The night train ride from Kanpur to Delhi was the most memorable journey of my life. For one, it gave me my second book. And two, it is not everyday you sit in an empty compartment and a young, pretty girl walks in.
Yes, you see it in the movies, you hear about it from friends’ friends but it never happens to you. When I was younger, I used to check the reservation chart stuck outside a train bogie to see all the female passengers near my seat (F-17 to F-25 is what I’d look for most). Yet, it never happened. In most cases, I shared my compartment with talkative women, snoring men and wailing infants.
But this night was different. Firstly, my compartment was empty. The railways had just started this new summer train and nobody knew about it. Secondly, I was unable to sleep.
I had come to IIT Kanpur for a talk. Before leaving, I drank four cups of coffee in the canteen chatting with the students. Bad idea, given it was going to be boring to spend eight insomniac hours in an empty compartment. I had no magazines or books to read. I could hardly see anything out of the window in the darkness. I prepared myself for a silent and dull night. Of course, it was anything but that.
She walked in five minutes after the train had left the station. She opened the curtains of my enclosure and looked puzzled.
“Is coach A4, seat 63 here?” she said.
The yellow lightbulb in my compartment had a mood of its own. It flickered as I looked up to see her.
“Huh..,” I said as I saw her face. It was difficult to withdraw from the gaze of her eyes.
“Actually it is. My seat is right in front of you,” she said and heaved her heavy suitcase on the upper berth . She sat down on the lower berth opposite to me, and gave out a sigh of relief.
“I climbed on the wrong coach. Luckily this train is connected,” she said, adjusting her long hair that ended in countless ringlets. From the corner of my eye I tried to see her. She was young, maybe early to mid twenties. Her waist length hair had a life of its own, a strand falling on her forehead repeatedly. I could not see her face closely, but I could tell one thing – she was pretty. And her eyes – once you looked into them, you could not turn away. I kept my gaze down.
She re-arranged stuff in her handbag. I tried to look out of the window. It was completely dark.
“So, pretty empty train,” she said after ten minutes.
“Yes, I said. It is the new holiday special. They just started it, without telling people about it.”
“No wonder. Otherwise, trains are always full at this time.”
“It will get full. Don’t worry. Just give it a few days,” I said and leaned forward, ” Hi. I am Chetan by the way, Chetan Bhagat.”
“Hi,” she said and looked at me for a few seconds, “Chetan as in…I don’t know, your name sounds familiar.”
Now this was cool. It meant she had heard of my first book. I am recognized rarely. And of course, it had never happened with a girl on a night train.
“You might have heard of my book – Five Point Someone. I am the author,” I said.
“Oh yes,” she said and paused, “Oh yes, of course. I have read your book. The three underperformers and the prof’s daughter one, right?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “So how did you like it?”
“It was all right,” she said.
I was taken aback. Man, I could have done with a little more of a compliment here.
“Just all right?” I said, obviously fishing a bit too hard.
“Well,” she said and paused.
“Well what?” I said after ten seconds.
“Well. Yeah, just all right…ok ok types,” she said.
I kept quiet. She noticed my facial expression of mild disappointment.
“Anyway, nice to meet you Chetan. Where are you coming from? IIT Kanpur?”
“Yes,” I said, my voice less friendly than a few moments ago, “I gave a talk there.”
“Oh really? About what?”
“About my book – you know the just ok-ok type one. Some people do want to hear about it,” I said, keeping a sweet tone to sugar-coat my sarcasm filled words.
“Interesting,” she said and turned quiet again.
I was quiet too. I didn’t want to speak to her anymore. I wanted my empty compartment back.
The flickering yellow light above was irritating me. I wondered if I should just shut it off, but it was not that late yet.
“What’s the next station? Is it a non-stop train,” she said after five minutes, obviously to make conversation.
“I don’t know,” I said and turned to look at the windows again. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness.
“Is everything ok?” she asked softly.
“Yes, why?” I said. The tone of my ‘why’ gave away that everything was not ok.
” Nothing. You upset about what I said about your book right?”
“Not really,” I said.
