One particular Christmas, over four decades ago, is vivid in my memory. In a break with tradition, my parents, brother and I did not celebrate the festival at home in Delhi. For reasons I cannot recall, we decided to spend it in Madras (not Chennai then) with my maternal grandparents. Since we usually visited them in the month of May, boarding the Grand Trunk Express with my father on a cold winter evening was an exciting experience.
My mother and brother had left Delhi the week before, but my father and I had to wait till December 22. He did not have much leave, and I could not miss my classes at college. Still, we expected to reach Madras on the 24th morning, well in time for midnight Christmas worship. Eventually, however, we missed church completely. A train moving ahead of ours was derailed, and the journey was delayed so long that we reached our destination only on December 25.
Blissfully unaware of the trouble to come, my father and I made the acquaintance of the other occupants of our compartment, a lady and her daughter. I was delighted to discover that the latter, like me, was studying English literature. She was my senior and on her way to acquiring a Master's degree in the subject. Recalling the requirements of her former course, she gave me useful tips on how to tackle my BA Honours texts.
Her mother was less loquacious. After the preliminary pleasantries, she evidently wished to be left alone and gazed out of the window. The following afternoon, when she finally conversed, she spoke so softly that I could hardly hear her. I noticed that my father was paying her sympathetic attention and that the bright and articulate student was strangely subdued. Her merry mood of the previous night had vanished and, as darkness fell, she sat in sombre silence.
Suddenly, there was a commotion at a station, as a large group of foreigners entered our carriage. They spread out and a few of them looked in on us and settled down on our berths, in a friendly fashion. They were headed for Auroville, a township that had been established recently and of which I was, then, quite ignorant. "Let's have some Christmas carols," one of them suggested, and they sang the songs of the season.
I might have joined them if I had not observed that the girl I had grown to admire was close to tears. I learnt later that she had lost her father in an accident, earlier that year. While my father and I were looking forward eagerly to a joyous family reunion, our travelling companions of the past two days were faced with the painful prospect of a bleak and lonely Christmas.