S1 – The journey of a lifetime
-By Ramsubramaniam Suraj

She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I cannot describe her beauty in the limited time I have here. I was 23 and fresh out of college, when I saw her. I don’t know if it was the hormones but I loved her at first sight. She was the girl of my dreams.

It is said that matches our made in heaven. It was sheer destiny that we were traveling to Chennai on the same train, The Niligiri Express. We were in the same compartment, S1 and were seated next to each other, 25 and 26. It was an amazing coincidence as my ticket had been confirmed only at the last minute.

“Hi, my name is Shalini,” she introduced herself with a beaming smile. She stretched out her right hand. I was shivering when I shook it.

“I am Sunderesan,” I said and added, “Pleased to meet you.”

She had a serene, innocent face; the face of the kind of person who gets bullied in school. The image of a woman who couldn’t hurt a fly if she wanted to.

“How old are you?” I blurted out. It was the worst question to ask a woman but I was a nervous wreck and I wanted to talk to this woman.

She smiled at me and said, “Never ask a man his salary and a woman her age.”

“I’m so sorry. I don’t…” My tongue adamantly stuck to the roof of my mouth

“No, it is okay. Let us say, I will be sixty seven in 2050.”

I worked out the math. She was twenty two. I was twenty three. It was perfect! A match made in heaven.

“Do you have a crush on me?” she asked.

“What? How could you ask…?”

“Do you have a crush on me or not?” she asked emphasizing on ‘crush’.

“To tell you the truth, yes,” I said meekly.

“It’s okay. You can be bold about it. I’ll tell you a little secret.”

She pulled my ear next to her mouth and whispered, “I think you are attractive. I might even love you”

I turned pink the next moment.

“Hey you believed me, didn’t you? April fool, go to school. Tell your teacher, you are a fool,” she shouted. She laughed at the top of her voice.

I checked my watch. It was April 1st, 2005 and I had been made a jackass. I didn’t want to look at the woman’s face again. I loved her but I hated her for what she had done. I turned to the opposite side and stared out of the window.

She noticed my sulking face.

“Hey, don’t get mad at me. It was a joke. That’s all. I’m sorry,” she said.

I didn’t look at her and didn’t reply.

“Okay. What can I do to compensate?”

“You could sing a song for me,” I said softly. I wanted to know how well my girl could sing.

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.” She stood up and went to the centre of the compartment.

“Friends, we have a birthday boy in our midst. I want all of you to wish him happy birthday.”

The entire compartment including the TTE (Train Ticket Examiner) was singing “Happy birthday to Sunderesan.”

She took out a vegetable sandwich from her bag. She said that it was a substitute for a cake. I cut the sandwich and gave her the first piece. She removed the tomato and cucumber from the sandwich. She pasted the cucumber and tomato all over my face. I distributed the remaining bits of the sandwich to everyone in the compartment. It was the best birthday I had ever had.

When all the euphoria died I asked her, “How did you know that it was my birthday?”

She pointed to the card on top of my bag.

“Will you make a birthday resolution for me?” she asked.

“Sure. Tell me.”

“Promise to always smile because life presents too many opportunities to cry. And you look ugly when you are sad.”

“It is a promise.” I rested my palm on top of hers.

The perfectly romantic scene was disturbed by a child’s cry coming from the adjoining apartment. She took her hand off mine. I thought, “Damn, tough luck.”

She went to the next compartment to see what the problem was. The boy was two years old and his mother was not to be found. Nobody seemed to care about the boy.

She carried the boy in her arms and brought him to our compartment. She cajoled the boy by singing a lullaby for him. She had a sweet voice; the voice of a nightingale.

“I love kids,” she said.

“I love kids, too,” I replied, eager to show we had similar tastes.

The boy did not stop crying. He appeared to be terrified of us. His mother was nowhere to be seen.

“You don’t like songs. Okay, I will tell you a story. Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a king.”

The boy listened intently for a second but started crying as soon as she paused.

“Hey, relax. Give me time to think of a story. You are an impatient baby. In this land…”

“I will look for the boy’s mother,” I said. She nodded her head.

I found the boy’s mother, two compartments away. She had gone there to meet a friend. She had forgotten about her kid.

When we came back to S1, we found the boy sound asleep in Shalini’s lap. She had used all her powers of persuasion to make him feel secure in her lap.

“I want to thank…”

“Shh…Your son is sleeping. Don’t disturb him,” she whispered to the boy’s mother and gave the boy to her.

“Do you want the Nobel peace prize?” I asked her cynically.

“I love people. When I am around, the people around me should be happy. That is my philosophy in life,” she said, sincerely.

It made me feel small and stupid in front of her. I began to rethink about my mission in life. Should I be a priest? No, can’t marry her. Social worker, peace activist…maybe.

We heard a voice in the distance shouting “Is there a doctor on this train?”

“Dr. Shalini, here. How can I help you?” she shouted back.

We waited to see the face of the voice we had heard. It was a co-passenger, a bearded man who seemed anxious.

