“One more time!” Shriya scolded herself. Looking around, she observed how people so effortlessly went on with their daily routines. No one hesitated, no one stalled, and no one stopped like her in front of the moving stairs. Sorry, ‘es-ka-le-tar’, (broken pronunciation) she giggled a little as her tongue played with the words and the ‘tar’ reminded her of tamatar (tomato) and matar (peas) that her mother cooked that morning and the motor that her dad used to repair before his liver failed him.
“Arre madam, chalo na! Bahut samay hai aapke paas?” (Excuse me madam, do you have a lot of free time on your hands)
Shriya was jolted out of her reverie and became conscious of her surroundings and why had she in the first place landed at the Chandni Chowk metro station and had got stuck at the es-ka-le-tar.
She often got lost in her thoughts; it was an escape mechanism. Whenever reality became too real for her, she zoomed out and got lost in her own world of flashbacks, preserved memories and stolen moments from her past.
A similar struggle had gotten her perplexed today.
Her father had lost his life to liver cancer almost a year ago. She remembered crossing those billboards and discarded pamphlets with gory, ghastly images warning alcohol consumers to quit, but like most others, she had hardly given them a second look or thought.
Shriya had not been exposed to death till her father’s demise. None in her family had died of unnatural causes. Her grandmother had passed away before her birth and since then it had just been the five of them- her parents, her two siblings and she.
And then one day, while cleaning the basin, she saw some red stains behind the sink; her sister must have missed them during her chore time. She winced as she recalled how at first she had assumed them to be drops of the local henna (Indian decorative substance used to decorate hands especially during weddings) that her mother occasionally applied, but on careful examination realized that they were bloodstains. She remembered running frantically to maa (mother) and enquiring about the evidence when the ground suddenly jolted and shifted from beneath her for her mother’s silence confirmed her inkling. Everyday, since then, she started counting down the days for each day, her father’s cough increased with increasing volumes of blood.
Cure and care were both quite out of their bounds. It had taken all their savings to be able to afford the one consultation with bade Saab’s (village patriarch) doctor, granted out of favor and pity towards their mother in return for her dedicated care to the Saab’s ailing mother.
In between the medical gibberish that doctor sab spewed, maa only caught some words owing to her very limited understanding of English.
With no other viable option or door to knock on, father withdrew from the hullaballoo and spent his remaining days in the company of his pocket radio, Pankaj Udhas (an Indian music composer) and his baatli (a flask of brandy). With every swig he looked up, tears rolling down his cheeks incessantly and apologized profusely- one swig and a stream of apologies.
She had tried to hide the cheap alcohol, but he always said he had no other balm left to reduce pain. So she gad eventually stopped- stopped arguing, stopped fighting and just worked towards making his passage comfortable.
Shriya recollected the day after her father’s demise. She couldn’t find maa anywhere and had even ventured in the nearby bazaar to ask around. She finally found maa sitting in front of the garage where her father cleaned and serviced motors, still as a statue- so lifeless. It was quite unsettling and heart wrenching to see maa like that.
It was that day itself that she had decided to find a job. It was up to her now to educate her siblings so that they would be well informed to not let a similar misfortune befall upon them and ensure that they would be financially capable to tackle any fatality. Further she wanted her mother to be able to rid herself of the chains that leeched out her soul and energy bit-by-bit, day-by-day. She wanted to rid her of the many burdens that curved her back and weakened her spine, blow by blow. It was a necessity for her, more than a choice to wear her father’s shoes.
Nevertheless, she was proud that she could fit his shoes, for very few girls in her community were given the choice or the voice to ask for it. It pinched her that the cost had been a life, for her to enter a man’s world. But she was ready to change that and custom-fit her father’s shoes so that she could own them, establish her own footing and find her own path.
But was she? Ready?
“The train with destination to Huda City Centre is going to leave from platform number 1. Attention to its departure.” “ Huda City Centre ki or jaane waali gaadi, ek number platform se rawana hone waali hai, kripya dhyan dijiye.” (Hindi translation)
The announcement once again, broke her trance and as the noises started trickling again, they made her more and more conscious of her circumstances.
Shriya was standing at the Chandni Chowk metro station. She was to travel till New Delhi metro station from where she would catch a bus to Khan Market. Her childhood friend Rekha had pulled some strings around and gotten her a job at the parlor Rekha worked at. Though the job wasn’t of her liking, the pay was good and Shriya knew better than to be picky at this moment of her life.
She was determined though that she would be able to save enough money so that Riya and Mohan could start school and maa would finally be able to retire. She would use a part of her salary as investment and hopefully, maybe one day take a computer course and open a small cyber cafe in her community. She wanted other girls, like her and Riya to never be held back. She wanted to push them forward and give them the freedom to dream. Her Cyber cafe would become the bridge they would need to cross- from dream to reality. She would try and build a sturdy and lasting one. But she needed time and money for that; the paucity of both had got her stuck where she was standing now, facing her own bridge that needed to be crossed.
