By Savitri Narayanan
“How I wish I could go to Sitapur!” said Santosh as he walked in and sat down.
The family was seated for dinner. Even though there was a dining table, they preferred to have dinner seated cross-legged on the floor. The food was placed in the middle and they sat around in a circle.
“Why Raja babu?” asked Sheela, “What’s happening in Sitapur?”
Babloo and Pinky exchanged smiles. Their father was a senior engineer in some industrial unit but for dadiji, he continued to be Raja babu!
“Pitamber called this morning,” said Santosh. ”Kamala aunty is turning 70 and they are planning a big family get-together!”
“Dadiji’s friend, right?” asked Pinky.
Kamala was their next-door neighbour in Sitapur. Sheela talked about her so often that Kamala aunty had become a familiar name.
“Pitamber was my classmate, too,” said Santosh with a fond look in his eyes. “All those years we walked to school together, wonderful times!”
“He was the sports captain, right?” asked Babloo.
Babloo and Pinky had been to Sitapur only once or twice, that too for some marriage or family function. But from Papaji’s and Dadiji’s frequent reminiscences, they had formed live images of the place and people there.
“Let’s all go!” said Sushama, “When is Kamala aunt’s birthday?”
Sushama too had visited often but hadn’t lived in Sitapur. At the time of their marriage, both pitaji and maji lived there. Santosh was employed in some company in Bhilai where Sushama too went with him. In a few years he was transferred to Nagpur and then to Lucknow. For the past few years, he was posted in Delhi. When pitaji passed away, maji had moved in with them at Lucknow. Even though she didn’t actually live there, Sushama knew how much Santosh and maji missed their village.
“When is the birthday? Let’s all go!” Sushama said again.
“On coming Monday,” said Santosh, “Impossible to take leave next week, the board meeting is scheduled!”
“The semester exams are on that week!” said Sushama.
“Bad luck!” said Babloo. ”How I wish I could get to Sitapur!”
“Papaji, promise,” said Pinky, “After semester exams let’s all go there!”
Sheela completed dinner, picked up her plate and got up. In the kitchen, she washed and put away the dishes. Slowly she took her walking stick and sat down on the chair.
To everyone’s surprise, she made a dramatic announcement. “I’m going for Kamala’s birthday!”
As they looked at her astonished, Sheela laughed. “I’ll represent the whole Gupta family!
“How will you go, dadiji?” Pinky was concerned, “Alone?”
“Put me in a train!” Sheela laughed again, “Hopefully there’ll be other passengers for company!”
“For decades, Sitapur was home and Kamala was a good friend and neighbour.
Sushama said, “How can I not go for Kamala’s birthday!”
Knowing her nature, instead of persuading her not to go, they looked at the train timings.
“Let me reach a few days before the day”, said Sheela. “It’ll be good to catch up with the villagers!”
“There’s a ticket available for day after tomorrow,” said Santosh, his eyes on the computer screen, “It’s a fast train, starts at 10 p.m. and you’ll be in Sitapur by early morning 6 a.m. I’ll ask Pitamber to receive you at the station!”
“Of course not! Don’t tell anybody, let it be a surprise!” There was a twinkle in Sheela’s eyes, “I’ll just walk in! Let’s make some gulab jamun for Kamala!”
“Mummyji, you haven’t been to Sitapur for so long!” Santosh was concerned. “Things must have changed and how will you manage with your walking stick?”
“So what?” Sheela was firm. “People are helpful; I’ll get down from the train and get into an auto – that’s it!”
As scheduled, a week later Sheela boarded the night train to Sitapur. “Take care mummyji, safe journey,” said Sushama and Santosh as they saw her off at the station.
Sleep evaded Sheela as her mind was full of nostalgia. For decades, Sitapur was home. That’s where Santosh grew up and Sushama came home as his bride. Even when the elders passed away, they had continued to live there, farming their land. But when Santosh’s father passed away, Sheela had locked up the Sitapur house and moved in with Santosh. Whether in Bhilai, Lucknow or Delhi, the thoughts were in Sitapur but there was no real reason to travel all the way to go there. ‘Wonder how Sitapur has changed over the past few years,’ she thought as her station was approaching.
