If you look from a side angle, Sunder Rajan’s moustache would be like a brush, it’s bristles dense and cut uniformly and its edges tapering.
For his travel that day, he wore a maroon tee shirt with collar and pocket and brown trousers. At the first glance, many of his co-passengers in Chennai Express took him to be a police officer.
He was lying down on his lower berth when the women and two girls got in at Mayiladuthurai station. Sunder Rajan closed his eyes and lay in repose until they edged towards the seat on the opposite side.
Exactly at 1 pm, he got up, reached under his berth and pulled a red bag. He had two more bags under the seat and a round gunny bag, all packed up to the brim. A plastic sweet box and a newspaper packet came out of it. He placed them on the seat, put on his glasses, made a call on one of the Samsung Smart phones nestled in his pocket.
“Did Thambi call?”
“Ok. What did you pack for lunch?”
“Did you pack a spoon?”
“Oh. Then I can’t have lunch. I will bring it safely on my trip back.”
He pulled the red bag again, put the box inside and pushed it back under the seat, then leaned back in his seat, absently twirling the edges of his moustache. The train had crossed past the verdant green fields and quaint pump houses and getting into the Chidambaram Junction. Motorists, cyclists and push cart vendors waited in the hot sun on the other side of the railway gate for the train to pass. He took a keen look at their sweaty faces and the exhaustion, then closed his eyes, as if in a silent prayer. As of today, Sunder Rajan was blessed with the means to own a house and a small, Maruti Swift go galivanting about the town.
Twenty minutes later, his phone rang.
Without hurry, Sunder Rajan took the call.
“How did you do Thambi?”
“Was it easy?”
“Ok. Have you kept the hall ticket safe?”
“Amma must be in the portico. She spoke to me just now.”
“I haven’t eaten yet, Thambi.”
“Amma forgot to keep a spoon. I can’t eat with my hands.”
His eyes swept around. The woman and the girls were throwing sidelong glances at him.
“The situation here is not like that.”
A couple got in at the Kumbakonam station. As the man moved towards berth 25, Sunder Rajan sat, his bedding spread to cover half of the seat, his legs spread in a wide V. Unruffled, the man sat on the small space beside Sunder Rajan; his wife went to the opposite side to sit with the women and the girls. He turned his face away from them as all of them chatted non-stop, munching on snacks bought from the passing vendors.
Finally, at 3 pm, the train was at Vilupuram. Half of the day journey was already complete. Sunder Rajan got up, pulled his trousers up and ambled towards the restroom. Back, he opened the plastic box and started eating. When he finished, he made a call and spoke in a soft, obliging tone. A flickering smile lifted the corners of his mouth.
“Amma. Yes. I’m lying down. Lower berth only.”
“I ate, Amma. Curd rice and vadas.”
“Will Lokesh come? Then send him later than usual. The train…”
He pulled out his other phone and checked the time.
“We started 45 minutes late. I will call once we reach Tambaram.”
“Yes, I spoke with Thambi. Mathematics isn’t his strong subject. Let us see.”
“It is a hot day. Drink a lot of water, Amma.”
As he continued talking, the berths were fixed and everyone lay down. the sound of day snores filled the compartment. A baby’s babble floated from somewhere behind. The woman in the opposite seat had a round steel box open in front of her. Hunching in between the berths, she was eating. Sunder Rajan twitched his nose at the strong spice smell pervading the air. A fat annoyance came to sit in between his eyebrows as if he owned the train. He called the God’s name he always called when he was annoyed, loud enough for the woman to hear, then lay back on the berth, pulling the Railway blanket to cover his nose.
At 420 the rock tune sounded again.
“100 Rs? Ok.”
He switched phones, made a call.
“The Courier guy outside our door. Don’t make him wait. Go, Get it.”
“What did you order?”
“Did I? When?”
“Go ahead Thambi. Open it.”
“Seeds? Oh! Must be the subsidised kit. I ordered it long back. Ok, listen, I ate.”
Sunder Rajan’s nap couldn’t go on. The chai vendor was there already.
He got up to buy a cup, letting others fold the berths back to seats. Back on his seat, he sat back to enjoy his tea.
The train had entered the city. They were passing concrete flyovers and busy roads filled with evening peak-hour traffic. Even without turning to take a second look at him, his co-passengers got down at Tambaram. By the time the train reached Egmore, the train was half-empty. Stretched on the side berth, he watched with glassy, moist eyes, as passengers shuffled out. His t-shirt was still tucked in and his hair finger-combed neatly.
He engaged a coolie who had climbed into the train. After a stubborn bargain, he agreed to pay INR 200 to carry his baggage to the car park in the station. Down on the platform, he helped the coolie stack the bags on his head, the red one on the top.
As the coolie walked swiftly through the crowded, noisy platform, Sunder Rajan fixed his eyes on the red and kept up behind- like a marooned ship’s captain following the light from a distant shore.
Author Bio: Since young, stories have been a part of Vijayalakshmi Sridhar’s life – both telling and listening to. Her fiction explores the angst around relationships. Follow her on Twitter at @sridharviji.
Photo by Killian Pham on Unsplash.