She laughed. I looked at her. Just like her gaze, her smile was arresting too. I knew she was laughing at me, but I wanted her to keep smiling. I pulled my eyes away again.
“Listen. I know your book did well. You are like this youth writer and everything. But at one level…just forget it.”
“What?” I said.
“At one level, you are hardly a youth writer.”
I turned silent and looked at her for a few seconds. Her magnetic eyes had a soft but insistent gaze.
“I thought I wrote a book about college kids. That isn’t youth?” I said.
“Yeah right. So, you wrote a book on IIT. A place where so few people get to go. You think that represents the entire youth?” she said and took out a box of mints from her bag.
She offered me one, but I declined. I wanted to get this straight.
“So what are you trying to say? I had to start somewhere, so I wrote about my college experiences. And you know the story is not so IIT specific. It could have happened anywhere. I mean, just for that you are trashing my book.”
“I am not trashing it. I am just saying it hardly represents the Indian youth,” she said and closed back the box of mints.
“Oh really..,” I said but was interrupted by the noise as the train passed over a long river bridge.
We didn’t speak for the next three minutes, until the train returned to smoother tracks.
“What represents the youth?” I said.
“I don’t know. You are the writer. You figure it out.,” she said, and brushed aside a few curls that had fallen on her forehead.
“That’s not fair,” I said, “that is so not fair.” I sounded like a five year old throwing a tantrum. She smiled as she saw me grumbling to myself. A few seconds later, she spoke again.
“Are you going to write more books?” she said.
“I’ll try to,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to talk to her again.
“So what is going to be? IIMs this time?” she said.
“Because it does not represent the country’s youth,” I said.
She started laughing.
“See I am taking feedback. And now you laugh at me,” I said.
“No, no,” she said, “I am not laughing at you. Can you stop being so over-sensitive?”
“I am not over-sensitive. I just want to take feedback,” I said and turned my face away.
“Well, well now. Let me explain. See I just felt the whole IITian thing is cool and all, but what does it all mean in the broader sense. Yes, the book sells and you get to go to IIT Kanpur. But is that what it is all about?” she said.
“Well, then what is it about?”
“If you want to write about the youth, shouldn’t you talk about young people who really face challenges? I mean yes, IITians face challenges, but what about the hundreds and thousands of other youth?”
“Just look around you. What is the biggest segment of youth facing challenges in modern India?”
“I don’t know. Students?”
“Not those Mr. Writer. Get out of the student-campus of your first book now? Anything else you see that you find strange and interesting? I mean, what is the subject of your second novel?” she said.
I turned up to look at her carefully for the first time. Maybe it was the time of the night – but I kid you not, she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Everything about her was perfect.Her face was like that of a child. She wore a little bindi, which was hard to focus on as her eyes came in the way.
I went back to her question.
“Second novel? No, haven’t thought of a subject yet,” I said.
“Really? Don’t you have any ideas?”
“I do. But nothing I am sure about.”
“Inte….resting,” she drawled, “Well, just bask in your first book then.”
We kept quiet for the next half an hour. I took out the contents of my overnight bag and rearranged them for no particular reason. I wondered if it even made sense to change into a nightsuit. I was not going to fall asleep anyway. Another train noisily trundled past us in the opposite direction, leaving silence behind.
“I might have a story idea for you,” she said, almost startling me.
“Huh?” I was wary of what she was going to say. For no matter what her idea was, I had to appear interested.
“What is it?”
“It is a story about a call center.”
“Really?” I said,” Call centers as in business process outsourcing centers or BPOs?”
“Yes, do you know anything about them?”
I thought about it. I did know about call centers, mostly from my cousins who worked there.
“Yes, I know a little bit,” I said, “Some 300,000 people work in the industry. They help US companies in sales, service and maintenance of their operations. Usually younger people work there in night shifts. Quite interesting, actually.”
“Just interesting? Have you ever thought of what all they have to face?” she said, her voice turning firm again.
“No,” I said.
“Why? They aren’t the youth? You don’t want to cover them?” she said, almost scolding me.
“Listen, let’s not start arguing again…”
“I am not. I told you that I have a call center story for you.”
