Short Stories

The Train Ride

"Ah, thank you," gasped Srobona, trying to catch her breath. It was for this strong arm, which pulled her through the sliding doors, that she is now onboard the Kavi Subhash bound metro rake from the Shyambazar station. It would have been a real mess, had this gentleman not extended his hand to help her up, with the doors almost sliding in from both the sides. It's time for some pleasantries, but who or where is this person?
As Srobona looked around, trying to locate whose hand she had clung onto, some 10 seconds back, she could only see over a dozen pairs of eyes staring back at her with an air of shock and disbelief, as if they have spotted a red striped zebra walking into a Kolkata Metro rake at the peak office hour at 9:35 am. The gaze she got back did not deter her spirit to look around for her invisible 'friend'. Srobona, as usual, was immaculately dressed for her presentation today in front of the board, in a white formal shirt tucked smartly in the boot-legged black trousers that she recently picked up from Zara. Her rounded face, well primed attire and her toned body have been stared at by men around in many past occasions and Srobona was quite comfortable with all sorts of looks from men. But, what dismayed her most was, she could not locate the person who helped her up onto the train. Was this person shy enough to publicly accept her compliments and has camouflaged himself in the crowd or was he one of those men with bloated egos to accept "thank you's" from young women - Srobona pondered. She took a quick glance all around her for one final time, with a hope to meet two friendly yet shy eyes. It was not to be. Srobona made her way towards the ladies' reserved area in the middle of the rake.

Srobona Chatterjee, young, independent, single and career-driven PR professional, works for a leading global PR agency at their Kolkata office in Park Street. After finishing her high school from Modern School, New Delhi and losing her parents in quick succession in an accidental mishap some five years back, Srobona decided to come down to Kolkata and stay with her only grandparent - her octogenarian grandmother at their paternal mansion in North Kolkata. The majestically built mansion, she was told, dates back by over 125 years and was erected by her great great grandfather Dinanath Chandra Chattopadhyay, a close aide of the British regime during the good old days of the Raj. As the only heir to this huge property, Srobona had inherited an estate, which a couple of years back was valued at over Rs. 120 crores. But her rich, next-to-royal heritage, never ever intrigued her; she was quite content with her independent and fast lifestyle that she led, happy in her own world, nestled within the folds of a rich ancestry.
But, today Srobona was quite intrigued about something else. A long and tiring day had kept her mind preoccupied from thinking about the incident that took place in the morning. Now that she was all alone, trying to stretch her muscles on the 19th century king sized pure redwood teak bed, her mind floated back in time to the set-up in Shyambazar metro station. She recalled that it was 9:34 am. She had just moved through the ticket gates after flashing her Smart Card on the magnetic reader. A stream of crowd was already rushing down the stairs towards the train on the platform on her left. She could barely zip down the stairs that fast with her high heels. The moment she reached the landing, she started moving towards the last rake of the airconditioned coach. That was when the door started to slide close on her face. She gestured at the driver in the rear engine to wait, but before she could realise anything, her outstretched left arm was already gripped strongly by a faceless gentleman, who virtually lifted her from the platform and dragged her inside the rake just when the doors came closing behind Srobona! But did she get a chance to see the face? She pressed hard to think. The faces that popped out were of those dozen or more men, staring at her with sheer bewilderment. She pressed harder. No, it's of no use, she thought. She rolled over to her side to try and catch a sleep. It was quite a tiring day indeed - first a team meeting, followed by a presentation in front of the board and then she had two client meetings at The Park and finally a strategy briefing for the media team. She should doze of any moment now.

It was half past 12. Srobona was still awake. The harder she has tried to sleep in the past one hour, the more she has been made to stay awake by the images of the events in the morning. Srobona got off from the bed and moved out of her first floor bedroom. It was quite an irritation not to get a sleep, when the body wanted to, but the mind was totally against it. She took the first turn on her right and took the flight of stairs on her left, reaching down to the landing which opened up on to the huge marbled hall-way. The stairs and the hallway were illuminated by the bright full moon, whose light streaked in through the victorian high windows. She sat down on a couch next to the aquarium, which was brightened up with a hue of green light. The scales of the fishes swimming by glistened with a silvery sparkle. Srobona wondered whether a game that she used to play as a child would come handy now or not. Her dad had once taught her this game, wherein, the easiest way to fall asleep was to make the eyes heavy by looking straight at some moving objects, without blinking. This can make anyone fall asleep instantly. "Ah! So let me try it once again!" Srobona stared back at the fish bowl, concentrating hard into the aquarium.

