“Ah, perfect! That’s all I need!” muttered Arjun under his breath, as he stepped out of the AC compartment of the Jamshedpur-Kolkata superfast express, the bitter winter night wind cutting into him, like spears tearing into his flesh. The train had suddenly jolted into a halt minutes earlier, and he found out to his dismay that the engine had developed a technical snag, which would take at least a couple of hours to fix, standing as they were in the middle of a dense jungle on the one hand, and a seemingly limitless open field on the other, almost half an hour away from the nearest station on either side.
Arjun was returning from his weekly trip to the Tata Motors factory in Jamshedpur , working as he was in a materials and supply chain project, as a freelance consultant, and he had really relished the opportunity of working with the respectable Tatas brand, as well as the project which seemed quite challenging to him. The company wanted to cut down the materials wastage as well as optimize the entire supply chain process, and one of the managers of the plant had got in touch with Arjun, as he had his reference from an earlier conference which both had attended. Arjun was based in Kolkata, married to his girlfriend of three years, Mithu, and they had a four-year old son- Aryan. Arjun and Mithu loved each other, but urban work-life and its attendant pressures had started to take a toll on their marriage- they were still the same individuals, but somehow things had started to sour. There weren’t really any major fights, none that he could remember, but there was a certain distance that had started to develop, the warmth, the spark that was once a part of their everyday lives was missing, and nowadays the only thing they talked about was their son, and matters related to him. Arjun had become a workaholic, and ironically felt at home only at work, at other times he merely went through the motions. The once exciting, fun-filled life had become a mechanical, routine affair, reduced to duties to be performed, and deliverables to be submitted.
“So, we are in for a long wait now!” his train of thoughts was broken by the middle aged man travelling with him, one of the few passengers on the train, which was surprisingly empty today, as they looked out into the dark night outside, a silence interspersed with the occasional buzzing of some unknown insect in the jungle outside. Arjun thought for some time, he had a late night dinner appointment in Kolkata with a prospective client- a deal he couldn’t afford to miss. He did a quick mental calculation, he was roughly one and half hour away from Kolkata, and waiting for two more hours would certainly mean pissing off the client, and consequent loss of business. He took only a moment to decide. “How far is the highway from here?” he asked the train attendant. “Well, it should be across the jungle, on the other side, but why? Wait, you cant be serious!” he blurted out, as he realized what Arjun was thinking. “Why not? I need to reach Kolkata by 9 p.m. I will definitely get a lift from someone on the highway.” Arjun was a daredevil in college, and was delighted he hadn’t lost touch with his old self. “But sir, the jungle isn’t safe. Plus, this is a Maoist infested area. Why take such a risk?” “Nothing doing, once I decide something, I carry it out!” saying so, Arjun picked up his laptop bag and jumped down on the tracks, skipped across them and headed towards the jungle. “What am I doing, I hope I haven’t lost my mind” he spoke to himself, as he nervously entered the jungle. He had just started to think to himself this had all the ingredients of a horror movie, and managed a smile to himself when he felt a drop of water on his shirt. Thinking it to be from some tree, he continued along the beaten path of the jungle, which he guessed would lead to the highway, since it is common for villagers to cross the jungle using a fixed path, which typically is made keeping in mind the wild animal density in and around. Another drop came down, he looked up nervously, and to his horror, realized that it had started to rain now! “Shit, this rain will make the cold unbearable” he muttered as he continued, faster, as the rain came pelting down on him, making a deafening sound as it crashed down into the jungle leaves and trees. This actually increased his danger, since he wouldn’t be able to hear any approaching footsteps, whether it be of any wild animal or a human being, as he had the Maoist danger in mind as well.
Arjun had started shivering, he realized the cold was as much a reason as fear- pure, primal fear, fear of the jungle, of the wild, of the unknown, as he quickly traversed the jungle path, occasionally running along. Crash! Came a loud sound, Arjun turned round with a start, to discover a fallen branch from a tree, he was running at full speed now, and was panting from the effort, when he discovered a light in the distance. Encouraged, he found new energy in his lungs and sped across the jungle. The light started becoming larger, and eventually saw a flicker of paved road! “Thank God!” he muttered, as he dragged his tired body out from the jungle into the wide national highway, which was glistening from all the rain. He also thanked his stars for the waterproof bag, as he realized his laptop was safe from water outside.
