When I was college I used to spend my summer vacations in Dehra, at my grandmother’s place. I would leave the plains early in May and return late in July. Deoli was a small station about thirty miles from Dehra; it marked the beginning of the heavy jungles of the Indian Terai. The train would reach Deoli at about five in the morning, when the station would be dimly lit with electric bulbs and lamps, and the jungle across the railway tracks would just be visible in the faint light of dawn. Deoli had only one platform, an office for the stationmaster and a waiting room. The platform boasted of a tea stall, a fruit vendor, and a few stray dogs; not much else, because the train stopped there for only ten minutes before rushing in into the forests.
Why it stopped at Deoli, I don’t know. Nothing ever happened there. Nobody got off the train and nobody got in. There were never coolies on the platform. But the train would halt there a full ten minutes, and then a bell would be left behind and forgotten. I used to wonder what happened in Deoli, behind the station walls. I always felt sorry for that lonely little platform, and for the place that nobody wanted to visit. I decided that one day I would get off the train at Deoli, and spend the day there, just tp please the town. I was eighteen, visiting my grandmother, and the night train stopped at Deoli. A girl came down the platform, selling baskets.
It was a cold morning and the girl had a shawl thrown across her shoulders. Her feet were bare her clothes were old but she was a young girl, walking gracefully and with dignity. When she came to my window, she stopped. She saw that I was looking at her intently, but at first she pretended not to notice. She had pale skin, set off by shiny black hair, and dark, troubled eyes. And then those eyes, searching and eloquent, met mine.
”Do you want to buy a basket?” she asked. ”They are very strong, made of the finest cane…..” ”No,” I said, ”I don’t want a basket.” We stood looking at each other for what seemed a very long time, and she said, “Are you sure you don’t want a basket.” “All right, give me one” I said, and took the one on top and gave her a rupee, hardly daring to touch her fingers.
As she about to speak, the guard blew his whistle; she said something, but it was lost in the changing of the bell and the hissing of the engine. I had to run back to my compartment. The carriage shuddered and jolted forward. I watched her as the platform slipped away. She was alone on the platform and she did not move, but she was looking at me and smiling. I watched her until the signal-box came in the way, and then the jungle hid the station, but I could still see her standing there alone.
I sat up awake for the rest of the journey. I could not rid my mind of the picture of the girl’s face and her dark, smoldering eyes. But when I reached Dehra, the incident became blurred and distant, for there were other things to occupy my mind. It was only when I was making the return journey, two months later, that I remembered the girl.
I was looking out for her as the train drew into the station, and I felt an unexpected thrill when I saw her walking up the platform, I sprang off the footboard and waved to her. When she saw me, she smiled. She was pleased that I remembered her and I was pleased that she remembered me. We were both pleased, and it was almost like a meeting of a old friends.
She did not go down the length of the train selling baskets, but came straight to the tea stall; her dark eyes were suddenly filled with light. We said nothing for sometime but we couldn’t have been more eloquent. I felt the impulse to put her on the train there and then, and take her away with me. I could not bear the thought of having to watch her recede into the distance of Deoli station. I took the baskets from her hand and put them down on the ground. She put out her hand for one of them, but I caught her hand and held it.
“I have to go to Delhi,” I said. She nodded, I do not have to go anywhere. The guard blew his whistle for the train to leave and how I hated the guard for ding that. “I will come again,” I said. “Will you be here?” She nodded again, and as she nodded, the bell clanged and the train slid forward. I had to wrench my hand away from the girl and run for the moving train.
This time I did not forget her. She was with me for the remainder of the journey, and for long after. All that year she was a bright, living thing. And when the college term finished, I packed in haste and left for Dehra earlier than usual. My grandmother would be pleased at my eagerness to see her.
I was nervous and anxious as the train drew into Deoli, because I was wondering what I should say to the girl and what I should do. I was determined that I wouldn’t stand helplessly before her, hardly able to speak or do anything about my feelings.
The train came to Deoli, and I looked up and down the platform, but I could not see the girl anywhere. I opened the door and stepped off the footboard. I was deeply disappointed, and overcome by a sense of foreboding. I felt I had to do something, and so I ran up to the stationmaster and said . “Do you know the girl who used to sell baskets here?”
“No, I don’t,” said the stationmaster. “And you’d better get on the train if you don’t want to be left behind.” The train was moving out of the station, and I had to ran up the platform and jump for the door of my compartment. Then, as the train gathered speed and rushed through the forests, I sat brooding in front of the window.
My grandmother was not pleased with my visit after all, I didn’t stay at her place more than a couple of weeks. I felt restless and ill at ease. So I took the train back to the plains.
In the last few years I have passed through Deoli many times, and I always look out of the carriage window, half expecting to see the same unchanged face smiling at me. I wonder what happens in Deoli, behind the station walls. But I will never break my journey there. It may spoil my game. I prefer to keep hoping and dreaming, and looking out of the window up and down the lonely platform, waiting for the girl with the baskets.