"Srobona, get up quickly. See, your dad and I are all ready. Any more delay and we will miss the flight!"
"Ma, aar ektu..." (Mom, a little longer)
"Na, aar deri kora jabe na. I am giving you 5 minutes and we will meet you for breakfast downstairs."
"Uff, jao na. Ami aschi," the blanket that lied till her chest, was now pulled up over the head.
"Jhinuk, we will leave you back here. Is that fine?"
No response from the bed. The door of the room was slammed closed by a visibly irritated Mrs. Riashree Chatterjee, Srobona's mother, as she made her way out grunting.
A reluctant Srobona dragged herself out of the bed, still sleepy and staggered towards the bathroom, trying to watch out where she is walking through her half opened eyes. 
In another 25 minutes, the Chatterjee family was aboard the Toyota Hiace van, arranged by the resort to drop them till the Sir Ramgoolum International Airport in the picturesque island of Mauritius. There was yet another family of four - the couple and their 5 year old twins, occupying the rear of the spacious vehicle. 
The journey lasted a little less than half an hour. The Chatterjees got their luggage loaded on a trolley and rolled it up to the check in counter. After completing the immigration formalities and clearing the security, they decided to stroll around in the duty free zone before proceeding to the lower level from where a hi-speed train service would take them to the departure gates. Some 15 minutes had passed and an announcement was made for passengers of AI 231 heading for New Delhi to proceed for boarding. Riashree was sitting at a coffee shop with her husband, right next to the escalator, waiting impatiently for Srobona. But she was nowhere to be seen. After another 5 minutes of wait, Riashree dialled Srobona on her mobile, which went unanswered. She frantically tried to call up over the next 5 minutes incessantly, grunting every time and cursing herself for letting Srobona wander around, knowing very well that her daughter was carefree to the hilt. Srobona, in the meanwhile was at a nail art parlour, completely oblivious of the announcements, while her phone buzzed in the vibration mode in her Gucci handbag kept on the table alongside. A second boarding announcement was made in the meanwhile. Mr. Chatterjee asked Riashree to wait in the lower level, at the hi-speed train platform, while he would be back there with Srobona. It took him a good ten more minutes to locate Srobona in a fashion accessory shop, where she had proceeded after her designer nail enamel work, truly incognizant of the boarding announcements.

"Jhinuk, eki? Tui ki announcement shunte parish ni? Rush up now. Tor ma toh regey agun."
"Oops, I am sorry bapi. Accha dekho toh, eta kemon lagche?" Srobona extends her hands for her dad to take a look at the nail art.
"Akhon ei shob dekhar kono shomoy nei. Come on Jhinuk, grow up." Mr. Chatterjee started to move towards the escalator tugging Srobona's cabin trolley. Srobona follows at her own pace.
By the time Srobona's dad had reached the lower level, the airport transfer train had already come. Mr. Chatterjee got in the rake along with Riashree, just to realise Srobona on the upper flight of the escalator stairs.
"Jhinuk, ai dikey. Taratari," Riashree called out from the train gates.
Srobona realised that she was late; seeing her parents already in the train, she darted down, jumping steps on her way. As she was just about to reach the landing, she lost her balance and fell face down on the turf, unable to control her speed, which was compounded by the escalator's own pace.
"Jhinuk!" exclaimed her father. Just as he was about to step out, the train door collapsed, forcing him to withdraw himself into the rake.
"Ebar ki hobey?" Riashree questioned. "Train-ta ke arektu dar korano jabey na?"
The train has started moving out of the platform by now, gradually picking up speed.
"O choley ashbey porer train-e. Noy toh ami gate-e pouchey, assistance chaibo. Don't worry. She will be safe."

Srobona looked up to see the train slowly moving out of the platform. She was not perturbed. She was quite mature to handle the situation, but still she could not stop blaming herself for missing the train. "How stupid of me," she thought. She looked around for some help desk. By now a couple of people had come forward to help her up and find out her well-being. "There's no time for seeking unnecessary sympathy," she murmured to herself.

