The Face Reader

Written by: Hemali Ajmera

Sweety glanced at her watch nervously. 11 pm.

The otherwise chaotic and overcrowded Churchgate railway station was quiet - a usual occurrence on a Sunday night, when all offices in the vicinity of this Victorian era station were closed. Churchgate station is a terminus of Western Railway line of Mumbai suburban railway and is the southernmost station of the city.

The terminus, and the local trains that originate therein, hardly have a respite for a couple of hours before ‘always on the go’ Mumbaikars[1] start crowding this throbbing city lifeline from the wee hours of the morning until late into the night.

The empty 11:10 pm Borivali slow local[2] stood before Sweety. There were no fast trains at this time and it would take Sweety almost 40 minutes to get home. She was debating if she should board the usual second class ladies compartment or get into the gents second class compartment. The ladies compartment would either be almost empty at this time or occupied by rather peculiar characters. On many such late nights, she had encountered garishly dressed escorts and half dazed peddlers. She felt safer with the middle-class men.

But the men’s compartment was a bit too crowded tonight for her comfort. She could not bear the thought of a pervert trying to rub against her or slide his hand over her front or behind under the pretext of offering her a seat.

So she got into the empty ladies bogie[3] and seated herself next to the window. Just 10 stations to go and she would be home. As the train was about to start, a middle-aged, well-dressed woman got in. She looked around and occupied the seat opposite to Sweety. Sweety smiled in relief.

When the train neared Charni Road station, Sweety’s phone rang. It was her husband.

“Yes dear. I will be home in half an hour.”

“I know I am late but I need to work. How else are we going to pay all those EMIs[4]?”

The other lady, engrossed in reading a magazine, slowly lifted her downcast eyes and looked at Sweety.  

‘Please pick me up at Bandra station darling. Won’t be able to get an auto[5] this late.”

When Sweety hung up, she found the lady staring at her. Her gaze was unsettling.

Pulling out a small novel from her work bag, Sweety lowered her eyes and pretended to read. But the lady continued to stare at Sweety. Feeling uncomfortable, the younger woman left her seat and moved to the other side of the compartment.

When the train neared Dadar station, the lady got up. Perhaps this is her stop, thought Sweety. Good riddance.

The lady walked to the door but turned back. She looked straight at Sweety.

“I would be very careful if I were you. Your little secret won’t be a secret for long. Your husband is a good man. Don’t betray him.”

The lady then stepped out on the platform and melted into the departing crowd, rattling Sweety’s fragile world.          


[1] Mumbaikar - A person residing or born in the Indian city of Mumbai.   

[2]Slow local - Train that stops at every station is termed as a slow local, train that stops only on major stops are fast locals.  

[3] Bogie – Compartment or carriage.

[4] EMI – Equated Monthly Installment, as the name suggests, is one part of the equally divided monthly outgoes to clear off an outstanding loan within a stipulated time frame.

[5] Auto – Short for autorickshaw, a motorized version of the pulled rickshaw or cycle rickshaw. Most have three wheels.

Writing order Abhimanyu (India), Iliena Bosu, (India), Sameer Nagarajan (India), Hemali Ajmera (India), Suraya Dewing (NZ), Greg Rochlin (Australia), Iliena Bosu (India), Suraya Dewing (NZ), Anna Zhigareva (NZ), Abhimanyu (India) 


Wonderful starter. The group has any number of ways to tell the story. For example, what had the face reader seen in Sweety's face? You recreate the train scene really well. I felt as if I was in the carriage. I look forward to following this story.