A Night’s Journey

Varsha Tiwary

2022

Introduction

The classics—and, well, experience—would tell you that there is a point when children outgrow their parents, and then another when the parent becomes a child. Such a parent is liable to pick up projects whose terrible importance is understood only by them. In Varsha Tiwary’s ‘A Night’s Journey,’ Vinny’s eighty-seven-year-old father, whom she calls ‘the squirrel,’ has taken it upon himself to ‘lock paws with his elder brother’ in a property dispute. The court in a different city much be reached, and Vinny must accompany the squirrel. This is the setting for the story’s overnight train journey.

But what’s an account of a train journey in India if it’s not an account of other people—with whom space, stories, and snacks must be shared? Enter Major Pathak and Naina, husband and wife. Professions, castes, ailments, political views—the relevant details of middle-class Indian life are quickly exchanged. The squirrel loves the company. Vinny, on the other hand, is more interested in reading Alice Munro’s stories. But ‘A Night’s Journey’ is not just this play of manners in a confined space. As Vinny learns more about the couple, we comprehend a simple truth that bears repeating: others are fighting their battles too.

— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine

A Night’s Journey

His enthusiasm is beyond understanding. Neck craning forward, white kurta flapping, the eighty-seven year old squirrel shuffles ahead of her. He has already put the missed flight behind him and is raring to get on the train now. Such excitement, to attend a court hearing! They could have well taken the next afternoon’s flight. No! Bhai sahib has already landed, he had insisted. But, of course. The chance to lock paws with his elder brother in person in the courtroom is too precious to let go.

As he teeters his way through the maze of speeding hawkers; strolley rolling passengers; coolies carrying head loads of luggage; he loses a step. When Vinny steadies him, he shrugs her off. “Thwank Ghanpati for Hashish, and his HEQ,” he says wheezing audibly.

For him, Ashish, her husband’s railway services batchmate, is nothing less than a farishta, who can conjure railway tickets at a moment’s notice with the magic wand of Emergency Quota. Should she tell him to take two puffs of the inhaler? She takes it out of her sling bag. He waves off the suggestion. 

It is warm, despite dusk. Despite October. The constant singsong of train announcements in excruciatingly tedious monotone, the falsetto of hawkers and the clang of engines have frayed her nerves. But the squirrel? He is already at the doorway of Bhopal Express’s dull blue compartment; sucking in breath that his weak lungs have lost over the long walk down the platform, looking pleased with himself. Ain’t I still fit? A tuft of sparse white hair stands upright on the sweat shined dome. 

Vinny urges him to get on the train, supporting him, as he climbs up, one steep step at a time. “Train journey…hnnnh…more hinnteresting….haina? Give that…hnnh.”

He extends a hand to take the suitcase she has been wheeling. Ufff, the self-delusion! “Please move papa, we are blocking the door…Go on.” She heaves the case up and climbs up with a wince, as the inside of her knee twinges.

Theirs is a bay of four berths. Right now, blissfully empty. She flips on the switch to a mighty clatter of fans. The squirrel looks around with a self-congratulatory air. As if he has stood first in some race. Water! He chirps. Extracts a bottle from her backpack and holds it between his bony paws.

She unclasps and stuffs her money belt into the sling bag and starts pushing the suitcase and shoulder bag under the berth. 

“Bags before eyes.” He chants. 

Sighing, Vinny drags both bags out and pushes them under the seat of the opposite berth, so they are right in front of his eyes.

It has never been easy to journey with him. But today has been particularly bad. First, their car got stuck in the rally of Ram bhakts blocking the Dhaula Kuan flyover. Then, the last-minute change from terminal two to terminal three, which he could barely wheeze through. But even if there hadn’t been a traffic jam, they probably still would have missed the flight. Because by the time he had got into the cab, only an hour remained for takeoff. 

All because the squirrel just cannot put an end to his mania of hoarding stuff into the suitcase. Twenty-year old case files, antique cell phones, coconut oil, underwear, handkerchiefs, scissors, nail clippers, ayurvedic powders, all go in for a couple of nights’ trip. Every court summon triggers this frenzy of lugging, re-stacking, and packing old case-files. As if putting in board exam level efforts into this one court hearing would magically resolve a property case dragging on for more than ten years. Sometimes, she wonders if more than the case, it’s the thrill of meeting the non-resident American brother that perks him up.. 

