It was the morning of her birthday, and Sandhya woke up with a song on her lips. Birthdays were jubilant occasions in Sandhya’s books, be it hers or anyone else’s. Whether it was choosing cards and gifts for friends and dear ones or receiving them, there was always a feeling of excitement in the air.  Sandhya’s happiness bordered on the euphoric as it was her milestone birthday. 

She dressed in her favorite blue color and admired her elegant silhouette in the mirror, as only those in the cusp of youth did. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, don’t I look like a beautiful doll?” Sandhya twirled around merrily. Her playful musings had to be abandoned by the angry honk of her brother Arjun’s bike. She rushed out, planting a hasty kiss on her mother’s cheek and picked up the box of homemade cutlets for her friends. Every day, Sandy (as she’s known in her inner circles) would be dropped at the station to catch the morning 7.10 fast passenger to college, while the brother buzzed off to work. She was in the final year of her graduation. Hence, the railway station, the platform, the route and the commuters were all familiar. It was a quaint little town with a small railway station with few trains halting. The station bustled with activities only during those halts and was desolate otherwise. 

As Sandy and Arjun neared the station, a man dressed in bright white flannels crossed them in a blue Vespa scooter. The color of the scooter instantly enamored her. As Sandy climbed the steps to the platform, she noticed the blue Vespa parked inside the station and the man in white, brushed past her. She caught a fleeting glimpse of the tall, well-built, clean-shaven guy and chuckled thinking of the detergent commercials on the television.

Sandy boarded the train and comfortably settled down in her usual seat by the window. A few of her friends usually boarded at subsequent stations. She gazed out, and her eyes fell on the gentleman in white, who was waving a green flag with flair. 

The old man opposite her observed her keen interest and volunteered, “He is Mr Ashok, the new station master.”

Sandy, embarrassed at being caught ogling, sheepishly hid behind a book. She pretended to be engrossed by the intricacies of chemical components of fertilizer. 

It was a fun-filled day at the college with her birthday celebrations. After the last class, she hopped onto the evening train and reached back home, the blue Vespa and its owner entirely forgotten. As the days passed, the new station master became a distant memory.

                                                                              ***

A few weeks later, as she sat in her regular window seat buried in books, Sandy was startled by a baritone voice addressing her, “Excuse me.”

She turned her head and looked into the eyes of the station master.

“Can you help this little boy to get down at his station?”

Tongue-tied by the closeness of a handsome man near her, Sandy barely managed a nod.

She stared at him intently as he gently assured the boy that he was in good hands and walked away to wave the flag. Sandy was embarrassed by her behavior and chided herself for staring at him in such an open fashion. All the things she had read in the novels about making the right first impression had flown right out of the window.

A week later on the way to the station, Arjun’s motorbike broke down. He struggled to get it started, but the vehicle refused to budge. Sandy had just started panicking about missing the train when her brother spotted the station master and waved him over. The station master swooped on his Vespa like a knight in shining armor. Arjun politely requested him to drop his sister at the railway station. Sandy looked at Arjun with an amused expression. She was pleasantly surprised that her brother entrusted her with a stranger. 

Arjun assured his sister in their mother tongue, “He is a respected gentleman, hurry up, don’t delay him.”

And that’s when Sandy rode pillion for the first time on the blue Vespa.

Upon reaching the station on time, she mumbled a thanks. 

With a naughty smile, he said, “I wasn’t planning to eat you. Do I scare you so much?”

“Oh, no. I am not scared of you. I was just wondering how nice it would have been if I had worn a blue dress today, matching with the color of your Vespa.”

With eyes that sparkled and a burst of loud laughter at her candor, he answered, “Definitely, we will fulfil your wish.” 

Little did she know what lay ahead for them!

In the months that followed, Sandy swept her eyes across the station every day, to catch his glimpse. New sensations, stirred in her at the realization that his eyes too, had been seeking her. The semester holidays after the examinations were a burden on her and it dragged on.

On the first day of the new semester, when Sandy reached the station, her heart was pounding. She was disheartened to see him, alongside a lady and a child. The station master beckoned Sandy over and introduced her to his wife with the words saying “This is the regular commuter I had spoken about.”

His wife was a banker and stayed in the city with her daughter. Though Sandy knew there was a considerable difference in their age and that he could be married, it still jolted her at meeting his family. She rushed to catch her train, flashing a superficial smile at the wife and was angry at him for labelling her the “regular commuter”. She avoided meeting him during the next few days.

                                                                           ***

Months before the monsoon season, unprecedented rains lashed the region. The tracks were flooded, and the trains were running late. With the electric posts uprooted the railway station was in darkness. It rained steadily with deafening thunders and lightning. With only a handful of people in the station, Sandy was stranded, waiting for her brother to pick her up.

The station master advised her to wait in his cabin and expressed doubts if her brother would be able to drive in this weather.  She consented and sat across his chair, watching him coyly as he filled some pages and busied himself with the routine work. The candlelight eerily cast their shadows on the wall. When he stepped out to talk to a colleague, Sandy followed him like a meek lamb, frightened to sit alone. He gently admonished her that it was safer to stay put in the cabin than loitering in the platform where beggars and thugs lurked. She then naively requested him to call her family using the phone in his cabin to which he replied that the telephone cables were down since noon. 

