Portraits Unphotographable

Whether it’s a long-haul transatlantic flight or a regional short hop, or even just a trip out on a local bus, the process of meeting and eventually talking to strangers, can lead one to use quick heuristics in sizing them up. Perhaps it’s our automatic mechanism to do so in order to pass the time, while travelling and moving, or that in the restricted space of train carriages, cars and buses, the lack of activity means we entertain ourselves by making up stories about other people, knowing we will never meet them again after you shared space and shared experience has passed. The woman across looking down — maybe she’s broken up with her boyfriend, lost her job, or is having a bad week, you begin. Before long you find yourself elaborating stories about these people, in your head, and these random strangers: soon you start to believe the girl in the school uniform at 11 am, when she should, by all accounts, be in school, is a truant. The inconsistency that is her presence in a school uniform, in public place which is not a school or school-related venue, leads you to draw upon what you already know, what you’re already familiar with, the joy of truancy. It develops further; she becomes a truant perhaps because she has problems at home, or maybe she’s just come from a doctor and found out she was pregnant, and perhaps the person who made her pregnant is a junkie and soon you ponder upon the incongruence of her presence at a place unrelated to what she is supposed to be. Then you catch yourself thinking this whole enterprise going on in your head is ridiculous.

I first noticed *Neha Sahoo* on the platform of Yesvantpur station before we boarded the Bangalore-Guwahati Express. It seemed straight out of a movie, especially a Bollywood one, or one not unlike a typical Asian afternoon soap opera — it was a typical teary goodbye scenario, with the couple glancing nervously at the clock every once in a while, looking frantic as the scheduled departure of the locomotive became eminent. I felt like a voyeur, watching them and imagining stories for them, yet I cannot help it and have no noble excuse to vindicate myself: I write. I eavesdrop. I peek in. I make up things while negotiating the line between fact and fiction, never succeeding. Like all seasoned Indian train travellers, Neha Sahoo and I both head to the man at the platform selling snacks — we know we’ll need it, while we sit on board our berths, waiting for the latecomers to settle in, waiting for our tickets to be checked, waiting to begin. Train travel is precisely like that, tentative and genuine. Tentative while we sit there waiting for something beyond our control, something as much physically larger than us as a train, to decide our fate, our punctuality in our next city, and our sleeping habits for the next two days; as genuine as Neha Sahoo pulling all her life’s belongings on board, while I silently fight with her for space under our berths, chaining my backpack tightly under seat 33. If farewells at airports are already as piercing as only those of us who have experienced them will know, farewells at train stations are in another league of pain altogether. Airport farewells have an element of closure; no matter how much we would like to dispute it, you can lose sight of what you’ve just left behind quite easily, if you let yourself. Train farewells, through the fact that you are connected by a railway line, most probably still within national borders, tosses heartbreak through geographical distance up into the air, making things uncertain though they shouldn’t. The emotions felt by this young woman and her lover were already piercing and intense, even to a casual observer such as myself.

At least with airport farewells there is no chance to see the person you love inside the vehicle which will spirit her away, waving her goodbyes, with all her life’s belongings contained in three trunks you helped to pack. Hidden in my upper berth in seat 35, I was a lone female traveller about to cover 2000 kilometres with only 1 rupee chai, a neighbour who will spend the next 36 hours sobbing and talking on the phone (chalking up huge inter-state roaming phone bill), and my Hindi language books for company. I watched Neha Sahoo’s still unnamed lover watch the Bangalore-Guwahati Express carry her away from the Bangalore in which they had spent 2 happy years together, to the Kolkata which will be her home from now. And in a selfish moment, decided all my farewells from then on had to be neatly and cleanly incised.

36 hours later, we pulled into Howrah station. I helped Neha Sahoo pull her three cases out onto the platform, hired her a porter, lifted my backpack onto my shoulder and walked off quickly without one. This was it, this is how it ends for us all — me, headed to Sudder Street for the third time, a career and a life on the subcontinent to be discovered; Neha, bound for Salt Lake district, for a new job in a new city, just to be close to her sick parents six hours away in Orissa.

Half an hour later our paths crossed again — the big yellow Ambassador taxi I had bargained down to 50 rupees to take me to my two dollar room, stopped in the traffic while crossing the Hooghly. I had come to Kolkata once in the winter, once in the summer, and here I was waking up with the city in the monsoon. I shut my eyes and let the lightly acidic Kolkata rain fall onto my cheeks through the window, which was predictably jammed. Always happy to be in Kolkata, my body adjusted itself to the city, the distinct aroma of Kolkata others find to be a stink, my linguistic brain adjusting to the switch in languages from Kannada to Bengali, trying to realign myself geographically from Karnataka to Bengal, from South India to the East. I saw her in another taxi, a few glimpses away, stuck in traffic while crossing the Hooghly too. The rain fell upon her cheeks through the predictably jammed window of her big yellow Ambassador taxi, though she did not notice: she was gazing out into the river, or what was visible of it. This was me, happy to be away from the city which had my comforts, my lover, my defining moments, in the monsoon on a famous bridge in an infamous city, seeing myself, my own recent pain in the beautiful Orissan lady I had spent 36 hours sleeping across from; a beautiful Orissan lady just two years older than myself. As our taxis diverged and mine sped into Sudder Street, backpacker central, and hers left for Salt Lake, upper middle class district, it also took her deep into a city which her heart will never be in because she left it back in Bangalore, on platform number five, at 6.15pm precisely.

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