Unbeknownst to Noa, his and Sneha’s future was decided over a plate of American chop suey in a tea shop in central Darjeeling.
“Hurry up, silly” Sneha had called out as she pushed their way through the crowd towards the doorway of the train. Noa had arrived the previous night to a cold and rainy New Delhi. Sneha had picked him up from the airport, shivering and smiling, long black hair drenched from the rain. She had stood at the exit, a petite woman in a large noisy crowd of people. The hotel they stayed in was located in Pahar Ganj, close to the main train station. The hotel receptionist-cum- nightwatchman opened the doors, dutifully signed them in and resumed his sleep on the floor of the main reception right under the glaring television.
The hotel was called The New Ved Hans Lux. There were no bed sheets, no toilet paper, there was rust in the toilet and a big white bucket under the shower. The hallways echoed with loud voices from the other travelers.
The morning had broken bitterly cold. Upon hurrying for breakfast to a busy nearby dhaba they nearly ran into two men crouched right behind a corner. They were slight men, wearing white collared shirts, plates balanced on their knees they were digging into their food, right hand shoving white rice deftly into their mouths, left hand holding a small plastic bottle cut in half filled with steaming daal. Sneha grabbed Noa by the elbow, guided them past the men and shouted her apologies over her shoulder as her blue and green chunni flapped behind her and into Noa’s face in the cold wind.
Breakfast had been aloo dam served from a tiny plate with three puris. The vendour was a middle aged man with a bulging belly and a dirty shirt. The shirt kept getting dirtier as his hands moved at near inhuman speed over the large pans while he barked orders at his helpers. Standing next to a smelly gutter, the couple giggled as they ate in a crowd with other happy customers. Throughout the breakfast a brown mongrel dog stared at Noa intently. Sneha looked at Noa and then at the dog: “He stares because you are a foreigner, he knows you will give him something. Hurry up give him the last bit, we got to go.”
They made their way to the train station and entered the train alongside an army of well-wishers, porters, relatives of other passengers and vendors. Pandemonium broke out once the train started moving as the non-passengers now fought their way out off the train. Soon the rhythmic chugging of the train brought a semblance of peace inside the cabins.
The journey took nearly twenty-four hours. They passed through countless villages, towns and hamlets. They journeyed through a vast desert, sand flying in through the windowless cabin into their hair and clothes. Everytime they stopped at a water point Sneha would jump outside to fill in their water bottles while Noa waited inside, heart in mouth, in case she missed the whistle that signalled the departure. She always made it back in the nick of time, enjoying the thrill – laughing and jesting with the other passengers, switching between hindi, bengali and nepali. There were cockroaches and rats on the floor looking for morsels of food. Noa said a silent prayer in gratitude that they had the top bunk. Street children and hijras made their way onto the train at stopovers, either begging or singing in return for some petty change.
The train had taken them only so far, so when it stopped they got off and checked into a tiny hotel next to the station. In the early hours of the morning they switched onto a bus that would take them closer to their final destination.
“Bhaya, this is serious. Stop for ten minutes, my friend is sick, ” she pleaded the driver as Noa sat next to her utterly desperate. His stomach was on fire. He gripped the plastic bench harder knowing this was a question of minutes before disaster would strike. The culprit for his present predicament was the the egg wrap they had bought off a street vendour the night before.
The driver stopped the bus by the side of the road, more out of annoyance than anything else. Noa leaped out, totally blind to any possible threats. The vehicle had rattled to a halt in the wilderness, there were dry prickly trees next to the road. Thorns scraped Noa’s skin as he stubbornly pushed his way away from the bus. With not a moment to spare he yanked down his trousers.
The relief that he felt was soon replaced by a sense of dread: from his right he sensed comotion and he heard sounds – animal sounds. There was a yap, a snarl, a screech and the thud of rapidly approaching paws. To his shock he remembered that minutes earlier they had passed a troop of baboons. These very individuals were now heading straight at him. Trousers still at his feet he started gathering stones from the dirt around him. The next few minutes was a flurry of activity with Noa aiming stones, pebbles and dirt at the hairy beasts as they whizzed past him. The baboons bounced around and past him, seemingly more intent on keeping their course than dealing with an unexpected human blocking their way and causing a fuss. The moment was over in a few blinks of an eye.
Sheepish, Noa returned to the bus. Only upon entering the bus he noticed that he was wearing a bright red t-shirt, as if just to make sure that his now openly bemused fellow passengers would not miss a minute of, what was to him, a near-death experience. Sneha hid her face behind her chunni, politely informed the driver that they were ready to go and handed back Noa his half empty soda bottle. Upon handing him the bottle, her chunni slipped and he could see tears in her eyes, brought on from her having to hold back her laughter. He looked around the bus said sorry to everyone and no one in particular, grabbed the bottle and sat down silent. Noa could not quite place which feeling to attend to; relief, horror, shame and ultimately gratitude for being alive was truly a curious blend of emotions to deal with.