And that's when she heard it. It sounded like a big blast coming through the tunnel. In no time, she heard sirens all around with security personnels dashing down towards the platform level, where she was standing, still trying to understand what just happened. The platform was quickly cordoned off as a team of uniformed personnels descended on the track and swiftly moved inside the tunnel. Something was being announced on the PA system. She cocked her ears to listen carefully.
"Passengers are being requested to move out from the platform area and move up to the ground level. There has been a small mishap in the airport rail transit network for which the system is being closed down immediately. All boarding will happen through the pre-announced gates, so there is nothing to panic. Passengers are requested to visit the Terminal Assistance Desk next to the lift lobby B2 for transfer assistance. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused."
There was a sudden rush all around. Some of the passengers who were waiting for the next train, to move on to the different boarding gates up front, were seen clamouring around some of the security personnels demanding an explanation, while the rest took the escalators to move up to the ground level.

Srobona, till this point was completely flummoxed, knowing not what to do next, while still wondering what made that noise in the tunnel. "Hope, nothing happened to the train that left with ma and bapi on board," deep inside she prayed. She got herself together and moved up the escalator. Sensing that there would be a wild rush at the Terminal Assistance Desk next to the lift lobby B2, she approached a security personnel in uniform, standing close to the coffee shop.
"Excuse me. Can you please tell me why is there such a rush around? Is everything fine?"
"Yes, everything's fine. There's been a small mishap in the tunnel, a freak accident. Our team has gone in to check," came a very cold response.
"Sir, if you don't mind, may I request you to let me know whether things are surely fine in there? My parents had boarded the last train, which I missed by a few seconds."
This time the look on the face of the man has changed. His cold looks have softened. He asked Srobona to follow and took her to a Customer Help Desk in one corner of the terminal building. There he asked Srobona to wait outside and went in to speak with someone. He came out in sometime and asked Srobona to go in and meet the Customer Help Assistant inside.
"Hi," the 20 something lady sitting behind a 17 inch HP desktop spoke up, seeing Srobona come in. "Can I get to check your boarding pass, maam?"
Srobona handed her over her boarding pass.
"Well, you see maam," started the lady. "There has been a small mishap in the tunnel. Boarding for your flight AI 231 is currently on hold."
"Maam, my parents had boarded a train and was in that tunnel, when I heard this blast. I hope there is nothing serious?" questioned Srobona quite anxiously.
"Ah...," the lady cleared her throat a little before proceeding, "there seems to be an accident in the tunnel and the last train which left for the boarding gates, have been severely damaged. We are awaiting further reports and I can't confirm anything more than this right now."
"Severely damaged!" exclaimed Srobona. "But what about the passengers? Are they all safe?"
"Maam, I am sorry. We don't have any further information on this. I request you to be a bit patient as we are trying to retrieve more information."
"How can I be patient? My parents were on that train! I need to know," Srobona could feel herself almost choking.
That's when the radio crackled and a message was relayed in French. Srobona looked upto the lady anxiously, expecting a speedy translation.
"Um, maam..., it seems there has been a major accident. Most people on board are reported dead, while some are in critical condition. The paramedics are trying to get the injured to the hospitals." She paused a little and continued, "there has not been any further communication, I am sorry."

Srobona later got to know that both her parents had died in the accident. Her father collapsed on the spot, while her mother was taken to the ICU with 75% burnt and severe injury on her head. She collapsed in another 2 hours. Srobona's world changed in just a couple of hours. She was now orphaned. Arrangements were made to fly her back to India.
Srobona jumped onto her feet, completely drenched in sweat. She had lied on the couch, infront of the aquarium and had fallen asleep. It was her grandmother, who had woken her up, not finding her in her room.
"Ki hoyeche ma?"
"Koi na toh.. kichu na."
"Tobey tui ekhaney? Shara raat tui pakha chara ai bhabey?"
Srobona smiled meekly, hugged her grandmom tightly and keeping her chin on her grandmother's shoulders, wiped off her moist eyes dry.

It was yet another new day for Srobona. A new beginning. Usual metro ride, client meetings and media briefings.

Strangely, she remembered nothing from the last morning - the closing door of the metro, the invisible grip, the way she was pulled in and the invisible 'friend' who ensured she was safely inside the train, only to disappear in the crowd.