Now came the next part, getting a lift from someone going towards Kolkata. The highway was strangely deserted, and vehicles seemed few and far between. A couple of cars went by, not bothering to stop at Arjun’s insistence. He was giving up hope when a third car came along. Not hoping for anything, he loosely held out his thumb, and to his surprise, the car screeched to a halt a few feet ahead of him! Thanking God again, he rushed towards the car, and peeped inside, to look at a stunning young woman in her late twenties. She was wearing a black top and blue jeans, fitted perfectly well on a well-endowed figure, and her long black hair fell smoothly on her shoulders. “Once you are done checking me out, would you mind telling me where you want to go?” the question shook him out of the trance, and feeling suitably embarrassed, he managed a smile “Kolkata”. “Well, then, hop in!”
“You do seem desperate to meet the client!” she nodded towards Arjun with a wink and a smile, he smiled back in return. “Well, yes, sort of. Business is business, you know!” “Ah yes, of course, you are the typical workaholic male, aren’t you? Sacrificing family life and love for your near and dear ones for career and money!” “Umm…its not really like that you know! It’s just the priorities you set for yourself- planning is everything!” Arjun repeated his favorite quote. She made a strange face at him “Booringgg!” This made him laugh out loud, and he suddenly realized its been a long time he had done that- laugh out loud at something. “So, tell me, don’t you plan?” he asked. “Well, I tried few times, but I failed to execute my plans, or stick to them. That’s when I decided not to plan, to live every moment, and take care of things as they happen!” she replied cheerily, with a smile and a wink.
“What do you do, miss….”, “Call me Ms. X” “Sounds suspicious” “Sure is, but it adds to the intrigue, what do you think?” Arjun was getting more and more curious about this stunning young happy-go-lucky girl, who so easily offered him a lift, and now was unwilling to even share her name. He liked systems and processes, he liked certainty and cause-effect correlation, this ambiguity about the entire situation started bothering him, Arjun started to feel a bit uneasy.
“What are you thinking?” she shot a sideways glance at him. This stunned Arjun, for there was something about this woman which seemed very familiar to him, something about the way she spoke, her sideways glance, her wink, he had seen it all before, and yet…..”I don’t feel comfortable with ambiguity, you see” “Has it always been like this?” “Not really, in fact, I was quite the opposite in college, very outgoing and used to live for every moment” “So, what happened, why this change?”
This took Arjun back to his early days as a professional, the day he was given a severe feedback by his superior of his first job. “Arjun! You really need to pull up your socks! You cant make it in this industry with this easy-going manner. Try and adapt yourself, become one of us, we don’t want an exception in our midst. This is the last chance I am giving you!” he still remembered those words. He had forced himself to change, to adapt, to become one of them, and in the process, lost touch with himself, slowly and gradually, he became a different person. A successful and unhappy person, something which had taken the spark out of his marriage as well. He had started to live for goals and deliverables, and anything which didn’t lead to any goal being achieved had no meaning for him.
“But, that’s awful! Why would you change who you are just to fit in, man! I am surprised at how you have forgotten who you actually are!” her deep eyes were locked into his for some moments, and he felt he was looking at a soul-mirror. There was a lot of other talk, but he was immersed in deep thought throughout the journey.
“Mister planner, here we are! You can take a taxi from here, this is where my road deviates from yours” that same smile and wink. Arjun offered a smile, a shake of the hand, and getting out of the car, turned back and asked “I am deeply troubled by a question- who are you?” She smiled, looked into his eyes, “I am you, Arjun! I am the Arjun that existed 10 years back, the actual Arjun, undiluted and pure. I am your mirror, and just offered you a peek at your soul, some thing which is there in the deepest recesses of your mind, that’s all I am……”
“Hello sir! Where do you want to go?” a startled Arjun looked at the taxi driver next to him. He had a vague recollection of events in the past 2 hours, but wasn’t really sure how he got to Kolkata. He felt a slight shiver in his spine, a tingling sensation.. ”Garia please” he hopped on. The taxi sped off into the Kolkata night, Arjun looked at himself in the rear-view mirror, and did something he hadn’t done for a long time- he smiled and winked……..