‘The Woman on Platform Number 8’ is a semi-autobiographical story written by Indian author Ruskin Bond. Ruskin Bond is India’s most loved writer and known as the writer from the hills. His writing career has spanned over seven decades. This short story titled ‘The Woman on Platform Number 8’ was penned in the 1950s in Dehra at the start of Bond’s struggling writing career. The story is semi-autobiographical; just as the character Arun, even Bond attended a boarding school in the north. Bond’s father had passed away when the author was young, so he was independent and looked after himself. He was supervised by his mother and her new husband or boyfriend, but they were not as close to Bond as his father was. Therefore, even in this story, though the boy Arun had to take a train and travel north to his boarding school at the Ambala Station, he had to do it all alone without the supervision of his guardians. Arun, like Bond, used to travel independently and was not chaperoned. He was a lonely child but not opposed to human company. The fact that he needed love and gentleness in his life is evident. The white saree-clad woman who keeps him company during the one hour they spend before the arrival of the midnight train shows how Bond yearned for a loving parental figure in his life. This woman is the alleged woman on platform number 8 whom Bond took to very quickly because she was gentle, compassionate, generous, and loving. Throughout his writing career, Bond has indicated his love for women who have shown love and compassion towards him. However, he was almost as good as a non-entity in the life of his mother and other relatives. This story is about how the white saree-clad woman decides to call herself his mother to save the twelve-year-old Arun or Bond from embarrassment.
The white saree-clad woman is probably a widow as she neither wears jewelry nor any other kind of adornments. She has probably lost a child of her own, most likely a little boy, due to a railway accident which has created a lasting impression on her mind. She is horrified to see any child left alone on the railway platform or crossing platforms while engines or trains are moving past. She is a woman living in the past and tormented by it. This is evident by the way she winces when she sees a boy crossing the platform and the way she digs her nails into Bond’s flesh. She also does not like to see little boys staying on the railway platform alone and unsupervised. She, therefore, takes it upon herself to keep Arun or Bond company by letting him hold her hand. She treated him to samosas and jalebis and tea in the railway station’s dining room. The fact that she could allow him such an indulgence indicates that she was well off. Bond or Arun quickly takes to the woman and grows fond of her. The woman or widow is a well-mannered woman who knows her place and is not inquisitive. This we can see because she does not ask searching questions of Arun, like where he stayed or about his family members. She is not a gossiper and instead allows Arun to talk and prefers listening to him. Her goal is mainly to keep him company and be his temporary guardian.
The fact that Arun takes to the woman on platform number 8 indicates several things:
- He was a sociable person with good manners.
- Being mature and level-headed, he could speak to the woman without hesitancy.
- He was cautious but was also a good judge of character and knew by the non-inquisitive nature of the woman that she was a nice person.
- Before he took her hand, he realized that she could not be a swindler by her simple appearance and gentle demeanor.
This woman contrasts Satish’s bespectacled and obese mother, who appears later in the scene. Satish’s mother is overbearing and imposing, someone who likes to give orders to the young and a very highly opinionated woman of means. She is dissatisfied when she sees the passivity of Arun’s ‘mother’ or the white saree-clad woman and so tries to caution Arun against strangers. It’s ironic to see that Satish’s mother was warning Arun against strangers and asking him to avoid them, the very thing that the white saree-clad woman stood for. Arun is a boy of good sense and reason but who wishes to contradict Satish’s mother and declares that he likes strangers indicating that he liked the white saree-clad woman. Thus, he indirectly approved of the woman who showed him so much kindness. Satish’s mother is startled by Arun’s opinion and takes it as foolhardiness. However, one does realize that Arun was a risk-taker, and indeed it is not always the case that strangers you meet at railway stations tend to be good people. One should be wary of strangers, but Arun’s demeanor was that of a young schoolboy who:
- Liked to take risks and make new friends
- Showed gratitude to people who did him a good turn
- Wanted to make his own decisions about the people he interacted with
The white saree-clad woman goes on with the charade to protect Arun from being ridiculed by Satish’s mother for not having a family member to see him off at the Ambala station. Where Satish’s mother smothers Satish with her admonishments and warnings, when Arun took leave of the white saree-clad woman, he merely shows his gratitude and love to her by taking her hand, kissing her cheek, and calling her mother. This indicates Arun and Bond’s respect for good people. This also suggests that Arun knew the white saree-clad woman was helping him out and was on his side and looking at things from a child’s point of view and not from the viewpoint of an overbearing adult. Bond ends the story with a hint that he would never see the woman again, but her memory would always haunt him for the rest of his life. Bond usually writes stories of real people he has met over his lifetime.
A sense of mystery and allure is left in the minds of the reader who wonder who the woman could have been. One feels that she was an ambiguous angel in disguise to keep Arun or Bond company or represented the mother figure that the young Bond would never really have. I shall analyze a few out of the box points before ending this analysis:
- The woman to Arun looked ‘poor’, but he was not old enough to realize that she was a widow and so was looking poor.
- Bond gives a graphic description of the railway platform with sensory descriptions like the sounds of hawkers, the smell of lemon, curds, sweetmeats, and the milling crowds.
- Railway stations were Bond’s favorite places of adventure to meet different people and observe them. The railway stations of early twentieth-century India were bustling places of activity and are the lifeline of more than half of the population of India even today.
- Satish’s mother may have acted like she cared for her son, but she was merely pretending because she did not bid an affectionate farewell to her son as the train departed. Instead, she preferred to show off her wealth to the white saree-clad woman by handing Satish a bag of fruit, a cricket bat, and a box of chocolates. However, she was generous enough to ask Satish to share the food with Arun or Bond.
- Bond or Arun takes an instant dislike to Satish’s mother because she was overbearing and because she never looked at a situation from a little boy’s point of view. Therefore, unlike the white saree-clad woman, Satish’s mother does not find Arun’s ability to travel alone to be an accomplishment.
- The fact that the white saree-clad woman never revealed who she was or her name indicates a sense of mystery and the possibility that since she felt she would never see Arun again, she thought it would be of no importance in his life and decided not to reveal her name. In the end, she remained only as ‘the woman on platform number 8’.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing Indian writer Ruskin Bond’s short story titled ‘The Woman on Platform Number 8’. I hope to read and analyze more of Ruskin Bond’s works in the coming days. If you are interested in reading my reviews of Ruskin Bond’s works, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading an award-winning collection of LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my book titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. And if you want to read a book about my love for Ruskin Bond as a writer and mentor, you can check out my memoir, The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra. I hope to read and review more Indian short stories soon.
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