by Bhavani Krishnamurthy (Extract from a larger work)
for Writers' Block: A contribution from our AWA Writers' Group members
Passengers had started to fill the cabin. A gradual winnowing of sendoff parties and other chaff was taking place; the boys shuffled up in an updraft of pointed glances. They huddled over their tickets, working out the way to their carriage — up nine bogies to SL-11 — and turned to Anela.
“Will you be fine?”
Don’t I look fine? “Yeah,” she smiled.
Although Anela was not good with words, she had her strategies, her resources. The Reader’s Digest for one. “Lily is not the prettiest girl in school, or the cleverest talker, but she is popular. Paying attention is the important thing, she says. She listens carefully when boys speak to her and has found that they gratefully seek her company.” Or: “Tara’s mantra is to smile when in doubt. A happy smile goes the longest, longer than wit or fluency.” Such good news. She breathed in an odor of cigarettes and sweat, and the scent of certified brains, brains like hers, that had cleared the formidable entrance exams. She smelled camaraderie and shy confidence, spark awaiting a stirring, that she, owing to her inexperience, could not provide. But she could smile.
T skimmed the cabin on their way out. “You have the topmost berth,”
I prefer it. “Yeah,” she smiled. Your smile will break hearts, Kalyani had written in her autograph book.
The train pulled out of the station and in a jiffy, she was up on her berth. A casual observer would note how lithe and quick she was, how physically confident and centered in her space — mostly how removed and unaffected by the goings-on around her. The state of the nation was known to her long before the regular rapes had made international press, and she was well aware of her own toothsome twenty-oneness; travelling alone across the length of the country in a second-class sleeper compartment could not be attempted without premeditation, a statement of strength and indifference. People might be making cautious opening gambits to the two-day long conversations in store for them. Anela remained aloof. She got the ceiling fan working with her comb and pulled out a paperback, leaning against her trusty overnighter — cushion and barricade by day, pillow by night.
Noreen on horseback, looking down at Green, her color high. Anela looked out from the book to conjure a cowboy looking up at the rancher’s daughter — and caught the top of T’s head. She registered something in the fug that was her mind, but cautiously. One did not get one’s head turned by these things.
T squinted up at her. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” She smiled some more, as if to indicate she had caught the pun. Where’s everyone? That would be a set down. The train jolted along the tracks in its clackety rackety way, and he gripped her berth to steady himself. She rocked with the train and looked down at him. There was a frisson of interest amongst her co-passengers seated below.
“You coming down?”
She nodded, pushed the overnighter into the farthest reaches of the berth, pulled out her little sling bag with her wallet and ID, pulled on her slippers, and was down in a flash. She hoped T had seen how nimble she was. They walked to the end of the compartment and leaned out the open door, feeling the wind slapping their faces. The countryside had taken on the brown, arid tones of Orissa, but the setting sun was turning everything a molten gold. Their knees almost touched when they sat on the steps of the speeding train. Mother would have disapproved—straighten those knees and she would touch the stones zipping underneath, tumble to a crushing death. She felt equal to the danger, however — imperturbable. She might be on horseback, blowing smoke rings and looking into the distance.
T made facetious remarks, probably designed to make her laugh or make a connection. She quirked a brow. Is that where the word arch comes from? When you want to dazzle and impress and flirt and you pour all that feeling into raising your eyebrows? When she spoke, she made commonplace remarks. What she really felt might be too baroque for the unprepared appetites of attractive young men, she had decided. Certainly, girls who waxed eloquent about their emotions or the setting sun left her cold. Why would this young man be affected differently? She smiled.
They had a very friendly, if desultory, conversation and parted eventually on very good terms. T had left early to attend his sister’s wedding. He did not ask why she was leaving before term break. “See you in three,” he said, at Madras Central. “Three weeks,” she nodded. And smiled.
When they returned after the break, however, T was not interested in taking it from where they had left off. Perhaps the other young woman hanging around him had something to do with it (she was warm and present and very interested in him). But she had been around even before Anela rode the train with T and his friends.
Anela felt that T had set a test for her and while she might have performed creditably, she had not made the cut. She wished she knew how to be livelier. She had known that she was not achieving her best version sitting on the steps of the Coromandel Express, all dusty hair and crinkled eyes, afraid of not being witty enough.
Bhavani Krishnamurthy is a Fund Manager, a homemaker and a writer in the interstices of her days. She has published poetry and some short fiction and is forever fretting over her unfinished novel(s).
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