“Doctor, my father is serious. Please do something.”

“Come with me. You could be of help,” she told me. She caught hold of my arm and guided me along the compartment. I had absolutely no say in the matter. Oh! The power of women!

The old man was in a grave condition. His breathing was heavy and he was coughing profusely. He seemed ready to make peace with god. “Open the windows,” she told me. I opened all the windows to allow fresh air to come in.

“Hold him up for me,” she instructed.

I made the old man sit up. She took out her stethoscope and checked his heartbeat. She checked his pulse for variations.

I watched her lovingly as she worked her magic on the old man. She was so soft and tender with people. Whether it was a little boy or an old man, she had so much affection for them. Unbelievably, the old man was normal within half an hour. His son didn’t have enough words to thank Shalini.

“He is okay now. Don’t disturb him. Let him sleep well,” she instructed him.

“I never expected you to be a doctor,” I said.

“Men always think that beautiful women don’t have brains.”

I didn’t know how to reply to that remark. Did she mean that she was beautiful, or brainy or both. One can never understand a woman’s mind. So, I diverted the conversation.

“What made you become a doctor?” I asked.

“A lot of things. It was my father’s dream. Above all else, it gives me the power to make people smile; the power to save lives.”

“Will you marry me?” I asked, spontaneously. I had never been more sure of myself.

“Is this April fool?”

“No. I am serious. See, I know that I am unemployed. I am not even as educated as you. I don’t even look good. I have no caliber. But I love you. Will you marry me?”

“You know nothing about me. I don’t like commitments. I live every day like it is my last.”

“If you marry me, I will live everyday like it is my first.”

She closed her beautiful eyes. She took a deep breath and thought for a moment. The suspense was killing.

“God, why didn’t I meet you earlier,” she said.

I had no time to reply. The doors to my mouth were sealed by her lips. I thought that my head was immersed in the clouds. The people in my compartment pretended to close their eyes. But I could see the men looking at me with envy through the corner of their eyes. It was the most beautiful moment of my life. It still is the most beautiful.

The train came to a screeching halt. We had reached Tirupur station. It was hard to believe that so much had happened in two hours.

There are some moments in life which you can remember even in your sleep. For me, it was what happened at Tirupur railway station. It redefined my life forever.

“I am hungry. Get me something to eat,” said Shalini. She dug into her leather handbag and brought out twenty rupees.

“It’s okay. I have money. What do you want?”

“Get me Strawberry milk to drink. And honey, I love you,” she said, earnestly.

We hugged again. For the last time.

The milk booth was about hundred feet from S1. It gave me time to think about the sudden changes in my life. My parents were conservative people. I had to convince them about Shalini. If they agreed, good. If not, who cares? I loved Shalini more than my parents.

My thoughts were disrupted by the sound of an explosion. It sounded like the aggregation of a thousand thunders. The impact of the explosion threw me off my feet. I turned to look at the train. S1, S2 and S3 had been reduced to pieces, like waste in a manufacturing process.

My only thought was about Shalini. I ran towards where S1 had previously been. I searched for her amidst the corpses. All I could find were severed hands, burnt flesh and a fresh stream of blood. Not a single body was identifiable in the three compartments.

Who on earth could do such a cruel thing, I wondered. I swore that I would get even with the people who had taken my beloved Shalini’s life. I wept like a little boy who had lost his favorite toy. Amidst the tears, I thought about the two hours I had spent with Shalini. Something she had said had struck me as strange.

“You know nothing about me. I live everyday like it is my last. God, I wish I had met you earlier.” “Could it be Shalini,” I wondered. “No, not Shalini. She had too innocent a face to do such a dastardly act. Besides, she was a doctor. And they know the value of a human life,” I reasoned to myself.

The next morning, my worst fears were confirmed. A newspaper report said, “A twenty two year old doctor named Shalini had committed suicide on the Niligiri express. She had taken the lives of hundred people with her. The reasons for the attack are unknown.”

I never understood the reasons for the attack. It could have been personal or ideological. All I can still remember is her face, how innocent it looked. How she made everyone around her happy. How she showed love and care to kids and old men alike.

That face was a mask. Beneath the benevolent mask, was the true Shalini. A hard-nosed, sadistic, terrorist capable of sacrificing human life to satisfy her selfish needs.

She truly changed my life. From then on, I realized that every human wears a mask which he develops over a period of time. It is the mask which is exposed to the world. Beneath that mask, after layers of deceit there lies the true nature of each individual. This real person in each one of us is intricately more fascinating than any figment of wild imagination.

Shalini’s mask was my first love. I will always love her.

About the author

Ramsubramaniam Suraj is currently working as a Project Engineer in the Nortel Optical project Wipro. He loves writing fiction and has written a novel called Revolution and also a book of short stories called S1 – A train journey. Suraj is currently working on his next book called You and Me. Apart from writing, he is also passionate about debating and has won numerous accolades at the school level.

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–cheers– 🙂

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