CST was still a nightmare to her. After two years of living in the city that never sleeps, Sheela had still not got adjusted to life in Mumbai. As she waited for the train to arrive, she saw a shabbily dressed woman, with unkempt hair, a smattering of ash on her forehead, with a big round coin sized vermillion in the center, and pan stained lips, loitering nearby and throwing cursory glances at her. Sheela tightened her grip on her purse reflexively. Her purse had been picked a few days back and she had learnt to be more vigilant of her surroundings ever since .She walked a few paces ahead, as if standing next to that woman was some foreboding of ill luck. Every few minutes she looked back, checking on the woman, and seeing the woman look at her, would immediately turn away, looking elsewhere. There was something sinister about the way the woman looked at her, and she hoped the train would arrive soon and she would be spared the sight of her.
She usually took a local train to her workplace in Kalyan each day, but today she had missed it. She waited to board Udayan express that plied between Mumbai and Bangalore. The train would be crowded no doubt, but she could either board a crowded train or miss going to work. The only option seemed to be the former. She let out a sigh, not that anyone could hear it anyway. It was almost 8am, the train would arrive in another 5 minutes and she could be on her way. Going to Kalyan by this train would take longer, at least an hour, compared to the faster local trains, but today she did not have an option.
Just as she was about to start to work in the morning, her son had called up. He had met with a minor accident on the way to college, near Dadar station and some lady had taken him to the hospital. He was on his way back home and he needed her to stay back and give him the keys to their home. She had been worried sick about the well being of her son, and had placed a handful of khadi-saakhar (sugar cubes) in a small cup in front of the idol of Maa Durga, praying fervently for the safety of her only child. Maa Durga had been like a safety net for her and her son, always protecting them from any troubles.
She had been contemplating taking leave, but seeing that her son was ok, except for a few bruises, had decided to get back to work. Half her batch of colleagues had been given the pink slip, as the organization was cutting down on employees, and people who were not regular had received the first strike of the axe. She could ill-afford a lay off at this time of her life.
Udayan express finally chugged into the platform, and her nightmarish experience of boarding the train began all over again. People scurried to board seats, pushing past each other, stamping on each other’s feet, smearing each other with their sweat, so graciously awarded by the climate of the place. There was a huge morning crowd between her and the train, and even moving ahead was difficult. She heard the engine whistle, signaling that it was ready for departure, and an announcement was made to that effect.
The train had slowly begun to chug off and she was very close to getting in now. She doubted her ability to board a moving train but decided to give it a shot anyway. As she struggled to get into a compartment, her feet slipped in between the platform and the steps of the bogie, and she froze with fear as she realized what a nasty fall she was about to have; going head down and probably get crushed in between the platform and the train or under its wheels. A scream escaped her lips, even as she tried to grasp anything that could break her fall. In the fraction of second that ensued in between, she felt a firm hand grip her palm and pull her up. Her heart beat furiously, as she sat on the platform watching Udayan express pass by, clutching her reeling head with one hand and the hands of her savior with another as if she was afraid to let go. She felt her body go cold and numb with fear at the thought of what a close shave she had.
She felt a reassuring hand patting her head and stroking her back lovingly, telling her it was ok and she was now safe. Slowly she stood up and gratefully looked at her savior. She saw the same pan stained lips, before her eyes moved to the ash smeared forehead and the familiar face of the woman she had been thinking of as sinister all along. Her eyes filled with tears of shame and gratitude at the same time, and she broke down sobbing uncontrollably, hugging the very woman she had been running off from.
“Today seems to be a day of accidents,” remarked the woman, once Sheela had regained her composure, “A young boy was knocked down by a car near Dadar station in the morning, I took him to the hospital. And now you. I hope there are no more mishaps today. Here eat this, you’ll feel better” she smiled, placing a handful of khadi-saakhar in Sheela’s hands before walking away, humming a tune, leaving Sheela wonderng if it was the same "Prasad" she had offered Maa Durga in the morning!