I had taken half a day’s leave and got out of the office early that day because I was feeling a bit unwell – spending too much time looking at ledgers and other people’s money had a way of doing that. But as I looked out of the window of the speeding train, I realised that all the symptoms I’d been feeling had magically disappeared – there was something positively curative about a corner seat in an almost empty train in the metropolis at midday; especially when you had the Walkman on, back in those pre-MP3 days. The season’s flavour was Machis, and I was listening to the album for the nth time. When it comes to books, music, even films for that matter, I have a tendency to return every so often to the familiar and the loved. I have always found comfort in predictability.
I was only dimly aware of the train stopping and starting at stations, lost as I was in the sheer beauty of Gulzar’s words. That mere words are capable of evoking so much in a person has always fascinated me. Romance, nostalgia, grief, pathos…they washed over me melodiously and I was floating in another world – a world in soft focus, where there was only Hariharan’s silky voice breaking my heart with ‘Tum gaye, sab gaya…’
The train had again rolled to a stop, and I was rudely pulled back to earth by the noise of half-a-dozen school kids of ten or eleven, their bags, lunch-boxes and water bottles. They came like a sudden gust of wind, pushing, shoving, laughing and shouting all at once, as only children could, and I switched off my music and looked on with resignation. They pushed past each other and a couple of them managed to grab corner seats, looking at their lesser friends with triumphant glee. By the time the train started moving, they had settled themselves down comfortably and that was when they noticed my presence. They nudged each other, pointed at me, and grinned. It was impossible not to smile back.
It slowly dawned on me that there was something different about these children – they did not speak like other kids. I vaguely recalled somebody telling me about a school in that area for the speech and hearing impaired, and I understood that these kids were going back home from there. The sound that came from their lips registered only as that – sound, not speech. These children spoke with their hands, their whole body in fact. But then, whoever said speech and hearing was mandatory for communication? In the next fifteen minutes, I knew their names, learned where they were getting down, and even got to see some of their eagerly extended notebooks as well.
All the while, I could see that they were discussing something among themselves, something that obviously involved me. It isn’t difficult to read the suspended animation in a person when she’s dying to tell you something, but has doubts about the wisdom in doing so. Finally, one of the girls – the one with the widest grin and the most voluble hands – got up, came to me, and pointed at the earphones of the Walkman. I took the Walkman out and gave it to her. That caused a lot of commotion. They passed it around noisily, pressing random buttons, tapping it, even shouting into it with the earphones plugged to their ears. One of them asked me how it worked. I switched it on and one by one they put it on their ears again and listened with fierce concentration to what they evidently could not hear. At length, they handed it back to me, and the girl pointed to the Walkman and again to herself, telling me that she too had one like that.
She happily pulled out from her pocket her own earphone with a hearing aid attached to it, and handed it to me. I took it in my hands and was at a loss for a moment as to what I was supposed to do. She gestured to me to plug the earphone to my ear and showed me how to switch it on. Then in an attempt to demonstrate how it worked, she took the aid to her mouth and shouted into it. I winced. Her look of startled apology was, a moment later, replaced with childish laughter and soon all of us were laughing, including the couple of other passengers who were sharing the compartment. If my eyes were streaming, it was certainly not because I was crying.
When their station came, they got off the train, still pushing, shoving, laughing and shouting. They waved to me from the platform, before heading towards the staircase that led them out. The train started moving, and the compartment suddenly seemed all too silent and empty.
Comfort in familiarity. I needed my world back – my world-in-soft-focus; I put the earphones back on and made a desperate attempt to go back to it. Hariharan continued soulfully from where he had left off. ‘Koi aaya tha, kuch der pehle yahan…’ I had reached my world.
It was only when I reached there that I realized that my world, in my absence, had changed – ever so slightly.