Sunnu a novel by Suman Kumar

Chapter 12

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Minar Express, Venky told me, was a super fast train. Sruthi and I decided to take the window seats. This particular trip to Bombay was happening because uncle's LTA, Leave Travel Allowance application was sanctioned by the bank. The bank paid first class tickets to all the members of the family, but as we, my brother, and me were around, uncle decided to travel by second class. Sruthi told me that last year they had been to Shimla. Time dragged on for me. I just could not wait to get on the train, the super fast Minar Express. Sundar and Venky too were equally excited. Two days before the scheduled departure, we received a letter from mom. Sundar got promoted to the tenth standard. He celebrated it by buying ice cream for all of us. Aunt made stuffed-fried tomatoes. Grand pa gave Sundar five hundred rupees as a gift. I got a digital watch and I wore it all the time, even to bed. Uncle told us, Sundar and I that, we would be returning to Chennai straight from Bombay. I told Sruthi about that. She had tears in her eyes.

"I will write to you," I said, trying to reassure her, wondering ‘I have at least another month before I leave for Chennai!’

"But... but you won't be here, Sunnu," she said and held my hand.

I felt strange. I mean… I have never had someone, a girl to be precise, who told me, 'I miss you.' I looked at her and said, " You know, I had lots of friends in Chittoor, and I had to leave them. I thought I would never be able to live without them. But here I am. I don't know how to say it, but it happens. No one can be with you forever. But we will be friends, always."

"You are a very intelligent guy, you know," she said smiling.

I just smiled as if it was the most natural thing for her to say. We promised each other that we would be best friends forever. I really couldn't comprehend what exactly that meant, but it felt good. It felt warm. When you are eleven you begin to realise that life has more to it than just school, cookies, picnics etc, but you will never be able to figure out what exactly it is.

The night before we were scheduled to leave for Bombay, I lay awake well past midnight. I wanted to write to dad about all this. I wanted to ask him about his LTA. I wanted to ask him when he'd be able to buy a television, a fridge and a scooter. I wanted to tell him that we should vacate the tiled roofed house and move to a ‘better’ house. I also wanted to tell him how I sat in front of the air cooler and how cool it felt. I asked him if it was possible to bring Sruthi over to Chittoor for a holiday. Sundar was mumbling something in his sleep. I lay on my stomach, closed my eyes tight and prayed to God to give us all these good things that Sruthi and Venky had, soon.

After long hours of excruciating waiting, we hopped into a taxi. We were on our way to the railway station. The train compartment was as usual dimly lit, crowded and somewhat dirty. The station was not as jam packed as Chennai Central was, but it was crowded. Sruthi and I sat facing each other by the window. The announcer on the public address system was telling people in English, Telugu and Hindi that the Minar Express would leave the platform in a few moments. I thought she sounded pathetic. She announced as if it was an obituary message. Her pronunciation- especially of English- would have been a powerful weapon for our freedom fighters if only she had been in the freedom struggle. Thankfully for me, the train started to leave the platform. Slowly at first, then, it gradually picked up speed. Lots of small stations passed by. I was gazing at the silhouettes of trees that flew by and the moon that travelled with us. The rhythm of the train too was mesmerising. It almost rocked me to sleep. It chugged along passing by villages. Whenever it crossed a bridge, it made a lot of noise. The noise would abruptly stop the moment we crossed the bridge. The passengers were getting ready for dinner. Aunt had packed rotis for dinner. I ate a few along with some potato curry. By 23:00 hours, the passengers started retiring to their berths. That meant that I could not sit anymore, as I had to move to the upper berth. I climbed up and blew my air pillow to shape and went to sleep. Sleeping was easy as the train rocked and swayed, to a perfect rhythm. That night, I dreamt of dad buying a television and a refrigerator. I was struggling to open the fridge and Sruthi helped me with it.

I woke up early next morning, at five-thirty, to be precise. Everyone was still asleep. I climbed down the berth and stood by the door of the compartment. The train was travelling at an amazing speed. The merciless blast of the cold, early morning air hit me and almost knocked me off my feet. It drove away whatever little sluggishness that was lingering inside me. I stood there, watching the landscape fleeting by, like a film reel rolling at maximum speed. Houses flew past me. People, mostly the rural lot, flashed by. The sun started showing up. I walked back to my berth. Aunt was awake. Within ten minutes, the whole gang was up.

"Watch out for the tunnels!" Sruthi yelled from her berth.

We were approaching Western Ghats. Over a cup of coffee, Sruthi told me about the tunnels. The tunnels were dug through hills to make way for the railroad. Some of the tunnels were so long that it took a train almost a minute to cross it. The best part was, the moment the train enters the tunnel, it would become pitch dark with the railway department's lights in the compartments miserably failing to provide the much-needed light. When the first tunnel passed us, I was caught unawares. It was like getting lost in space. The walls of the tunnel echoed and amplified the train's rhythmic sound. It was like some giant creature sneezing. Yes, that's how it sounded when the train passed through the tunnel. I enjoyed it, amazed by man's perseverance.

He didn't let hills affect his railroads. After centuries of struggle, he managed to fly too and finally, he put man on the moon. But my amazement lasted only for a short while; suddenly I saw the Western Ghats and its deep valleys. What hits you is the sheer size and grandeur. The valley sloped thousands of feet or so, and somewhere, way below, I could make out a river winding through the bed of the valley. It was seemingly untouched by humans and was beautiful. I was scared that the train would fall into the deep valley, as we were travelling at an amazing speed. But, I didn't even want to blink, as I was afraid that I would miss something beautiful. I was hoping to see some tigers, but from that height it was impossible to tell a cow from a rhino. I just assumed that they were rhinos until Venky told me that rhinos are only found in Assam. I didn't know if it was true, but it sure did blow my fantasies to smithereens.

We reached Bombay as the sun began to unleash its ferocity. It was hot and sticky in Bombay. I was dumbfounded by the multitude of people and by the size of the Victoria Terminus, VT, for short. We met Venky's uncle, Mr Ananth at the station. Mr Ananth's family was holidaying in Goa. He couldn't join them, he told us, as he was busy with his thesis. We had a three bedroom deluxe apartment waiting for us. The apartment was equipped with every conceivable modern amenity: TVs in all the bedrooms, a huge fridge in the hall, air-conditioning in all rooms except the kitchen and the bathrooms. The bathroom had bathtubs and shower soaps that gave a hell of a lot of foam. And most importantly, there were no hostile canine characters.

Sundar, Venky, Sruthi and I were allotted a bedroom. All of them took one hour to finish their baths. I was the last one and I took two hours. That was the first time I had taken a bath in a bathtub. I played with the soap foam and swam around in the tub. It was heaven.

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sunnu 2001©Suman Kumar.R.