Nikhilesh Panigrahi, Nick to you and me, is a one huge pain in the ass and the world knows it. Maybe even those aliens on Europa that look like rectangular blocks know it. Arthur C.Clarke says they know everything.
The only reason why I tolerate Nick is because he’s funny. That his Pappy is Admiral K.K.Panigrahi, head of the Western Naval Command at Mumbai, is also a factor. Having a pal whose Dad is a head honcho in the military means unlimited tax-free booze plus the exciting prospect of occasional guided tours aboard those frigates and guided missile cruisers, all the while being courted around like royalty. These fauji types sure can live in style, believe you me. Batmen at your beck and call. You have an itch on your butt and need to have it scratched, a batman will do it for ya, no sweat. And he’ll act like he loves doing it too.
But this is not about Nick’s Dad or how the Indian Navy arranges to have your butt scratched. Don’t waylay my sharp intellect, ok? Let me move on with the story. The INS Chakra, a nuclear powered Charlie Class guided missile submarine, had just docked at Mazgaon and Nick’s Dad was scheduled to go on board for a visit. We had been invited.
So there we were, wedged between the A.H.Wheelers new stand and an ice cream vendor, on an overcrowded Platform-1 of the Pune Railway Station. Nick had his wife Sumona and 6yr old daughter, Rumi. Sumona was excitedly getting acquainted with my markedly better half, Rekha, and Rumi was eying our 7yr old Akshay from behind her mother’s pallu. Akshay took two chocolate eclairs out of his pocket and held one out to her. Rumi shrank back further inside the folds of her mother’s saree. Akshay took a step forward and she escaped to her father. Akshay gave chase and soon the two kids were running around each other, giggling. “Pat gayee!” I thought to myself.
The Panigrahis had separate seats, two cars ahead and were about to part temporarily when Rekha had this brainwave that made the four hour journey to Mumbai one of the most memorable I’ve had. She suggested that she, Sumona and the kids could travel in one car while Nick and I sat in the other. You know me, I’m hen-terrorized. I agreed. Nick and I settled the ladies and the kids in and raced to our car, just when the DQ started moving.
For non-Puneites, ‘DQ’ stands for Deccan Queen Express, an early morning commuter train that zips between Pune and Mumbai, a 200 mile trip with a stop at Lonawala atop the Indian Rockies, the Western Ghats mountain range, affectionately called ‘ghats’ by locals like yours truly. Being short-haul, the DQ has only ‘chair cars’, seating-only cars. And the seats are in clusters of four, two by two, facing each other.
As the DQ gathered speed and imperiously swept past all those tiny suburban stops, Nick and I found our seats and settled down. Nick unfurled a TOI that he’d picked up at the A.H.Wheelers and I whipped out the Wodehouse I’d packed. Don’t know what TOI is? You really are a piece of work, y’know. TOI stands for The Times of India, a daily which Rupert Murdoch has been meaning to buy up. I’m lying of course. He isn’t. Rupert is too right wing to have anything to do with the TOI.
When two men, two happily married men, two happily married men in their thirties, two happily married horny men in their thirties, two happily married horny men in their thirties unfettered by spousal monitoring, take out newspapers and Wodehouses with a flourish in a train, the first few moments are spent not on devouring the headlines or the exploits of Psmith, but in checking out the surrounding seats from the lee of the magazine/newspaper.
Remember, when you’re gazing out beyond an edge of your newspaper, the object of your gaze can’t tell if you’re staring at her or reading. She’ll give you the benefit of doubt of course. In this manner, anything that’s breathing while inside a tight churidar-kurta or butt-hugging jeans shall receive a closer than usual scrutiny. If something particularly interesting is spotted, elbows will nudge ribs, whispers shall get exchanged, ‘aye hamein zindagi, kuch to de mashwara. Us taraf uski seat, is taraf main chala’. I have been known to have turned shayar numerous times over this most colorful of lives. May the good Lord give me many more lives similar to this one. (Of course, next time He could tweak it a bit so I’d look more like Tom Cruise and less like Marty Feldman).
Sitting facing Nick, her knees bumping frequently into his with the sway of the train, knees untouched by fabric of any sort, was a girl. From where their knees grazed, the nearest substance resembling fabric must have been so far up north that Nick was going to rent a sled and a dozen huskies to get to it. That’s it. A girl. A girl who could easily poke you in the eye if she leaned forward even a bit. Smoke started curling up the starboard edges of Nick’s TOI.
