Salem Junction

The twinkling lights at the bottom of the hill resembled a million glowworms on a humid summer night. The car meandered along a circuitous road. His forty hour train ride in a second-class compartment had failed to change her mind. It was not going to work. She was waiting for her visa to come through. He had spent the day in the school where she was teaching. The old gothic school-building, the neat lush lawns, and the vast playground merely added to his sense of despair. This was probably the last time they would hold each other in an embrace. Their meeting lost none of the warmth they had shared so many years back.

The flicker gradually assumed stability. The hot summer air replaced the cool breeze of the hills. The driver negotiated one last steep curve before lunging on the wide, straight road. The streets wore a deserted look. The city resigned itself to a restless repose before starting another feverish day. The car came to a halt in front of the small garden that appeared to be a new addition to the station. Men sat on the low garden-wall. Women with babies went about begging at that odd hour of the night.

He stepped on the platform and checked the display board to confirm the time of his train. He would have to wait for more than an hour. They had traveled together the last time he was here. They spoke of settling down then. Once the lights went out one by one, he had sneaked into the smelly washroom of the second-class compartment. She had hesitated before joining him. In their moment of physical intimacy after about a year, they couldn’t care less about exchanging niceties. He fumbled with her clothes and their tongues groped the crevices of their mouth. A loud bang on the door and the footsteps died down in the narrow corridor.

As he walked toward a wooden bench, a dark, lean woman with a sickly baby accosted him.

Babu, give me some money.”

“Why do you need money?”

“I had been to Tirupati and on the way lost my husband in the crowd. I desperately need to get back to Mumbai.”

“In that case, I will buy you a ticket.”

“Please, babu, I need money. Please give me some money.”

She accepted a hundred rupee note and thanked him. She waited at the platform for a long time.

He walked away to the wooden bench. The platform was filling up quickly with late night passengers. He was rehearsing all that she had said during their meeting. There seemed to be no going back this time around. He had no other option but to move on. As the train slowly pulled into the platform, another dark, lean woman with a sickly baby on her lap approached him. She too seemed to have lost her way and needed money to return to Mumbai.

He turned back. The other woman had vanished in the crowd.

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