A Story by Deo Kumari Thapa. Translated by Nagendra Sharma.
The Bombay Mail was speeding sull-steam ahead. There were only two passengers in the compartment – a middle-aged man and myself. He was kind of stupid as as as I could assess from his behaviour. He had stretched himself full-length and was reading a book. The train passed through so many stations by he didn’t even bother to look out of the window.
I also took out a magazine and started reading it.
The dusk turned into night. The waiter came, served dinner and left. We started eating. Even then he didn’t utter a word. “It’s such a long journey – and I have such a dumb fellow as my co-passenger”, I mused. I could stand it no longer, and broke the ice myself, “How far would you be travelling?”
“Bombay’, was his cryptic reply.
“So am I”, I replied somewhat delightedly. But he showed no interest. What a taciturn fellow! The waiter came again at the next station, collected the dishes and left. He didn’t have a word with the waiter either.
After the waiter had left, he took out a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and asked, “May I smoke?” I nodded consent and he started puffing-up. Quite a few puffs later he looked at me and asked, “Don’t you, as a woman, feel scared to travel in a first-class compartment all by yourself?”
“What’s there to be scared of?” – I asked, surprised.
“Oh yes, why should you be afraid of?” – he said, his tone seemingly sarcastic.
I was warming up with rage, and shot back, “You are an uncivil person; why don’t you travel by a goods train?”
He let out a guffaw, but calmed himself and said in a grave tone, “I hate womenkind. They look so pathetic and gentle, but how wicked they can be!”
“Why should women look pitiable? They work in offices, drive vehicles and run businesses, don’t they?”
“Ho-ho,” he laughed again and said, “you are more like a man, so unabashed.”
“I feel insulted,” I replied, assuming a grave tone. He laughed all the more loudly. His hard facial features seemed to soften a bit and a faint good-humour replace his earlier sullenness.
“Why are you going to Bombay?” – he asked.
“To undergo training in family planning,” I replied. This time he didn’t taunt me, but asked, “What community do you belong to?”
He didn’t speak after that but kept on puffing his cigarette. I went to bed.
Next morning, I washed up and had begun reciting the holy Geeta. He asked, “What are you reading?” I showed him the Geeta. “Hmmm,” he grunted with a perceptible sigh of deprecation. I ignored him.
Lunch over, he asked, “You read the Geeta every day?”
“Yes, I do.”
“To attain peace of mind.”
He kept quiet. When Bombay was some two hours away, he looked at the handbag where I had put my Geeta and said, “Women who recite the Geeta in the presence of other people tend to be cunning.”
I didn’t reply. His facial features hardened again, as he said, “We’re about to reach Bombay. We do not know each other and I don’t intend introducing myself either. We may not even meet again, anytime. Hence I would like to tell you about ‘that’ woman.”
“Go ahead, if that gives you mental relief.” He smiled wanly and said, “You are indeed a peculiar kind of person. Don’t you feel inclined to hear my story?”
No. Your story couldn’t be different from the same old ones. You may have been jilted by some woman and you want to lump all women into the same category. This is impudence. Isn’t your mother a woman too?”
He was really angry now. His eyes reddened visibly. Almost incoherently, he said, “Yes. my mental agony has doubled precisely because even my mother turned out to be like that.”
I was dumbfounded. It was so very unexpected. I was even terrified by his menacing features. He was mumbling to himself, “I had everything till six months ago. A goddess-like mother, a scholarly father, wealth and respectability – everything a mand needs. But then, all that crumbled so suddenly. My darling father was killed in a car accident six months ago. I was shocked by the extreme. But I decided to bear it out and vowed to keep my mother happy. I took leave from my college so as to take my mother on a pilgrimage to Haridwar, Vrindaban and the like. I didn’t leave her alone even on our way back home. She fell ill about a month ago and I called our family doctor. He advised that she be immediately be admitted to a hospital. She had to undergo surgery there. I kept vigil outside her cabin without even a wink of sleep. When she came to at the dead of night, I approached the attending nurse for permission to go into the cabin.
“Didn’t your father come?” – asked the nurse.
“Have you any eyes or no?” – I shot back in anger. “Didn’t you notice that she is wearing a widow’s attire?”
The nurse also got angry. “Why do you shout at me? How do I know that a widow can have an abortion?”
She may have felt relieved at her curt reply. But I felt as if the heavens had broken loose on me. I couldn’t help squatting flat on the floor that very instant. Since then I haven’t even seen my mother’s face and have been aimlessly wandering in this manner.”
He kept quiet for a while and then added, “All my hairs have suddenly gone grey, but do you know I’m only 23 years old?”
I was aghast. I had taken him to be a middle-aged man. He continued, “I have not related this to you, an unknown woman, in the hope of eliciting any sympathy. If I do not blech out this poison from my person, my entire system will be engulfed by this venom. I can’t even relate it to someone who is familiar. More, you seem to give me a faint impression of herself – I had heard that Nepalis are simple people, but I couldn’t bear the sight of your reciting the Geeta. All women are deceitful”…
I could not counter him but felt sorry for him.
On reaching Bombay, he didn’t even take leave of me, but vanished like a drop in the sea of human heads…
[Courtesy: Sheet of Snow, an anthology of sixteen Nepali short stories translated into English by Nagendra Sharma and published by Nirala Publications, Jaipur and New Delhi, 1997.]