A group of men sat in a circle and started singing on the platform. The rains mixed with the melody made a heady concoction. Sandy, along with the station master, joined them. As the winds howled, she huddled closer to him. And just like in those romantic movies she loved, he offered his coat to her, and she wrapped herself in the warmth inhaling the faint smell of his perfume. Later the station master prepared some Maggie with his cabin stove. They laughed and joked and ate the noodles from a single plate.

It was way past midnight, and neither of them wished to sleep, so they stayed awake talking through the whole night. Next morning when the rain had ceased, Arjun came to pick her up. She went with a heavy heart.

Final semester exams approached and Sandy prepared furiously, though she never stopped thinking about the station master. The station master wished her luck on each day of her examinations. On the last day, Sandy was shocked to see him board the train along with her. He sensed her nervousness and assured that he would get down at the next station. They sat in silence and communicated only with their eyes. Words were superfluous to people in love. She let him know about her movie plan with friends for that evening in cryptic terms. He got the message and alighted at the next station before her friends joined her. At the movie hall, anticipating him she held on to an extra seat and just before the movie began, he slipped into the place next to her. Their hands rested on the armrest next to each other- so near yet so far!  She wished that he would hold her hands but at the same time worried about how she should respond if he did that. They watched a comedy film in taut tension.

When Sandy reached home, she was surprised to see her uncle engaged in heated arguments with her family. Her mother glared while Arjun reprimanded her for her rash actions. Someone had spotted her at the movie hall along with the station master. The spy network and the speed at which news travelled in a small town annoyed Sandy. To make things worse, her uncle added that her virtue was at stake. Sandy’s mother then used all tactics to make her feel remorseful. 

“You have brought shame to our family, now who will marry you?” Sandy’s mother shouted.

“Oh, please, why are you dramatizing?”

“You will not understand until you are a mother. The neighbor already has started gossiping about you.”

“Ma, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Don’t open your mouth, like uncle suggested we should send you away far from here.”

Later that night, the mother ended up crying more than Sandy did, as the father blamed her for their daughter’s waywardness. 

Sandy experienced a silent treatment from her family and felt like a prisoner. Her mind was on fire, and the devils danced on her head. She wondered why the family blew things out of proportion. She never denied herself the fact that they had feelings for each other. Still, both realized the futility of the relationship and had restrained themselves. Hopelessness was the charm. Love was something that just happened, and it never followed the rules. After all, Shakespeare wrote, “The winged Cupid is painted blind.”

After a fortnight, her father asked if she wanted the wedding invitations for distributing to her friends. Her parents had fixed her nuptials, and she knew nothing about her future husband. The wedding was her punishment for risking forbidden love, and they were in a hurry to get her away from this town before her character gets assassinated further. Shattered were the dreams of higher studies and a job that would allow her to travel. Her shrieks and protests went unnoticed. With the wedding just a month away, Sandy slinked away to the station with a few wedding invitations. He was not at work. When she inquired about his address, she felt that all eyes were on her.

The clerk answered, “It’s the fourth house on the 3rd cross. You cannot miss it. His name will be on the door written in bold scarlet letters.”

 She overheard people insinuating her of leading a married man astray. Sandy burned with scalding shame. She walked with a bowed head, and her heart seared with pain. Love was treated as sin, and she felt like an outcast in her town.

Sandy knocked on the slightly ajar door in trepidation. “Come in,” said a feeble voice. He was unwell and was resting on the bed. She observed that the room was bare, with just a bed, a table with a holdall, a stove and a few utensils. His face brightened at seeing her, and she offered to make tea for them. She engaged herself with the appliances and avoided his eyes as he apologized for his sparsely furnished bachelor abode and asked her to sit on the bed. Sandy sat on the edge of the bed and pushed the wedding card towards him. A shadow of anguish crossed his face. 

“Sorry.” He said apologetically. 

“Why?”

“I know that your family blames you. It was my fault, and now they are punishing you and hurriedly marrying you off.”

“Don’t bother about the blame. I’ll survive it.”

“I feel awful and guilty. I was reckless, and the irony is no one blames me.”

“Shush!” She placed her finger on his lips. He gently kissed the fingertips. For a few seconds, they gazed at each other and weighed in the situation. With a sigh, he straightened himself, and she slowly moved her hand away.

“You need to go now. I might not be able to control myself for long.”

She collected her things, and as he wished her the best in life. With a wistful smile, he added that he wouldn’t attend the wedding. She gently kissed him on the cheek and closed the door behind her.

 

                                                                  ***

Sandhya was on the train again. 

Her family stood on the platform and bade her farewell. But her eyes only sought him. He stood there a vision in white. Their eyes, bereft of any sparkle, met. Sandy’s husband wrapped his hand protectively on her shoulder as the train jerked forward. The station master waved the green flag as the tears blinded her eyes.

His image melted imperceptibly from her sight and life. 

Sandhya opened her tightly clutched fist and stared at the scarlet letter A she had managed to rip off from the name board on his door.

***

Photo By: Ruslan Bardash

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(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)

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