Now the squirrel is eagerly fingering the brown-paper-bagged Indian Railway sheets to check for crispness and cleanliness. She gets up, asks him to shift to the opposite berth and take the inhaler puffs, while she starts unfurling the sheets on his berth. “You’ll be more comfortable that way papa.”

Till his mid-seventies, the squirrel had been a champion squirrel to shame all squirrels. Daily walks, yoga, constant darting all over the town on his pista-green scooter and immense love and respect for the elder brother. Since then, he has acquired three stents, a leaky bladder, asthma, pneumonia-prone lungs, and most recently, an enlarged spleen (due to fibrosis of the bone marrow) and filed a court case against the NRI brother over an ancestral property in Hoshangabad. 

Two years ago, while dispersing from the courtroom, he overheard the brother’s US based daughter-in-law calling him a chipmunk. “Which monkey?” He had bellowed, offended. 

A three-striped Indian squirrel is what he is. An old Indian squirrel. Carrying equal parts of injury (why me), perplexity (how can this happen); and airy denial (don’t baby me, I can do it all myself) on each of his three stripes.

When she turns back after making his bed, she sees that behind her back, he is bending over and ferreting. Trying to thread a metal chain lock through the loops under the berth. She drops the fluffed pillow on the sheeted blanket and in a rising voice, protests. “What are you trying to do Papa? Don’t you know, you cannot bend like this anymore?  It can rupture your spleen. The doctor warned you!”

 —”Don’t shout.” The squirrel’s white whiskers vibrate.

—”Let-me-do-it… Will you?” 

She tries to snatch the lock. The old man balks. 

—”Please. Papa?” 

—”Be quiet,” he raises his index finger. Furious.

—”Aap humein nahin batayengi. You will not tell us.” First person imperious is his preferred mode of telling her off.

—”But you know you can’t do this. NANAJEE!”

When she was little, she would call him papa or pau. But now, since her kids call him nana, that has become the squirrel’s moniker. Grandfatherhood is not just his relation to the kids, but a condition. Just as mothering him, is her natural state of mind.

—”But if I speak softly you can’t even hear! ” Vinny says helplessly. Finally, she simply holds his hands to make him stop bending. He snatches himself. Livid. 

—“Always directing. Always controlling,” he mutters. His kurta tails flap in the fan air as he turns his back to her. 

Damned, willful old chipmunk. His affronted chirps make Vinny stagger back on the opposite berth. The open water bottle topples, and a darkening puddle spreads under the seat. She squats before he can, and tries to soak the water with the discarded paper bag which had held the sheets. Muck stuck to the blue linoleum turns the paper to soggy black. 

Should have let him wreck his spleen, she thinks to herself, squirting sanitizer on her palms and rubbing them with more force than needed. It is he, who is frail. He, who needs to make these dramatic court appearances every year. She is accompanying him for his safety. She slips off her sandals, and stands on the edge of the lower berth while it is still empty, to spread a sheet on the upper berth. The affronted squirrel has flounced off to the washroom. 

Ah! The absurdity. His court case! Two geriatric siblings squabbling over portions of a ramshackle house in a mofussil town where neither of them has lived since their twenties! And the point of such belated legal conscientiousness? Vinny recalls the time when her mother would goad him—”why don’t you ask your father to make a clear will while there is still time?” And he would flick the matter away like it was a fly on his sleeve. “Why squabble over father’s property? I will build my own house, just you see.” 

After these thoughts, comes shame. Because whatever worldly glory her father did not amass, he more than made up for it by being around—whether during endless laps in the pool, the wins in sports or after flunked tests. Her Bombay-based cousins grew up with an absent father, first based in the Gulf, then in the US. Her cousins envied the squirrel’s presence in her life, just as she envied all their imported goodies. As an adolescent she had hated the squirrel. Arguing, shouting, stamping her feet at him over everything. But it never deterred him. 

