So, Thursday evening, at about five or half past, I receive a call from a colleague in Hyderabad. "Just wanted to confirm this with you", she says, "you do know that you have to be at Civil Township, Rourkela at 10:30 am tomorrow, don't you?"
"Er, no." I decide it is best to be forthright.
"Oh, but you do", she goes on, inexorably. "Tomorrow", she adds for good measure, just in case I missed it the first time she said it.
Excitement's beginning to grow, but so is a small sense of alarm. "Shilpa", I manage, "Rourkela is 500-odd kilometres away. It's an overnight journey by train. I'm going to need tickets."
"So get some", she says brightly.
"For tonight", I remind her. "The train may already have left."
"Let me know", she buzzes off. Clearly, the geography of Orissa is lost on my colleague in Andhra Pradesh, next door.
Getting more and more excited about an impromptu trip to some place I have never seen (I like hills and waterfalls and highways, but a train journey to a new city is also a great idea. I'll take it, thanks), I dial the travel agent's number.
And that is how I find myself en route to Rourkela at 10:20 pm that evening.
Surprise, surprise...there's highways and greenery and rain and hills here too. And all through the trip, I can't get over the suddenness of it all. When it comes to travel, the more arbitrary and random, the better, is my credo.
I grin and grin like a freak. In Rourkela, they wonder why their Employee Relations Manager is always so happy. Truth be told, the ER Manager is not even thinking ER.
Then I catch a train back Friday evening. Before I do that, though, I take a walk around the part of the city that the regional office is located in. It's very sixties, I decide, never mind that I wasn't even around before the eighties. I like it. I like the suddenness and consequent newness of it all.
The only hitch is, the train reaches Bhubaneswar at 5 am. Now, I have nothing against early morning arrivals, except the nagging worry at the back of my mind all night that I'm going to sleep through my destination and wind up in some other place a couple hundred miles away. By itself, that is a great idea...but I am also expected back in office at 9 am, so I can't afford to take it as it comes.
I've forgotten something, though. My subconscious takes care of it. At 4:20 am, my eyes fly open on their own. "Up", my brain says quietly.
And then, there's a strange sense of deja vu.
I've been here before, on an upper berth, blankets and sheets lying in a tangle by my feet, a backpack shoved against the wall of the compartment, at the ungodly hour of four or thereabouts, blinking in confusion at a blue landscape visible from the window, through a haze of condensation, droplets having run down the pane in the sort of straight line only droplets can run down in. I've been here before, shivering and wondering if they turn the airconditioning up in the middle of the night, or if it is the morning chill creeping in past the double-paned windows. The brisk, businesslike urgency with which my brain orders me to gather up my belongings (and don't forget your glasses tucked in on the side...and where's that book?) and clamber down, is familiar too. Yes, I've definitely been here before.
As I'm climbing down, still a little sleepy, the train comes to an abrupt halt in the middle of a lot of vegetation, signs of civilization barely discernible in the distance. This is familiar, too.
I pull my backpack and sheet down, snuggle up against the window and lean on the pane. And then it hits me.
This is Tilak Bridge. This is 4:30 am. This is that exasperating point at which the train will stop for no apparent reason for at least an hour. This is a beautiful landscape to be gazing out at, though.
This is me, on board the Purushottam, on my way back to Delhi.
Six years. At least twenty-five times. No wonder I feel like I've lived this hour before. No wonder I am wonderfully cosy and completely at home against that cold window pane with droplets of condensation on it, my eyes running over a blue setting slowly turning bluish-golden. No wonder my subconscious is programmed to poke me into wakefulness when it is 4:30 am on board a train. No wonder.
My vision gets a little more blurred...and this time, it's not just the condensation on the glass.
As the train pushes off from the middle of nowhere - this time a different nowhere - the landscape smiles at me. It's not the same. Geography will apply. So the trees are not banyan or eucalyptus...these are coconut palms. The soil appears a different hue. The huts are built slightly differently.
But this is a beautiful landscape too. It's waiting to be discovered and befriended. It can't help not being Delhi...but it is itself, and it is beautiful, too.
So I smile and softly say Hi.
And I think of those lines from Follow Me.
You don't know how you met me, you don't know why
you can't turn around and say goodbye;
All you know is, when I'm with you, I make you free
and swim to your veins like a fish in the sea...
Follow me, everything is alright
I'll be the one to tuck you in at night
And if you want to leave, I can guarantee
You won't find nobody else like me...
Won't give you money, I can't give you the sky
You're better off if you don't ask why
I'm not the reason that you go astray, and
We'll be alright if you don't ask me to stay...
That I came back home and had to break into my own house is a story for a different day. Till then.