by Anuradha C
At dinner time this evening, the boys thought I had taken leave of my senses. But they did dare not say that to me on my face. When I reached for the TV remote and promptly switched on a daily soap – a glitzy saas bahu saga no less – I knew I was asking for trouble. I knew this would be hot gossip by tomorrow morning that Lt Col Siddarth Ranawat was glued to a TV serial in the army quarters!
Even the thought of damning ridicule from my comrades did not deter me. My entire focus was on spotting the clothes worn by the women on the show. Especially the saree blouses. The glittering blouses with traditional Indian motifs patched on to them. Royal elephant parades, peacock blooms, Radha Krishna poses. Vandana’s animated description was continuously running like playback music in my head.
After scouring through the scheming antagonists and spineless men for over five minutes, I managed to spot one of the leading ladies. She was wearing a blouse similar to what Vandana had on the train journey. A bright purple blouse with a motif of an elephant parade in soothing grey and green. Vandana was wearing the same pattern in pale pink.
“A tired vision in pink” – that was the first thought that occurred to me when she boarded the train huffing and puffing, at Bandra station yesterday. A toddler on her hip, a heavy suitcase in her hand and her hand bag slipping from her shoulders. I jumped out of my seat, either to grab the toddler or the suitcase before one of them fell off. But quite remarkably, she managed to set right her hand bag, shove the suitcase under the berth and dazzle a radiant smile at the toddler all at once!
I quickly resumed my seat before coming across as overbearing. But she must have sensed my embarrassment as she directed another smile towards me, similar to what the little one received. I generally avoid travelling in my army uniform as it attracts a lot of attention from fellow passengers. The adulation can be endearing most of the time but not when you seek solitude, anonymity and a quiet journey. However, I had to board the train directly after attending a meeting at the Mazagon Dock. So there I was in my uniform, already having taken three selfies with exuberant co-travellers, before Vandana arrived.
The toddler, now comfortably perched at her window seat opposite to me, was eyeing me suspiciously, with a mixed look of curiosity and apprehension. Finally curiosity won, and she wanted to know: “Police??” To which Vandana replied, “No sweetie, Colonel uncle is from the Army. Say ‘hello uncle’.” I stared at her in mute admiration, for not many civilians knew how to read army insignia, especially women. But I was honour bound to correct her slight miss: “Lieutenant Colonel, actually.”
Having no prior experience of conversing with gap toothed little girls, I ventured with a silly “Hello sweetie, is that your name or pet name?” Apparently, sweetie or Disha Singh as I later discovered was her full name, was too engrossed with a porter trying to rush into the compartment with three suitcases balanced precariously on his head and shoulders. She simply forgot about my existence or my question, deciding that the porter was infinitely more interesting.
Apart from an old gentleman at the side lower berth, glued to his mobile phone watching Govinda comedy scenes, we were the only passengers yet. In a rather guileless gesture, Vandana extended her hand towards me with a shy smile. For a roughened army man and a confirmed bachelor to boot, I found her hesitant enthusiasm heart-warming.
We army men are not really starved of female presence unless we are locked in combat in remote locations. But most women we come across are family of fellow army men. There is a certain protocol that exists and gets followed in all social gatherings. Socialising with a civilian – a young mother with a clear gaze and ready smile – was turning out to be a novel experience for me. I decided that I was going to make a friend out of this woman and readily smiled back, dropping my guard.
Encouraged by my response, she started off with a long introduction. “Vandana Singh, I work in Mumbai. I am travelling to my in-laws’ place for a wedding, in Udaipur. My husband works in Abu Dhabi, I get to see him only once a year or so. But he taught me to video chat the last time he came. I work for a TV show in Mumbai, in the costumes department. They let me design blouses for the leading ladies. I love my job! I am wearing one of the blouses I designed. I am planning to gift my designs to the bride as my wedding gift. Disha, no!”
Her introduction was cut short – I must admit I was glad of the reprieve – by her daughter putting her teeth to test on the train window railings. She did not like the taste of the window, I gathered, as her face scrunched up in disgust. Before she broke into a protesting sob, Vandana decided that my cap would serve as an excellent distraction. I don’t think it even occurred to her to take my permission before picking it up from my side and handing it to her daughter. Anyway, the purpose was totally served and the cap kept Disha engaged for a long time.
The break in conversation lasted a while. Other passengers boarded and the train took off exactly on time much to everyone’s amazement. The TTE turned up with a frown and smelly armpits, and shoved his hands over my face seeking my ID proof. After he left, Vandana was more chagrined than the rest of the passengers at the TTE’s lack of reverence to a soldier in uniform!
The gentle rocking train movement had settled everybody into a peaceful lull. A South Indian couple who were the other occupants sharing our coupe, had opened their food packets from home – masala dosas packed in banana leaf pieces. Vandana proudly announced that she doesn’t feed her daughter any packaged off-the-shelf food. She dipped bits of home-made poori into hot badam milk that she carried in a flask and fed them to the little one. In between, small dosa pieces were also making their way into her unresisting mouth. I realised that kids could really eat a lot if they liked the food!
After the little one, I came next in the list of pampering with food offers. Having decided to drop my guard and be spontaneous for once, I readily accepted the food and was glad I did so. As a return gesture I ordered chai for all of us from the tea seller passing by the compartment. The gentleman busy with the Govinda comedy took a small break and joined us for the tea party. It was turning out to be one of the most memorable journeys of my life.
As evening set in, people started dozing in their seats. Disha had her head on her mother’s lap, her feet on mine and was blissfully asleep. Vandana pulled out a cloth pouch from her handbag. It was her stitching kit and she promptly resumed her embroidery. She was adding wings to a blue dove which was perched on a lady’s golden hand. The sketch was already on the cloth and the pace at which she was covering the sketch with stitches had me watching in awe. “I am very good at satin stitch and chain stitch embroidery,” she proclaimed, without a hint of arrogance.
All my life, I had been surrounded by muted military colours, rough outdoor activity and raw masculine energy. My mother had died young and my upbringing was in a rather male dominated environment. So Vandana and her utterly feminine world fascinated me. Colours, clothes, baby talk and home food dominated her conversations. But I wasn’t fooled for a moment that she was weak or dependent. She was a working mother living alone in Mumbai. From the number of calls she received during the journey, it was obvious that she was the spinal support of her extended family.
As morning dawned, I woke up with a craned neck and aching head. But for a woman who had spent the night sharing her berth with a child, Vandana looked irritatingly cheerful and fresh. She was too buoyed by the thought of meeting her family to find my grumpiness annoying. Disha was extra cheerful, probably caught on her mother’s mood. She was blowing bubbles of drool at everyone and waking them in her own unique way.
Finally, the train chugged on to the Udaipur station platform, a mere twenty minutes late. Disha refused to budge from her window seat, so Vandana had edged me out of my seat to spot her relatives who were to pick her up. As I was preparing to say my goodbyes, I had an uneasy sense of loss – like reaching the end of a riveting novel or the last day at an army outpost. But before I could speak a word, about 7-8 people barged into the compartment and I realised all these people had arrived to pick up just one passenger, or rather one and half! Deciding against intruding the happy group, I started to make a silent exit.
That wasn’t to be. By the time I exited from the other entrance to the compartment, Vandana was waiting for me on the platform. “Aap hain to hum sab hain, Colonel saab. We go about our daily lives happily, because we know you people are standing guard for us. Thank you,” she said with quiet dignity and walked away with her boisterous family. And just to relive the memories, here I was, watching a daily soap on TV, looking out for elephants and doves and peacocks on women’s blouses!
Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/46722918@N08/