It was going to be a long journey to Mumbai, I told myself, as I surveyed my co-passengers in the train compartment. A family of four, comprising an elderly woman, a young man, a young woman, and a toddler (along with 4 large suitcases and 5 bags), were struggling to adjust their luggage under the seats and themselves on the seats. The elderly woman was the boss. No argument there. She decided how and where the luggage was to be placed, the seating and sleeping arrangements for her family, etc. She bullied the man (her son), was quite nasty to the woman (her daughter-in-law), and kept calling the child (her granddaughter) an idiot. She picked a fight with the coolie and shouted him down with the choicest abuse and sheer volume. She had a “Lalita Pawar” (for information on who she was, click here) kind of look about her with a screechy voice to match, and it didn’t take me long to name her that.
Yes, it was going to be a long journey to Mumbai in a Sleeper Class coach of the Mumbai-bound Madras Express. It was the year 1997 and a beautiful November morning in Chennai and a perfect day for travel. But somehow with the arrival of my Lalita Pawar, the day just didn’t seem so beautiful any more.
Once settled, Lalita Pawar turned her attention to her co-passengers. And that was my cue to hastily bury my nose in a book. It was a look that I had seen many-a-times during my travels. It was a look that promised to dig out personal information from a co- passenger, particularly a young woman travelling alone. In fact, I could almost see Lalita Pawar rubbing her hands with gleeful anticipation when she saw me. Though I could feel her eyes boring into me, I did not look up from my book.
The train soon departed and the passengers settled down for the long journey ahead. Lalita Pawar spoke non-stop at the top of her screechy voice. She spoke about her dislike for people who drank, smoked, gambled, lied, disrespected the elderly, those who re-married, and so on. She would stop now and then to berate her daughter-in-law for something or the other, or complain about the quality of the food and tea served in trains, shout at her granddaughter, blah blah blah. My dislike for her kept increasing with every passing minute, and I just hoped that I did not have to speak with her.
Well, as they say, if wishes were horses I would be a very rich woman today !
When more passengers entered the coach at the train’s next halt, I looked up from my book to see who they were. And that was my Big mistake. Lalita Pawar, who was just waiting for an opportunity like this, began her “interrogation session”.
“Hello”, she smiled.
I replied with a namaste.
“So, where are you going?” she asked.
“Mumbai”, I said and went back to my book.
Not that it deterred her. She leaned across from her seat and poked me on the knee forcing me to look up. “Are you married?”
Here it comes, I sighed inwardly. This was going to be a long journey indeed, and a painful one too if I didn’t do something about it. And in an instant, I made up my mind to spin a story far removed from reality and give my Lalita Pawar a life story that would, hopefully, make her stop talking to me.
“Yes, I am.”
“How many children?”
“Three?” Lalita Pawar looked incredulously at me and gave me a once over. “You must have been very young when you got married.”
“Er… I was 18,” I said rather coyly.
“Sons or daughters?”
“What was the need of 3 children? You already had two sons. Surely, you could have done family planning?”
“Well,” I said bashfully, “We wanted a daughter.”
“A daughter? When you have sons ! How old are your sons?”
“The oldest is 6, the second 4 and the youngest 2 years.”
“They are too young to be left without a mother at this age”, she declared imperiously.”And who is taking care of them while you are away? Must be your mother!”
“No actually, it is my mother-in-law who is taking care of them.” And for added measure, I said, “She is the best mother-in-law in the world.”
Lalita Pawar did not look very pleased, as if my “mother-in-law” was a disgrace to that community. “Hmm… And what does your husband do?”
Here I paused and said delicately and morosely, “He is no more.”
This silenced Lalita Pawar to such an extent that she went quiet and looked away. I heaved a sigh of relief and went back to my book, hoping for the silence to last. Unfortunately, this only lasted for about an hour or so, when suddenly, my leg was poked again and Phase II of the interrogation resumed.
“So, how did he die?”
“Who?” For a minute, I had forgotten the story I had spun.
“Your husband ! Who else?” came the sharp retort.
“Oh him ! Well, he drank himself to death,” I told her in a matter-of-fact tone.
She pursed up her lips and looked at me with deep disapproval as if I was responsible for my “husband’s” death. She fell into a brooding silence once again and I went back to my book. This time the silence lasted through lunch and the afternoon nap. She must have been thinking about my “life story” because as soon as she got up from her nap, Phase III of the interrogation commenced.
“Where are you from? Mumbai or Madras?
“I’m from Mumbai.”
“Then what were you doing in Madras?”
“I had some work here.”
This was the moment I was waiting for. I hesitated for effect. And Lalita Pawar cooed and said encouragingly, “Tell me, beta. What work did you have that you had to leave your 3 children behind?”
“Well, aunty, since you insist, I’ll tell you.” I told her sweetly. “I had come to Madras to meet a prospective groom.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed. Well, actually you could not with the train rattling away. But you know what I mean, don’t you?
“B-but what about your family, your mother-in-law? How could she agree?” she stammered out after she got over the initial shock.
“My mother-in-law? She’s the one who arranged this match,” I purred.
This was the last straw. Lalita Pawar went nearly apoplectic with disapproval and looked away. And that was the end of our interaction. For the rest of the trip, she was the one avoiding eye contact and I was the one staring at her.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
In the course of my travels, I have met different kinds of people and have come away with pleasant and some not-so-pleasant memories. But none of the people were like my “Lalita Pawar”—so thoroughly obnoxious and so totally dislikeable. I could have been rude to her or ignored her questions, but in my experience I have found that this does not work with really persistent people. Anyway, Lalita Pawar would have poked me on my knee till I answered her !
Even though many years have passed since this incident, I had no trouble at all in recalling this encounter and reproducing it here. As I wrote this post, I wondered if I would have reacted differently had I met her now. Perhaps, I would have switched the conversation back to her and her family instead of spinning a yarn. At least, that is what I do these days when people ask me too many personal questions.
A popular saying goes that one cannot really choose one’s relatives. I’d like to add co-passengers to that list, as one cannot choose them either. Or can we?
Notes: (i) The usage of the name “Lalita Pawar” is not meant to be derogatory towards the late actress. It is a reference to the roles of the evil, scheming mother-in-law that she portrayed on the silver screen.
(ii) The original conversation with my “Lalita Pawar” took place in Hindi, which I translated into English for this post. I must admit that the original conversation was far more earthy with her speaking in shuddh Hindi and I (deliberately) speaking in Bambaiya Hindi
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