“There is no place for humans to stand, what the hell is this?” A grouchy man complained, pointing at the seven-foot-tall, stout canvass role. The man tried to push the roll towards the corner near the washbasin.
“Don’t you dare touch it,” He heard a small voice emerging from the backside of the roll. The general compartment of Okha express from Howrah to Baroda was swarming with people. Most of them were hobos without a ticket.
He kept his arms around the canvass roll in an effort to keep it safe. The train had just started from Howrah. He felt scorched in the stifling summer. He felt suffocated by the mixture of smells arising from the crowd. They smelled like sweat, onions, and dirt. Someone next to him farted, and the smell seemed to strangle him to death.
How would I endure the 32-hour journey? He kept asking himself. But he didn’t have any other way. He stood with his fragile frame leaning on the wall of the toilet. Now and then, when the wind blew, the stench of urine seemed to knock him out.
“Son, where are you going?” Another elderly man asked him in Bengali. He didn’t understand a word of it. He shook his head.
“Hindi, Odia?” even though he wished to be left alone, the elderly man had no intention to leave him alone.
“Malayalam,” he responded timidly. He wondered if the man even understood what Malayalam meant.
“Where are you from Kerala?” the man asked in Malayalam with a typical Thrissur slang. A smile appeared on his face as the man continued to ask him questions.
“Where are you going? What is in this huge roll? Haven’t you got the sleeper class ticket?” the man had no intention to leave him alone.
“It’s a painting,” he told the man.
“Who carries paintings in the crowded general compartment? Isn’t there courier service for this stuff? Tell me the truth. You are smuggling ganja from Bengal, right? ” The man didn’t seem to believe him.
He chuckled as he tidied his long hair and overgrown beard. It wasn’t the first time people mistook him. They thought he was an addict and a freak. It was difficult to make people believe that he was only addicted to her.
“I would have opened it and showed it to you if there was enough space,” in an attempt to convince the elderly man, he pulled out the mobile from his pocket and showed the man a photo.
“Hey, don’t try to fool me, ok?” The man chided him.
“What happened, chetta*?” He asked meekly.
“I can see the painter’s signature. It clearly says Priyanka. Is your name Priyanka?” The man asked as if he succeeded in uncovering the lie.
“Did I say that it is my painting?” he asked with a chuckle. “It belongs to my friend Priyanka,” he told the man.
“That’s interesting. So, where is she? Why are you carrying it around?” The man became curious than ever.
“I am thirsty. If you get me water, I will tell you,” he told the man. The train was approaching the Kharagpur junction. He had already finished the water in his backpack.
“Wait a minute,” the man swooped into the crowd and disappeared. He thought the man vanished forever. He sighed in relief.
“Here, have it,” the man reappeared, wading through the pool of people. He passed steaming luchis and Aloo posto to him. He also passed a kulhad of masala chai. His eyes suddenly filled. His stomach churned as the mouth-watering smell of puris hit his nose. Balancing himself in the corner between the washbasin and the door, he took a sip of his tea. It calmed his hungry stomach. He had taken a midnight train from Bolpur, Shanti Niketan to Howrah, and had skipped two meals in his hurry to get into the Okha express. He needed to get to Baroda the next day before her interview began.
A few stops passed, and a major chunk of local travelers alighted. The man helped him carry the seven-foot roll and place it in the upper birth of the first coupe. They sat facing each other on the side seats.
“So, what is this painting? And why do you take such trouble to reach it till Baroda?” He thought the man had forgotten all about it. But it seemed that he was mulling over it all the while he ate his breakfast. The man didn’t seem to let go of things easily.
“She has an interview in Baroda tomorrow morning. She had one in Shanti Niketan yesterday evening. She took the flight,” he started telling the story.
“So why did she take this with her? Why do you take the trouble? She is your girlfriend, right?” The man asked as if he has made a genius deduction.
“She is taking a flight from Kolkata to Ahmadabad. This painting is huge. It is not allowed in flight. She cannot afford the cargo facility. She had an interview at Shanti Niketan, and it got delayed, so I missed the sleeper class train. And yes, she is my lover. But I would have done just the same for any of my friends,” he smiled.
“So, what interview is this?” the man asked, trying to cover up his embarrassment.
“Post graduation in Fine arts, she is a fine artist,” he told the man, lost in reverie.
“Oh fine arts, but what is the use of the taking a PG in fine arts? And what are you doing?” the man was in an interrogative mood.
“I am doing BFA third year. She was my senior in the college,” he looked outside, the sugarcane fields ran backward in a hurry.
“So, she is older than you. Maybe it is OK among artists. I have heard that you guys are a queer set. Anyway, what would people do after the degree? Will you get any job?” the man shook up himself and sat straight in his seat.
“We will find out something. We don’t starve to death anyway,” he told, clearly offended.
“Son, I am sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I am working as a clerk in a government office last thirty years. I was part of campus politics when I was in college, you know, during the emergency. Anyway, I had to support my family after my father passed away when I was eighteen. I had great dreams of becoming a traveler. But destiny tied me into a small cubicle. I am glad that your generation is experimenting. But I am sure you will have a set of parents who sacrificed something. Now my son is insisting that he want to pursue arts. It was the first thing remembered when I saw you on the train.” the man stopped, and he looked outside.
“I am sorry too, uncle. Anyway, things have changed a lot from the old days. Artists have multiple opportunities in films and other media. I don’t know if a job is guaranteed, but anyway, you are there for him, right? Maybe you have already made the sacrifice so that he can live his dreams,” he told the man, and it made the man smile for the first time.
“Yes, I am there for him,” the man looked at the canvass roll curiously.
Chetta – Elder brother in Malayalam