I have had train rides in my life but not as many and as interesting ones as during the short span of five or six years around my college days. I was returning home from Kharagpur but this time had no friends accompanying me. I chose to get in a ladies compartment and thankfully even secured a seat. Among the passengers sitting in the opposite row, was a teenage girl. She was wearing a light blue skirt and a white blouse which unmistakeably was her school uniform. She had her thick long black hair in braids which was looped and tied with light blue ribbons very typical of suburban school girls in those days. She had big dreamy eyes with dark lashes that smiled as she talked to an aged lady sitting on her right. On her left, was a stout lady busy knitting a sweater, her dexterous fingers moving faster than I could follow. The patterns were clever and caught my eyes for a little while. The squeal of laughter took my attention back to the young school girl. She had a lot to talk about and apparently they were all very funny things. I could not help overhearing bits of conversations and jokes. I tried hard to look outside but sometimes just could not help an unconscious spreading smile. I looked at the woman on her right, the lady being addressed to. She was wearing a impeccably white sari with a thin black border worn in a fashion my grandma used to wear, covering her mostly gray hair with part of the sari as a hood. She smiled at the girl but the smile was feeble and quickly disappeared on the wrinkly dignified and yet beautiful face. I will admit that I am not very good at minding my own business. Besides, the school girl had noticed me smiling too. We looked at each other and started to talk. At some point I asked her where she was headed. She was getting off at Bhogpur about half way between Kharagpur and Howrah. I thought that her mother might be working on some corporate job and could not make time for her. I even thought it was very nice of her grandmother to travel with her everyday. But when I verbalized my thoughts to my utter surprise the girl announced that the old looking lady sitting on her right was in fact her mother! My jaw dropped for a second but I quickly collected myself, trying my best not to appear rude. To my utter relief, they understood me and explained with a smile that I was not the first one making that mistake.
I learnt that the old looking lady was in her early thirties. She was married off when she was barely 17 years old. She became a mom and then shortly a widow even before she could cross twenty. Her inlaws were worried that her beauty would attract other young men and lead her astray. Hence they forced her to wear white saries, apply no makeup and wear absolutely no ornaments. I could not imagine what the poor lady had to suffer through to transform herself into a wrinkled gray 60 year old lady in her thirties!