Life Advice from Strangers

The train started to slow down, the agonizing sound of the wheels grinding against the tracks seemed to reflect my internal agony. The train had reached Anakapalle, stopping here for only a few minutes before it would resume its journey towards my destination.

The station lay barren, with a few people occupying the small station. The skies outside were painted a deep grey and slowly patters of rain had begun to descend. A shaky breath left my mouth, ‘What was I doing?’. I regretted my decision to come back home but there was no going back now. I had to tell Amma, I had held onto it for far too long.

The train started to lurch forward slowly, our pit-stop in Anakapalle seemed to have ended sooner than I would have liked. The concrete block of a station gradually vanished from sight, only to be replaced by the green, rice paddy fields which flanked the train on either side.

The seat opposite mine remained empty, as the voices of the family seated in the next compartment seemed to drown out my thoughts. That was until a boy, no older than fifteen, came in with a small brown rucksack in his hands. He offered a small smile and sat across me, noiselessly.

The boy was lanky, his arms and legs so thin his clothes seeming to hang off his body. His hair was well oiled and the black tresses were neatly combed back. He had a forgettable face, nothing too special except he wore ridiculously bright, red glasses that seemed too big for his face. It occurred to me everything the boy was wearing seemed to be too big for him.

As the journey continued in silence, the rain outside seemed to just grow stronger. An hour or two seemed to pass, dinner time approaching and I took out the tiffin box which held the remaining rice and rasam. I offered some to the boy who just shook his head and continued to stare out the window.  As the last spoon full of rice was done, the boy’s stomach let out a loud rumble. His pale skin was painted a deep shade of red, and I couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle.

Rummaging around in my handbag, I found what I was looking for- the small packet of Parle-G. I handed it to the boy, who despite his initial protests finally succumbed when his stomach let out another growl.

“Thank you”, his voice soft and low quite contrary to what I had imagined it to be.

“Don’t worry about it”, I smiled at him and began to clean the surroundings, preparing to get down as the station was only a few minutes away.

“Where are you going?” his voice halted my actions, I looked at him and for a second thought about lying, but where would that get me?

So I cleared my throat and answered in a firm voice, “Vishakhapatnam, and you?”.

“Sompeta, my aunt lives there.” I nodded my head, gathering all my hair and began tying my hair in a braid. My fingers seemed to be shaking slightly, the fear of what would happen when I reach home and break the news scaring me endlessly.

“What does your aunt do?” I tried to make conversation with the boy, whose eyes seem to brighten up at the mention of his aunt.

“She’s a principal at the town school, she offered to teach me during these holidays.”

“That’s good, so you’re traveling alone? Where are your parents?” I took out a small, metallic container at which the boy stared curiously.

“Amma had to stay back to take care of grandma, and Naana couldn’t take a leave. What is that?” He pointed to the tube of lipstick in my hand, I hadn’t planned on wearing it because Amma disliked it more than anything. She said it made me look like a witch when paired with my kohl-rimmed eyes. It didn’t help that I wasn’t especially a looker but it helped make me feel like myself.

“It’s lipstick, to paint your lips a different colour.” His amber eyes widened in surprise.

“You can paint your lips?” The boy’s innocence amazed me, a smile tugging at the corner of my lips.

The train blew its whistle, the station was nearing and my heart started to beat erratically. All of it suddenly seemed absurd, the boy, the trip back home and my sudden will to tell Amma everything. It wasn’t exactly sudden, it was a secret thirty-two years’ old which was mushed and pushed aside but the need to tell Amma was eating me from inside. I could feel myself go queasy as the station was coming into view.

I looked at the boy, who was grinning widely looking at me.

“You are home, aren’t you excited?” He asked and I could only get myself to nod. My legs and arms seemed to have gone numb. Excited wouldn’t be a word I would have used to describe my condition.

“Aren’t you scared?” I asked the boy again, trying to distract myself.

“Not really, because Amma told me to be brave. She said what lies ahead would be worth it. My aunt is really good at maths, so I don’t worry about traveling alone because I know I’ll learn a lot and do so much better in school.” It seemed like a rather profound advice for a boy who just had to travel alone.

The train had slowed down into the station, this one was filled with people hustling around with suitcases that seemed to overflow and crying, petulant children. The doors had opened and there was a rush of people towards the train, I gathered my belongings and wished the young boy a safe journey.

I had to nudge and prod my way through the crowd that had gathered around the train. The tainted windows of the train prevented me from looking at the boy yet I still stood in front of the rain-streaked window of our shared compartment and waved. Hoping, he saw me and waved back the blue train began to slowly depart. As the last coach left the platform, I stared at the open sky-it was still gloomy as before. I opened the tube of lipstick and applied the forbidden indulgence, the deep red standing boldly against my brown skin.

Be brave’, I repeated the words in my mind and walked out.

Written by– Nitya Sai T.

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