doing but because my dadi had forgotten to oil her hair or something.

I shook my head. I just couldn’t understand what was the hurry for everything. I checked who was calling. An unknown number. Strange, I thought. I picked it up reluctantly. There was a slight buzz and I removed the phone to see if I was still on the line. I was puzzled and it showed on my face as I placed my ear to the phone again and plugged one ear to see if it would help. ‘Hello?’ I said, in the usual fashion that one did when they picked up a call.

‘Anu? Is that you?’

‘Papa!’ I could hardly stifle my joy at hearing his voice. What to others seemed a mere raspy sound emitting from a pair of vocal chords was the world to me. ‘Papa! What an amazing surprise! You rarely call us when we’re about to meet you! Do you need anything from anywhere? Sure, we can bring it! I’m so happy to hear you, it’s been so long, I missed you liked crazy!’ I squealed it all in one long breath, almost laughing in happy surprise. I was so joyful, I felt like hugging him through the phone. 

‘Please hand over the phone to dadi.” I heard something I never thought I could. Something I never thought I would. He requested me to stop talking, the man who answered all of my questions, however tortured he was from the constant stream of them. He sounded grim. He sounded grave. It scared me, badly.

‘Is everything ok?’ I could barely whisper.

‘Hand it over, Anu.’ My grandmother looked pale faced. Could she know what was coming? What was it? Was it something planned? The questions made my head spin. I hesitatingly handed over the phone. Her next move made me raise my eyebrows in shock. She straightaway put the phone to her ears. Usually, she always set it to speaker, no mater how secretive the call. I felt confused like I hadn’t known what confusion was. But dadi’s phone’s sound was set at the highest volume even on the non-speaker call and I could still hear my father’s low and raspy note. Every single word, loud and clear. This time, the beautiful voice neither infused warmth nor brought a smile to my face. Instead, I felt myself go cold. It couldn’t be true. It must not. It….should not. But who was I to say anything? The decision had been made and my father was simply calling us to let us know. 

‘Amma, I’ve been recruited as a soldier on the Pakistan border.’

To be continued…

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Hemanya Vashishtha

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