And now, when he is just a shadow of the man he used to be, all she can do is resent him? She tucks the sheet untidily over the blue rexine cover of the seat and hides the whole wrinkled mess with another sheet, lest the squirrel see and make a face. Why is it that he never understands her best intentions? Will she too, in thirty years, or likely lesser (for she has never been as fit as he used to be), turn into this devilishly juvenile, contradictory character? Is it human fate to get ensnared in tangles of reaction and counter reaction?  She hops down, wiggles her toes into her sandals, pulls the bundled blanket down, and double-folds it behind her father’s pillow on the lower berth, so he would have a backrest to lean on. There! 

She sits by the window, looking out. Will her kids, too, roll their eyes behind her back? The filmed windows render the outside in sepia tones, as if people from another time, another reality, are going by. A guava seller on a bench, posters of Gandhiji’s round glasses against the tricolor, blinking signboards, a dog following a rag picker, a woman sitting on a suitcase, a beggar asleep on a mat—all are washed in the eerie light from the vapor lamps hung along the center of the sloping corrugated roof of the platform. In the foreground is her own slightly warped reflection and the squirrel’s small, hunched, irate figure fussing over a face towel. She studies herself critically. The big-boned torso clutching the flowered sling bag, an Alice Munro peeking out from the bag’s outer pocket. She holds the bag over her paunch as if cradling a baby. She is fifty and looks it. Frazzled with the strain of keeping appearances. 

#

And now, a tall, thick man hovers in the reflection. Peering at the seat numbers. A peevish-looking woman follows him. Vinny looks away from the window and reaches for the towel in the seat pocket. Patting her hair in place, to avoid making eye contact with the newcomers. Sociability has never been her strong point. She shifts to her father’s berth to make way for them. 

 A coolie puts down two large black cases, bags, baskets and carry alls between the seats. The woman haggles over the payment, holding up a whole queue of passengers. Plump cheeked, black dot decorated toddlers wriggle, sandwiched between blingy, heavily vermillioned mothers and jeans clad fathers. Coolies, passengers, railway vendors heave behind them. All eager to move on. 

This queue reminds her of the queue at the security check-in. The security staffer had made the squirrel extract his antique Nokia 101 (stowed in frayed grey VIP underwear.) “But I thought only working phones were to be kept in the inspection tray,” he had huffed. There was more. His precious coconut oil was thrown in the bin. 

The hefty couple finally drops down on the seat opposite them.

—”How have you put your luggage under this berth—it’s ours.”  The woman’s harsh voice rings over the clatter of the fan, over the vendors’ drone of tea-bisky-cheebz-coldring. 

The cabin shrinks. It seems to Vinny, there is less air to breathe. 

“You can keep your luggage under ours. It will be easy to keep an eye on.”  Vinny tells them, sounding exactly like the squirrel. She takes her ticket out, E1, 32, Lower. Confirmed. And flashes the I-card beneath it at the man. The squirrel sipping his sattu drink from the flask doesn’t look up. He has buried his face in his whiskers. He will not emit a single chitter now. Expect her to settle matters. His outraged combativeness is only towards her. Before outsiders, he goes into hiding. 

The I-card changes the man’s body language. He folds his hands; rubs his wife’s arm and whispers something to her. Then he smiles at them and says, “Myself, retired Major.” Suddenly there is breathing space in the crowded bay.

The man wears his shirt untucked, probably to hide the flab. Still, there is something boyish in his smile. The wife does not smile, but stays bent, counting her baskets and bags, pushing the cases in through below their lifted feet.

The squirrel responds by smiling broadly at the man.

“I am Soni. And my daughter Vinny, here. She writes.” 

The man is Major Pathak and his wife is Naina. Vinny smiles at both of them. Naina, busy extracting water-bottle from a basket, briefly stretches her mouth. The Major is curious.

So, you are a journalist.” 

“Oh no. I write fiction.” 

“Nice hobby. Big on books myself. But no stories. Strictly non-fiction. Akk-chually where is the time for stories? Management Books, Military Strategy, the works. Will send you a copy of my book on Strategic Defence.” 