As they made their way away from hot, arid plain lands and started approaching the vast foothills of the mountains there was a change in Sneha’s mood. She grew more distant and tense. She spoke less, bit her nails and stared out of the window.
The final part of the journey was made with a jeep which they hired from the buzzling market place where the bus left them. Noa sat cramped in the front seat with three other passengers, Sneha with the women in the back. The driver could not have been more than seventeen. Noa’s thigh was pressing the gear stick, he had to move it out of the way every time the driver had to shift to gears two or four. “ Noa, don’t worry” she called out from the back “ – this part is only about three or four hours!”
By the time they reached Darjeeling it was late afternoon. Sneha had arranged the meeting by calling the family from the phone booth at the bus station. Her family was waiting outside Glenaries, a British style bakery and tea shop: her father, mother and the elder sister where all there standing, waiting eagerly next to the entrance.
They found a table by a large window overlooking rooftops. Behind and above the sprawl of houses lay the Himalayas, in particular the Kanchenjunga, basking in the orange glow of the late afternoon sun. While Sneha’s mother started arguing about something with the waiter, for a passing moment Sneha’s father – Baba – suddenly found himself alone with his thoughts. Everyone else was preoccupied by something. Baba knew full well why they were there – why they had made the trip. Perhaps because of this, he suddenly, became very aware of everyone’s hands. His gaze first moved to the hands of her eldest daughter, Maya. Maya’s right hand was pointing at something outside the large window. Her other hand was gripping Noa’s arm just above his wrist. Maya was chattering excitedly about some site that they would just have to visit. Her hands were smart, precise, well maintained and well suited for her successful city job and city life.
Baba then looked at Noa as he was peering out in the direction of Maya’s pointing hand. His hands were, to his eyes, curiously soft and fair. He had heard he was was an academic of some sorts. He assumed his hands had been molded from all the books and the hours spent in the library.
Finally, his eyes turned to the hands of her younger daughter. Sneha’s hands were holding the plastic menu, her eyes were downcast, she was unaware of his gaze. Her hands were intelligent, caring and able. But he saw more. He saw the roughness of her hands, roughened from the hours spent in the kitchen helping her mother. She wore no rings. Her fingers were swollen so she had kept the rings aside. They were safely locked away in the cupboard in her small room that she now occupied in her parents home. He also saw, as if ingrained, the traces of sorrow she rarely spoke of anymore, the pain of her previous life.
Truth be told, Baba had avoided the topic months on end. His wife had brought it up numerous times but he had brushed it off every time with an adamant “I don’t want to talk about it” or at times a more clear cut: “No!” He was painfully aware of society. This whole business of a foreigner joining the family was nearly unheard of. He felt that it just wasn’t done, it would raise too many awkward questions and require too many explanations. All the things he did not need in his otherwise comfortable and pleasantly predictable retired life. And yet now… Sneha’s hands! His eyes lingered on them. So in that curious moment alone with his thoughts Baba made up his mind: “Yes.” he spoke first so softly, that the others barely heard him.
The room seemed to turn uncharacteristically quiet, even the waiter seemed to be poised for something. Sneha’s mother slowly turned around and stared at Baba. Sneha dropped the menu and Maya unintentionally tightened her grip on Noa’s arm, nails digging into the sleeve of his sweater. Noa picked up the menu the only one totally unaware of the mood shift around the table.
“Yes, it’s ok.” he repeated. He was now staring at his own hands. No one spoke. “But I will give him one slap if he doesn’t behave well”, he looked up with a mischievous smirk. That broke the spell, the family burst out laughing, months of tension and uncertainty lifted. Sneha’s mother smiled and shook her head: “Well, there it is, you heard it”.
They ordered American chop suey. Noa ate with relish, the first bits of solid food his stomach could handle ever since the egg wrap. After saying their goodbyes, on the way out, Noa whispered to Sneha: “When will we meet them again? When are we going to ask about the thing, about our plans for the future?”
“It’s all sorted, silly. It’s fine, he gave his approval – and his blessing. We can get married.”
“What?! When did you talk about these things? You said it was near impossible, we would have to convince them, it would take time -”
She laughed, and for the first time since Noa had set foot in India, she reached out and held his hand – timidly at first, but tightening her grip as they stepped out of the tea shop and on the crowded street that led to their resting place.
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