“Please could you help me with these bags?”
Before the words were out of her mouth, a co-passenger lifted her baggage and proceeded to the exit. Sheela followed with her walking stick. Out on the platform too, the same person moved it out of the way and took leave of her.
Sheela stood beside the tea-shop on the platform and looked around. It was a busy scene with the passengers boarding and alighting, those who had come to receive and see them off hanging around and the vendors briskly selling their things. With the criss-crossing railway lines, over-bridges and announcements on the loudspeaker, the station was overwhelming.
“This is Sitapur, right?” Sheela looked at the tea-vendor for reassurance. In her mind, there were just two lanes and two platforms in the station!
“Yes madam, this is Sitapur!” he said.
As if reading her thoughts, he continued, “This was a small station and only south and north bound trains used to pass this way. Now that it is a junction, trains towards Benares and Lucknow also stop here.”
The crowd was unnerving and Sheela could not find her bearings.
“I need to get an auto to Oontgaon,” she said, “Where do I go?”
“How do I know, madam! Ask somebody local!”, he dismissed her and turned his attention to serving tea for his customers.
Leaning on the walking stick, Sheela looked around hoping to find some clue or direction.
Beside the signboard stood a man glancing through his newspaper.
“Do you know where to get an auto to Oonthgaon? she turned to him.
“I’ve no clue madam, I’m in transit, headed for Lucknow!” he ignored her. “Ask some local!”
Sheela stood looking around and also at her baggage.
A porter caught her eye and came closer. “Madam, let me help you, is this your luggage?”
He lifted the baggage and walked ahead. Sheela followed. Soon he slowed down and extended his hand to support her.
“Where in Oontgaon are you going?” he made conversation.
“To Guruprasadji‘s house,” she said, “near the temple”.
“Kamala chachi will surely be happy to see you!” he said, “Travelling all the way to be here!”
“How do you know I’m going for Kamala’s birthday?” Sheela was taken aback.
They were near the auto stand.
“We’ll be lucky if Arun is here,” he said. “He’ll take you home!” Arun was Kamala’s second son and owned an auto-rickshaw. But how did this porter know all this?
He was on the phone for a while and then turned to her.
“Sorry auntyji, Arun is on the way to Rajnagar with a passenger! Let me find someone else!”
Sheela was beyond words at the way this young man was caring for her. The porter looked at her with a big smile.
“Auntyji, aren’t you Santosh’s mother?”
“Yes, I am but how do you know that? Who are you?”
“Pitamber was our sports captain but Santosh always won the marathon! He ran so fast!” smiled the porter. “Auntyji, I am Sooraj, wonder if you remember!”
“Oh Sooraj! Dhimanji’s grandson, right? How much you’ve grown!
Amazing that after all these years, you recognised me!”
“Auntyji, how can I ever forget you? The way you stood at the gate when we returned from school and quietly passed on the roti and subji you had put aside for me!”
Those were hard times for Dhimanji’s family. They struggled to put food on the table. Knowing that Sooraj didn’t often carry his lunchbox, Sheela used to help out.
“There comes Raju!” said Sooraj as he waved at someone. As an auto-rickshaw came by he said. “Auntyji, he is Raju, Kalu uncle’s son; he’ll take you to Kamala aunty’s house!”
“God bless you, child!” Sheela said in gratitude, “See you later in the evening, have some gulab jamun for you.”
(MA (English Literature)- Mumbai University Diploma (Early Childhood Education) Savitri Narayanan has done MA in English Literature from Mumbai University and she did diploma in Early Childhood Education. She started teaching in 1986 and she has taught in many places like Mumbai, Kerala, Indonesia and Dehradun. Currently, she is working as a principal at John Martyn Memorial School, Dehradun.)