'I am definitely going to enjoy this trip', Jiteshbhai thought as he took the window seat. Mostly business men traveled on this train. But today he found the compartment occupied by five comely girls. He guessed from their conversation that they were going back to college in Mumbai. All doing MBA at some fancy institute, it seemed. Now Jiteshbhai didn't plan on doing anything naughty. He was no sex maniac. He rather considered himself a respectable businessman in his forties. Still, it is a pleasure having young girls around. Beats traveling with stock brokers and grain merchants, thought Jiteshbhai though he was one himself.
One of the girls, the bespectacled one, started reading a book. Her friends were chirping away, mostly in English, ignoring him. He could understand only some of it. 'I too should read. Something English. Would look good.' Thinking thus, Jiteshbhai pulled a copy of Stardust from his bag and proceeded to look at the pictures. But when he sensed the girl next to him looking at the magazine, he put it aside.
'Sleeveless tops do look good!' He thought as he stole a glance at the girl opposite him. She was looking out of window. Cupping her chin in her palm, elbow resting on her jeans-clad thigh, she leaned forward unaware of the view she was presenting to Jiteshbhai. He looked on, not wishing to look as if he was looking.
“Can I have a look at the magazine, uncle?” Jiteshbhai was startled by the question. It was the girl next to him. “Of course,” he offered her the magazine. “I am Jitesh” he added, dropping the “bhai”. The girl smiled sweetly and said “thank you Jitesh uncle”.
Now that he thought he was caught looking, Jiteshbhai closed his eyes in embarrassment and slumped in his seat. He had not been in such young girls' company for a long time. Breathing deeply, he inhaled their mingled perfumes. He was more than content to just hear their young voices, flipping the pages and laughing aloud. “See this hairstyle! Looks strange, no?” “I think it looks cute!” They went on.
Jiteshbhai remembered his youth. Seemed so distant now. He always cursed himself for not being brave enough with girls. He finally married a girl of his parents' choice and took charge of the family business, a grain shop. Jiteshbhai tried and expanded the business slowly. He had to make numerous trips to Mumbai for various permits. Once on such a trip he had chanced upon just such a girl, alone with him in their compartment. It had been a rare occasion with so few passengers. Past midnight, the girl had been sleeping blissfully under her shawl. Jiteshbhai's intentions were never bad, he now convinced himself. But the ticket checker had thought otherwise. He abhorred the memory and shut it out with some effort.
Now, growing restless in company of five attractive girls, he wanted to talk to them, impress them with his knowledge! But alas, his knowledge was limited to grains, their varieties, and prices. Even that he could not have talked about in fluent English, the language these girls seemed to prefer. He just pretended to be asleep and sat there with closed eyes.
Suddenly, Jiteshbhai was thrilled beyond his wildest imagination, as he felt the soft touch of a young female body pressing into him. Her scent from so close up sent his mind on a roller-coaster. He could feel her hair touching his shoulder. Then he heard a male voice, “show your tickets please!”
The girl had moved close to Jiteshbhai for making space for the ticket checker, who now sat beside her and asked them to show their tickets. It was the bespectacled girl who handed him five tickets and said, “he is not with us”, pointing to where Jiteshbhai had been sitting. And then she screamed.
The TC was very understanding. He consoled the girls, “it is not a vicious type of ghost. It has never harmed anyone. It appears on this train some times. But it fears us ticket checkers. Twenty years ago a TC found him peeking under the shawl of a girl on this train. The guy panicked and jumped out of the stationary train! But he missed the platform and just then the train started. Poor fellow, got crushed. Don't worry. He has disappeared now.”
The girl holding the magazine was crying inconsolably. But Hema Malini was smiling on the cover of the June 1985 issue of Stardust.
(c) Rajendra Pradhan