(a short story)







Have you ever seen a strapping young man reading a Mills & Boon Romance? And that too in the Deccan Queen. So Blatantly? In front of so many people? 


I did. Just today evening [I can already hear my English Teacher scream: “It’s this evening – not today evening!”]. Okay. Okay. It doesn’t matter. This evening. What I am about to tell you happened this evening. On the
Deccan Queen. Yes, on the Deccan Queen – my favorite train that runs from Mumbai to Pune. Let me tell you about it.


But first I’ll tell you about myself.  My name is Pooja. I am twelve years old and I’m a girl. I love train journeys and I have traveled a lot, especially on the Mumbai – Pune route. But this was the first time I was traveling alone. And my father was worried. 


My father came to see me off at Mumbai CST Railway Station. He seemed anxious and kept on saying the same things again and again, “Pooja, take care. Don’t get down at any station. It’s only a three-hour journey. She’ll come to pick you up at Pune. I’ve told her your coach and seat number. And I’ve told uncle to look after you.” 


‘Uncle’ was a young man of about twenty-five on the seat next to mine. He was very handsome. Smartly dressed. In a light blue T-shirt and jeans. 25? Maybe slightly older. But not above 30. He had a smart beard. A proper well-kept full-grown beard, not the repulsive dirty-looking horrible two-day designer stubble young men sport nowadays. They think the filthy hideous stubble on their face looks fashionable, but let me tell you it looks sick and makes me feel like puking.  But this guy had a gorgeous beard – it suited his face so well and made him look very handsome and manly. 


“Don’t you worry, sir,” he said to my father, “she’ll be delivered safe and sound.” He gave me a friendly smile. I liked him and felt happy to have him as a companion. And of course I had the window seat in case he turned out to be a bore. 


Now my father was talking to the train-conductor, probably telling him the same things. I felt embarrassed but didn’t say anything. For I knew my father loved me very much and genuinely cared for me. After all, he had no one else in this world except me. 


I felt worried about him too. That’s why when he kissed me on the cheek just before the train started, I whispered in his ear, “Papa, don’t drink too much.” I knew how much he hated to be lonely and now I wouldn’t be there to look after him. 


The train moved. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes past five. The Deccan Queen started speeding towards Pune. We would be there by dinner-time. 


I looked at ‘uncle’ – just a sideways glance. But he did not notice me as he had already buried himself in the pages of the Mumbai Mid-Day newspaper. I took out my Walkman from my bag, kept in on my knee, adjusted the earphones in my ears and looked at him again. He was still buried in his newspaper. Oblivious of the world around him. 


I pressed my earphones tighter and tried to hear the music from my Walkman pretending to ignore him. Tried to look out of the tinted-glass window of the air-conditioned chair car. But my eyes kept wandering, trying to look at him when I thought he wouldn’t notice. Hoping he would notice me. Say something. Talk to me. But he remained glued to his newspaper. As if I did not exist! How mean? And snobbish? It seemed he had no manners! I hated him. And decided to ignore him. 


After some time the young man next to me folded his newspaper and kept in the rack in front of him. Then he pulled out his bag from below his seat, opened the zip, took out a book from his bag and kept it on his knees in front of him. It was a ‘Mills & Boon’ romance! I smiled to myself. He seemed to be an interesting character. Young men in their twenties don’t read Mills & Boon. Or do they? 


He opened the Mills & Boon and started reading intently. I know it is bad manners to disturb someone who is reading, but I was so curious to know more about him that I just could not resist. I shut the Walkman, pulled earphones out and said, “Hello, uncle. I’m Pooja.” 


“Oh yes! I know. Pooja Agashe. Age 12.” 


 “How…?” I asked surprised.  

“I read the reservation chart,” he said. 


“No. No. Papa must have told you my name,” I said. 


“But he didn’t tell me your age, young lady,” he smiled mischievously and said, “Whenever I begin a train journey I always find out who my fellow-passengers are.” 


“You a detective or something?” 


