“These coolies I tell you, it’s really a surprise that they don’t carry guns and ropes to tie you… such temper. I won’t be surprised if they think they own these trains and if we breathe on the railway station we owe it to them…”
Mr. Chattopadhyay was seemingly in a foul mood… he was given to fights with coolies, rickshaw wallas, pujaris at crowded famous temples, vegetable vendors, tourist guides… in short anywhere and everywhere there was a possibility of a tussle or a bargain.
Mrs. Chattopadhyay had been expecting it. Now that it was over she was relieved and could retire for the night on the berth, as dinner time was past, no more possible conversations with strangers were due that could fan her husband’s temper. The bed roll was already there on the berth, she spread it, arranged it to her comfort and lied down to try and get some sleep. “First thing after reaching there would be to make arrangements for the path* at the temple, and yes, in the morning she would have to give away the left out pooris to the first kid that comes to clean the compartment, would the gobi(cauliflower curry) still be in good condition by then, she had wrapped it in aluminum foil though, at least the gulab jamuns would still be eatable… she still hadn’t gotten over the rotting of the kheer.. oww she keeps forgetting things… there was at least a quarter of a huge bowl full of kheer. At least two people could have had it….. no no she must remember to give away the pooris, the gobi and the gulab jamun first thing in the morning….”
Hey what was that, isn’t that a familiar grumble, and a tone of anger about to burst forth, like the mild whistles of a pressure cooker just before it is about to go all out with the long whistle. Now what could possible have triggered it ?
Any which ways she got up, the thing that angered her husband further was no one taking notice of his anger. She did not say anything, she did not have to, she just had to sit up and that was a signal for Mr. Chattopadhyay to tell all. He began, "… the systems are all rotten, what the hell are the TT’s doing except for milking the ‘without tickets’ for a berth at nite… I am sure some such arrangement is behind this… it’s ridiculous… I am going to take it up with him when I see him, what do they think, we have paid for our tickets, how can they let someone sleep just in front of the wash room door…"
She asked, “What? A man is sleeping in front of the wash room door? ... But it is cold…. The chilly wind must be seeping in through the joints of the bogies….”
“Let him freeze, it’s his fault, what does he think ...sleeping like that blocking the wash room. What if someone has an emergency?"
“Okay have you tried waking him up … ask him to at least move away from the door… then we’ll see when the TT comes… after all there are other passengers also… they would also object to this”
“The man wouldn’t budge, a vagabond, he’s stinking, there’s a stench I don’t know coming from what, it reminds me of the shortcut route at the back side of the hospital I used to take to go to office….. Can’t even say if he’s sleeping or awake”
Mrs. Chattopadhyay had a natural tendency to sympathize with people who seemed to have had no right to take the roads in life that demanded basic economic and social status. Here was this vagabond, who did not have a ticket to be able to have a berth or even may be a chair car…. Who would sleep in front of the washroom door of a train?
She thought of persuading the man to move aside, so as to save him from her husband’s wrath.
It was January in
; the wind was cold enough to send spines through one’s very bones. She wrapped herself in a shawl? Though it was an AC bogie, the door was not closing properly and a cold stream was seeping in through the joints of the bogies. North India
There he lay… an old man. At least he looked old. His face, whatever little was visible of it, dust covered but serene; seemed to be the face of a man who had been self respecting. His hands were big, would have been healthy once, as his entire frame was big, bony. There was some calm about him, an aura of peace.
Must have been counted as one of the wise, balanced, knowledgeable men of his society, might not be formally educated and also might be unaware of the leaps of science and technology but wise nonetheless.
She tried waking him up, by calling out several addresses as she knew could be used to address elderly strangers. He did not budge. More than his jamming the washroom door, what troubled her was the behaviour she apprehended would be meted out to him when all the passengers discover him. Oh Lord! Have mercy on this poor old man, he seems to have been hit by situations already. Lord answered in the form of a pantry car staff. Pantry car was the bogie adjacent to theirs. The pantry car guy had heard her addresses to the old man and had come out to find the reason behind.
