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It was a hot day. The wind, dry as bone, whistled threateningly through the trees. The dead leaves that adorned the ground matched my forlorn mood. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed around the railway station where I was waiting for a train with tears in my eyes. I sniffed and brushed them away with the back of my hand. I swallowed, trying my best to stop the ones that were on the brink of replacing those dried tears. A fly settled itself on my arm. I made no effort to shake it off as, despite my resistance, new tears rolled down my cheeks. So what was I, a twenty-four year old business woman, doing in a pathetic state on a deserted platform, waiting for a train in the middle of nowhere in Punjab? I struggled to answer the question…
Scenes from the recent past swam before my eyes. The way I was publicly fired and humiliated just because my co-worker was promoted and considered me a threat to her newly acquired position; my best friend’s treacherous betrayal; the movers emptying out the furniture from my apartment- my first real home, while I watched helplessly and finally realized the reality of the situation And ending up buying a train ticket to my ancestral home.
The whistle of the train snapped me out of my reverie. I looked up and could just about make out the blurry outline of a green and maroon engine on the horizon, winding its way towards the platform. I heard a sound behind me and saw an elderly woman getting up from the station bench and making her way to the edge of the platform. She had short brown hair and a light tan suede overcoat. She was probably the only other passenger on the train, apart from me.
I stepped into the train. This was the point of no return. I resisted the urge to look back and numbly walked into the first carriage on the left. I sat down, pushed my bag under the seat and decided to spend the rest of the journey with my nose pressed against the cold glass of the half-open window. Then, quite suddenly, the door opened, and in bustled the elderly woman whom I had seen on the platform. I noticed that she had pretty, light brown eyes. She seemed to be very chatty and did not mind the fact that I was not inclined to talk and was mostly looking out of the window, barely registering a word of her varied comments on the weather. I was uncomfortable and hot. The train seat had become sticky and kept getting stuck to the back of my legs. A few mosquitoes buzzed annoyingly next to my ears.
I became interested in the one-sided conversation when she mentioned that she was a social worker for women and children’s rights. I have always thought that women do not get the importance they deserve in the Indian society. The old woman must have noticed the change in my attitude because she started talking even more, if possible.
From what I understood, I managed to figure out that she too, had come from a village in Punjab. Born as the only girl amongst four brothers she was regarded as a burden rather than a gift from God. Her dream had been to become a doctor and go to school like her brothers. But alas, even though her brothers supported her, the other members of her family were exceedingly orthodox and uncompromisingly conservative. She was not allowed to study. Her dream was shattered.
I was appalled. I just stared with my mouth hanging open. When I regained the ability to talk, I asked her how she managed her life after knowing that water was thrown on all her plans. What did she do? I had no idea what I would have done, had I been in her place. She chuckled at my shell-shocked expression. “ I went on with my life,” she replied in a strong, calm voice “ Life is just too short. When one door closes, another one opens. Some people just get so obsessed with trying to re-open the closed door that they do not notice the second door until it is too late.”
As the train progressed, so did my mood. The tears, which had been threatening to fall at any minute, had now safely dried up. My persistent sniffs had ceased and in the reflective glass of the window, I noticed that my bloodshot red eyes were gradually assuming their normal colour. The chronic frown lines above my eye - brows were slowly easing up. The agitation and unrest in my breath was calming down slowly, but surely.
The elderly woman went on with her story. After being denied education, she secretly tried to study by night with the help of her encouraging brothers who taught her everything they were taught in school. This went on till she was thirteen. Then, to her utmost horror she realized that her parents were planning on getting her married! An independent and headstrong girl, she fled from the village on the night before her wedding. She reached Amritsar, alone, in a strange unfamiliar place. Even though she was anxious, unnerved and scared, she felt a ray of hope light up somewhere inside her. Her excitement was enough to blot out her fear. She was not trembling with fright, but with the passion and eagerness that flowed in her veins. It was a strange feeling. A mixture of enthusiasm and nervousness. She was going to find her place in this world.
She started going to school in Amritsar and worked as a maid to cover up the expenses. Her job provided her with an accommodation so that was not an issue. After passing out of school with flying colours, she realized that more than a doctor, she wanted to help girls who were being oppressed by the society. Girls, not unlike herself.
I thought about this for a while. And the more I thought, the more sense it made to me. It made me see things from a different perspective, in a new light. The conversation turned to the lady’s job. She was going to Punjab to teach little girls and to make sure that no one was denying them the right to education. Her schedule was full of teaching, lecturing and travelling for the next few weeks. No breaks, no free time. It seemed horrible to me, but the lady, on the contrary, thought that if she was doing a good deed and helping others, a little extra work did not make much of a difference. “I love my job. I love imparting education. In fact, when my schedule is packed, I love it because it means that more people get helped. It is like having two helpings of dessert.”
The train screeched to a halt. The old lady stood up and retrieved her bags. I shook hands with her uncertainly, wondering whether our paths would ever cross again. She got off the train and smiled at me before departing. I thought hard about everything and realized that I had never loved my job in Mumbai. I never felt overjoyed at the idea of going to work. I suddenly got a brainwave…
For the first time in four months, I actually smiled. My muscles felt stiff, but welcomed the unfamiliar expression. I looked out of the window at the fields that had once looked empty and barren to me. This time I saw something else in the sand-colored mud. I saw the promise of life. The promise that, with seeds and water, the land could soon be filled with greenery. I looked at everything from a new perspective. It was as if I was a different person altogether. The loud moo’s from the cows outside seemed funny more than irritating, as did the colourful insects that flitted in and out of the half-open window. I was humming a tune as the train came to a stop at the old, dilapidated station in the tiny, rural village where my family comes from. I grabbed my bags and jumped out of the train. With a much lighter heart, I skipped out of the station, a smile adorning my face.
Sitting in the Tonga on the way home, I noticed things which I would have otherwise ignored and taken for granted. The graceful stance of the eucalyptus trees, the melodious songs that the birds in the trees sang, and the way the clouds faded into the depths of the blue sky- like pearls on sapphire. They all suddenly looked breathtakingly beautiful
Two months later, I proudly inaugurated my very own school in rural Punjab for under-educated girls and women. Another five months down the line would find me accepting an award for my school from none other than the woman who inspired me; the woman who found me alone on the train and comforted me in a very different way. The woman who, ultimately, taught me how to live. How to enjoy life to the fullest. She left such a lasting impression on me that I know she shall never be forgotten as long as my school and I live.