It has been more than 10 years since the inception of this memory. Thanks to the internet that I can look for him online. I start typing his first name, that is all that I know about him, on Facebook unsure whether I want to find him or find out about him…..maybe neither, maybe either.
I had boarded the train with my family. Before the smokey Mumbai traffic could move, which’d get lost at every turn it found, the train was ready to leave.
I was quiet and timid. But the excitement of preparing to board a train to Delhi was an adventure which brought out the best of happiness in anyone. I hurried to the window seat. With a sigh of accomplishment, I assured myself of having given everyone the impression that ‘I had reserved the seat’ for the journey to follow. Alas, in no time did I realize that I was traveling with a sister and she was no nun, no sir!
It’d been an hour or two since the train had bid adieu to the station. A platform which was packed with luggage guarded by passengers, where pillars were looking out for the passengers’ bogies, and the roof was soothing their impatience a while back, was now deserted; left alone in a matter of minutes, the platform, looking with envy at its fellows who were crowded with passengers waiting for their Mumbai Local which arrived by the minute. Leaving this monotony of everyday life, I was headed to my grandparents’ house in Delhi for summer vacations. But more than the destination, it was this journey in a box on tracks passing through various cities and villages that inspired a little something in every passenger. Almost twenty hours to read, to chat, to play around, to eat, to sleep and yet one could get lost in the route extended by the stretch of time. The view of a barren land and haystacks which must’ve looked like boils emerging under the scorching heat from the top, looked beautiful only from inside this air-conditioned box. Had I been a few years beyond twelve, I’d have stepped out to walk with the cheery children heading back home from school in their muddy uniforms and breathe in the smell of freshly baked bricks from the factories in Gujarat, to savour the taste of fried daal pakodas of Madhya Pradesh and rest below a tree on the grass mowed by herds of cattle who fed themselves, to learn and drape a saree in Rajasthan like those women who had colored and decorated their houses in the prints and colors of their sarees flaring with the wind.
My chain of imagination was broken with the light chatters in the compartment growing a little louder and they were bound to since my family had befriended fellow passengers. Too hesitant to indulge in a conversation, I kept to myself enjoying the scenery. Just then while I was looking out the window the chatter transformed into periodic giggles followed by a sound of stamping. I looked around to find everyone as if they were trying to look for someone from the other compartment. Just then a little boy of around ten playfully ran back and forth through the aisle in a lightening bolt speed. His cheerfulness had spread across everyone’s face. How lively it must’ve been to be young like that, clueless, careless and to find happiness in the tiniest of things.
Curiosity pulled me to the aisle seat and as I looked back into the other compartment, it was occupied by a bunch of school kids and their teachers. While I was investigating, my aunt insisted that me and my sister must meet them and socialise; Facebook and the others weren’t prevalent yet. While I was too hesitant to agree at once, my sister had already befriended the kids in her mind. And after all, not many have survived the war waged by aunties and sisters combined…
I’d spotted the boy already, even before entering their compartment. All the other seats were crowded with students who weren’t quite talking. I could hear incomplete sounds coming out of their mouths but not words. Dressed in what I remember to be navy blue and white colored uniforms they seemed like students from any other regular school. “Hello. I am Pragya. This is my sister Pritha. We were wondering if we could join you. Can we?” I said, almost close to something like a thirteen year old would, to one of the teachers who was more than happy to oblige. I discovered through our conversation that those incomplete sounds should have been words, and those words should’ve been audible. But in no time did I realize that they carried with them a voice, they could feel what we couldn’t hear and listen to. The evident confidence on the students’ faces and that they were traveling to Delhi to perform in a drama competition in Pragati Maidan was inspiring and amazing and I was thankful to my aunty for pushing me. Harshal, the boy with the lightening bolt speed, was the youngest of them all. And the most charming. A dusky, round face, broad, expressive and confident smile, thick, dense black hair and the only one who had the leisure to dress up in casuals. “Hi,” said I as we shook our hands and he tried his best to shy away. One of Harshal’s teachers told him my name using a sign language to make the pronunciation understandable, for he could hear a little bit through his hearing aid. “Harshal, she is Pragya. Pra-gya,” said she as she ran her fist through her lips while pronuncing my name as if trying to explain the tone my name carried. She insisted that he pronounce my name and to my happiness and amazement, he did. He couldn’t make it all the way but his successful attempt at the first letter and pronuncing the pattern of the word followed by a thick voice vapourising into the universe was as delightful as a child’s first attempt at speaking. However, there was no way I felt sorry for him for he was no different than any other child and yet way too different than boys his age. “Harshal, who would you like to be your Simran?” (Kajol Devgan’s character from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge). After seconds of careful inspection of a few faces, he pointed towards me. I have liked my thick, almost joint eyebrows ever since and Kajol Devgan remains to be my favourite Bollywood actress till date. His innocence lit up the atmosphere so bright that even after all these years its reflection comes back to me every time I wish being a kid again. That moment, I realized that nothing is different, everything is only special. Witty, playful, fearless were the words to describe him until the X&O game, which he beat me in thrice, made him smart even.
If you are reading this right now, you must know that it was my first game of X&O.
While we conversed with the teachers most of the time, Harshal very actively kept our attention with his playfulness. He was just as much the part of our talk since most of it revolved around him. We had spent more than half of the day with them. My sister was back to her seat already. As I was about to leave, one of the teachers was kind enough to share her number if in case I wanted to attend their performance in Delhi. A wave of kind goodbyes poured in chorus as I left for my seat. And for the rest of the journey, I kept looking for Harshal to run through the aisle hoping he would want to see us again. The last time I saw him was at the end of our journey at Delhi. While the entire group bid us farewell, a tiny little guy was standing amongst them, all ready for what was to come and excited about the moment at hand, having left behind what was once there.
I had a chance to speak with Harshal’s Mother upon returning to Mumbai. Harshal and his group stood third and he stood first in the competition. But just like him, the piece of paper which had his name and number on it, flew away like the wings of a free bird…