“Don’t worry Mataji, these vagabonds would not budge if the train itself was to run over them. You can wake up someone who is really asleep; not one who is faking sleep.
Hey, old man, get up, enough sleep you have had, better get your weight moving or else I would have to find some better treatment for your sleep. Parasites. Why don’t you stay put at one place if you can’t afford the money to move about?"
The man did not budge.
The pantry guy would not have hesitated to use any foul language, but for the presence of Mrs. Chattopadhyay. He was about to give vent to his frustration of not being able to abuse by kicking the old man, just then another pantry guy called out. “Hey Kishan! What happened? This second guy seemed older and a bit more sober. He saw the old man. His face softened. He bent down, stroked his cheeks affectionately and with respect and almost motherly affection implored him to move aside, in some language unknown to both the onlookers.
The old man got up, looked at the second pantry guy with watery eyes, helpless, red, as if the blood in them is going to push them to burst out. He pointed towards the wash room, probably asking for some help. The good guy obliged, reassured him that it was safe enough to move aside. When the old man moved aside, the good guy got out a bundle wrapped in rags from the washroom and handed it over to the old man. The train slowed down and halted with a screech. It was a dully lighted, obscure station outside. Hardly anyone was there except the railway’s indispensable staff and a single on-boarder. The old man, walked out, holding the rag close to his bosom, trembling, his walk weak but hurried, and after a while disappeared into the darkness.
The pantry guy explained. This guy was Venkateshwar, he had been a much respected person in his village, had a position equivalent to a panch (head) in the village. He was not literate but very knowledgeable and knew everything that he could learn from his forefathers and by observing the nature around. And people respected and sought his opinion in all matters and looked forward to his advice. He wanted to continue this tradition further. He made all arrangements for his only son to study well and pass the medical entrance. His only son was to him like a piece of his heart. A year back, he was taking his son for admission into the medical college in town, by a train. At night, when the train stopped at a non discreet station, his son went out to have water, while Venkateshwar, kept lying in sweet dreams, envisioning his son as a doctor, his son’s certificates, of which he was so proud, and the money for the admission in a bag, worked as a pillow for him. There was a sudden sound like that of Diwali crackers, no it could not be crackers at this place and this hour. It was the bandits, come to attack the train. Venkateshwar’s heart was pounding. His son wasn’t back in his berth yet, though he had seen him coming towards their bogey through the window. The bandits were talking amongst themselves. "We must kill, only then will they notice us." They heard the noise of a bottle falling against the floor, they moved in the direction of the sound, it was the washroom; they opened it and unleashed fire from their rifles. There was a scream of a young voice; a voice that Venkateshwar knew too well, the second and subsequent shots were welcomed by whimpers, muffled whimpers gradually becoming less discreet, till there was no noise.
Everyone lay breathless till the bandits got down at the next station, not before taking more lives. In that moment, Venkateshwar stopped being anything but a walking corpse. Only one thing he kept repeating over and over again. "If I could have stood guard against my son, if that was the only thing I could do till I die, God if I could stand guard against my son." And he kept repeating this till he could. Now he doesn’t say anything. Just gets into a train whenever he can, grabbing his Son’s certificates in the rag (the money has long been talked out by disgusting creeps that live by name of men), and guards the washroom doors.
When the good guy left, Mrs. Chattopadhyay went back to her berth, to narrate everything to his husband and get the satisfaction of seeing him soften. That she did. Mr. Chattopadhyay said to her, you should have given him the pooris, the gulab jamuns and the gobi. Poor old man must be hungry. This brought an instant smile on Mrs. Chattopadhyays face, and she was back in her own world, making herself remember to give away the left overs the next morning. The night had been longer than she expected.
* path : Religious ceremony
* path : Religious ceremony