“No,” he said smiling. “I’m in the Navy. A Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy.” He held out his hand,” Girish Pradhan. And don’t call me uncle. Just Girish.” 


We shook hands. His grip was firm and strong. Robust. Reassuring. Redoubtable. Just like he looked.  


The Mills & Boon paperback fell off. He picked it up and put it back on his knees. It really seemed funny – a solid macho man like him reading Mills & Boon. 


He spoke, “Been to Pune before?” 


“Oh yes,” I said. “We lived in Pune before we came to Mumbai.”  


“Then you can help me out,” he said. “You know where’s a restaurant called Vaishali?” 


“You don’t know Vaishali?” I asked surprised. 


“No,” he said. “It’s the first time I’m going to Pune. But she told me it was a famous place. I’d find it easily.” 




“The person I have an appointment with. 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. She promised she would be there.” 


“At Vaishali?” 


“Yes,” he said. “She told me that the Dosa at Vaishali is even better than the one at Shompen.” 




“It’s the best restaurant in Port Blair. That’s where we met for the first time.” 


“Port Blair! That’s where you met her, is it?” I asked. This was getting very interesting. 


“Yes. Last December. We were sailing from
Singapore to Mumbai and docked enroute in Port Blair. For some emergency repairs. Just a short stay of four days.”


I love to talk to someone who loves to talk. And this was like a fairy tale. It was getting exciting and I wanted to ask him so many things. Who was she? Her name? Was it love at first sight? What happened? About the Mills & Boon on his lap? 


But before I could speak, he suddenly said,” Hey! Why am I telling you all this? It’s supposed to be secret.” 


“It’s okay,” I said. “I won’t tell anyone.” 


“Now you tell me about yourself, Pooja. Why are you going to Pune?” he asked. 


“To see my new mother,” I blurted out without thinking. And then like a stupid fool I told him everything. I knew I was making a mistake but he was so easy to talk to that my words just came tumbling out. My mother’s sudden death. My father sinking into depression. His drinking problem. Everyone advising him to remarry. His refusal. Just for my sake. And this proposal. My father insisting that I see her first and we like each other. 


“You mean your father hasn’t even met her?” Girish asked. 


“No. Only relatives. Papa has only spoken to her on the phone,” I said. “Papa’s worried. He loves me so much.”  I couldn’t speak any longer. Tears had welled up in my eyes. 


For some time there was silence. I felt very embarrassed at having told everything to a complete stranger. But strangely after telling him everything I felt good too.  


I wiped my tears and nose with my handkerchief and said, “I am sorry, uncle.” 


“Uncle? Hey come on. I’m not that old. Call me Girish. I told you, didn’t I? And don’t worry. Everything will work out. 


“For you too!”I said. 


“I hope so,” he said. I’m making it to this appointment with great difficulty – I made it almost by a hair’s breadth. I signed off my ship in
Perth yesterday evening and managed to reach Mumbai just a few hours ago. And here I am on this train to Pune. She told me if I didn’t keep my appointment with her tomorrow, she’d go ahead and marry someone else.”


“So romantic!” I said. “Just like in the movie …” 


“An Affair to Remember?” 


“No. Some Hindi Movie… I don’t remember the name, “ I said, “You must be dying to meet her, isn’t it?” 


“Of course I’m dying to meet her,” he said. “It’s more than one year since we said goodbye to each other at Port Blair. The fifteenth of December last year promising each other to meet tomorrow – the 24th December this year at 10 a.m. at Vaishali restaurant in Pune.” 


“Why 24th?” 


“We met for the first time on the 24th of December last year.” 


“But you must have written to each other. E-mailed. At least spoken on the phone.” 


“No. She didn’t give me her address. She was in Port Blair on a holiday. And me. I’ve been sailing since. She said if I really loved her I would come.”  He paused, picked up the Mills & Boon romance book from his lap and said,” The only thing she gave me was this.” 


“Can I see it?” 


“No. You are too small for Mills & Boon.” He kept the book in the plastic book-rack in front of his seat, turned to me and said, “Hey, Pooja. Why don’t you come to Vaishali tomorrow at ten? We’ll celebrate her birthday together.” 


