Night has fallen in the coach. The kid sis has finally relinquished her seat by the window in a matter of minutes after having fought for it for the past half hour, having decided sleeping was a much worthier activity to pursue. She isn't much of a snorer, but amidst the regular rhythm of the track, another heavy breathing gradually develops into a soft, regular snore. Dad and daughter have turned in for the night and are being gently rocked to sleep by the train.
I follow the dancing lights the few remaining lit windows of our train throw onto the jagged topology beside the track. We quickly cross yet another wayside station, and the travelling landscape gets briefly punctuated with two green pinpricks of light. The station master and our driver having their customary exchange. A quick rattle over the points, the yellow station board fades into the distance and we're back to the dark, scrubby countryside of northern Tamil Nadu.
I glance at mom, who has her glasses pushed down over her nose and is peering over them at the phone. A few seconds later the alarm is set, she puts it away and looks up.
"Thookkam varudha kanna?" Are you sleepy?
No ma. I put my legs up on the seat beside her. It's a balmy August night, and I'm not even out of school yet. A close cousin is getting married the day after, and I'm looking forward to being in Madras after many years. And more so to meeting her after what has been even longer.
Some quiet conversation ensues, and ma slips into rewinding through one of her childhood stories. Their little gang of sisters, cousins. It never really struck me back then, but as I write this I think of how good of a storyteller she is.
I suppose all moms are. We just listen, and never dwell upon it.
She recounts the stories that to my city-brought-up ears, sounds like absolute fun and for yet another time I find myself thinking she and her generation in general, while having faced a magnitude of hardship unknown to mine, knew how best to have fun and had it too. I tell her this.
We chat on for a while, each silently acknowledging the time we have to each other after having set aside our usual roles back home - she the busy engineer, wife, mother of two, teacher, cook and a multitude of others.. and I, my part of the sixteen year old buried in his computer and his books and eternally shifty-footed about the exams ahead. The coach is silent, and I have the feeling I have grown up a bit, and I see that she feels the same about me too. A proper mother-son moment.
Over the years, we have had these little train conversations of ours. A windy monsoon evening as the Ananthapuri express battles the gale north east up the tip of the peninsula, we look out of the window and discuss life. She briefly interrupts to sympathise with the poor train that has been going on and on into the evening without a stop, an anthropomorphism that amuses the railway lover in me to chuckles. A crisp biscuit and soup on board the Duronto, we watch the fading light and I point out the little signs by the side of the track and ramble on about what they mean.
Years later, I leave home and don various robes across various places, while the usual hat I seem to have been donning - of the chap buried in his computer and arbit interests - doesn't change too much at home. Two degrees, a couple of cities and an onset of filter-coffee addiction later, I believe it budged a bit and the rest of the household began to think I'm normal enough. By then it was grad school and back to a longer affair with books and computers.
A lovely spring evening had me sitting on a stone bench, having completed a short workout session and taking in the smells of Magnolia flowers and an approaching thunder-shower. I had been reading Ramachandra Guha's excellent work India After Gandhi, and had fallen away to musing about my own childhood in a middle class household, and how that section of society had come a long way since the 1940s. In fact, I think, my sister had quite a different childhood eight years later. This goes on to some other line of thought on politics of the two countries I have lived in, when I realise it must be morning back in Trivandrum and that it has been quite a while since I last called home.
Mom picks up, and we chat on for a while. Not everyone is up yet, and she has a bit of quiet time. We continue talking and I touch upon some of stuff I've been chewing the cud about lately. And as she pitches in with some of her thoughts and I walk home, I can't help feeling I have grown up a bit, and I see that she feels the same about me too.