{  haldi  }

5:00 in the morning the train reached my destination. It stopped for a minute and then started again for next stop. I stepped out on the platform with my backpack in hands, the floors of railway stations in India somehow always look greasy, I walked a few steps carefully soon realizing its just the looks.

The platform looked deserted. Morning light had only just started to make its way through the thick fog cover. Everything was dark and damp and sleepy.

The right time for my train to reach here is 4:30 in the morning, it usually gets 2 hours late in the way - rain or shine, so we had decided that Vipin will come get me from here at 6:00. With an hour to spare I started to look for a tea stall. If there's one thing guaranteed in life - it is that you *will* find a functioning tea stall on any Indian railway station at any time of day.

At the far end of the station I saw thick white vapours - a clear sign of a tea stall. I wore my backpack and started to walk towards it.

Some people were sleeping on benches, Coolies1 most likely, curled like a child in womb, wrapped under blankets not thick enough ... A few curled up stray dogs were sleeping under the benches.

I was not the first person at the tea stall, There were a few people sipping tea already. Some Coolies, shop-keepers, policemen were already there. They all looked at me together when I approached the stall ... I was in jeans, a baseball cap and a red-blue jacket. Everyone else here is in scarfs and sweaters and predominantly grey or brown. Haldi is a very small city on the outskirts of Kanpur, not many people go around like me here.

"Chai bhaisaab?",2 the shopkeeper asked.

"Haan ji, ek cup garama-garam chai",3 I replied.

It is warm like mothers lap to be back sometimes when I feel this country touch my skin. Coffee is just coffee, tea is just tea here, no questions on cream and sugar. You get what you get.

It was 2 rupees a cup. The handmade earthen cup, kulhad. When we were kids, my brother and I used to throw them on the patri4 after emptying to see/hear them break. It was a fun thing to do. Tea was less important than the joy of breaking a kulhad. Some stations we would buy tea only if it was sold in kulhads, plastic cups were no fun at all.

I warmed my hands holding kulhad in both of them and sipped the tea. I'd be meeting several of my college friends today after almost three years. Everyone went his/her own way then to make a life. Then some people started to get married. Tonight Ajit will.

After finishing the tea I threw the cup in the dustbin at some distance. I really really wanted to break it but I guess I did't have what it takes anymore. I got concerned about the policemen objecting, littering etc. When I know I need not. I hate to accept it but I know they are right when they say - in India, Sab kuchh chalta hai5.

I looked at my watch, it's still 15 minutes to 6:00. I started to walk towards the main exit to meet Vipin outside. Some life had started to move around the platform now. A sweeper was dusting the floor, a few shop keepers were opening their shops.

{  vipin  }

Vipin with the broadest smile; Vipin with the broadest chest. Vipin came on a scooter; he saw me from the distance and yelled "Chhibboo!". I've always hated the nickname they made for me. Luckily it never caught on but my dislike for it was so well known, the closest buddies never fail to use it. It made me smile. I waved back my hand.

He turned the scooter off and parked it just below the main enterance steps. Then he ran up the stairs two steps at a time and hugged me. Vipin of the bear hugs; Vipin of the open heart.

"How are you Chhibboo mere dost, you look exactly the same. No wait! You look like an American. heh heh..", Vipin took my bag from me and walked towards the scooter that was just a few steps away, once there he handed me back my bag. All the way to Ajit's home he kept talking randomly, asking about me, telling about himself. He had arrived here yesterday. He told me of more friends, who have already arrived, who are supposed to arrive later that day.

It had been a long time I'd had a pillion ride and the roads of Haldi were not very smooth on that, so I, for the most part just listened.

A few years ago, still post graduation students, we had a bonfire one evening on rooftop of my house, the entire class was there. It was the last day of fifth semester. Sixth (last) semester in MCAs are spent in on-job trainings, you don't really meet your classmates that often. Only once in a while someone would sync up with someone and visit the institute for some official task, that was the most you could expect. That bonfire was very dear to many of us. A lot of us sat around it wordless till late in the night. Several went home moist eyed. Last 2 1/2 years had been very dear to all of us, and no one realized till before that evening that they have ended for good. There will be no class anymore.

That night before leaving, Vipin talked to me at personal level, after months. He used to share a lot of personal issues with me in the start, and I in my typical fashion, used to either laugh away his concerns or make some funny observations about his situations. Even when all he looked for was a friendly ear. I've always blamed my behaviour on my sunsign, but not many people buy it. A few months before the bonfire incidence, Vipin was sharing his heartbreak with me over rum one evening in his hostel room, how he finds it difficult to get over this girl et cetera. I, half in in my intoxication, half in my "jest" made some "funny" remarks about how he should be thankful she at all stayed with him for even more than a day and other things I found "funny" in his situation. Vipin went silent from that day. The last thing he told me was, "You should know when to take life seriously and when to make fun of it. If you always keep joking about life, one day your life'll become a joke...". After that evening Vipin never shared his personal life with me. I never had enough nerve (or time) to apologize...

But on the bonfire night he said, "Rishi, take care of yourself. Don't burn all the bridges...". I didn't respond.

{ shipra }

Five things I learnt about Shipra within half an hour of meeting her were:

- She is married to my classmate Amit,
- Her father is a doctor and lives in Meerut,
- She can read and write but not speak Punjabi,
-She doesn't know how to wear a Saree, and
- She was born on a tuesday night,

Shipra was the girl whose picture you want to carry in your wallet so that when someone asks "Why didn't you get married?" the next time, you can show them the pic and say "Because she did".

Shipra didn't have a bad angle, she looked beautiful, happy, sprighty from everywhere. This kind of girl you want as wife, or girlfriend, or atleast as a daughter. Someone you can just be around and look at. More we talked, more I kept getting jealous of Amit. He didn't deserve Shipra ... but when it comes to girls like Shipra, you don't find anyone but yourself deserving of her ...

1: Coolie: Porters, very common on Indian Railways Stations.
2: Hindi - "Tea Brother?"
3. Hindi - "Yes please, a cup of hot smoking tea" - (not literal translation)
4. Hindi - Patri: Rails
5. Hindi - "Everything Goes"

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