By: Sujatha Rao

An Exceptional One

Thanks to my wife Padma and her overzealousness, we reached Kacheguda railway station almost two hours before the scheduled time of departure of our train.  I started pacing the platform impatiently while Padma, who loved everything about the train travel, sat on a bench happily observing the goings on in the station.  To me it seemed that she reveled in the noisy atmosphere of Indian railway stations.

After about an hour, the raucous, metallic screech heralded the arrival of the train dragging its dilapidated corroded iron carriages along.  We got on the train, as soon as the doors of our compartment were opened. When we reached our seats, I was put off by the sight of the torn and tacky upholstery that awaited us there.

I asked Padma to wait while I wiped the seat clean with old newspapers I always carried with me.  I laid down a couple of newspaper sheets on the floor underneath our seats and gently placed our luggage on top of those.  Padma, who had been standing impatiently behind me all the while, settled into her seat in a huff.  I tried to ignore her visible frustration as I had gotten used to her irritation with my fastidiousness which she refers to as my OCD. 

We traveled by that train quite frequently, as our son Abhishek was working for Infosys in Bengaluru.  Since Abhishek generally booked the tickets well in advance, we were assured of lower berths almost every time.  Unfortunately this time around, both of us didn’t get the lower berths and that had become a cause of concern for Padma.  Abhishek kept telling his mother not to worry.  He said after we board the train, we could try exchanging one of our seats for a lower berth.

To my wife’s great disappointment, a lady who appeared to be in her mid-seventies settled down in the window seat in front of us. A few minutes later a young woman with an infant child slid into the side lower berth seat crushing Padma’s hopes of an exchange of the lower birth with either of them. Now the occupant of the window seat on our berth was our last hope.

As an answer to that lingering question in our mind, a teenage girl hurriedly got into the seat next to Padma just as the train started pulling out of the station. As she was trying to catch her breath, Padma looked at me with expectant eyes.

The girl unstrapped her backpack and dropped it onto the compartment floor. She was tall and lean. As she bent over to push her bag underneath the berth, her black hair fell onto her shoulders in a natural wave.

She was wearing a black T shirt with “Being Human” written. The T shirt was tucked into a pair of faded torn blue denim jeans. 

Padma looked at the torn part across the girl’s knees and turned her eyes away.  For the life of her, Padma could never understand how such torn things could become a fashionable rage. Knowing her strong views in this regard, I tried to stifle a smile and turned my face away. Of all the people, this girl had to land next to Padma, I mused.

The minute she got into her window seat, the young girl got busy with her mobile phone.  She had her ear phones on and appeared to be listening to some music. She was also busy texting in parallel. She had a variety of rings on most of her fingers.  Some of them had beads of different colour.  Her nails were long and painted in bright purple. But for the sound of her fingers texting away and her intermittent giggles, she was silent throughout.

Padma turned towards me and whispered “Should I ask her for the exchange of berths now?”

As the girl had her ear phones on, I gestured to Padma to wait for a while. But Padma would have none of it.

Turning to the girl, she tried to pull her into a conversation by asking “Are you getting down at Bengaluru?”

The girl’s head was bent over her phone and her hair was covering her face partially.  The girl, who was totally focused on her mobile phone, acted as though she didn’t hear Padma’s question and continued with her texting.

Padma feared technology in general and used her mobile phone only for making and receiving calls. She found people’s obsession with mobile phones quite loathsome.  I cannot say whether it is because of her non-expertise with technology that caused it, or whether she genuinely felt an aversion towards mobile phones. Maybe it was a bit of both.

“Did you see how arrogant she is! Acting as though she didn’t hear me.” Padma spat out.

 “She might not have heard you. She has her ear phones on. She seems busy right now. Please keep quiet Padma.  It won’t be nice if the girl hears you.” I whispered.

“You don’t have to worry about that. Like a typical teenager, she is in her own world. These days all these young kids want in their lives is their phones. Nothing else matters to them” Padma said sarcastically.

This has been her constant complaint about her own children and my little grandson who normally visited us once a year along with his parents.  I guess, the fact that she suffered from techno-phobia of sorts made the matters only worse.

Overhearing what she said, the lady in the front seat laughed at Padma’s words and Padma too joined her.  Both the ladies started talking to each other animatedly thereafter. As they started exchanging some tidbits about their lives, I felt relieved that Padma found a kindred soul in the lady, turning her attention away from the girl.

In a few minutes, the TC walked into our compartment to check on our tickets. When the girl failed to respond even to the TC, Padma tapped the girl on her arm.  Pulling out her ear phones, the girl stared at Padma.

Noticing that the TC was standing impatiently with an outstretched hand, she smiled embarrassedly and hurried over to show her e-ticket from her phone. Once the TC left, she got busy with her phone once again.

By now, Padma had given up on the girl. She got back to her happy chatter with the old lady once again.  Around 8 PM, we decided to have our dinner.  The lady in the front seat offered some homemade pickle to Padma and Padma offered her the Potato curry she had made.  Meanwhile, the girl took out a small tiffin box from inside her hand bag and ate her dinner quietly.

By now Padma had reconciled to getting onto the middle berth.  At around 8.45 PM, she was surprised when the girl tapped on her left arm lightly.

As Padma stared at her face, the girl broke into a smile. She pointed at the lower berth and indicated through her gestures that Padma could take it.

Padma, who didn’t believe what she saw, asked the girl in Telugu “What are you saying?”

Realising that the girl perhaps may not understand Telugu, she switched over to English in a hurry and asked her the same question in very basic conversational words.

The girl smiled at her. Pushing her hair back and cocking her head a little sideways, she showed the hearing aid hidden behind her ear to Padma. Then repeated the same gesture about the lower berth to her.

Seeing the confused expression on Padma’s face, thinking that Padma failed to understand what she was trying to say, she typed the words “U may take the lower berth” on her mobile and held it up to us both to see.

While Padma continued to stare at those words as though she was dumbstruck, I replied “Thank you.”

She typed back “U r welcome. Will U wake me up before Bengaluru City station?” and flashed it before us both.

By now, Padma had regained her composure and she answered “I will wake you up Beta.”

Then realizing that she might not have heard it, she touched the girl’s hand reassuringly and nodded her head.

The girl flashed a big smile at Padma and mouthed the words “Thank you aunty.”

She deftly threw her hand bag and the backpack on to the upper berth and within seconds had dragged herself up there.  As I lowered the middle berth and readied ours berths to lie down, I heard the girl laughing at something she was watching on her laptop from the upper berth.

Padma whispered to me in a voice full of remorse “I shouldn’t have passed those adverse comments without knowing about her condition.”

I nodded my head in silence feeling good about Padma acknowledging her slip-up so quickly. That was the good thing about Padma. Many a time, she accepted her mistakes as quickly as she jumped to conclusions. My eyes turned moist, as I whispered back to her, “But you were so very right Padma.  She indeed is a typical teenager, thanks to technology.”

Categories: Story