A boy about ten deposited his wares in the general compartment of the local while he was pulled in by another Mowgli look alike. Scrub pads, nail clippers, pocket knives, scissors, combs, torches, gas lighters and other indispensables hung from a vertical stand like baubles on a Christmas tree. ‘Each one will cost you ten’ shrieked the Mowgli look alike, the strident call piercing through at least a dozen dreams of dozing travellers.
The girl at the window did not have to try too hard to catch the attention of the precocious fellow. She sat as always at the window, loose strands of hair dancing around her like Medusa’s serpents although she was quite the antithesis of the mythical gorgon. Black almond shaped eyes and brows adorned silk wheat complexion that stretched tautly across young cheekbones while her nose balanced pertly over wide and alluring lips. Eager eyes scanning the compartment for a seat locked on this youthful beauty a few moments before turning to the task on hand.
The packet of safety pins reached her, relayed by obliging passengers and the money travelled the same path in the other direction. A few minutes passed and the same wave reached her a rolled up flyer. She unrolled the paper and looked up, her curling lashes expressively alert. ‘Each one will cost you ten’ sang the boy with a snicker and a wink in the direction of the other end of the compartment. A big group of passengers were preparing to get off and there was no way she was going to find out who the artist was.
The portrait before her was a lot like her and unlike her. Her hair which was meticulously combed and braided in the morning looked frayed and a few errant strands curled loosely beneath her ears while the look in her eyes was distant and unreachable. She wondered how she came to have that look. Of course, it must have been over that bridge spanning the creek. She recalled that the sea today was without any ruffles and as gray as the sky above. She had gazed for long, till the sea became the sky and for a while the train was travelling in a gray capsule till another local from the opposite direction had snarled into her fantasies. She folded the paper and deposited it carefully in her satchel.
She turned and shook the rib of the open newspaper beside her. Her father reduced the paper to a neat rectangle and pushed it in the side pocket of his bag and then removed his spectacles to rub his eyes tiredly. They waited for the compartment to empty, for, this was the last station and their destination.
Father and daughter travelled up and down the same time every day. For a person commuting regularly it was easy to recognise the local you had got into by reading the crowd within, in case you had flung yourself on the foot board of the departing train and had given the time board in the station a miss.
The next day she received a portrait of herself with her braid to one side, eyelids at half mast and the sliver of eyeballs visible through lashes sweeping her cheeks intensely focussed on a book in her hands.
She began her hunt for the faceless in right earnest, rejecting, filtering, selecting and then rejecting till she felt she was losing her head. There was a sketch of her with her face turned up in anticipation, eyes wide open and lips slightly parted as though searching. Then almost as if the artist understood and was making a mockery of her, two miniature profiles of a bald old man with drooping jaws had been inset in the dilated pupils. The same evening there was a tap on the window bars next to her. She pressed her face to the cold rusty bars to see a man with a backpack turn and walk away briskly with the briefest of salutes thrown her way.
If the girl was pretty before, then, the glow of anticipation which now spilt from her eyes and her lips, the light blush on her cheeks and the way she held her head made her look heart-breakingly beautiful. Never in her life had she felt so vibrantly alive. Never in her lifetime had she looked forward to this otherwise monotonous journey home every day as she did now.
But the feverish pitch which had set her on edge for the past many days began to cave in when a week of drought followed. She had scaled the crests and now the troughs lay before her. She felt different now as though she had been churned and shaken and her alignments completely altered.