Another railway crossing. The endless desert, spread on all sides, shimmered in the setting sun. The horizon turned a tawny orange and the sky was turning the colour of the sea at its deepest. The emptiness of the surroundings echoed in the silence of Shalini’s mind. The whirlwind of thoughts and questions haunting her since the beginning of this journey had now been replaced by a nothingness.
As the car slowly came to a halt just before the barrier at the crossing, she forced herself to think about all that had happened so far. Her mind went to that fateful evening.
She opened the door and walked into the room. An eerie silence greeted her. It had never been this quiet before and she wondered what was happening. There was a total lack of any light and she moved about silently to avoid making noise. She fumbled to switch on the lights and finally found the switch. For a fleeting moment, she wanted to the darkness to remain not wanting to see what the light held. This is what a premonition is she thought. As the lights came on, she looked around the room. Nothing she could imagine prepared her for what she saw. Her immaculate house was strewn all around. Broken glass, torn shreds of paper, spilled water, upturned furniture…A thief! she thought. Then she saw him and her heart stopped. Nikhil was lying in the middle of all this. Still. No movement. She did not dare to move. Her mind stopped thinking. She felt her knees give away as she gradually crumbled and fell.
She didn’t know how long she lay there. She didn’t lose consciousness. She was aware…just deadened. She knew Nikhil was all right physically. It was something else. And she couldn’t face it. Not now, not yet. She sensed Nikhil move and come towards her. He shook her gently. Took her in his arms. Lifted her up and took her to her bedroom. And that’s when she realised. It was ‘her’ bedroom now. Simple. The realisation did not come to her a shock. What shocked her was it took her all this time to realise this. She opened her eyes and met his. She saw the concern and the care. She saw the love. She saw the loneliness. She saw the longing. She saw her reflection and a reflection of all that she was feeling. After a decade of being together she saw herself as a stranger in his eyes.
It had been a year since then. And now Nikhil had called and asked her to join him on a road trip. Unwittingly she had agreed. The shrill whistle of the passing by train brought her back to the present. She turned around and gazed at Nikhil. She hadn’t seen him for this last year.
The following day had dawned, and had passed unspoken. Nothing to say, nothing to share. She saw him as he cleaned up the house and moved away. He didn’t take anything with him. She didn’t know where he went. In this e-age there was nothing of relevance that came in the post, so there was no question of a forwarding address. He just walked out of the door and vanished. Nothing said and nothing asked.
As she sat waiting for the train to go past and the barricade to open, she took out the guide book and poured over the map of the district. This unexpected detour they had taken had landed them off their track. The road trip was going from one detour to the other. She wondered what Nikhil had to share. She would have preferred to have had any discussion in the comfort of the city. But 5 days ago when she heard from him and that he wanted to take her somewhere, she had agreed. They had spent a decade together and even now a year after they separated there never was any talk of driving the nail through the coffin. Was she right in assuming this is what was in store now…after all these days? Even after 3 days of being out in the desert land, he had not mentioned what was on his mind and she hadn’t asked.
She sighed as she looked at the red carriages clattering past the barricade like a bunch of unruly kids made to walk in a line. She looked outside and saw a man who seemed to earn his living sitting under in the shade, on his charpoy and smoking a beedi. In fact by the look on his face Shalini wouldn’t be surprised if there was more than the normal tobacco wrapped in that betel leaf. He looked content in his numbness. The distraction to his existence was to get up once every 3 or 4 hours and pull down the barricade and pull it up again. Suddenly the cool air-conditioning of the car became oppressive and Shalini opened the car to step out. Nikhil opened his mouth to mention that it wasn’t safe with twilight setting but kept quiet thinking of the absence of all human habitation save old man at the barricade with his smoke.
Shalini walked across to the old man. She sat next to him in a moment of complete unabashed candour. A smile greeted her. A smile which said he was someone who had seen a lot. Who had been places. Who was more than what he appeared to be. The train chugged past them and he walked up to the barricade and opened it for their car to pass through. Shalini continued to sit where she was. Nikhil crossed over, parked and joined her. He sensed her need to be there at that moment. The old man offered them some water. Politely declining Shalini asked him for his name. Nikhil looked at her quizzically. Shalini wasn’t the one to be friendly with strangers. He felt compelled to intervene and yet something held him back. He remained silent and sat beside her.
The old man got up and slowly moved to the pile of chopped wood kept at the corner outside his hut. He brought a few logs forward, thwarting off Nikhil’s attempt to help him. He had been doing this a long time. Longer than he cared to recall, he said. As he placed the logs on flat ground, he told them that he was once a man of the world. He had accomplished a lot and then he had seen it all go away. He had come here to this remote corner of nowhere much before the world had abandoned him. In a cruel world, his children had left him before he could leave life. He had given up everything at that instant and along with his better half for 23 years, decided to come out here in the wilderness and start afresh. Yes he was old and well past prime. Surely that didn’t matter. He had never married his better half causing the fall out with his children. They didn’t know where he was or how he was. He had just come away. He didn’t look back and didn’t wonder.
Nikhil stole an uneasy glance at Shalini. He wondered if she should hear this story before he told her his. Before he told her that he had not walked out, merely stepped away for a while. What he saw was Shalini intently gazing at the old man. The Old Man revealed that he was alone here. His Old Woman had gone before him…to make arrangements for him in the afterlife, he chuckled. He wouldn’t have wanted her to be around alone. But she visited him from time to time. When he would feel lonely she would come to pick his brain and drive him up the wall. When he would get stuck with some problem, she would come to tell him to get up and get going. She was around in a very manner of fact way, as certain as the sun would rise again. In fact she liked them visiting him just then. He knew she was there.
Shalini felt a shiver go down her spine. It wasn’t fear of some unearthly presence. It was knowledge. In a jiffy she understood what Nikhil had wanted. It had taken him a year to figure out how to get it through to her. How to make her understand without saying it. He had thought spending time together away from the daily chores would help. And in some way it had. It had made them meet this amazing man. In The Old Man’s unshaking belief, she had found some way to find her own faith. Her faith in the life she had missed with Nikhil for over a decade.
Nikhil noticed the mild change in her and quietly adjusted the log. She looked up at him. The warmth of the fire reflected in his face and eyes. His face glowed with the brightness and the hope of a tomorrow. Slowly she extended her hand, and he clasped it in his.
They spent the night with the old man in the glowing warmth of the fire. He had many a stories to tell them. Shalini realised that all his struggles ended in joy! He found strength in his partner who was a constant living presence. The wedge that was between Nikhil and her would not be gone in a jiffy but she had realised how to deal with it. A stranger had provided her with a mantra to be with her soulmate who had become a stranger. She had found a way to connect with herself.
In the morning, as the embers turned cold, they wished the old man well and moved away to go back home. As they got into the car, Shalini turned around one last time to glimpse at the old man to acknowledge the debt she owed to him and saw nothing…no hut, no embers, no old man. Just the lonely train track. At that moment a train shrieked its way past and all was a blur.