– A Runner-Up Prize Winning Entry in ‘Around the World with Expedia!’ contest –
The toy-train ride to Shimla is quite an experience. The narrow-gauge rail snakes around hills and valleys and you need to slide windows to prevent a wild bush from scratching your cheeks. However, the experience gets some ‘flavoured’ fervour when you have a seat right next to the train loo. I got a chance to go through as much while travelling to the lovely Himachal capital years ago.
For one, the loo was very basic – devoid of fancy fresheners, if you please – and for a second, it wasn’t scaled up to cater to a dozen full bladders. I covered my face with a handkerchief every time someone opened the door and a whiff of air brought in fresh perfume. The old lady sitting opposite us offered a tissue to her old man. I looked at her keenly as she tugged at the sides of her black handbag.
“I had no idea we would get such bad seats…”, she sounded upset, “you aren’t even able to enjoy the view.”
“Never mind,” the old man chuckled, “at least you are safeguarded from the scent, tucked in your corner seat!”
I smiled. The old man – at least a good seventy years of age – was dressed in a sporty tee and pants, both too loose for his frail body. The lady on her part, had on a sombre sari.
They caught me staring and the man grinned. “Nice tee I am wearing, am I not? I told Mala that I am not too old for these yet.”
The lady gave me a conscious smile. “Beta, he has a little problem of asthma. But he did not heed me one bit when I advised against coming to the hills. You know all this huffing and puffing at this age-”
“Tch.” said the old man. “If not now, when will I see the mountains? And dine at a Mac Donald’s?” he rolled his eyes. “When I grow old?”
The couple, originally from Punjab, was out to vacation in Shimla and then go up to Manali. The old man wanted to pick blossoms from the ‘Valley of Flowers’ and present them to his wife, ride a horse at Kufri and get pictures clicked and finally dig into chicken at an open-roof restaurant. The lady nodded her head all through but managed to put in a word about returning home soon.
“Bahu has a hard time bathing the little one…” she began, but was brushed aside with a scowl.
“I think it is high time you visit a Turkish bath yourself.” the man turned to me. “Beta, our bahu works in her office from morning to night and hasn’t a worry in her head. All very good for our son who has been dying to invest in a house but all the time I get with Mala is when she is serving us food at night.”
The lady looked uncomfortable and fidgeted with her bag again. The man went on.
“Now they have a little son…”, his eyes lit up, “wonderful boy he is. I scoop him up in my arms and point to the bough outside, where the koel sits and sings.” he paused for breath. “But I miss the time when my Mala would sing for me and no koels could dream of vying with her.”
The toy-train took a steep turn, bringing us closer to the conifers and sweeping skies of Shimla. A gust of wind, sprightly and mischievous, danced about our compartment. Smile, it seemed to say.
“Where are you putting up in Shimla?” I asked the couple, partly to put the dear lady at ease.
“He has booked us a hotel in Mall Road. Said a travel website did it all for him. The tariffs are outrageous but then, so is he.” the lady shook her head. “You know beta, I took his medicines to him this morning and he threw them away when I wasn’t looking.”
The old man turned defensive. “How can you say that? I drank them all up like a good boy. And the deal we got, by the way, was the best you can have.” He looked at me. “Beta, she is miffed because I brought bahu in question. But you tell me, is it wrong if I ensure she gets a break sometimes? You know, for instance, pamper her hair and mine?”
“Oh be rest assured.” the dear lady now sounded chirpy. “Your head massage with oil will not be forgotten.”
I laughed. “Make sure you sing for Dadaji this time. Then I am sure he won’t throw tantrums about his medicines.”
Evenings in Shimla are a delight. The good-looking shawls come out of closets and thela-wallas gear up for the day’s hot snacks. Bhutta, samosas, tikkis, you name it. The streets light up with neon and laughter and the valleys of Kalka below, sport glittery beads of various shades. As I walked down a lane, I spotted the couple in a restaurant. Open roof, festive and bright. The old man was tapping his feet to the lively music. His wife was looking around with awed eyes. She smiled when a waiter came along with a big tray of steaming food.
Even in Shimla’s twilight chill, my heart warmed. It does even now when I think about the couple – chattering and teasing and perked up about their big holiday. If it was their desire to spend a few fleeting moments together that first drew me to them, it is now more. Over time, I have realized the importance of a loved one’s reassurance on a stormy day. The very belief that come what may, frail or frayed, love will never grow old… I tell you, the feeling is splendid.
Discovering new alleys together is certainly one of life’s little pleasures; it never fails to surprise me how every new street we walk down has new tales to uncover. Somewhere there will be an old man like him with an undying spirit of adventure. A lady like her, adept at suppressing desires and dreams, out to relive moments of togetherness. A town perhaps, withdrawn yet beautiful, promising the moon and actually sending it over in a ribbon-ed package.
And probably, someone like you, waiting to listen to a tale and tell a few of yours.
*Written as a part of “Around the world with Expedia!” contest on Indiblogger. Brand ‘Expedia’ – the one word for travel – is not new for the travellers among us and that, is no mean number. I wonder if the Punjabi pair I met was assisted by Expedia.
To read more entries to this splendid drive, and spread some love on mine, go here.