Travelling in a train makes you contemplate what survival is. Coming across stuff which you never awaited, folks whom you never expected and you just forget them and move on as the journey culminates. Nothing remains permanent except the truth of mortality, nothing is absolute except that our existence might continue for yet another day and all throughout we fight to keep it going on.
A few hours ago…
I squinted outside the window to a skyline which had no ending as my train raced through the green rice fields in a usual December evening. Fields and canals spread throughout the endless vista which perhaps met the sky if it had some end. Although it wasn’t yet dusk, it had turned chilly as the cold gusts made their way through the compartment windows as the train entered the bridge over the beautiful river Ganga.
The grating clatter interrupted my reverie when the couple next to me shuttered the rusty windows as it is still believed in many parts of Northern India that crossing river for women is a sin. My travel mates in train appeared rich and high bred but were still superstitious about many things as you find a lot of folks in rural northern India. There childlessness seemed apparent every time they attempted to dodge the topic of children all through our casual journey talks.
Bhabhiji 1 – looked a usual urban bred lady who had her own prejudices and beliefs. A fair lady in her mid-thirties dressed in a sober green sari which she wore in form of the old school Indian fashion with a gorgeous diamond necklace ornamenting her neckline that radiated its grandeur as faint sunrays of the winter dusk made its way through the rusted window creek. She reopened the windows and fixed her glance on the running trees, fields and canals as the sun set down somewhere where the green canvas merged to the blue shade with a golden hue.
Bhaisahab 2 – a lean man about forty with large specs who incessantly stared at the newspaper ignoring the noise caused by groundnut and tea sellers inside the train. He wasn’t much of a talker which was ostensible from his thoughtful candour.
We didn’t had much conversation till then and I passed my time reading a weird business journal.
The train stopped somewhere amid fields and trees due to signal glitch and this always invites unwanted beggars into the train.
He was a 9 year old lad with torn vest and shabbily matted hair who approached us and started begging. Of course, he did appear malnourished but he did not fall short of the requisite vigour because somewhere in his experienced mind the thought was established that for making the day’s bread he has to scan as many compartments as possible before some railway man notices him and throws him out of the train.
He advanced me as his maiden customer and forwarded his dilapidated right hand that already had one rupee coin and in a practiced deplorable speech begged for an another one. His miserable disposition can melt any human soul except for us north Indians who are accustomed to such situations. He continued… “Sahib… I haven’t eaten since couple of days, bless me sahib or I’ll die of starvation.” and his voice began to break. I tossed a rupee coin in his hands and expected him to leave as soon as possible because it is the only way you could evade these pestering beggars.
Pleased with his first successful sale, he then proceeded to Bhaisahab and Bhabhiji who sat in front of me and repeated his pre-learnt forlorn saga of starvation and poverty. Bhaisahab unmoved by his deplorable plight tried to avoid him but Bhabhiji seemed quite touched by his miserable predicament asked that unwelcome intruder “Are you hungry”? Thereby inviting the attention of me and Bhaisahab.
“Yes Ammi, I haven’t eaten since two days” came the reply in a voice that was about to break again.
Bhabhiji, quite stirred by his wretched plight hastily shuffled through her handbag and took out a bunch of bananas. “Take it and sit down, eat as much as you feel like” she said it with a complementary motherly affection patting his tangled hair.
He faltered at first – perhaps now he was too mature to trust anything that seemed even slightly intimidating. But given the law of the old Gods that hunger shadows all and it makes you do whatever. He reasoned for a moment and then vigilantly plucked a banana from the bunch which Bhabhiji had kept on the verge of the seat as Bhaisahab’s face turned red of annoyance. He reticently bit a slice as his slender hands trembled of apprehension.
Finally, he broke down – perhaps it was the first time in his life he saw such affection. Bhabhiji, given to her emotional disposition tried to calm him down patting his hair. I tried to edge farther away from that dramatic state of affairs and also I saw Bhaisahab’s face who tried hard to keep up his urban-bred stature by not losing his temper.
“Do you study?” Bhabhiji asked him tenderly. There came no reply – perhaps he didn’t understand that question.
The situation took my curiosity, I asked “What does your father do?
He looked at me with an intense demeanor and his eyes were still watery. “My father…” he muttered, “Yeah… Baba told me that when I could not walk, he sold me for 200 rupees to him.” “
“Who is Baba?’ Now he had appealed Bhaisahab’s attention.
A distinctly visible shudder of fear ran down his face. He got up to leave after having finished his banana. “Take another one…” I said plucking another banana from the bunch. He resented at first, but his ardent eyes illustrated his hunger. He accepted another banana with trembling hands.
“How much do you make in a day?’ Bhabhiji asked him thus breaking the reticence.
“I don’t know how to count. All I make I give it to Baba.” He replied but with a clear faintness that was perceptible in his speech when he spoke the word ‘Baba’.
His fright turned noticeable. The sky had turned dark, an air of muteness fell in the ambience which was broken by another train that whizzed past us in the opposite direction.
“What this ‘Baba’ gives you in return? I asked him.
He again got up to leave and this time Bhabhiji stopped him.
“You aren’t going anywhere. Sit and tell us more.” She said in an officious tone.
