Travelers' Tales & Tea Party
“Lata…,” said a tall brown girl from the lower berth of the first- class compartment of the train, “do you think we’ll be given a room to share this time again?”
Lata Naidu, tugged her ponytail and shrugged, “Depends on Sister and Matron but I think the chances are slim. You are in your third year and I am in my second year and we were room mates last term.”
Malti Kundan shrugged her slim shoulders -- a third year Economics Major at the Mayfair Senior College, she had been a regular hostellite since Junior College, “Yeah, maybe,” she agreed. Then after a brief pause, she continued, “This is my last year! So, you think maybe we will be in different rooms.”
Lata, also an Economics major, made a face, “Well…if I know Sister- she has made new rules again.”
Both girls were from Poona, their fathers employed in the same company. They had already been traveling for an whole day in the stuffy train to Dehradun and would be descending on the hill station only at six in the evening.
‘Have you read the story by Ruskin Bond, Night Train to Deoli?” said Malti yawning.
Lata leant forward to catch a glimpse of Malti’s upturned face, “Yes, I had English as my subsidiary last year and Ms. Batiawala read it to us in her shrill wimpy voice.”
Malti laughed, “I always thought that Ms Batiawala was strange -- with her long dresses -- her dangling ear rings -- painted blood red nails!’
“Anyway, why were you thinking of that story now?” Lata queried, interest livening up her bored face.
“Well…if the situation were reversed and supposing there was a heroine and not a hero, we could be meeting some tea selling vendor at the next small station.”
“I thought she was a flower girl,” said Lata remembering the youthful story of infatuation and attraction.
“Good for you! You still remember.”
Lata grinned, ‘So, you will be having six papers this year. Boring! Studying six papers of economics is sure to drive you loony.”
‘Don’t be jealous, Lata,” Malti giggled, “next year, you will be studying six papers.”
Lata shook a fist playfully at the older girl. Nineteen- year old Lata Naidu was the only girl after three boisterous boys in a row -- having no mother had made it worse. Unable to cope up with a growing girl, Mr. Naidu had eagerly sought help and found it in his aunt -- a stiff necked traditional lady who had contributed heavily to the raising of her great niece with a stern hand and after schooling Lata had been dispatched to Mayfair College much to the consternation of her brothers who loved having her around. But still there had been holidays and during one of these vacations, Lata had met Malti, become friendly with her and been her room mate in her first year of Senior College.
Coming from a close knitted family, Lata had been taken aback by the hostel and its inhabitants. She had been duly ragged by her room mate, who had later on helped her with her economics being an economics major herself. Malti had been great fun and they had, capital times together. Even her youngest brother liked Malti, and her great aunt thought her to be a good influence on her. An introvert by nature who preferred the company of books rather than people Lata had found the perfect room mate in Malti Kundan. Malti knew when to be studious and when, to throw in the towel and have fun. Lata was fervently praying that they would share a room again this year and if not, to pair her, with girls of likeable, peaceful disposition. Artistic by nature, Lata had finally managed to override her great aunt and opted for art and design as her subsidiary subjects. Lately she had been doing plenty of that. Taking her brothers into confidence Lata had cut her long locks of dark brown hair to shoulder length. She had later explained to her horrified traditional father that she could not manage her long hair alone, which she had to when she was in the hostel and so it was better to keep it short and manageable! She had given up classical singing because she explained to her harassed great aunt that she did not posses a musical voice or the inclination.
Lata privately felt that her singing sounded like donkeys braying! But much to the relief of her father and her great aunt, she had patiently endeavored with classical dancing lessons. And now in her second year of college having passed her first year examinations with sound results, Lata Naidu was filled with excitement at the thought of going back again to the hostel. Last year, she had, had to study Computer Science, English and History as Subsidiary subjects which had never been her favorite subjects, but this year she would let her artistic side shine and bloom. She was looking forward to seeing the massive buildings once again, learn swimming -- her great aunt had finally consented. This year also, she would be a senior and so would be an active participant at “ragging” the Juniors! Malti as room mate or not, Lata Naidu was determined to have fun, enjoy herself, study and carve out a niche for herself in academics this year.
Lata rubbed her hands in anticipation, “Pass me an apple, Malti. I am hungry!”
Munching her apple, she settled back to resume reading her fat novel, Mill On The Floss by G. Elliot.
The bus stopped with a jerk in front of the main building and two stocky figures came down the spiral stairs to greet the group which descended from the red mini bus with a white line running across it.
“Hello! Lovely to see you! How was your journey?” this was Matron, face creased in broad welcoming smiles. Nandita Sharma bought up the rear and banged the door shut and the bus sped away. The group of twenty teachers and Matron along with Chhaya Das, the Vice Principal surveyed each other in silence. A fat lady with a neat black perm , black spectacles and mascara -- Ms Batiawala, the English Lecturer for the Senior College noisily cleared her throat, “The train arrived on time…and thank God, the bus was there already.”
Reema Sondhi -- an Art lecturer for the Junior College gave an involuntary shudder, and raised her thin pencilled eye brows, “Oh we travel in that awful train every year! Why doesn’t Sister organize some sort of transport for us? It is not impossible for her considering the number of changes she has already brought about!”
Chhaya Das – Vice- Principal and a senior lecturer in the Art department smiled. She disliked Reema Sondhi and had already decided not to recommend Ms. Sondhi as her replacement when she retired in three months.