“But you haven’t even told me her name.” 


“You’ll find out tomorrow,” he said. “And suppose she doesn’t come, I’ll be heartbroken. Then you can console me. But I’m sure she will be there waiting for me. She promised. Whatever her decision, she said she won’t ditch me. She’ll definitely be there for our appointment.” 


I looked out of the tinted-glass window. The sun was about to set. Outside it was getting dark. Inside it was cold. The Deccan Queen slowed down. It was Karjat. I turned to Girish and said, “Let’s get down. You get good batata-wadas here.” 


“Your father…” 






We strolled on the platform eating the delicious batata-wadas and suddenly Girish said, “I’m nervous. I hope everything works out.” 


“Me too,” I said. “Papa needs someone. But he’s so worried for me. Whether I’ll like her or not. And she too?” 


“Of course, she will like you. You will like each other. I’m sure things will work out. For you; and for me also. Why don’t you bring her to Vaishali tomorrow along with you? And we will all celebrate!” he said. 


“I’ll try.” 


“You must.” 


“Okay. If I like her.” 


“But you must come.” 


“I will,” I said. “Like a kabab-me-haddi.” 


We laughed and got inside the train. Pushed by the banker engines the Deccan Queen began its climb up the steep
Western Ghats.


“Hi, Girish!” an excited voice said. 


I looked up. Another young bearded man. But this was a boisterous type. 


“Oh, Hi Sanjiv. What are you doing here?” Girish getting up form his seat. 


“Going to Lonavala,” the man named Sanjiv answered. 




“I’ve  bought a cottage in Lonavala. A sort of farmhouse. Why don’t you come and see it?” 


“No, No,” Girish said, “I’ve got an appointment in Pune.”  




“Tomorrow morning. At ten.” 


“And where are you going to spend night?” 


“I don’t know. Some hotel or someplace.” 


“Why don’t you spend the night with me? I’ve got a bottle of Scotch and we’ve got so much to talk. I’ll drop you first thing I the morning. It’s only an hour’s drive to Pune. I’ll get my car serviced too.” 


I could sense that Girish wanted to go so I said, “It’s okay. I’ll manage. She’s definitely coming to pick me up.” 


Sanjiv looked at me in a curious manner, so Girish said, “This is Pooja. My co-passenger. I promised her father I’d deliver her safely to Pune.” 


 “Hi, young lady,” Sanjiv said. “Girish and I are batch mates and shipmates. We’re meeting after a long time.” 


I knew that both of them were dying to talk to each other, have a good time, so I said to Girish, “You get down at Lonavala. I promise I’ll look after myself. I’ve got my mobile with me and I’ve got her number also. I’ll ring up my Papa the moment I reach Pune.” 


I insisted, and egged on by Sanjiv, Girish got down at Lonavala, but not before we exchanged each other’s cell numbers and he requested the lady across the aisle to look after me. 


It was only after the train left Lonavala on its final leg to Pune did I notice that Girish had forgotten his Mills & Boon. I took out the book from the rack and opened it. On the first page was written in beautiful cursive handwriting: 


To My Dear Girish, 

In remembrance of the lovely time we had together in Port Blair. 


PS – Remember, there is a thin line between pity and love. 


As I looked at the message something started happening within me. Snehal? It couldn’t be? Or could it? Snehal! A loving person. That’s what the name means. Maybe it was just a coincidence. There may be so many Snehals in Pune. 


The Deccan Queen is rushing towards Pune. There will be a Snehal waiting for me at Pune railway Station. And do you know, what is the first thing I am going to ask her? 


I am going to ask her which is the best restaurant in Port Blair. 


And whatever her answer, I am going to take her to Vaishali restaurant on

Fergusson College Road

at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. But I will not give her the Mills & Boon romance book. I’ll keep it for myself. 


And then I’ll return to Mumbai by the Deccan Queen. 







Copyright 2006 Vikram Karve 








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