I didn’t expect that he liked our company anymore. He had already spoken some obscured specifics which he shouldn’t have done. Hunger coerced him to bear our company but now that force wasn’t sufficiently dominant. Bananas didn’t entice him anymore.
As expected he resented Bhabhiji’s proposal. He stood up and edged towards the corridor of our coach.
“Where are you going? I told you to stay.” Bhabhiji blurted out a bit louder than earlier.
He was taken aback with the transition of her motherly countenance. His face clearly showed his hostility to stay anymore with us. He started looking around maybe expecting somebody should tell him to leave.
Suddenly, his drifting eyes stopped at Bhabhiji. He looked at her curiously and calculatingly. After a few second stare at Bhabhiji’s face and very much contradictory to my expectation he deliberately edged closer and sat beside her.
It could be that maternal love had eclipsed his terrors and uncertainties or maybe it was his maiden encounter that he had such affection from somebody else. Whatever the reason was, I didn’t expect that he would stay.
He looked at me and replied, “Baba gives me roti according to what I make in a day, begging.”
“Why don’t you run away from this ‘Baba’?” this time it was Bhaisahab who asked him taking our surprise.
He chuckled, “Chintu tried to run away once but Baba has his ways. Baba’s friends gouged both his eyes out with a red-hot iron rod. Now he begs blind and he makes more money now.” He said giggling childishly.
He laughed again conceivably contemplating his friend’s pain. I tried to make out whether he belittled the gravity of such vehemence or for him it was a customary routine. He made me understand violence isn’t absolute and that violence is necessary, no matter how grave it may be. An intrinsic mortal instinct – an emotion of pleasure creeps in when we see somebody else suffer and that is why violence is one of the basic needs of a human. You just feel good when you see somebody more miserable than you are because it makes you realize your existence has some significance on this goddamn unforgiving planet.
I observed Bhabhiji, her eyes had turned teary. She hugged him with all her maternal instincts welled up inside her. The boy’s eyes again turned watery, perhaps first time he knew what it is to be loved by somebody. Droplets of tears simultaneously streamed from both their eyes.
He started whimpering, the guiltless intellect of a nine year old had relived its innocence and sentimental motherliness of a childless woman relived its adoration.
Fears. Deficiency. Cravings. Pleasures. Happiness
These are things that makes us take all the decisions, no matter how trivial or crucial they are but these three words are omnipotent in all dimensions.
Both love and hunger were genuine. May be both are the basic mortal necessities. Our train was slowing down and it had turned dark outside. The fluorescent light of our coach reflected from his moist eyes making them shine. It was the perfect moment.
He cleared his throat and spoke with childish purity, “Ammi, you know there is one funny thing about hunger, it keeps coming back.”
Bhabhiji smiled hearing how he childishly remarked his hunger. The uninterested Bhaisahab ascended upon the upper berth perhaps to take a nap. The serenity of ambience was occasionally broken by horns of our slowing train.
Bhabhiji turned left to take out more bananas and eatables from her handbag. Train gave another horn and was slowing down further. The boy got up from his seat. He looked at her for few seconds.
Next moment he made a headlong dive towards Bhabhiji and ripped off the gold necklace out her neck with his adept hands. She let out a loud scream. She turned in an impulsive jiffy getting hold of his tangled hair in defensive retaliation. He writhed and his slender body turned restless as a fish just taken out of the water. He viciously struggled to get rid of her clutch but was powerless. Before I or anybody could understand and respond to the situation, he made an ultimate attempt. With his one hand he held the gold chain and with another inside his vest he drew a chopper. He stabbed her right into chest. A fountain of blood squirted out on his face and her grip fell defenceless and without losing an instant he rushed. Sudden as lightening and sure footed as a tiger he made his way towards exit door. I being the closest one chased him.
Just as he was about jump off the door of the coach I threw my arm taking a short impetuous dive. Next moment his collar was in my grasp He writhed again and let out a loud and treble shriek. He screamed again. With successive screeches, he restlessly struggled to evade my grip but resolutely I had my grasp intact. He screamed again.
A million thoughts badgered my mind at an instant but which one of the million struck me that I intentionally left his collar and the next moment he made a practised jump off the train. The following moment he was obscured somewhere in the darkness out there.
Next moment, a multitude of fellow passengers came running behind and asked me his whereabouts. “He outran me and jumped off the train.” I replied in a trembling voice. My mind froze. People from other coaches started flooding in as circus spectators. I made my way back to my seat struggling the dumb bystander crowd.
I beheld Bhabhiji for one last time. Her body was still with her pale face and her mouth open. Those tear droplets were still in her eyes that reflected the light from the fluorescent bulb. Bhaisahab lay motionless at her feet still unable to comprehend what had just happened.
When the bystanders made futile attempts to call the police I fell on my seat with an emotionless mind.
It did not take long when gathering had dispersed nevertheless the occurrence still terrorized the passengers and I lay on the upper berth frozen. Petrifying muteness had shadowed the entire compartment. Sluggish flicker of the bulb complemented my pulse as my skin turned soggy of sweat.
The last thing that last thing that pestered my numb mind was just a resonating hope that the boy jumped out safely.
And the train moved again.