I moved to the door of the compartment on the train bound for Goa so that I could lean out and take some pictures of the countryside. On my way through the narrow corridor I dodged a group of fifth-standard students in blue t-shirts and shorts who had colonized the place, giggling, chatting away, ribbing one another, and playing cards while they were not chasing one another on the bunks.
I stopped to look at a plump kid with an irritated look on his face telling his classmate in a sing-song voice,"Tu mujhe irritate mat kar yaar," before turning his attention to the playing cards in his hand.
I couldn't resist a smile. My head brushed against a knee in the upper berth. Another of their classmates was squeezed into that little corner, a magazine balanced in his lap. I ducked my head to avoid brushing his other knee, and moved ahead to where a side-lower berth seat opposite a quiet-looking boy lay empty. He sat with his bag to his back, looking out the window while his classmates were engrossed in playing cards in adjacent bunks. Gagandeep Singh, a student of Bishop Cotton school, Shimla, told me that there were eighty-one of them on a tour to Goa, accompanied by 'five teachers' and a Minder whom I saw later scold the students in English in a Malyalam accent when the train stopped over at Karmali. Not realising that the train stops only for a few minutes before leaving for Margao, some of the students lolled about on their way to the exit, inviting a swift rebuke from the Minder who lifted his muscular hand agressively and threatened them, "GET DOWN, or I'll give you one." By 'one' he meant a slap. They hurried to the door thereafter, herded by lady-teachers who promptly ordered them into two columns along the length of the narrow platform at Karmali opposite the famous wetland where thousands of migratory birds used to fly down to roost, escaping the harsh winters in their countries. But that was long ago, before the Konkan Railway cut through the wetland.
I sat opposite Gagandeep. He told me that they had stopped over in Mumbai where they saw the Taraporewala Aquarium, and a museum. Now, they were looking forward to Goa.
I tell Gagandeep that he has rosy cheeks the kind that lend kids a happy innocence, and that they are well rounded, at which he smiled and said, "Once, a photographer who had been called to take a group photograph at my school pointed out to me after taking the photograph, and said, 'Woh beechwala bada gol hai', (The bloke in the middle is well rounded.)." We both smiled. I watched him look out the window every now and then. He had a calmness about him that belied his years. He showed only a passing interest in what his friends were doing. I didn't know for sure if it was because this was only his second journey by train ever (The first one was last year, on a similar tour to Rajasthan) or whether the countryside that flashed by along the West Coast was a new experience, or if it was about something beyond all this. Often, thoughts that course the mind zig zag around 'corners' in roads that run ram-rod straight.
Every year, in Dec-Jan when the school, dating back to the mid-1800s, and spread over 35 acres, closes for vacations, he visits his parents in the United Kingdom before returning to Bishop Cotton for the new year. He told me that his younger brother studies with him at the same school, the oldest boarding school in Asia. Then we talked about his hobbies and places he has visited in his time in India, and about his trip to Rajasthan last year. After a while he turns to look out the window again as a small pond draws up outside. Two children about the same age as him are merrily dunking one another in the water, and wave out spiritedly as the train thunders past them. Then he turns to look at me before turning away again. I try to read his thoughts, but get nowhere because where eyes are calm, thoughts run deep, rarely rising to the surface.
Then we both turn to look out the window. I latch onto the blue sky and watch my thoughts sail across the blue expanse, drifting away with the wind.