Monday, January 14, 2008

Of Moments of Truth....

Railway stations had always fascinated him. This one was vaguely similar to an old picture he had filed away someplace . The picture in his head was too clear to be true. He smiled at the thought of how much of our past is imagined and how much is what we want it to be , rather than what it really was.
His train of thought was broken by the footsteps of a dozen dhoti clad passengers running on to the rusty metal over-bridge to go over to the next platform, mouthing a very rural Telugu in between paan tinged breaths.
The evening sun, had just gone below the horizon. A slight chill hung in the air. It was a window between when he could see the mynas silhouetted against a shade of a indigo sky, with a tinge of orange and the time the antiseptic white street lights are switched on.
The mynas were as he as imagined them in his filed away picture.Equidistantly perched over the electric lines with millimetric accuracy.

The crowd thickened steadily and he instinctively tightened his grip on his backpack. He had an hours time to kill and he walked the entire platform searching for a suitable bench to settle on. All of them were full.. With families excited to be going away on a holiday, with daily labourers and their dazed looks, with a newly married couple thrilled to be holding hands and making plans.

After he had walked back and forth a couple of times, he found on bench with a red veil limply across it. It was probably left unoccupied, because of the veil.. It almost told you with a quiet dignity to find another bench..this one is taken.. He pushed it one corner of the bench and settled in for a long wait for his train to arrive. He didnt mind the wait. He could see in the fading light, the wisdom and the quiet fortitude of the elderly, the burden of responsibility,the ebullience of youth, the joy of childhood. He was completely at peace. He liked the fuzzy feeling of the nothingness and disconnected thought. Miles way from the life of constant confusion that he was going back to.

A feeble voice, yet so clearly heard over the din, reached him. It was an elderly man, dressed in clothes that looked like they had been washed many times over and yet looked neat. He held in his hand a leather case ,that had seen better days. The bag was packed completely and the zipper had popped at the seams. The man asked him, if there were any ladies sitting next to him. When he answered in the negative, the old man picked up the veil and with a tired sigh, he moved it aside to make room,taking care not to drop it onto the dusty floor.

Both stared at the mynas until they were imagining them against the pitch darkness on the horizon.

The crowd was by now jostling around with people tracing random traverses to get from one place to another. He nervously asked the man,where the B2 wagon would stop on the platform.
The old man indicted that it would be stopping just about a few metres from their bench. He relaxed.

The old man asked him, where he was going to. He replied that he was going to Bangalore. The old man, throttled half a chuckle.

" Software?"

"No, Electronics"

"Ah, Ok, Software". A quiet,uneasy silence.

"You are going to Bangalore too?"

"No. I am going to a small town called Chittoor. It's close to Tirupati, about 50 km from the Karnataka border.",he said in fairly good Kannada.

"Oh, you speak Kannada!",he exclaimed, decidedly surprised to hear his native tongue,so far from home.

"Yes, I worked in Bellary for some time. I learnt my Kannada there. Are you here on a vacation?"

"Hmm. Had come over to meet my grandparents, who live close to here. What about you?"

"I am on my way back home from Behrampur, travelling in the general compartment"


"Yes, my son works in the Archaelogical Survey of India, as a junior assistant. He has just been posted there and it is the first time, he has been away from home for so long. I went to visit him for a couple of days to make sure he is alright"

"Oh,that's nice"

"I am a school headmaster in a government school in Chittoor" , "just three months way from retirement",he added with a twinge.

"Must have been difficult travelling in the general compartment."

"We are used to this. We have to learn to."

He imagined the headmaster's son, brought up on a dosage of middle class values. middle class resilience, conservative sheltered thought, poring over dig sites, finding stuff that people world over would come to see and could not help comparing it with his own job of pecking away mindlessly at a keyboard. The confusion, which had cleared amidst the throngs of the humanity just moments ago, was slowly seeping back into the crevices of his psyche.

He felt guilty about earning all that money for a little more than breaking a mild mental sweat in a shiny cubicle in an environment where people complained if the AC setting was 2DegC above or below their liking.

More than ever, he resolved to end up doing what he wanted to do. Get back to the classroom,only this time, on the otherside of the desks within the next few years...
His guilt trips were using up more fuel than ever before off late.

He shook his head and said,

"It's such an interesting job, is'nt it? The ASI "

"A job is a job. He found it after a lot of running around. I spent a lot of my savings to get him this job. It doesnt pay much, but he atleast can do something with his life. "

He tried hard to find the right thing to say. He couldnt find anything much to say and smiled meekly.

"Must be hot in Chittoor"

"Much hotter than Bangalore definitely"

Weather. Signs that the conversation was wearing thin.

He left the old man to his thoughts. The old man wiped his glasses.
A mother shouted at her 5 year old. An old woman carefully adjusted her sari before descending into the tracks to cross over to the other platform.

His train was due in a couple of minutes. Already people on the platform were restlessly stirring, counting their baggage and in some cases their children. A kilometre down the line, where the tracks bends into the paddy fields, a strident beam appeared and was soon followed by a strident hoot of the engine's whistle. He got up and stretched.

He looked down to the old man still staring into a private void.
"The train is here"

"I have a small request if you will care to hear"
"I dont have money for a ticket or food. My wallet was stolen on my way here from Behrampur"
"Ok...",he said hesitantly. The engine hooted out a clear and shrill note.
"If you dont mind, can you lend me 200 Rs? Give me your address and I will send you the money. I dont know anyone in this town and you know how the Ticket Checker is"

The train was now almost at the platform, sending people instinctively behind the yellow line which they normally ignore.

His mind was racing. It was not the 200Rs that worried him. He wondered about many things, like trust, fate, belief all at once. The train stopping and all the people rushing in did not help him.

He took out 200Rs and hurriedly wrote down his address on the paper the man had held out to him.
The man thanked him tersely and walked away.

The train stopped here for only two minutes, a punctuation in its journey across the fertile south. He had to get into the train now. He went in and sat at his window seat pushing his cheeks agains t the cold,rusty grills. He saw the man... or was it someone else headed towards the station exit.

Something told him, sitting on the cold rexin of the Indian Railways berth... all the life experience he thought he had earned over the years of travelling and meeting strange people in strange lands, had not helped him when he was getting conned in a place 50km from where he was born.

But somewhere there was a niggling hope that a cheque would be mailed to him. Like in a Reader's Digest story.

Three years hence, recalling the incident and updating a blog post .. it still rankled. The old man needed the 200 more than he did, no question about that.. He spent more getting his hair trimmed.

Still.. the fact that the letter never came dented his faith in more ways that one.

The old man probably came there to the same station every once in a while, fine tuning his act, adding minute details to make his son. his job and his retirement vivid entities with a life of their own...A sharpened pencil and a piece of paper ready in hand.