A short story written by Shruti Bharath . This also happens to be an entry for a contest with the theme ‘conversations’. Read on for some more
The smell of old coffee and deep fried onions wafted through the compartment of the train. The fresh air filtering in through the windows, doing little to exhaust the now almost over powering stench. Kirtana shifted absent-mindedly on her seat, her gaze fixed nowhere, but some how outside at the swiftly changing landscape, moving to the chugs of the old train. Her mind was clouded with the mess that her life had become. And the smell was not helping. She caught herself cursing, “just like the stench of my slowly rotting life…!” She often did this, but considering the way the last few weeks had panned out for Kirtana, it was not entirely shocking behavior. She had spent the better part of the days leading up to this journey, swearing and complaining to herself. She squarely blamed the ‘Universe’ and all the ‘Higher Powers that be’ for all her misfortunes. Poor, bitter Kirtana – out of a job, out of money and now… out of love too. And all in just one month. She was on her way to meet her mother, the only person she had not alienated from her life. Kirtana had suffered a severe blow to her confidence and faith. She had not only shunned her friends and coworkers on losing her job, but had successfully driven away her boyfriend too. Her life savings were all tied up in various things and all in all, she had found new reasons to spew hate at the God she never believed in. Was ‘He’ looking down at her and having a bit of fun? Was it comedy night up there, featuring the dreadfully hilarious life of Kirtana Menon? She’d screamed this in her apartment only last night before collapsing out of sheer exhaustion.
A loud thud brought her back to reality. Sitting across from her was middle-aged man, now placing a rather large hardbound book on the seating space next to him. The thud had come from this oversized book, being closed for dramatic effect. He was also saying something. Kirtana only caught the last sentence. “…They always say, you only get what you really want…” Kirtana cleared her throat roughly and offered her cynical response “… yes ‘They’ seem to have it all figured out, don’t they? Though one can never really tell who ‘They’ are, correct?” As she said that, she mentally kicked herself. She did not need to engage in small talk with a preachy stranger on a thirty-hour train journey. She had quite a bit of brooding and mulling to do before she called it a day. The stranger took one look at Kirtana. She looked back, their gaze meeting briefly as if in permission to do so. The two, settled for one brief moment before the stranger responded. “I happen to know who ‘They’ are actually. I’ve even met many of them.” There was a comic calm to his tone, each word measured yet not overstated, assuring but not false. Kirtana had not been dealt with so calmly in a while. Her behavior off late had only won her rude retorts and scalding comments. A bit of her former self took over, as she smiled at the man, revealing a Kirtana who still loved life. It faded just as quickly as it had appeared. “Are you in the habit of making loud comments on smelly trains for the amusement of your co-passengers? Because I should warn you, I’m the last person you want to be talking to at this point, let alone preaching too.”
The man looked at her “If I were talking or in fact preaching as you say, I would be kind enough to announce it. Preaching unheard makes a sane man look mad, you see. I was only thinking out loud, I’ve come upon the book of a lifetime and the weight of what I’ve learnt, literally forces itself out of my mouth…So now that we find ourselves engaged in conversation, I might add that I’m not about to stop. You appear to be in some sort of distress, is there anything you would like to talk about? Apart from being an excellent speaker, I’ve been told I listen without judgment.” Kirtana took a deep breath, “calm yourself woman” she thought, “a train is no place to have a meltdown.” She looked at him, cutting his kindness with an ice-cold stare “Madness has many definitions. Asking a complete stranger to confess their problems is possibly one of them. While you may be a good listener, I am not and do not need your help, thank you very much!” The man pressed on “Sometimes help presents itself in the most unusual ways. I am not one to speak in mysterious riddles, but you seem to bring this out in me! Judging by the bags under your seat and the almost desperate way you have been staring out of the window all afternoon, I take it you are heading to a place that was once home, is that right?”