“Nice! Sure.” Vinny says. Then adds, “Not a hobby, but a vocation.”

Vinny notices that the squirrel has extracted the hearing aid, and is beaming with it stuffed in his ears (something he finds irritating otherwise). 

“Are you going to Bhopal, uncle ji?” the Major asks, turning to him. Whiskers twitch, head bobs. And he confirms that he too, like the entire train, is Bhopal bound. After settling this, a river of gregariousness spills over between the two. 

Vinny fumes inwardly as the Major continues speaking softly in that I-am-so-sophisticated-because-I-talk-English-I-walk-English-I-sleep-English—accent of middle class Indians, while the wife keeps muttering in the background.

Does not, and will not read literary fiction! But presumes that she would be interested in his stuffed shirt musings on strategic shit!! Everyone’s an expert these days. Everyone writes a book and everyone wants to be read. But  perhaps they last looked at anything literary in high school. Probably, Twitter posts and WhatsApp messages are all they have ever read. “Useful” non-fiction is something they would keep around to impress. Not literature. Unless a major award confers on it the status of a book du jour.

—”Bhopal is a nice place to build your house, haina? In your days, the land must also be so cheap, uncle ji.” 

The squirrel nods his head thrice at the Major. Then bounces his shoulders up and looks around to see if anyone noticed. Vinny resolutely looks out of the window. The house in Bhopal is not his. It was purchased only five years back by Vinny’s brother, the prodigal NRI son. 

 — “Nice locality, you chose uncle ji. I have my one kanal in Panchkula and her father’s house is in the Arera colony. By God’s grace, she is the only child.” He gestures to his wife. 

Vinny knows the contours of the conversation about to ensue. She hauls herself up on the upper berth and opens her Alice Munro: Dear Life. 

“Did you forget to put in my packed dinner?” Naina demands. “You know I cannot take my medicine if I don’t eat dinner on time.” 

The Major ignores the wife’s grumbling and starts telling the squirrel how his Kanyakubj ancestors, Brahmins among Brahmins, had descended from Uttarkashi to Gangetic plains, four hundred years ago. 

The squirrel, contradictory as ever, now declares the truth. “My caste is Goldsmith—not Brahmin.” 

The Major is all generosity—the generosity of an upper caste accepting the lowers. “No matter, uncle ji, your daughter is married to a civil servant. She is a Brahmin by Karma. I am a soldier of Dogra Rifles. What need do we have for caste then? When our foreheads reveal our destiny? Karma is caste.” He says and beams. 

Matter settled. The Major’s talk; the sound of his wife’s dissatisfied chomping, her gold-ringed fingers around the foiled sandwich and the smell of ketchuped potatoes distract Vinny from the elliptical Munrovian plot line. 

She keeps glancing at Naina bent over her dinner. Her distressed green kurta, crammed with saggy boobage rests on a droopy-balloon stomach. That close cropped toupee and unreal looking penciled brows over small black eyes set like raisins in a puffed-dumpling moonface. The voice, full of aggrieved entitlement. “Make my bed, I must sleep early, or I get nausea.” She says, getting up to go to the washroom. A note of awkwardness crops up in the flow of men’s conversation. 

The squirrel is all concerned chitter now. He tells the Major to look after his madam and then peers up solicitously to inquire if she, Vinny, is comfortable on the upper berth, or else she must take the lower berth. She rolls her eyes behind the book. But says aloud that she is fine. 

Vinny sends a message to Brig. Dr. Geeti Chandra, a colleague from a Civil services Army attachment, who is a doctor in that regiment. 

I am travelling with someone you might know. Major Pathak and his wife. Do you know them?

The Major tucks his wife in. She insists on sleeping with her head towards the corridor as she gets claustrophobic. “Switch off the overhead lights and draw the berth curtains tight. And keep the water on the table here.” She reels off instructions to her husband.

The fervour with which the Major and the squirrel again plunge into conversation, makes Vinny smile. The faux intimacy that train travel conjures, by throwing strangers together for a night, eating, sleeping next to one another!