It was one more es-ka-le-tar that she had to climb to reach the platform. But she was hesitant, much to her bewilderment. She kept coaxing herself, “one more time!” but it felt as if her legs were disconnected from her brain and the command was ineffective. Her legs were rooted and as much as she tried, they barely moved an inch.
The distance wasn’t much as the board above her read. It was merely three green dots that the train had to cover, Chandni Chowk- Chawri Baazar- New Delhi. Her life hung between them and she would find herself swinging like a pendulum between the three stations for the next one-year, laboring tirelessly without a single complaint. Cleaning unwanted hair, mopping the floor at least five times a day, serving water and multitasking many odd jobs just to earn those four hundred rupees at the end of each day.
She would loose weight and her appetite but that four hundred would be worth every fight. For when she would see Riya and Mohan excel at school and fluently speak English she would realize that she had done something right. For when her mother would dance like a high school girl in the sari (an Indian attire) Shriya would purchase with her second month’s salary, Shriya would conclude that the distance she travelled was not merely about three stations but a bridge that brought her unprecedented joy and her father- some respite.
She inhaled and exhaled, slowly at first and then more paced. She knew she was generating murmurs and agitation for she had been blocking the staircase for over an hour now. She stepped aside and let the slowing human traffic resume its course. Overhearing passers by she was surprised at the sheer complacency.
“Connaught Place chalein? Bhook lagi hai!” (Do you want to head to Connaught Place? I am pretty hungry)
“Haan chal, (Yes let us go) I will pick pastries from Wenger’s too.” She overheard two passing girls.
“Achha listen, aaj movie chalna hai?” (Listen, you want to catch a movie) she caught an exchange between couples that were probably planning their night.
And then she caught her reflection in the lift’s glass shaft across her. Why was there an uncertainty in her reflection, was she scared?
She sighed and dragged her feet across the hall and slumped against the wall.
Yes, she was scared. It was a huge responsibility and she was terrified. Her father had once told her that he had first started drinking when Shriya was born. The consumption increased in frequency once her siblings were born. Soon it turned into an addiction and though he sometimes woke up at night screaming in pain, he knew he couldn’t stop. It calmed him he said, it took away the pressure and anxiety for few minutes. And as life became more and more complex and necessities started weighing him down and became shackles, he resorted more and more to escape reality, even if only for few moments.
She was petrified, that the stress might consume her too and she was frightened that she may end up like her father- cold, weak, apologetic and eventually dead.
Shriya looked up and realized her cheeks were wet. Frenziedly she dabbed her face with the back of her palms, to avoid attracting attention. She let out a deep sigh and inhaled deeply. Once calmed and composed, she got up and shook herself.
This won’t stop her. Her father always said that Shriya was unstoppable and if she set her mind to something, nobody could hold her back. Reflecting on his words, she couldn’t help but notice that she was smiling. She closed her eyes and sent a silent prayer to her dad as his words kept ringing in her ears. ‘Nobody can hold her back. She is unstoppable.’
Gathering herself and her belongings, she whispered to herself, ‘let’s do this Shriya. You have dreams, and nobody can prevent you from achieving them. You promised Riya and Mohan a happier and easier lifestyle in their future and maa a carefree retirement and you promised your father peace. So don’t let your past haunt you or your tomorrows overwhelm you. Those steps, those three stations are just a bridge that you are meant to cross, that you need to cross!
Don’t falter now, this isn’t the time to halt or look back. Stop the train and hop on. Out of the numerous destinations, one is written for you. It is up to you to create your own map and chart your own course.
You are ready. You have been since the day you saw those bloodstains and maa’s quivering voice rattled the house. You have been prepared since the day Riya and Mohan asked you, innocently and unaware if father was going to die. You have been ready since a very long time now. Get on that es-ka-le-tar, for one day you will learn to pronounce it right and will never be afraid to take that flight. It is time. It is your time now!’
She smiled. Silently prayed for success and climbed the escalator.
Old Delhi to New Delhi, past to future, Shriya wasn’t just crossing three stations, but was taking a huge leap from her unforgiving yesterday to a blank future, one that was ready to ink. Just like the train, she knew where she was headed. Her destination was clear and her focus was unflinching.
And just as the train with destination to Huda City Centre was about to depart, she hopped onto it with courage and curiosity running in her veins and her father’s voice reverberating around her. She was ready and determined to change her course.
And with that thought, she leaned against the sliding doors and tapped her feet to a tune her dad used to hum before putting her down to bed. ‘ruk jaana nahi, tu kabhi haarke….’ (Don’t halt your journey in defeat)
‘Ruk jaana nahi tu kabhi haarke….’ (Don’t halt your journey in defeat)