Strangers on a train


Soon I hear the familiar cadence of the conductor announcing his entrance. A rustle follows: all passengers looking – inside handbags, coat-pockets, books – for their tickets. The conductor is in high spirits; he nods vigorously, adds a musical touch to his Danke Schöns, raises his eyebrows in mock-suspicion. Across the aisle he looks at a ticket and exclaims “Ah! Liège-Guillemins!” as though it were the name of a long-forgotten station. At our table, after he’s done with the rest, he gently taps the sleeping man’s shoulder. The man doesn’t move an inch. “Tickets please!” the conductor says loudly, giving him a shake. Initially startled, the man recovers and hands his ticket to the conductor, who gives it a cursory glance, returns it with a flourish, and moves on.

* * *

She must be in her mid thirties; she’s wearing a green top over a black knee-length skirt. As she sits down her eyes search for the title of the book I’m reading. She pulls out of her bag a sheaf of papers and begins to read what looks like an essay. I catch only the title: “Rom/Berlin Achse”. She underlines some lines as she reads, and occasionally scribbles words in the wide margin. Is she a teacher? Or a student of history?

Suddenly music fills the air – violins singing Vivaldi – and then, a few seconds later, it stops. We look up, and our eyes meet; she smiles, I smile back. Then she returns to her papers and I to my book.

* * *

“When man is in trouble, he goes to God-Man; but when God-Man is in trouble, where does he go?” asks the elderly man sitting opposite me, addressing another next to him.

I‘m journeying back to Bangalore after a week in Kerala. The two elderly men are engaged in a loud debate over the arrest of a famous guru, the head priest of a well-known temple. I find it hard to focus on my book. The man catches my discomfort, and asks, in English: “Are we disturbing you, sir?”

“No, no.” I lie. “Please continue. I do not understand Malayalam anyway.”

“Oh, I see. Where are you from?” he asks, and adds immediately: “From Bangalore?”

“That’s right.”

“And what do you do, sir? Not a priest, I hope?”

* * *

At Mannheim, when the train halts briefly, a heavy woman wrapped in an elegant shawl settles into the seat beside me, and begins writing into a notebook. A writer! I peek at the sentences, and spot a few unfamiliar words ending with an O or an I, like Italian dishes on a menu. Her mobile phone rings; she flips it open, checks who is calling, and placing it to her ear she says, “Hello Home”.

Listening to her speak I feel the hair on my arms rise. I want to be at the other end of the line; I want to listen to that voice every day.

She continues to write without pause. There is no hesitation; she does not stop to think. What is she writing so fast, so confidently? The third draft of a novel? I want to ask, but I do not wish to interrupt. Near Frankfurt airport, when the train begins to slow down, she closes her notebook and gets up to leave.

“Pardon me for asking, but are you a writer? And what exactly were you writing?”

She laughs. “No, I’m an opera singer, a soprano. I was writing down the lines of the aria I will be singing tonight. It’s in Italian, a language I do not know well, and writing helps me memorize the piece better.”

After she leaves, it strikes me that I do not know her name: I may never hear that voice again.

* * *

Köln arrives; it is time for my neighbour to leave. As she collects her possessions on the table, I ask what her name is. Cini, she replies. I try to imagine it written: Cini, Sini, Seenee, Sceni, Cene? But there is no time to ask: the train has stopped and passengers are stepping off. Near the compartment’s end, where the queue has paused for a moment, she turns around and waves. I wave back. The queue moves again. I see her stepping onto the platform, the large handbag hanging lightly over her left shoulder. She looks to her left, right, and then merges, with the crowd, into the darkness.



9 Replies to “Strangers on a train”

  1. Oh, oh, what a beautifully-remembered and written account of these encounters! You’ve handled them so sensitively, only telling us what we really need to know to feel the hair on our own arms rise. (Could you search the concert programs for Koln that evening to find her name?)

    1. Thanks for that question, Beth. Yes, I did some sleuthing on the Internet.

      She left the train at the Frankfurt airport station, so I assumed she took a flight to another city for her performance. I looked for Italian operas scheduled that evening in some cities in European cities – too broad a scope, and this led nowhere.

      I also found a list of German sopranos (Wikipedia had such a list), pulled up some photographs, but found no match. After about an hour, I gave up.

      This was about five years ago. I now can neither recollect her face, nor summon that voice. I only remember what the voice did to me.

  2. What a beautiful idea this style of writing is, I just recently moved to Bangalore for an internship and shall learn from your style and document my encounters in the rickshaw. This is just brilliant. I hope mine come out as well written as yours.

  3. One of my ever-intended actions, beautifully justified but rarely fulfilled – except just yesterday on the plane I noticed that the couple sat in front of me were reading Hebrew versions of seen-in-the-bookshop bestsellers; the young man beside me was writing notes on printed music staves and at the end of the journey he told the couple in front that he had five cousins who lived in Israel. Me? – I was re-reading ‘Jane Eyre’.

  4. Reading this mosaic of train encounters makes me long for train journeys, those shared bits of journeys that all lead to slightly different places, with exchanges that give some hints of another life. Thanks for sharing. Beautifully observed.

  5. to accept this physical closeness for a time, resigning to a sort of sort of not always comfortable intimacy with strangers, brings delights and sometimes horrors. beautifully crafted, Parmanu

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