by Raju Peddada
(Swans - January 28, 2013) On the afternoon of the 12th of November, 2008, we arrived at the Hyderabad train station to board the Sampark-Kranti Express for New Delhi. Passengers, upon arriving at the station, look at the printed charts posted for the seat assignments and the position of the cars on the platform. On the platform, a few feet away from us, a woman, about thirty, with flitting movements of a hen, addressed her dazed rural elders benignly in Hindi "... Aay ma, ma... you and pa carry the lighter stuff... me and him (husband) will make way... you both and the kids be right behind us... are you listenin?... aww stop the nagging, shut up... don't ask for anything now... train will be here any moment!?" She admonished her younger one for asking, and pointed towards a kiosk.
Anita Hudgi, as we came to know later, appeared as though she hadn't washed up for days, rushed towards the entrance of the railcar, followed by her husband, as it rolled to a stop. Pushing, first with her shrill discordant voice, then, with her shoulders and elbows, she made way "... aay brothers... fathers, please...please - aay... watch your hand sister-fucker... make way... please, my old folks cannot walk... they can't breathe, please make way..." another person shoving his way in "...hey woman... nobody can breathe... you're not the only cow... are you an actress or somethin... fuck you!" Husband: "... aay mother-fucker-savage, you talk to your sister like that... she's helping old people..." a cacophonous response: "... we're all gettin old... sister-fucker!"
As we battled towards our seats, in the second-class-3-tier car, her shrillness made my teeth rattle, as if someone was dragging their nails across a chalk board. Her voice pierced the din of that boarding commotion with several altercations unfolding simultaneously. I was not the only one who cringed at this strange voice that sounded like an audio experiment gone awry -- an unbearable vocal output that sounded like a graft between a toucan, a lemur, and a hyena. I prayed simply to be far away from her trachea, as I couldn't imagine the prospect of being within her vocal range for the next 24 hours.
I felt the sudden revival of my old form, as I shoved my way in too, assisted by my uncle: "gentleman side please - please, let the madam and kids pass." Anita's grating voice ahead of us: "... where are the kids, where, here-here's 20B - where's 20C... here pa, here, by the window" her father in her ear: "girl... sitting only, how are we to sleep?" "Pa, we'll adjust, we'll work on it - now's not the time, don't you panic." Two upholstered bench seats sat six people, with stacked matching sleeper berths; we got ours. Two seats were taken by a pouty pubescent girl and a middle aged man that looked like her uncle, clad in white hand-spun cotton (Khadi) slacks and shirt, looking very much like a swarthy politician. Mysteriously, his presence mitigated Anita's vibrating cords, as I watched all this with fascination.
Anita's parents had the aisle seats, near us, with no sleeping berths, but she, her husband, and their kids occupied seats on the other side of the divide. They had come from Chincholi, a village in northern Karnataka, headed for a pilgrimage up north. Her old man, Narayana Rao Hudgi, was illiterate, yet very amicable, speaking broken Hindi without hesitation. Prabhakar Rao, the uncle-politician from Nalagonda sized me up: "NRI?" [Non-Resident Indian] He calculated that breaking the ice with the wife would soften me up. He regaled her with his tales, as the train sliced through the hot afternoon with a timely departure, setting the stage for dinner. The supper-time aroma of spiced rice, roasted bread, and curries permeated the train. The travelers had settled into what was beginning to feel like a picnic on wheels. Servers dodged feet to deliver the dinner trays.
Prabhakar Rao primed me with his queries, "Saar, levinng in Amrica - whad is your vocaation... businass?" After he got the answers he was looking for, he pitched: "India has becom a heven for NRIs, tdere are manee prograams fundded by govement tdat banefit NRIs -- if tday anee NRI cun invast monee, he well eern crores in retarn." My query: "what's this investment?" I didn't have to wait long -- he was waiting for it: "Saar, if you cun invast two crores (about half a million dollars) in estaablissing a madical collage in ouor distrect, tde Indien govement will fundd twantee crores, widt anather Indiaan partnar, idt's immedite retarn - you cood convart rupees to dallars." It sounded like a scam to defraud the government by establishing a medical college, with shoddy lecturers, attracting desperate students willing to pay bags of money to get in, then siphon off the government funds and tuition receipts overseas. This is how many students acquire fraudulent medical degrees and end up in Africa and the Caribbean practicing medicine. "Look daddy -- daddy look, look elephants -- and monkeys there, look!" This timely diversion rescued me from Prabhakar Rao's clutches. From this point onwards, I somehow managed to position myself away from his pitches.
"Aay pa...ma, the kids are starving, how about you... can I bring you Pulihara, aren't you hungry?" Her father: "hungry like a bull!" Mother: "give the kids and son first." The exact translation of Pulihara is tiger food in Telegu, perhaps because of the colors: turmeric yellowed rice, with whole black chilies and herbs. It is a travel staple in south India. Making eye contact, Narayana Rao Hudgi offered, "Sir, our homemade Pulihara, please have some, it'll be an honor to share." Of course, we had our own Pulihara. Her mother was too shy to engage with strange men, as I watched Anita's solid bottom grind about constantly, serving up seconds, and buttermilk, to her entire family. Suddenly, a rickety old train beggar arrives "Ma... help please... god shall bless you all... help please, ma" Anita, like a flash, with a banana leaf cupped full with Pulihara: "here baba... some rice... sit and eat, there's plenty more, here's buttermilk." About an hour later after everyone was done, I saw her eating, and I detected a strange contentment on her face. Then it clicked... I knew what made her tick.