Coughing slightly Matron changed the subject saying, “The Sisters will be back soon from the Prayer meeting! They will be joining us for tea in the dining hall! Now if you could go and freshen up…” even to her ears it sounded like an order.
“When is tea?” this was timid Seema Choudhary -- a Junior College Economics teacher.
“Half Past Four, ladies,” Matron said smiling. Her jaw was aching now – “she had never indulged in a continuous smiling exercise -- whoever said that smiling was easier than frowning was a complete idiot,” she thought. She found frowning more easier and far more effective than smiling away to glory!
The group moved away, heels clicking down the long corridor, through the back entrance and out onto the narrow footpath to the Teachers Quarters. Gayatri Raghav was already there and handed them their room keys.
“There, that was over,” Matron thought audibly sighing and glanced at her watch, “the Sisters would be back now -- unless of course the bus broke down which usually happened once a month.” Matron shook her head then flounced out of the building towards the dining hall to check on the tea dishes.
Shalu Brar made her way back to the hostel reception area to check on everything, before she finally went home. Being the supervisor meant going home later than the rest of the cleaning staff, in the afternoon. She sighed, mopping her brow -- she was tired but could not afford to think of rest. She had to go home and then again don the mantle of cleaning lady for the City Hall, at half past three. She sat down and flipped the pages of the register. “Matron must have gone through it by now and also seen that Shanta did not come in today,” she thought picking up the pen and was about to sign on the dotted line when she noticed Sue Danely’s big bold lettering at the side of Shanta Ganshyuam’s name. FIRED -- she read slowly and sat back -- so Matron had finally reached the limit of her patience and fired Shanta.
“Well…. she would tell her tomorrow, perhaps, when she saw her because, inspite of being neighbors, they seldom ran into each other,” she thought. They usually met when Shanta appeared before her each morning for attendance, in the college. And now she would have to tell her that she was no longer an employee of the college. She did not relish the prospect, and sighing signed her name and thought grimly that if she did want to be next in the firing line, she would simply have to break the terrible news to Shanta at the earliest opportune moment. She walked out of the building -- out of the college through the back door and down the lane to the bus stop.
“This is delicious!” exclaimed Sophie Downey, the physical instructor for Junior College, helping herself to another crumpet. It was half past four and with the arrival of Sister Prudence and her entourage, tea had been served and dishes duly placed on the side table for self service. There were two mammoth brown pots of hot strong tea and coffee each, samosas, creamy small heart shaped tea cakes, large slices of freshly baked fruit cake and buttered crumpets. There were also some shortbread biscuits and sandwiches of tomato, cucumber and cheese. These were eagerly being devoured, as the teachers moved around and gossiped. Laughter and ceaseless chatter filled the dining hall, as the teachers exchanged pleasantries and family gossip and stumbled upon mutual students and acquaintances. Sue Danely grimaced slightly -- she never liked these informal tea parties which was now a usual ritual to be held before the beginning of the new term. She refilled her cup and munching a cheese sandwich and moved near the window. She was soon joined by Ms Batiawala in a garish navy blue sari with gold threads -- clinking gold ear loops and bangles and a gleaming nose stud. Her ultra black hair – “she must have finished off that dye,” Matron thought spitefully. Ms. Batiawalia approached oblivious to Matron’s thoughts, her short black hair gleaming in the sunlight, eating a tea cake.
“Never liked tea…or coffee,” she informed Matron importantly and then loudly hailed the passing Principal.
“Hope you like water,” said Matron dryly, then immediately rebuked herself mentally – “she was being mean, but Santosh Batiawala was not exactly her favourite person.”
Sister Prudence, rescued her in time, she came beaming, “Ms. Batiawala! Lovely to see you! And how is your daughter doing?”
Santosh Batiawala forgot to frown and glare at Sue Danely -- her prime subject of conversation had propped up. Her only daughter, Havovi Batiawala, a primary level teacher had recently moved to New Delhi after her marriage to a successful businessman last year. Since then, Ms Batiawala had not been able to stop gushing about her brilliant and beautiful daughter and her wonderful son- in- law. Soon, the entire staff, student body and even the cleaning ladies came to know the trivial details about Havovi, her marriage and her job. Having never stepped out of Dehradun her entire forty eight years of life, Sister Prudence came to be well informed about the roads and restaurants of New Delhi, thanks to the garrulous Ms Batiawala.
And so, Matron now turned away as she was sure she could not bear to hear about Havovi again. Last year she had been a ready audience to Ms Batiawala’s gushing praises of her darling daughter-“‘she said, Mamma but why don’t you stay with us? Why do you have to go? Such a sweet girl” and Ms Batiawala had sighed and clutching Sue Danely’s hand had continued “but you know children…” And she had laughed and Matron had nodded, all the time thinking, what about children? Ms Batiawala had evidently not finished yet, for she had carried on, “Havovi is such a sweet child…so understanding….but now she is not alone…and how can I just live like that…I prefer to be independent…” and she had explained for the rest of the evening how much she wanted her financial independence and why, that by night Matron had developed a splitting headache and had doused a couple of aspirins!
But clearly Sister Prudence had not yet suffered such an experience! Ms Batiawala smiled brightly, “Havovi is in good health….she works so hard… teaching small children can be so tiring…” Sister Prudence, her expression interested and sympathetic led her to a chair and seated, Ms Batiawala continued clicking her tongue, “I tell her, always to take it easy….and she says, but Mamma how can I? They depend on me…I have to give them a good foundation… Good values, manners…..teach them about hard work…”’