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Flash Fiction: Strangers on the Train

By Bharti Kirchner Email By Bharti Kirchner
December 2022
Flash Fiction: Strangers on the Train

Browsing through this morning’s Hindustan Standard, Anouk caught an ad with the headline: “The Romance of Seeing India by Rail.” And immediately her mind went back to a train ride during her teen years.

She lived in New Delhi, a middle-class college girl. Dressed in an indigo salwar-kameez suit and a red cardigan, she rode a taxi alone to the train station. The train arrived with a clattering sound, its passenger cars extending the entire length of the platform. She walked up to the second-class compartment, with a sense of both anticipation and fear. As she struggled to push her shabby, bulky suitcase through the door of the compartment, a voice behind her offered, “May I help you?” A handsome, well-dressed stranger, smelling of pricey aftershave, sidled up to her.

He took the beaten-up suitcase from her hands. She looked thankfully at him: a tall, lanky man, with a prominent chin and refined features. Once they got on, he motioned her toward a padded wooden bench and placed her luggage on an overhead rack. Then he lifted his designer-made leather suitcase, placed it beside hers, and with a polite “May I?” sat down next to her. It wasn’t a question as much as a statement of intention from a stranger, who had an air of easy confidence about him. The same confidence showed itselfin his fine china-blue poplin shirt and expensive-looking trousers.

What was he doing in a second class compartment? Reserved first class AC would have been more like it. Then she remembered what her father had once said: “The train is a social equalizer.” Looking around the compartment, Anouk had to agree. Across the aisle, a septuagenarian read a pamphlet, a young boy checked his pocketknife, and a burqa-clad woman mumbled her prayers. The suave, hazel-eyed man next to her seemed amused by it all. His posture was erect. He had an elevated self-image, like an unbearably sunny day.
She pulled a French phrasebook from her purse. She would study for a college exam on the long journey, as soon as the train started moving and she’d calmed herself. A quiz book seller, carrying a bundle of books, strolled through the compartment. He was followed by a tea-vendor, pushing a cart and calling out, “Chai, garam chai.”

“Would you care to join me for a cup of tea?” asked the man. The voice was clear and confident, one accustomed to hearing an affirmative answer. She accepted his offer before she could even think. He ordered amber chai, samosas, and orange laddoos.

“You read my mind.” She hadn’t taken time to have breakfast.

He smiled, as though he understood her hunger. The ice—or was it more like a heat spell—thus broken, Anouk introduced herself and he followed suit. Her heart skipped a beat. Dilip Rai? In New Delhi’s social circles, that name was mentioned by parents of marriage-age daughters in hushed eager voices. An economist of high status, practically a rock star, he was known to give brilliant talks on weighty subjects in packed auditoriums. Only eighteen, but a scholarship holder, Anouk wasn’t thinking of marriage. The world was open before her like a vast virgin playground, and she was in no hurry to foreclose her options.

The train gave a short shrill whistle. As a child, her cheeks puffing up, she used to imitate that signal as poo-zhik-zhik. As the train rattled on its way, Dilip began talking, switching between Hindi, Bengali, and English. The rhythm and tone of his speech, no matter what language he chose to express himself, worked on her. That it had a barely concealed sexual energy to it, she was ashamed to admit to herself. He could discuss any subject with ease—consumerism to football to water conservation—then turn on a dime and focus on a minor detail of more immediate concern. “These pakoras could really use more chili, don’t you think?” After a pause, “Where are you going?”

“Lucknow—to visit my grandmother.” She was glad for the nearly 500 kilometers distance between the two cities. Although her grandmother, whom she called Didima, would be pacing the room and checking the window often, she found herself wishing the train would never reach its destination. After an hour or so of conversation, she closed her eyes and, swayed by the rhythm of the train, nodded off. She was only half-aware that the train had made a few short station stops. When she awoke, he was no longer sitting next to her or anywhere else in the compartment. The space formerly occupied by his luggage was now empty.

Why did he disembark?

For the rest of the journey, she searched every face outside the window and on the platforms in vain. In Lucknow, she told Didima all about him. She smiled. “It was only a train ride for him, don’t you see?” Didima, a village woman approaching sixty, always said it like it is. In her mind, Anouk dismissed her remark. Indeed, those words would prove to be wrong. Within a week after returning home, Anouk received a letter from Dilip. He’d apparently copied her mailing address from her luggage tag. Written on blue stationery and encased in a heavy-stock envelope, the letter displayed fine penmanship as well as a dash of sentiment. One sentence would linger in her mind: “I’ve never believed in fate or coincidences but, believe it or not, last Tuesday when I ran into you, I’d boarded the wrong train.”

Two weeks later, someone rapped at the door of her parents’ house. Wearing a tunic and pants ensemble, long hair running down her back, she answered. “Anouk!” Dilip said, his voice deep, rich. Dressed in a lightweight suit, he was carrying the same expensive suitcase.

Melting, almost fainting, she said, “Dilip!” She ushered him in and they exchanged pleasantries. With her parents both at work, they had the place to themselves. They talked for an hour in her living room, or rather, he did. His job would take him to Agra this time.

“I can always count on marvelous things happening on the train,” he said. “Like meeting you.”

She beamed, feeling happy, lucky, and, for the first time, beautiful.

He opened the suitcase and pulled out the gifts he’d brought for her: a collector’s edition of an English translation of a French novel, a box of laddoos, and a package of scented candles. With the excuse that he had to catch a train, he bade her goodbye and left. She felt as though she’d lost her virginity in that hour even though they hadn’t even held hands. Weeks passed. Calls to him went unanswered. “He’s gone, Didima,” she said over the phone.

“One train ride does not make a life,” Didima replied. “There’ll be more.”

And Anouk did have more. A few years later, she got married, an arranged marriage to a junior accountant. Didima gave her a box of jewelry as a wedding gift along with a note: “May you have a thousand journeys.”
Anouk stared out the window. Some twenty years later, her husband had died prematurely of a heart attack and a son was in college. With a thicker waistline and a cautious outlook, she had become a different woman. In the intervening years, she’d read frequently about Dilip Rai in the newspaper, seen his photo. He was married to the daughter of an industrialist, had two children. If she felt anything at all staring at those powerful eyes in the picture, it was like listening to forgotten music.

Didima had passed a month ago. Staring at her photo on the wall—the benevolent face, eyes brimming with love, cheeks glowing with whatever little joy she’d ever had—Anouk could see that Didima was right. Her long-ago infatuation hadn’t been about Dilip Rai. Rather it had been about the poo-zhik-zhik sound of hope, the sweet rewarding crunch of snacks, the siren song of faraway places. And she could have it all again. It was but a train ride away.

Bharti Kirchner is the author of 8 novels and 4 cookbooks, her latest being Murder at Andaman: A Maya Mallick Mystery. She can be reached at bhartik@aol.com.

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