Anita's movements were quite comical, like a person in time-lapse photography. She appeared again, her face washed, hair pulled into a pony tail, and the end of her saree tucked away, with a satisfied look in her eyes. As I peered at her in contemplation, my disdain, engendered in part by her brusque movements and volatile voice, waned, and was being involuntarily displaced by wonder -- and as I watched, I was being watched by others, who apparently found my fascination fascinating, and, when our eyes locked eventually, the approval of her was evident in our reluctant yet complicit smiles.
While the boys and I wolfed down some Pulihara, Prabhakar Rao shared his curried lamb with my wife: "Madame, tdis laamb was cutt in frontt of me liss thaan tdree hours aggoo... my wifee maede tdis currie onlee onee hour before I gott on tdis trrain!" My wife: "Assss-ah... it's spicy, but the lamb is very soft and delicious" I thought: "yeah, with those canines!" I discovered their resistance to Anita had abated as well. I asked Narayana Rao Hudgi, "is she like this at home too - energetic and decisive, taking charge?" He nodded in satisfaction, allowing: "she's a little calm today," but his smile revealed more. As we bantered, Anita came around and offered us sweets -- no words, only action, and in a flash of hesitant eye contact, she managed to convey her gratitude for engaging her father. There was this compressed vitality about her body, a coiled spring waiting to get unleashed, and I wondered if her husband had managed to harness this lusty beast.
"In Chincholi, I have a small shop - my wife and our daughter help me - my son-in-law is a teacher in the village, we make a living... where do you come from?" "I am from a far away place, but, that's not interesting - tell me more about your village." Anita could not be heard across the divide, with her kids and husband, but then she suddenly appears again, with something in her hand: "pa... ma, we're in the north, it's getting very cold... put these caps on." I and my wife, simultaneously, looked at the thick woolen skullcaps, then at each other, and muffled ourselves, lest we offended them. As we almost succeeded in controlling ourselves, there appeared around the corner a contingent of four men, in parkas with their hoods on. Upon this sight, we broke into unbridled hacking guffaws, to everyone's utter bewilderment, especially the bundled men. Later, we explained ourselves, as they too saw the humor in it.
Around 10.00 p.m., with every stomach full, all the banter died down. Anita, like the master of ceremony, appeared again, this time looking earnestly into our eyes. She submits in Hindi, "our berth reservations did not come through, please allow my mother to sleep on the floor here, I'll be very grateful -- she'll not get in your way." This was not the same woman with that abrasive demeanor and voice from earlier that afternoon -- this was an empathetic and caring creation of nature, if I ever saw one. She managed to tuck her mother in the small space between the three-tiered berths, and took her father elsewhere. The gentle rocking of the train at a 120 kph, as we lay in our berths, acted like a sleeping pill, knocking all of us out.
We stirred awake to tea-coffee calls by the vendors around 6 a.m., as the train kept pace with the expanding golden streak on the horizon, to our right, east -- as we sped towards the next station, in Madhya Pradesh. Before we could wipe our sleepies off, the Hudgis not only looked fresh, but were holding steaming cups of coffee, and grinned at us in sympathy. A little past 8 a.m., the train pulled into the chaotic Bhopal Junction, where railway servers brought us breakfast and took our orders for lunch. I had learned to predict what Anita would do next: Lunch at noon, nap at 1:30, and tea at 3:30 -- she executed like a timer. We were less than two hours away from our destination, and somehow it slipped my consciousness, being preoccupied with the Anita show.
My boys' excitement kept me busy, while Prabhakar Rao continued to hold court with my wife -- when suddenly I realized that Anita's parents had disappeared. Twenty minutes later they appeared in fresh white clothes, looking as if they had had showers. Some commotion ensued across the divide, as I could hear Anita again. The late afternoon sun pierced the slotted windows on the left, and issued forth as luminous shafts into our car, coruscating every floating particle, and casting a warm glow on all the participants in this mobile theater, when abruptly the heroine appeared, like the setting sun, resplendent in her red-orange silk saree, revealing her narrow waist, and obliterating for certain any residue of that discordant entity that had boarded the train with us over twenty-four hours ago. Why these clothes? Then it smacked me -- time to disembark soon!
People prepared to disembark as the train pulled into the grimy and archaic Hazart Nizamuddin Junction, south of New Delhi. Then, without warning, the human siren heard a day ago was heard again, but this time, instead of wincing, I smiled with envy for that fortunate husband. I looked for my old friend, who was to receive us, amid the blurring chaos as we struggled down the train. I hadn't seen Rajiv for twenty-eight years, and, when I did see him careening towards me, he looked better than he did in 1980. We bid farewell to Prabhakar Rao and his ward, then, in excitement with Rajiv, as we turned to leave, I saw the Hudgi family looking straight at us, diffidently joining their palms in farewell. I motioned to Rajiv and the brood to stay put, while I drew close to her father and shook his hand. "Please come and visit us" he offered, then I bowed, smiling at Anita, who briefly locked my eyes, as I detected a hint of regret. And as I walked away, waving to her husband, I was certain of his confusion: as to why a "pardesi" (foreigner like me) would look so green, and regard his simple wife.
If you find Raju Peddada's work valuable, please consider
Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Raju Peddada 2013. All rights reserved.
Have your say
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)