Groan! I’m lying again. I fib a lot. You just have to get used to it. The girl actually had trousers on, stylish, slightly baggy, dark greyish black trousers and polished black chisel-toed shoes. You couldn’t make out what she had on top as she was swathed in a large matching grey black jacket and a shawl covering everything. Opaque black tear drop Ray Bans concealed her eyes. Fashionable, very fashionable indeed. Seated next to the girl, directly in front of me, was an elderly gentleman. Within minutes of settling in his seat, the man dozed off. They had come in separately and hadn’t communicated with each other all this while. She must therefore be traveling alone, unaccompanied, seul, lonesome, little big red riding hood. Mama Mia. Oomalapoo, Sheekalafoo. Rekha, Sumona who?
“Excuse me, can I borrow the cartoon page? I just love cartoons, you know,” the girl had removed her shades and leaned forward and lightly tapped Nick on his knee. Even pearly white teeth showed through a slight smile, a kind of smile you’d term in Bengali a ‘mridu hanshi’, a smile made of kryptonite. Mridu kryptonite hanshi.
If you thought Nick would be bowled over, you don’t know Nick. Nick is a cool dude. His blood carries oxygen in liquified form, he’s that cool. “Of course,” he said,” I bet you like Garfield the best.”
“Oh!! How could you know?” her eyes were wide open, long lashes fluttering, making it a bit windy in there,” I just love my daily dose of Garfield”.
“Let me see…” As Nick held the cartoon page out for her, I affected a look like I was closely sizing her up, ” You’re an MBA student, probably in HR. And single.”
She laughed,”Single is right and I intend to stay that way. I’m done with men. I just want to feel the freedom for a while..” she smiled again, as if to exclude us from her sweeping assertion about being done with men. “And I’m an air hostess by the way, so you’re wrong about the MBA bit,” she took the cartoon page, smiled a murmured thanks and buried her locks in it. Nick and I went back to our reading.
It was while we were having those steaming hot batata vadas at Lonawala that the girl turned to me,” And you? What do you do for a living?”
That was when Nick cut in,” Oh, Akash and I work for the government…..” Good Lord, there he goes again…”I’m sorry but we can’t talk about it.”
Her face changed. There was excitement in it. She shivered. “Really? Are you, like, spies or something? Undercover agents of some sort? Wow!” She shivered some more.
“Ok, we’ll tell you but this is only for your ears,” I leaned forward,” I’m with RAW and Nick here is on deputation to the NSG”.
“What’s NSG?” Her eyes were like saucers as she turned to Nick.
“National Security Guards. Like the Navy Seals. Only, we’re much tougher.”
“Are you both on a joint mission?” her voice was hushed and she couldn’t help looking over her shoulders frequently.
Nick nodded. “Remember, if you breathe a word about us to anyone, our lives are in danger,” he hissed.
“Are you..I mean like, are you guys single too?”
“Of course, in our line of work, we have to be completely unattached,” I took out the Saridon capsule I was carrying with me in case I had a headache on the train,” We have to have these ready, in case we have no choice but to take our own lives.”
By now we had her terrified. I began feeling sorry for her and tried to lighten the air a bit.
“What’s it like? Being an air hostess? Do you have to contend with misbehaving male passengers and flight commanders? Is that why you’re sick of men?”
She laughed,”I am used to the boors we often have, among passengers and pilots. Otherwise, its fun. A couple of hours of work and a whole lot of sight seeing on the house, later on.”
As the DQ cleared Thane, folk started getting up and stretching, in preparation to getting off at Dadar. We were going up to VT. And so was the fly girl and the moment we left Dadar, she got up hurriedly,”I have to go now, bye…” and she was off down the aisle.
We saw her one last time. It was on the VT Terminus platform. I had Akshay on my shoulders and Rekha holding on to my right arm. Nick, Sumona and Rumi were walking hand in hand. We were headed toward the exit. The girl was just a few yards in front of us, her gait lithe, panther-like.
It was then that we saw two burly uniformed men approach and give the girl a smart salute. The men had jet black uniforms with shoulder flashes with the acronym NSG on them. Their chests bristled with ribbons. The girl stopped and returned the salute. One of the men hurried to take charge of her luggage. I noticed that she’d taken off the shawl and jacket. Underneath, she had a tunic similar to the ones the men wore, except for the shoulder epaulets, which had an Ashoka Pillar just above a triangle with three stars in it. Much later, a quick look-up on Wikipedia told me that those shoulder flashes I’d seen were the rank insignia of a Deputy Director of the National Security Guards, also known as the Black Cats, India’s premier Special Forces Command.
At that very moment, since she hadn’t moved, we came up next to her and she turned and saw us, Nick, me, Sumona, Rekha and the kids. Her shades were back on but we felt the same ‘mridu’ smile play for an instant as she surveyed all of us. She gave us a barely perceptible nod, turned and walked briskly out to a black Ambassador MarkIV that had been parked at the VIP spot, its engine running, the rotating roof lights flashing. The moment she stepped inside, the car swept out of the lot, speeded up and disappeared round the curve of the reservations office building.