Love Aaj Kaal - a short story

Ki holo? Tomake je kaaj-ta korte bolechilam, sheta hoyeche?” (What happened? Did you complete the task that I had asked you to do?).
Subroto, a member of the indomitable Bengali male species, married to Chandrani, a member of the dominating Bengali female species, just two springs back, stood speechless at the doorway of his south Kolkata flat. Of the 52 different muscles that lined his face, Subroto could not dare to flex a single one of them and resorted to turn statue instead. Two years into his marriage, he has gained a significant insight that no excuse would pacify his marital mate more than seeing him stand there speechless in a pose to suggest, ‘Yes, my lady, I agree that I have failed to complete your assigned task and I am ready to be punished the way you desire the most!’ The anger subsides, eventually.
Standing stone cold, Subroto recalled his first interaction with Chandrani. It was during his third year at college, some 5 years back. He was studying to complete his honors in Physics from a college in South Kolkata. Subroto Bagchi had been quite studious all through his school and college days, but he lacked the basic skills of interaction – a hallmark of youth-hood - that most of his friends possessed in wooing the Bipashas-Sumitas-Rupalis at the college canteen. Subroto was an introvert – a non-believer and a non-practitioner of free mixing and to many, a loser! But quite recently, to challenge his social handicap in the real world, he has dived into the virtual world of Facebook and online friendship. Within a month, quite secretively, he managed to build an envious friend list of 4 girls and 2 boys (that included 4 cousins and a distant kaku)! The only odd person in this list was an unexpected acceptance of ‘friend request’ by a college student from Siliguri in North Bengal, from among hundred odd friend requests sent to girls across the age group of 18 to 25 years. This was Chandrani Mukherjee, a first year humanities student, with a dimpled smile, who liked Shahrukh Khan’s DDLJ, loved music and enjoyed ‘eating luchi and aloo dum’.
There was no looking back for Subroto, as he started spending over 5 hours a day, following and liking every activity of Chandrani and commenting to everything that she had to say. There used to be days, when to a one liner comment of Chandrani – Wow! What a day today! – Subroto used to write upto 15 comments describing the day, the weather, sharing the news headlines and even explaining his physics practicals – to the bewilderment of Chandrani and her friends, reading the posts. Subroto never realized when cupid struck him and so didn’t Chandrani, who though a bit irritated at the beginning at her new friend’s head-over-heels comments, soon took a fascination for his childish innocence and started liking all his multiple comments to her one-liners. Very soon they started sharing personalized messages and one day, Chandrani, took the initiative to express her feelings for Subroto, online.
Arre, ki holo? Kathar jabab na diye, ha kore dariye acho keno?” (What the heck? Why are you standing there without responding to my query?). Subroto looked dazed as he tried to push away the images from his past, like the flick of a finger used to shift images on the new Samsung Note that he has recently purchased on his birthday. His conscious mind gave him no instructions to react to this question either and he continued to stand motionless and speechless. His subconscious mind nudged him once again and took him back to his first meeting with Chandrani.
It was perhaps the happiest day in Subroto’s life, till then. Some 2 weeks have passed after his University exams, which he somehow managed to complete in an unusually intoxicated-by-love, state of mind. He knew he could have faired better, had he concentrated more, but he was struck badly by cupid’s arrow and the wound was fresh! After exams, he persuaded his parents to send him to Malda to spend a week with his cousins. His parents promptly agreed and he was soon on his way to Malda, which was just four and a half hours away from Siliguri, further North and his desired destination over the past 6 months! Thanks to Facebook, Subroto had planned in advance a day-long excursion to Siliguri with his cousin Jayanta, who was a year older to him and the only one aware of his online romance. Someone else also knew about the plan and was waiting impatiently for 21st June and that was Chandrani.
As planned, Subroto and Jayanta reached Siliguri bus terminus around 10 in the morning and headed straight for Ghoshpara, a southern suburb, known for its Kalibari. As the rickshaw that they were traveling in, turned the corner towards the Kalibari, Subroto’s throat dried, knowing not what to say when he would meet Chandrani. Commenting on Facebook posts and messaging “I love you my sweet pie” were very different from expressing the same face-to-face. Subroto gulped anxiously, as the rickshaw came to a sudden halt at the Kalibari gate.
Babu, eshe geche!” (Sir, we have reached!)
Haan, kato holo?” (Yes, how much?) Jayanta got off to settle the fare. Subroto was stuck to his seat, still thinking what he should say. “Ai, ki holo? Niche naab-na?” (What happened? Get off.) Subroto alighted obediently.