I looked at my watch. It was 12.30 a.m. A story would not be such a bad idea to kill time, I thought.
“Let’s hear it then,” I said.
“I can tell you. But I have a condition,” she said.
Condition? I was puzzled. How can you have conditions in storytelling?
“What condition? That I don’t tell it to anyone else?”
“No. Just the opposite, in fact. You have to promise me to write it as your second book.”
“What?” I said and almost jumped from my seat.
Wow! Now that was something. OK, so I meet a girl who appears interesting and had a pair of nice eyes and looks like she can tell me a story to kill time. However, it does not mean I will listen to it and spend two years of my life turning it into a book.
“Like a full book? Are you kidding? I cannot promise that. It is a lot of work,” I said.
“Up to you,” she said and turned silent.
I waited for ten seconds. She did not speak.
“Can’t I decide on that after you tell me the story?” I said, “If it is interesting, I may even do it. But how can I decide without listening to it.”
“No. It is not about choice. If I tell you, you have to write it,” she said.
“Like write a whole book on it?” I said.
“Yes. Like it is your own story. In first person – just as your first book. I’ll give you the contacts of people in the story. You can meet them, do your research, whatever it takes, but make it your second book.”
“Well then I think it is better if you don’t tell me,” I said.
“Up to you,” she said and became quiet. She turned around to spread a bedsheet on her berth, and arranged the pillows and blankets. I guess she was planning to go to sleep.
I checked my watch again. It was 01:00 a.m., and I was still wide awake. This was a non-stop train, and there were no stations to look forward to until Delhi in the morning. She switched off the flickering yellow light. A mysterious blue light bulb was the only night light in the compartment.It felt strange, like we were the only two people in the universe.
As she was sliding under her blanket, I asked, “What is the story about? At least tell me a little bit more.”
“Will you do it then?”
I shrugged in the semi-darkness. “Can’t say. Do not tell me the story yet. But at least tell me what it is about.”
She nodded and came out of her blanket. She sat cross-legged opposite me as she began talking.
“Allright,” she said, “It is a story about six people in a call center on one night.”
“Just one night? Like this one?” I interrupted.
“Yes, one night. One night at the call center.”
“You sure that can be a full book? I mean, what is so special about this night?”
She heaved a sigh and took a sip from her bottle of mineral water.
“You see,” she said, “It wasn’t like any other night. It was a night there was a phone call.”
“What?” I said and burst out laughing, “So a call center gets a phone call. That is the special part?”
She did not smile back. She waited for my amusement to end.
“You see,” she continued, “It wasn’t an ordinary phone call. It was the night…it was the night there was a phone call from God.”
Her words had me spring to attention.
“You heard me. That night there was a phone call from God,” she said.
“What exactly are you talking about?”
“I just told you what the story was about. You asked, remember?” she said.
“And then.. how…I mean…”
“I am not telling you anymore. You know what the story is about. If you want to hear the story, you know my condition.”
“That is a tough condition,” I said.
“I know. Up to you,” she said and lifted her blanket again. She lay down and closed her eyes.
Six people. One night. Call Center. Call from God. The phrases kept repeating in my head as another hour passed. At 2:00 a.m., she woke up to have a sip of water.
“Not sleeping?,” she asked with eyes only half open.
Maybe there was a voltage problem, but this time even the blue light started flickering in the compartment.
“No, not sleepy at all,” I said.
“OK, goodnight anyway,” she said, as she was about to lie down again.
“Listen,” I said, “Get up. Sit down again.”
“Huh?” she said, rubbing her eyes, “Why? What happened?”
“Nothing. You tell me what happened. Tell me the story,” I said.
“So you will write it?”
“Yes,” I said, with a bit of hesitation.
“Good,” she said, and sat up again. The cross-legged position was back.
Over the rest of the night, she told me the story that begins from the next page. It is a story about six people, three guys and three girls who worked at the Connexions Call Center. I chose to tell the story through Shyam’s eyes. This is because after I met him, I found him closest to me as a person. The rest of the people and what happened that night – well, I will let Shyam tell you that