“Desperate? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE SAYING? Look, I have had the worst month, of what I can only describe as the most pathetic of human existences. My patience for conversations and people has completely run out and you and anyone else would do well to stay the hell away and leave me be. What do you care, that no matter how much strength I show, I get nowhere, or that no matter how hard I work, it never results in anything. Or that I’m never really wanted or loved by anyone. Do you have some great big pearls on that? Are ‘They’ going to tell me it’s all because I don’t want it?!” Her eyes were hot with tears that she held back, but the floodgates of her mind had opened. It only took a small trigger to push her over the edge these days. “For years I’ve looked for the strength to take my failures, I’ve watched lesser fools race ahead of me while I toiled away at meaningless jobs and relationships… all the while believing…believing that I’d have my day, like every dog does. My grandmother would send me prayers and ask me to tie ribbons and threads around trees and stones. My mother would ask me to ‘be positive and have faith’… everyone was so quick to throw around this ‘faith’ word. Well, look how far it got me? Nothing out there is going to take care of me… heck I can’t even take care of myself. So yes I may be desperate, but not without reason. I’d like to see you help me!” Half-awake passengers had begun to stare at this point, perhaps only a little more so than usual. People did enjoy staring at other people on trains. The man looked at her, there had been no change in his expression, but he did pause before speaking “You were right to use faith as your compass before, not religious faith of course, but faith that things would get better or improve. If anything, knowing something good is around the corner is a fantastic reason to wake up every morning. My difficulty lies in understanding why the delay in those ‘good’ things is causing you such grief? What makes you believe you are never going to experience them? Perhaps your blind rage, has clouded your vision? Why should facing difficulties and working harder mean the doors to happiness and strength are shut?” Kirtana was stunned. A simple enough question, but rather than respond, she listened. He went on “So many people ask me for help, here I am offering it to you. Do you know why? Because I love a challenge. We’ve invented this word ‘good’ and yet we fail to see that it only exists with bad. Bad times complement good, they can only exist in a pair. One does not have meaning without the other. I could’ve chosen to keep to my book and never so much as look in your direction, yet you gave me an opportunity that I could hardly resist. One to help you. I can tell you this, while at your lowest point, like you are now, you feel you have no faith. You’ve closed your senses to anything good and while there may be reason to do this, I’m sure you are about to experience a change for the better, if you will only open yourself up to it.”
It was not as though Kirtana had never considered this. This was one of those basic truths she knew but would never accept, because it was easier to complain than be patient. She looked back at the man “Yes, patience. It’s funny because, I have this nagging feeling I’m going to be waiting my whole life. Is that even worth it, then? And yes maybe my vision is clouded, but I don’t think I’ve missed any ‘signs’ of good things to come!” By this time, the man had reclined and faced her with his head rested on one slightly raised arm “Assume you never faced what you have so far, would you know what you know today about the world and yourself? Would you know that being alone and unhappy is no way to cope with any of what you are facing? You are in fact aware of all this and more and inside you resides a perfectly sensible and patient version of yourself, having a bit of a laugh at this drama! She’s probably asking you to let go of all this anger and start from the beginning. When you had a little more faith in yourself.”
Kirtana considered the man’s words. They had not even introduced themselves, but here they were. His simple words and calm tone had almost put her at ease. She felt the aching in her back become dull, and the burning in her eyes reduce to a light tingle. The man and her continued on, spending two full hours talking, until suddenly hunger pangs took the better of her. For the first time in days she was hungry. What had this stranger done? A miracle man working his magic on her soul, she thought and almost smiled. She excused herself to wash up and wobbled down the compartment, her knees like jelly from the overwhelming rush of emotions – good and bad now – surging through her system. She was trying to make sense of this person and why he was helping and how it was working!
The train suddenly jerked and Kirtana felt herself falling! Her eyes opened with a start! She had in fact been sleeping all the while, resting her head on a hard object. Reeling from the dream, she looked around to make sense of what was real. The man in her dream had not only spoken to her when no one else would, but helped her with kind words and perhaps some obvious wisdom. But she felt more calm and relaxed than she had in days. A conversation with a stranger on a train that she had only dreamt of? Why had it felt so real? Was he around here somewhere? She had not even gotten a chance to ask him his name. She rose to find a book under her head. The same one the man had. It was the diary she used to keep – where she used to write about her little hopes and dreams as a teenager. She had forgotten she even had that big book any more. She had probably taken it out while cleaning out her apartment the other day…or did she? She couldn’t remember.
Amazed and a little amused, Kirtana marveled at the same ‘universe’ she had cursed, for the strange little trick it had just played on her. A conversation she would remember for life, for it had renewed her faith, even if just a little bit, and opened her eyes to those everyday miracles that sometime make life more worth living. She would always look out for that kind stranger, every time she boarded a train.
Learn more about Shruti Bharath.