Tripta did not have children.
That is to say, Tripta and her husband Nikhil did not have children. But this "childlessness" had never really bothered Tripta. It was not that she disliked children; on the contrary, a particular dormant corner of her brain that had remained childlike leapt into life whenever she was interacting with kids. Thus she bonded easily, strong and fast with them. Happy-go-lucky and uncomplicated, Tripta never worried or obsessed with the supposed 'tragedy' of her childless state. Nikhil like her, was totally unconcerned with what he categorically termed a non-issue and steadfastly had her back everytime a nosy busybody tried to make her feel guilty of enjoying her no-kid state. Of course, in the beginning, there had been rumblings of disgruntlment and stirrings of anxiety amongst her nearest family members, chiefly Nikhil's parents and to a certain extent, her own. That was understandable, given the average Indian's deeply ingrained fear of not having an heir to carry on the family name right up to the Day of Reckoning. But mercifully, both the families had had to repress their concerns and swallow their disappointment in the face of the couple's resolute indifference. Nikhil's Mom consoled herself by telling her husband: Atleast they have each other. That was true, for the two of them were so madly and irreparably in love even after fifteen years of marriage that a child would probably have felt left out in their midst.
So while their family left them alone over this issue, there were a host of officious busybodies around them, especially women, who targeted them with their unwanted counsel. Over time Tripta, the primary victim had learnt to deal with these attackers. These days, she did it with elan, hurling back at them a deadly cocktail of stinging disdain and in-your-face brusqueness. But then, apart from these inveterate nosy-parkers, there was another group of people that Tripta had to deal with often. This consisted of the ones, who on learning that she did not have kids, began feeling bad for her. In fact, they felt so bad that they induced within Tripta a feeling which she called 'reverse-pity'. This set comprised people who were basically kind and decent beings; and they felt sad only because they genuinely believed that being the good woman she was, Tripta 'deserved' the 'joys' of motherhood. Though Tripta could never quite induce herself to agree with this train of logic, she found herself feeling bad for making these nice people feel bad. Not just feeling bad, Tripta would find herself feeling positively guilty for inducing this unhappiness.
And so she devised a way to skirt this eventuality: she invented a child. This child, a son, was ten years old, was chubby at 38 kg, tall for his age at four and half feet height, played tennis, studied at an elite residential school in the hills, was good at maths, was an imp and loved dogs. He was called Titas and had a brown beagle called Tony. Tripta had by now used this Titas and Tony tale on a succession of casual acquaintances, Facebook friends, co-passengers on trains and planes with such resounding success that Nikhil nowadays teased her by suggesting that she write a series on those two. Titas, like Peter Pan never grew beyond ten years of age and Tony remained a happy eight-month old toddling dog, continuing to entertain people who felt comforted and at peace with this story of Tripta's picture perfect storybook family.
Today's trip was a sudden one and Tripta had been unable to secure a flight seat because of the short notice and the maddening festival rush. Aly, her manager was able to wrest a Tatkal ticket on the train and so Tripta found herself travelling long distance on Indian Railways, after more than a decade. It was not unpleasant and though she would never admit it to Aly, was actually quite entertaining. A case in point was this fifty something motherly woman from rural Jaunpur sitting next to her on the steel platform bench who was so intensely curious about her that she had been grilling Tripta Gestapo style over the last twenty minutes.
Where are you going? Which train would you be catching?
Where are you from?
Are you working?
What kind of work do you do?
Are you paid well?
Are you from Punjab?
Are you Christian?
Are you married?
Why are you not wearing Sindoor?
Where are your chooris?
And finally that inevitable question:
Do you have children?
Inspite of this inappropriate curiosity, the woman was innately kind for she shared her lunch with Tripta, piling her plate with more oily puris than she could ever eat, turning a deaf ear to Tripta's vehement protestations. She even made a generous pile of puris and alu ki sabji and handed it over kindly to the little urchin who was sitting on the floor beside their bench. Tripta watched the underweight, half-naked urchin boy gobble up the fresh home-made delicious poorie alu as if he had been bearing the whole world's hunger in his tiny tummy; and a warmth for that nosy woman flooded Tripta's heart. The little boy ate his share and after licking his fingers clean, placed a generous portion under their bench. It was only when a tiny black nose emerged from under her feet that Tripta realised that a tiny, brown, almost hairless pup had been snoozing all this while right under her bench. The pup matched the urchin in malnutrition, it's thin bones sharply etched on hairless flanks.
Her bench-mate was now asking the ace question and Tripta turned her attention back to the woman. She had decided that the woman was a perfect audience for the Titas and Tony saga. So without further delay, Tripta launched into an expanded version of the tale. The woman listened happily, asking questions now and then and nodding contentedly as Tripta embellished her tale with just the things the woman wanted to hear.
They talked for quite some time till their express train zoomed into the platform with long, gloomy whistles like a lonely fog horn lost in the mists.
Tripta got up and as she was leaving, she remembered the Diwali goody bag that her hotel had gifted her. She reached into her tote and handed it over to the urchin boy. The bag was a paper cake-box, crammed with chocolates, cookies and little packets of designer namkeens.
The boy was thrilled and it amused Tripta no end when he mouthed a shy 'Thank you' in English.
She patted his shoulder affectionately and when the kid added a heavily accented "welcome" she was tickled.
"Naam kya hai re?" she asked, impressed at the little thing's chutzpah.
"Titas!" he said.
And pointed to the mongrel pup.
Tripta froze, heart hammering.
Then, she relaxed the next moment realising that the nosy woman had not been the only audience to her Titas-Tony story.
Both delighted and amused at his wit and cheekiness and also a little bit flattered, Tripta burst into her trademark loud ringing laughter. The little boy joined her mirth,tears of merriment mingling with snot and streaming down his grubby, crinkled face.
Her train was by now emitting those lugubrious whistles again and Tripta had to hurry. At the steps to her bogie she paused for a moment to look back at the urchin boy. He was now sitting on the platform floor with his head thrown back against the bench, one palm clutching her goody box and the other curled around his Tony. He was still laughing.
Suddenly Tripta felt as if she was Yashoda, watching the world's Titas' and Tonys' merge within her little laughing urchin boy....................