 The man talks of his glorious career, his perfect children and his satisfactory family life. The squirrel embarks on his favorite theme. The complete decline of social, political and moral order in every sphere. Third Class politicians, third rate newspapers, third class courts. All thieves. Where were the earnest? The Proud? The God fearing? 

“Only in the uniformed services, uncle ji.” The Major says proudly. 

 By the time Jhansi thunders past, they are discussing ailments—the squirrel laments weak lungs. The Major has nocturia and skewed cholesterol numbers. 

The squirrel can relate. “I develop heavy breathing when I walk for half an hour. Earlier I walked six kilometers every day and never got back pain.”

The major opens a packet of nuts. It’s healthy, he proffers. “No, no Major. Now I develop tonsils on eating nuts. Insecticide allergy. Sattu water is best. Do you want some?”

Vinny who has hardly gone beyond two pages is nodding off, with the thought, that real life has its pull over Dear Life. She feels sure that Naina’s supine bulk in the lower berth with her head towards the aisle, is wide awake and listening to every word spoken by the men.

By twelve, even the Major decides to go to bed. But not the women across the aisle with their sturdy lunged toddlers. And their vigorously laughing men further down the aisle. The toddlers run and shriek in the dim-lit aisle, stopping to part random curtains in delight. Any other time Vinny too, would have rued them, but now as Naina hisses, “Keep these devils quiet, will you?”, she feels sorry for the kids and their mothers.

Glass bangles tinkling, a woman grabs a child, then another. The children squeal as they are pulled in and held down. Within minutes they start playing with the reading light. On and off; on and off. They whoop, delighted. The women giggle, tinkle jewelry, halfheartedly shoo the kids, whisper.

  Vinny sees Naina sit up, statue like, glaring at the undrawn curtain over her father’s window. Slats of yellow light from a passing station illuminate her pursed lips, her fingers run feverishly under her left armpit. After a few seconds, Naina heaves herself up, pulls the errant window curtain tight and pokes her husband on the upper berth. Can’t you hear them disturbing again and again? Do something!” 

The Major, who is lying on the upper berth across from Vinny, half sits up and says, “It isn’t your home. It’s Democracy.” And gives Vinny a rueful look. She reflexively smiles, then hates it, as if complicit in something that’s none of her business. 

—”What did you say?” Naina hisses at the Major. Then for the benefit of the young, heedless mothers, she says in her harsh voice. “Can’t you see that all this switching on of lights and shrieking is interfering with my rest? What kind of people are these?”  

A fresh round of muffled giggles rise from the next berth. 

Vinny, fully awake now, realizes she is chilly, that the AC is high.  She switches off the fan button. Naina’s voice rings in the darkness. 

“Don’t you switch off the fan. I feel suffocated.”

#

Through the next five hours, Naina’s reading light is switched on too many times. To use the washroom, to find the towel, to drink water. The Major too gets up and climbs down from his berth His nocturia perhaps. Vinny stops counting. At some point in the disturbed night, half aware of the clatter of wheels and train whistles, jerking halts and sudden starts, flashing boards of passing stations, Vinny is rudely roused. 

The big overhead light is on, piercing her eyes in a full daze. She peeks below. The squirrel too is sitting up, all ruffled hair. Befuddled, bewildered. The husband is likewise peering down at the wife who seems to be moaning in pain. 

—”Come! …My shoulder is locked…It hurts…You don’t even hear when I cry out…”

The husband tries to switch off the lights. “Nooo….! Take out the balm! The baaa..alm….” Naina shrieks. 

People around them curse and tell her to be quiet.  It’s three am. 

Vinny too groans. Someone, it seems, has got the AC’s cooling turned off. Now it’s too warm. She turns over, flings aside the covers and wishes for the blasted train journey to end. The squirrel has hopped off the berth, and after fishing around in the backpack,  proffers a crepe bandage and a spray balm to the Major. 

—“I always plan for everything.” He continues to stand by, quivering his whiskers. “No madam, you should hold up your hand like this and rub on the opposite side. It will ease the pain.” He says with great concern and interest. 

Probably unable to sleep himself, Vinny thinks.

