She is seated on the floor by the entrance of the empty ladies compartment when I board it at Chengalpet junction. She is in my way and I step around her, not too carefully, and sit down by the window. She is holding one of those readymade, shiny, pre-wrapped cones of marudani, smelling strongly of acetone and other chemicals. Her shabby, oversized frock, clearly discarded by some tasteless, rich child somewhere, her knotted hair bleached to a unhealthy brown in the dust and heat, her left-handedness, I become aware of these even without paying much attention as I wait for the train to leave.
I can see her hands from here, but not her face. She applies the dark paste clumsily to her right palm, trying to draw a flower. It smudges when the trains lurches forward in that drunken way of all trains about to depart, before they recover their dignity and roll out more gracefully.
But the smudge does not worry her. Deftly, she wipes it on back of the seat in front of her and continues. She is absorbed in the creation of this dark, green garden on her small, grubby hands. Women enter and exit past her; she makes no attempt to get out of their way. The right hand is complete now. She stands up triumphantly, losing her balance a little for she has only one serviceable hand with which to steady herself as the train rushes on.
She holds the decorated palm outside the train, allowing the wind to dry it. But she has little patience. Two stations later, she sits down again, holding the cone in the half-dry right hand now, unmindful of the smearing her lately gathered bouquets are receiving.
She struggles a bit, clearly her right hand is not as dextrous as her left. But a short while later, she rises again to hold out the new squiggles on the other palm to the wind and sun outside. Again, her impatience overtakes her and she squats, bending over her feet, her new canvas. The cone is back in the recently-adorned left hand, confidently covering her dry, sallow skin with flowers of every shape and curve. As the train pulls in to Guindy, a heavy arm suddenly pulls her up and out of the train, while a voice overhead yells out something about the mess she’s made of herself. And then she is gone from my view.
But as my compartment rolls out, I see her standing small in a crowd of haggard and harrassed-looking women, proceeding to cover her bare arms with new ornaments, lost to the noise and haste around.