“The Indian Railway’s Second AC has lost its elitist air” Harshal told himself irritably.
Elbowing his way into his assigned seat, he glared at the passengers already settled in. They wore that shifty eyed look of proprietary, typical of wait-listed Indians. He rolled his eyes at the pedestrian domesticity surrounding him, cursing the college alumni association for advancing the reunion dates. He could have travelled better!
Now that he was in, it made sense to settle down quickly. Ticket checked, dinner order confirmed, toilet visit out of the way and bedding in place, Harshal plugged into his music and reading material. The feverish anxiety of a station halt had lulled into the rhythmic calm of chugging wheels and a pleasant ennui, his eyes began to droop.
Notes, the buoyant notes of jasmine and rose came streaming up his nose, as though from another lifetime. Spriha! Her Coty Sophia parfum, unmistakable! He sat up, heart in a roar.
There was a woman in yellow, seated beside the travelling ticket examiner. Harshal got up as though mesmerized, moving towards the two. “Spriha,” he uttered throatily, “What are you doing here?” He smiled at her sparkling laugh. “Are you attending the reunion?” he was sure that explained her presence on the same train as him.
“No, I am getting off at Allahabad. A meeting came up and I am trying to confirm a berth here,” Spriha turned to the TTE again. “Come and sit with me while he figures it out, might take a while,” Harshal motioned towards his seat. The two sat in silence, leaning away from each other. He felt levitated, a sensation of being in a hot air balloon with her, two souls on a joint flight wrapped in a wistful wisp of what might have been. There was catching up to do, Spriha’s brother Sukrit was Harshal’s batch mate and the two shared an entire web of friends and anecdotes that kept them engaged, breaking pace only when her destination rolled in. She got up, looking down at him quietly, and then leaned over to kiss his forehead as the train slowed to a stop, “Goodbye!” He caught the fragrance again, willing himself not to lunge and never let go.
Harshal sat inert through the rest of the ride to Delhi, his heart bursting. Why had he not come clear with Spriha? What had stopped him from professing that he did indeed believe they were meant to be together? He had suddenly lost all appetite for the reunion. But the national capital was being announced and he braced himself for the overly enthusiastic reception at the station.
There was no one as he alighted, not one familiar face in that teeming rush. “Could I have mistaken the date?” he felt disoriented even more. Lifting his light tourister bag, he advanced slowly towards the exit gate, scanning the racing faces. He had nearly jostled through when he caught sight of Vikram scrambling towards him. “Sorry Harshal, apologies but I have bad news. There has been a horrific tragedy. The party has been called off. We are going straight to Sukrit’s place.”
Harshal dropped his bag with a thud, the blood beginning to gelate, “What happened?” he croaked, not wanting to know.
“Spriha passed away in a road accident last night. She was on way to the railway station to board a train to Allahabad. Some unexpected official presentation I believe!”
Harshal spun around ponderously towards the train. It was pulling away. The woody spiciness of her Sophia began to ebb and leave him. Fiery tears ballooned to hover on his unmoving lashes He blinked rapidly then turned to follow Vikram out into the world.