After seeing the rickshaw away, Jayanta excused himself from the scene, before promising to be back by 1 pm, leaving his cousin over two and a half hour of privacy to meet his lady love, Chandrani.
Some 15 minutes must have passed; Subroto by now has memorised a short extempore on love and togetherness, when he heard her voice for the first time. It was musical, to say the least, it was mystical, “Sorry, ektu deri hoye gelo.” (Sorry, I am a little late). Subroto raised his eyes to see the most beautiful face on the earth, staring at him through the kohl-lined eyes and with a dimpled smile. It was Chandrani, no doubt, but wasn’t she too beautiful to be an earthling – thought Subroto, still speechless. A light pink chikan salwar-suit clung onto her body, the dupatta swaying merrily in the breeze like Kajol’s when she ran towards Shahrukh in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, reminisced Subroto.
Ish, tumi toh akdom gham-e bhije gecho! Esho chayay esho.” (Uh! You are completely drenched in sweat. Come into the shade.) Subroto could not speak, but just followed her into the shade, under the old peepul tree, next to the marble platform with a tulsi plant, in front of the garva-griha of the temple. “Ki holo? Tumi toh lajjabati lata hoye gele? Kichu bolo? Naki tumi rag korecho?” (What happened? Are you feeling shy? Say something. Or, are you angry?) Subroto had forgotten the lines that he had memorized so painstakingly. He was trying to absorb every passing second of their togetherness. He managed a dry smile on his face, knowing very well he was looking like a dumb scarecrow with a clay pot as its head and an uneven curve for a smile.
Jano, aajker ai meeting-er katha ami amar maa-ke bolechi. Maa shune ektu regey gechilo, kintu permission diye dilo. Amar dujon bandhu-o janey. Tara toh ashar jonno moriya, kintu ami bolini kothay tomar shathey meet korchi. Bapi ektu ragi, noyto tomay bari-te daktam. Maa tomar chobi dekheche facebook-e.” (I have shared with my mother about today’s meeting. Although a little annoyed, but she eventually permitted me. Two of my friends also know about this and they were too keen to come, but I did not share with them where am I meeting you. Dad is an angry man, or else I would have invited you home. My mom has seen your picture on Facebook). After a pause, she continued, “Na na, bhebo na jeno ami maa-ke tomar comments gulo poriechi!! Tobey haan, amar bondhura poreche. Tadero tomake khub pachando hoyeche, karon, tomar friend list shotti irshoniyo.” (Don’t think I have made my mom read your Facebook comments, but my friends have read your comments and they all have liked you very much, as you have an envious friend list). She chuckled innocently. Subroto kept on staring at her face, studying closely her eyes, her nose, her cheeks, without knowing not what to say to her. Suddenly, Chandrani held his right hand in hers and pressing it tightly said, “Tumi ki go, atokhon dhorey ami katha bole jachi aar tumi kichu bolcho na! Ki holo?” (I have been speaking all through and you have not spoken anything. What happened?) Subroto smiled and said, “Kichu na, amar tomar katha shunte bhalo lagche. Tumi bolo.” (Nothing. You continue. I like the way you speak).
Ki bol-le, amar katha bhalo lagche? Haan tai toh lagbe. Ami pagol-er moton chechiye chechiye morbo aar uni bolben amar katha bhalo lagche. Maa-go, ami aar parchi na.” (What did you say, you are liking what I spoke? Well, here I have been shouting mad and he has been enjoying it all. I just can’t stand this anymore).
Subroto got back to his self and realized that it was no flashback. He was standing right there infront of Chandrani at the doorway of his Kolkata flat, trying to play statue – the only trick he knew very well, to cool down an angry wife. Seeing that the situation was getting out of control and that too because of his own foolishness, he took a step closer to Chandrani and remarked, “Tumi dekho, kalke ami taratari bari eshe, plumber ke diye kaaj ta koriye debo. Please regey jeyo na shona.” (Tomorrow I will get home from office early and get the plumber to do the task. Don’t get angry sweet heart).
Haan haan, ami toh emni emni rege jai, sharadin amar moton ghar bari shamliey dekhte. Akhon jao, aar pirit koro na!” (Yes, I get angry just like that. Try taking care of the household like me. Now go away). Subroto came closer to Chandrani and softly took her right hand in his own, and fell on his left knee in front of her, pulling her hand closer. Swiftly he pulled out a ring from his breast-pocket and slid it right through Chandrani’s ring finger, saying, “Happy Anniversary. It was 5 years back that you had expressed your love for me online and today I do the same, offline.” Chandrani was too bemused to say anything. She stared at the 2 carat diamond solitaire sparkling on the ring, and was speechless for almost a minute while involuntary drops of tear flowed down her cheeks.
Tumi mone rekhecho? Subroto…
“Na. Please aar kichu bolo na. What matters most to me is that you are mine and I love you.”
Chandrani got down next to Subroto and putting her hands around Subroto’s neck, embraced him passionately. “I love you for just being my very own Subroto. Thank you.”

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