The air bore a slight chill and the smell of December morning fog. I flung open the pashmina shawl that I had around my neck and wrapped it around both of us. Diya smiled and cuddled, placing her soft, cold hands in mine. My eyes were sleep-stung but hers were wide and wandering.
We were on a train to Dehradun, my hometown, having landed in New Delhi the previous night, after a travel of more than 24 hours. Diya was in India after five years; last time she was five and very shy, always ducking behind me. Those layers of shyness had peeled off, one year at a time.
Now, she was like a child in a fete — hungry for the sights and sounds and also for the snacks and chai/coffee that the vendors were toting inside the train. I handed her a 100-rupee bill, instructing her to do the math at each purchase. That would keep her busy so I could enjoy the brooding that a moving train’s window always triggered.
I must have dozed off when she shook me, “Mama, someone is singing Naani’s song.”Yes, I could hear a woman’s voice singing ‘Chalte chalte mere ye geet’, a 1970’s Bollywood song that my mother used to sing melodiously. I played it in my kitchen during bouts of homesickness.
As the song inched closer, I noticed that it’s tune was way off.
Then, the singer slowly entered our coach, filling it with her voice, a smell of unwashed bodies, and a feeling of tragedy or misfortune.
She was a slim young woman, definitely less than thirty, draped in a green threadbare sari with the pallu pulled across her face so that only her singing lips were visible. A baby girl, probably eight to nine months old, with dirty and uncombed hair, a snotty nose, and sad eyes, clung to her left hip.
Her voice was good but she was mutilating the song, stretching its happy tune, pushing it into melancholy. It reminded me of Bollywood music directors who retained the lyrics but doctored the musical notes of a song to convey a different emotion at a different juncture.
At the end of her song, she stretched out one hand, palm up, in front of every passenger, one by one. The baby followed her cue and stretched her mud-ridged palm out too. Some passengers averted their eyes, some placed crumpled bills in her hand or the baby’s, and some even tried to peek under her veil.
She reached us. I was seething over her violation of the song and the employment of a baby to harness people’s compassion.
Diya reached inside her sweatshirt’s pocket, pulled out the money and placed it on the singer’s outstretched palm. She also handed a packet of biscuits to the baby. The singer acknowledged by folding her both hands into a namaste and raising them to her head.
“Her baby must be hungry,” Diya whispered to seek my validation. I nodded.
By the next station, Diya had fallen asleep with her head on my shoulder. I watched the singer alight from the train. She jerked the pallu from her head, lit a beedi, and walked briskly to the tea-stall where she handed the baby to another young woman who was waiting with her sari’s pallu pulled on her face. I wondered what this woman’s song might be.
But I told Diya nothing. She’d learn. Everyone does.