At five am she hears Naina haggling with the tea sellers. Not eager to face Naina’s morning antics, she makes for the washroom. Later, she stands at the open compartment door feeling the gush of wind on her face. During long train journeys in her childhood, she and her brother would play a game: open-eyes/shut-eyes. She closes her eyes. 

A voice says: “Open!” 

She comes to herself with a start. The Major laughs. 

—“All I was saying was, Take care. The door is open.” He says in his deep, sophisticated voice, steadying her with a hand on her shoulder. 

  Already startled, Vinny smiles. 

 —”Baap re!”

—”Meditating?” He asks and lights a cigarette. He has shed the deferential, avuncular mien of last night. For a few seconds, they just stand there, saying nothing. 

—”Tough night?” She asks. 

He puts a hand in his pocket and shrugs, offers her a cigarette. She is tempted to take a drag. She hasn’t, in years, and could use it. “I quit.” 

—”You seem to be different,” he says with something in his eyes she cannot read. 

—”How do you mean?” 

—”Softer? You’d not order or boss a man around.” He says softer in a way that makes her flush. In a way that by itself, does not mean anything. But can. Or might. This man who had been boasting about property, rank and caste a few hours back. 

They watch the gold yellow paddy fields blur by in an impromptu kinship of the afflicted. Afflicted with what? Afflicted with wards, who resent and demand.

The Major lurches with the train, shifts closer. Vinny can see the creviced fans at the corner of his eyes, the pouches under his eyes and smell the sourish smell emanating from him. She gingerly steps back and turns towards the inner door. 

—”Have to check on my father. Or he might miss his morning BP pills.” 

She brushes past the yellow stained curtains, avoiding crumpled tissues and wrappers, as the closed human smells of the compartment—sweat, breath, fart, food— overtake her. The human condition is to hold on to shreds of mythology to overcome this sordid reality, this shabby triteness. Caste, clan, status. Motherhood, fatherhood. Organization, nation, institution. Anything that can instantaneously transform the thick odors of our fallible bodies to manufacture heroic, noble versions, beyond all questioning. She shakes off these thoughts as she enters the bay. 

Naina is being the loving grandma now. Wooing the kids she was scolding last night. Face washed and gleaming with cream, her curly toupee all brushed and fluffed up, eyes darting; she looks like a gleaming mushroom that suddenly pops up after a night of rain.

“Good morning beta. I am like your grandma. Give us a peck.” She bends down and peers in the face of a terrified-looking toddler. 

Vinny learns that Naina has already offered tea to the squirrel, and escorted him to the washroom on the other end of the compartment (how did he let her? And why?) “Was the motion good?” She asks her father to reassert her daughterly rights.

“Why wouldn’t it be? Didn’t I drink sattu water before bed? Do you want some? Naina ji too had some.”

Naina beams.

She tells Vinny that she, Vinny, should do some meditation, for her quick temper. Naina says that she can read auras, and she knows that Vinny’s aura is marred by impatience. “Your father loves you so much.” She could have been perfectly sincere.

 —“Are you better now?” Vinny asks, alluding to Naina’s night time troubles. 

—“Oh I am fine. Just some pins and needles. You will also have them soon. Menopause.” She says with a glint in her eye. “You must do meditation, Vinny ji. Meditation and medicine, both come from the root med, which means to heal.”

Vinny wonders if she should ask her if med-ddling too is from the same root. But the woman does not look capable of irony. Poor Major. What is he to do? The squirrel, though, is awed by Naina’s nuggets. 

“So right, madam. All healing is within us. What need of all the poisons they call medicines? I always do pranayama and meditation.” He says twitching with excitement. “I will take more tips from you.”

Naina takes a rosary out, saying that the important thing is to always keep God close.

 Vinny wants this journey to end now. The Major, reeking of smoke, has come in and is sitting next to her father. He flashes a smile at her. Composing her face to neutral, she  shifts to the now vacant side berth, eyes focussed on the green hills of Sanchi, ears stuffed with earphones. They would reach Bhopal in an hour. 

When she next looks in, the Major is gone. The squirrel is leaning forth, ears perked, and Naina is showing him something on her mobile. Family pictures? Naina tells him something, and he throws his head back and laughs. His tufts shake, squirrel eyes dance, his face gets suffused with pleasure.

