By Sahith Shetty
He hasn’t seen the short-haired girl before, not once. Every day he takes the metro, but this is the first time he has seen her.
She has on a blue top and denim trousers, a handbag slung over her shoulders and a thick novel inside the handbag.
She is tall and fair-skinned—young enough to be unmarried and old enough to become a mother.
She waits in line and looks straight across. On the other side, people look to the left. On her side, on his side, people look to the right. They are all waiting for the train to either go away from home or towards it. Those who want to go away will later want to go towards. Those towards, away.
Her hair is so short that not a strand covers her ears. The ears are made of glass. They do not look like ears but like little boxes. The glass is stained maroon.
Through her ears, her boxes, she can hear a muffled chatter. Everybody talks to somebody. Those who are with someone, to each other. Those without, on the phone.
An announcement is made: The train leaving to Mysore Road is now going to leave Platform Number 2. She moves close towards the yellow line, as close as she is allowed to.
A baby cries. A watchman whistles. Again the chatter.
The train is here.
Inside the train, the girl sits and turns halfway to her right. She looks out the window from the corners of her eyes. Her handbag is on her lap.
The train begins to move. Through the window, she can see shivering trails of lightbulbs. He can see them on her ear, her little maroon box.
Outside the window, the sky suddenly appears, a minuscule city under it.
She smiles, all but once, a dimple on her cheek. She blinks, all but twice. In her eyes, she holds fifty houses, twenty trees, a water tower. When she blinks, they are all wiped away. They will soon be replaced. By fifty others. Twenty others. One other.
He walks towards her. The grab rails are cold. He stands next to her.
Outside the window, the sky slides behind the outer walls of a tunnel. Again the darkness. Again the trails.
“Your ears are made of glass,” he says to her.
She turns to look. “Thank you,” she says and smiles.
“Thank you?” he asks. “Thank you for what?”
“Thank you for speaking softly,” she says. Again, she smiles.
“It’s hard to hear when people are loud,” she adds. Again, she turns to her right.
She coils the strap of her handbag around her fingers.
He smiles. An announcement is made: The train will arrive at Trinity Circle, and the doors will open on the left. Please mind the gap while boarding and deboarding.
The door opens. From each door, a swarm of people. They have all reached where they have to. From now on, it’s a different story. A fresh start.
A story ends like this: the protagonist walks away into the sunlight, curtains close, pages blank out.
Another story begins here: the protagonist ties his shoelace, curtains open, words appear on a page.
In this story, she walks out. In this story, he follows.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
They all climb down the steps towards the exit gates. For some, the exit is the entrance. For some, the entrance, the exit. A pigeon flies towards a beam connecting the walls on either side.
Far behind them all, the train goes away. No one turns to look. What is gone is gone.
“My ears, you know, they’re brand new,” she says. “So, if someone speaks really loud, it hurts.”
She strokes the wall with her fingers. He skips a step.
“Where did you get them?” he asks.
“It’s such a rare thing these days,” she says. “People here have no etiquette.”
At the base of the stairs, on the marble tiles, he sees her reflection. She, his.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
She moves the strap of her handbag close towards her neck.
“Really nice of you to accompany me,” she says. “I get scared sometimes.”
At the exit gates, some swipe smart cards on sensors. Some enter tokens into slots. The gates open and close. Like eyelids.
She passes through. He doesn’t. He can’t. The fare has exceeded the money in his card.
“The boxes, they look good on you,” he says.
He is on this side. She, that. The chatter is still there—it never stopped. They are all in a hurry to get to the other side. To the other place. To the other.
She turns around and looks at him. She smiles.
“Such a rare thing these days,” she says. “I really like it. I really like it when people speak softly.”