The full force of the North Indian monsoon hit me in the face like a ton of bricks while I was doing 60 on a bike heading East on NH 28 towards a small town called Motihari in Northern Bihar. My companion in front of me bore the brunt of the onslaught though, but he manoeuvred the two-wheeler onto the front lawn of a small school that lay just beside the highway without any hint of grievance. We ducked under cover of a classroom filled with bags of produce and otherwise just one wooden table in front of the blackboard of the class and five plastic chairs, three of which were occupied by three elderly gents engaged in a relaxed discussing in the local language of Bhojpuri, a language I had absolutely no grasp over. My fellow motorist, a sales representative who I was exploring the rural towns with, and I sat ourselves down on the two empty chairs and looked out through the windows of the pink walled room at the first heavy rains of the season, losing our trains of thought in the spray of fresh water and the smell of evaporating rain on dry earth.
Exactly three years ago to the day, and only within a few hours of the time, I had been prancing about on the beaches of Mahabalipuram just off the East Coast road in the state of Tamil Nadu with an assortment of friends celebrating the completion of our first set of exams at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. Earlier that day we had scrabbled across a rocky outcrop that stuck far out into the sea (such that if you stood facing eastward from the tip, you would have over 180 degrees of sea on the horizon) and popped open a few cans of beer. We later hit the sands and the surf with a football we’d found vacillating on the waves between the beach and the water. Then as the evening had drawn to a close and we had dried and changed up for the last leg of the trip (to Pondicherry, no less, where copious amounts of alcohol and an invitation to Auroville awaited us) the rain threatened to drench us once again with a sudden downpour out of the grey evening sky. Barefoot, with shoes and sandals in our hands, we had bolted across sand littered with splinters and shells of boats and animals long gone, tippy-toeing as much as possible so as to avoid injury, intermittently stopping for refuge underneath the shacks that lined the beach till we got to our taxi and rode off.
Thirteen days ago, I had boarded the Danapur Express from the Howrah Station just north of the city of Kolkata to head towards the city of Patna. I had marvelled, while I towed my luggage through the narrow aisles of the train compartment, at the fact that I had once said goodbye to it all on that very same platform over half a decade ago. Then, I had set out for a different journey and a different ending, a different adventure altogether, to the one I was embarking upon now. In six years’ time I would have had my fair share of goodbyes and hellos, fallen in love twice and lost out both times, and made enemies and friends who I would keep for a lifetime, and yet some things would always feel the same. Train stations, airports, bus stops. In the end, they all serve the same purpose. My mind had wandered then, as I pulled back the seat on the bottom berth of seat number 23 and plopped down on it, to my own memories of each; a tight embrace and a whisper in the ear before a flight home, a cup of chai and a conversation while waiting for an inter-state bus, a slight nod trying not to show too much joy welcoming me back, a text message apologizing for the hurried goodbye in order to catch the first flight to work. The train had lurched forward while I had still been stuck in rewind, but as it did, I smiled to myself at the irony of the situation, because it seemed just then that sometimes, in order to move forward, you had to take a few steps back.