She switches off the earphone and tries to catch snatches of their talk.

— “You are so fit… Uncle ji. Try Mulethi. Allopathy is evil…My daughter is a doctor …. .. I do Yoga. You also love Sachin? My favourite? Kohli. Poor decision-maker…maybe ..none can …like Dhoni…Yes… You must have my hand cooked methi parantha. You will forget everything…”

What absurdities!! But they were meaningful to him.

Her friend, Brig. Dr. Geeti, the Army officer, has pinged. 

 Major Pathak? Thank God, he got early retirement. We were posted together at Jammu. The way he would carry on with any woman, right in front of an ailing Naina!  The JCOs got sick of him! But Naina is brave. No. I don’t mean to put up with him. I was on the anesthesia team for her surgery last year. They had to take down her left breast, all the muscle beneath it. Aa well as the lymph glands under the left armpit. We thought she would never move it again. But the way she got back the movement in her arm! What determination!

#

Something hot flashes through Vinny as she reads. She feels the sweat dribbling under her breasts and sneaks a look at the two again. Naina is laughing. Her face has shed the hawkishness. Her father is flushed with the happiness of having made her laugh. The squirrel and the mushroom. Two ailing people seemingly connected by their pain. Or despite their pain. 

Because when they talk, they get each other in a way that the wryly resigned or determinedly mothering carers around them don’t seem to. They offer each other the ordinary trust of having and holding another human being’s attention. Ordinary trust that in families, gets easily corroded with the rust of constant familiarity.

She cannot but stare at Naina’s unforced laughter. The way the squirrel’s face is lit up with the joy of being engaged in a conversation. Inane, trivial, whatever it may be, it is meaningful to the two of them. She feels that this encounter with the strange toupeed woman is something staged for her benefit. That these absurd snatches of connection are something to tie in a knot and keep as a remembrance. 

The train now slows down at an outer city station. A beggar runs along, wiping thick dust from the window-glass, knocking, looking in. He doesn’t  know that the window won’t open. Would never open. Is that how being locked in roles and age feels? Tapping at unopenable windows?

The time is not far off, when even for her, the attention and reciprocity of another, even of the most casual kind, would become more meaningful than the superiority, control, aloofness she sets so much store by. One day, not too far, her own heart, breast spleen and lungs would become a burden. Full of such intense pain that nothing else would be visible. And the only way to briefly overcome it would be by sharing mundane fears, common anxieties, similar loves, easy cures. Cricket, movies, food, tulsi. A laugh.

#

After fervent goodbyes to Naina, the squirrel stays silent during the hour-long cab journey to their guest house. But it is a wholesome silence. As if all contradictory things could be true simultaneously. On their way out Vinny had not tried to stop him from rushing ahead, from lugging the suitcase, from haggling with the cab driver. 

Now she does not want to fill this silence with worries about pills, inhaler, blood pressure. And for now, everything feels uncomplicated. Like the love she had felt for the squirrel as a little girl. 

At some point, the squirrel’s head lolls down on her shoulder, a string of drool hangs from the corner of his crumpled face. She gently catches it with a napkin.

#

At the court, the squirrel charges on. Neck craning, kurta flapping. Vinny follows him with armloads of case files. Bhai sahib, Vinny’s bade papa,  is on a wheel chair with a supremely unhassled daughter-in-law in attendance. The squirrel bows to him before taking a seat.

“This had to happen, he never took care of his health. Only money money,” he whispers to Vinny, who drops a file, then her spectacle case, as they settle down.

She puts a hand on his arm. He shrugs it off.

Contributor

 

Varsha Tiwary

Varsha is a bilingual literature lover. Her short stories and essays have been featured in Shenandoah, Eclectica, Gargoyle, Cordella, Kitaab, Muse India, Gulmohar, Thirdlane, Out of Print blog, Outlook blog among others.

In her own words: “I like to read, write and parkour. In parkour, I learned how the force generated by the legs and glutes has to be translated to the upper back and shoulders to be able to leap and monkey jump. Of late, immersed in translating the force of one language to another in a similar way.”

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