I met Anna Pianzola in the summer of 2004. Some people would say that this isn't a long time ago. Maybe it isn't. But with time ever slowly accelerating as I enter my 32nd year, the past is receding away faster than ever, like it has been for the past few years, like it will be tomorrow ticking faster than today, everything seems so long ago and worse.. concocted. But I digress.
I met Anna Pianzola with her grey irises symmetrically strewn with black shards of Veneto glass on the last train back from Nikko on an August Saturday night.The Tobu line train to Asakusa at the fringes of the madness that is Tokyo to be precise.
It maybe summer in the plains, but up in highlands of Nikko, fog was rolling in, and the train with dew drops sticking to it's sides like beads of sweat on the back of a particular lissome lady who will remain unnamed , settled with a sigh. People more anxious than usual (the last train has that effect, much like when you decide to marry for reasons other than love) hurried in to catch a seat for the three hour ride back into the Tokyo night.
I found a seat by the doorway of the last carriage( I've managed to find a seat in the last carriage of most trains in Japan). Just before the train was scheduled to depart, two women came running into the platform with their day packs slowing them considerably. One woman was much taller than the other. The shorter one was Anna. They got in as the station master politely apologized into his tinny Tannoy for any inconvenience caused by the slippery stairways and that the doors would shut for a departure in the next minute.
As the train departed, a drizzle ,which soon turned into a sleety downpour with raindrops splattering the panes and them slowly sliding away backwards like helpless panicking lovers, clouded the countryside.
We only got as far as a few kilometers past Shimo-Imaichi when the train slowed down and eventually squealed to a full stop. Shortly a tremolo voice (very apologetically) announced that, there had been a landslide and the tracks needed clearing. A crew was on the job and he'd report the progress periodically. Or that was what I thought he announced (my Japanese was laughable then, it is merely bad now).
An old, heavily made up lady donning a green surgical mask with her picnic bag and her older mother in a wheel chair stood leaning against a pillar next to Anna with a deep frown on her forehead. I walked up to her and offered my seat. She refused at first, but was happy to take up on my offer once I insisted. Her mother, in the wheelchair, insisted I take a lion's share of the almonds she had in a pouch.
Fair bargain. But more importantly, there I stood next to Anna (feeling like a creep, for this subterfuge, but in my defence I probably would have given up my seat even if it wasn't for Anna) and for the first time studied her from close quarters. There were drops of the rain nestling in little pockets in her tightly pleated brown hair. Probably twenty and Italian (Guidebook one carries gives away a fair bit. Hers was a 2003 Japan Rough Guide in Italian). Freshly waxed arms, clear skin and those eyes . Her companion was Nordic and what humour writers would call big boned. But this isnt about her. It's about Anna.
"How long do you think we'll be here?", Anna asked her big boned friend.
"Couldn't for the life of me figure what the guy announced", she shrugged in reply.
"There has been a .land..landslide", I stammered and weakly interjected.( Opening lines have never been my forte and sadly never will be)
"Oh, that sounds bad", she said with the searching look of a person who'd only just seen the person who'd spoken to them.
(Over the years since, I've known many women who have perfected this to an art form, and I've learnt to be a little less disappointed with being an invisible presence to pretty women).
"Did he say by how much we are delayed? We have a train to catch from Asakusa", she continued.
"He said, help was on the way. So I guess, we shouldn't be here for too long."
"That's good to hear.", she said, as that constant wingman of mine, uncomfortable silence, slid in between us.
"You travelling in Japan", she asked after a while.
"No, I am here on business for a few months", I said, hopefully,with a not too audible sigh of relief.
"You are Indian, aren't you?", she continued.
" Yes. Been here a couple of months now. And you? I guess you are Italian"
" Yes. I am. And my friend is Swedish. We met in Tokyo and are travelling together. I just finished a semester at med school in Torino."
"A doctor then."
"Not quite yet. I am planning to move to the US on an exchange program, so I guessed I could use a holiday before that"
I'll spare you the details of the small talk, though sometimes small talk is all we have. We were there for the rest of the night after the worsening weather made clearing the debris, the driver announced, increasingly dangerous. The lady in the wheelchair had run of almonds. She was probably wishing she hadn't been as generous as she was with her gratitude (But at some point in all our lives, who isn't)
Anna and me talked through the night as her Swedish friend pretended to be consumed by a deep dreamless sleep. We talked of the war, volcanoes, sakura, sake, home and for some reason soaplands and Mishima(who I'd just discovered) .
I most admired her for her fortitude in the face of the certain to be missed prebooked train connection. ( One doesn't just miss a train, in Japan, it can mean having to skip one's next vacation altogether). Admiration is an admirable and a very convenient projection of many unarticulated emotions.
At twenty two(I'd like to think I was younger , but sadly not) ,many a confused Indian adult of my era didn't understand, or didn't want to , or was too squeamish to consider consequences that intimate conversations in a warm last carriage of the last train could spawn.
Articulating desire tastefully, burdened by nonsensical, though hopelessly binding self imposed moral codes , is still a challenge. Then, one just didn't try.
So there we were at three in the dead of the night, meandering around long conversations without dead ends, me not being certain where it would take me(or us?).
Eventually at four , the train started to move and this made me anxious. I could sense the same in her, but I can be easily accused of seeing things that aren't if you knew me well enough.
Nothing breaks a spell like daylight. Dawn heightens the spell, only for the daylight to bring it crashing down with the attendant clarity and reminder of things to do like breakfasts to be had, clothes to be laundered, trains to be caught.
We reached Asakusa around five in the morning. She had to go on to Ueno where she'd left her bags in a cloak room and then head to Kyoto.
On the platform, we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers and made promises to meet the next weekend at Asakusa for the annual fireworks which she said she was looking forward to.
We never met again. Promises made on railway platforms are rarely kept, very unlike what happened in a certain Linklater movie.
A couple of years later, out of the bleeding blue, she wrote to me asking how I was and asked me to visit Turin for the winter Olympics. This was the first I'd heard from her since we last saw each other. At twenty four, I knew a dead end when I saw one. I never replied.
That morning after Anna and her big boned friend left for Ueno by taxi, I decided to take a long walk through the familiar bylanes of Asakusa, now devoid of the usual throngs. I went to the shrine passing under the gate of thunder, Kaminarimon, and made a wish at the offering box and then went looking for a Denny's because pancakes drowning in maple syrup are the answers to most of the world's problems(not that I had any problems I intended to solve with their aid this early in the morning)
And, oh, my wish was answered a few years later, so maybe there's something there.