Sit by a window seat, marvel at the changing landscapes and immerse myself in a fiction novel – this was my agenda while I was on my way from Ahmedabad to Manali by train. It was January 2016 and I was about to experience trekking in the snow-clad mountains of Himachal. Around 50 youngsters, along with the organisers of the camp, were supposed to meet at Pathankot in Punjab.
On my way, I was engrossed in a fiction novel when a little boy peeked at me from behind the book. Red cheeks, flawless white skin and a smile bright enough to melt any heart, the 12-year-old in a red kurta was the perfect travel companion anyone could ask for. Glancing at the adjacent seat, I saw his parents and three elder sisters, all dressed in colourful kurtas and salwar. They reminded me of snow, apples and life in Kashmir.
A packet of nankhatai, brought us all together. A Kashmiri family, a young Amdavadi soldier posted in Srinagar, and I– it all felt like one family gathering.
Nushrat, the eldest daughter, shared her delight in visiting Mumbai and also showed me the pictures she clicked before Shahrukh Khan’s mansion ‘Mannat’. Raghu, who was on duty in Srinagar for almost two years now, came closer to whisper, “Arey, this family is nice. But not all Kashmiris are trustworthy. They often join hands with goons from across the border.”
He stared at me for a complimenting reply but I chose to focus on Irshad who was running through the coach as if it were his playground, his oyster.
While we were marvelling at how different our lives and professions were, we heard a loud scream. Irshad had slipped on the floor and hurt his right knee. While his mother took him in her lap, we started looking for the best way to relieve his pain. I surfed through the endless things in my bag to fetch a cotton roll, while Raghu offered a bottle of Dettol. After the initial burn, Irshad, was back on his feet again.
Smiling and running again, the bundle of joy, now called Raghu ‘Dettol bhaiya’ and to me, ‘Cotton didi’. We burst into laughter and I couldn’t resist kissing his forehead.
When I reached Pathankot, I felt like a journey had already ended. I felt like I would rather trade this train journey for my trekking expedition.
Soon I left. We got busy with our lives and the memories of Irshad slipped into a corner. As a journalist, when I heard our Prime Minister boast about revoking Article 370 – I was taken back to the memories we made on the train. I went to my contact list and tried looking for Nushrat’s number. In the deepest of my heart, I knew that the call I’m dialling will never reach the recipient but I still gave it a try. Hoping, that if not the network maybe, the prayers of this ‘Cotton didi’ will help the ‘unreachable’ family.
I never heard from them again. I just heard about us vs them.
Janvi Sonaiya is a journalist based in Gujarat. She writes on taxation, politics and social issues.