Social Short Story – The Unclaimed Luggage
There was a great commotion in a corner of the station platform. A big crowd had gathered. Amongst the teeming humanity khaki caps could be seen bobbing up about like buoys in a sea. The Railway Police had their hands full. Their number was pitiably few, compared to the number of inquisitive onlookers who had gathered around. The crowd, however, was not unruly at all. They calmly gathered around looking at an object placed there on the floor. The crowd had assumed the shape of a ring. No geometric shape other than this was conceivable, as the police had taken great care to cordon off the immediate vicinity of the bag.
This was a not-too-large sort of a station where most express and mail trains stopped, but some did not. The number of policemen was not great. They did not have the posts and yellow tape to cordon off an area efficiently. So the officers used constables instead. These constables, positioned at strategic points around the object in question, had cordoned off the area quite effectively. The Station Master had sent a radiogram to the nearest bigger Junction and a special train would be coming soon carrying a proper, well equipped bomb squad and a sniffer dog. The crowd was agog with excitement.
The object in question was a simple gunny bag with the open end covered by a gamchha or hand loomed towel and the handles were tied up with a piece of string. From the outside it appeared to contain some boxes. The question was not what the bag contained. The question was whom it could belong to. There was apparently no claimant. Ranjan had seen it there, in a relatively quiet corner of the platform and it had excited his imagination. He had kept a cool eye upon it for quite a long time. It had already cost him three cups of unnecessary tea, when he decided that enough was enough. Like any other good citizen of this country, who travels regularly by train, he was perfectly aware as to what needed to be done if one came across an unclaimed luggage in the Railway premises. This subject had been hammered into the consciousness of commuters, through the aegis of huge hoardings strategically placed all over.
Once he was sure that it was unclaimed, Ranjan had informed the nearest Man in Black, aka a Railway Official and soon all chips began falling in place. The Railwayman informed the Station Master, who, in turn, telephoned the Railway Police outpost. The Railway Police took immediate charge and afterwards realized that they did not have a bomb squad or sniffer dog. The Officer-in-Charge telephoned his compatriot in the Town Police. But the Town Police, too, was not equipped to tackle such an emergency. So, the Railway Police requested the Station Master to send a Radiogram higher up, on their behalf, as their wireless was not functioning and the Officer-in-Charge did not have much balance left in his mobile.
Like vultures sniffing out carrion, the media sniffed out a story in the Station Platform. They swarmed around in a large number, looking mightily important in their press badges, cameras, movie cameras, notebooks and pencils. Failing to elicit any response from the constables and railwaymen alike, they zeroed in onto the Station Master, who hid himself behind a barricade of “No comments”, and the Officer-in-Charge of Railway Police, who had little but a scowl to offer. A report in the media, on the treatment of a suspected wagon-breaker had dragged the Policeman to the precincts of the Human Rights Commission only three weeks ago and that thing rankled. Not to be outdone, the undaunted scribes pounced upon the gathered onlookers and started taking bytes after bytes. The cameramen, however, had a field day and they shot still and video pictures of the bag and the crowd from all conceivable angles.
Sudhir was disconsolate. He had come to this town over the weekend and was on his way home by the afternoon express train. His ancestral home was in this town. Now his mother stayed here with his younger brother and his family of three. He, for himself, stayed at a neighbouring town, where he worked in the State Electricity Board office and his wife worked as a Primary School teacher. Sudhir had spent a good weekend in the house of his childhood and had a wonderful time with his mother and his brother’s family. He had also met a few of his old school friends, and it had felt really great. When he was leaving his mother had packed a container with his favourite mutton preparation, and two other smaller tins with coconut confectionaries his mother had made herself for her grandchildren. All these goodies she had put in a gunny bag, covered the open end with a towel and had tied the handles with a string for ease of carrying. Sudhir had no other luggage with him except for a small overnighter, and this additional bag was of no problem.
At the station Sudhir came to know that the train he was supposed to go by, was a couple of hours late. He went up to the Enquiry Office to get the latest update. A big crowd had assembled in front of the Enquiry Office. Sudhir jostled here and elbowed there but could not reach the window. He then set the bag down and pushed forward to get news of his train. Indeed it was late. He pushed out of the crowd and bent down to pick up his bag, but it was not there. Sudhir was frantic. He searched here and searched there. But the bag was nowhere to be found.
Kelo and Haripada were two bosom friends right from childhood till now. Both were in the same vocation and both did their work well. Both were well respected in their fraternity. Both were highly skilled thieves whose field of activity was the Railway Platform. Today Kelo was crestfallen because he had not made a single ‘kill’ since morning. All the passengers had become extremely vigilant, much to his chagrin. But now he had just heard an announcement that the express was late. Kelo brightened up. In his huge experience he had seen that the passengers of trains that are late became more fed-up, annoyed and less alert. He thanked his stars and the gods above, for providing this golden opportunity. He began prowling through the crowded platform from one end to the other. But all his efforts were in vain. Now he really missed his side-kick, Haripada. Dejected, he went over to the tea-stall for his daily free half a cup of tea. It was part of the deal he had with Ramsharan, the stall owner. There shall be no theft of any article in Ramsharan’s shop and Ramsharan had to supply free tea to Kelo and Haripada. As an insurance policy it was good enough. So far Ramsharan had kept his words, as Kelo and Haripada theirs.
“Rambhai,” called Kelo as he drew up a stool close to the stall owner. “Give me my tea.”
“Kya re Kelo? Is business down today?”
“It happens, bhai. It happens. But don’t worry. In our line morning does not always show the day.” Kelo was philosophical.
Ramsharan handed him his scheduled half cup of tea. It was freshly prepared and scalding hot. Kelo was just blowing into it to get it cooled a bit, when something came into his notice. From where he sat the Enquiry Office could clearly be seen. A large number of people had gathered in front of that office, but that was not important. It is expected whenever a train is late. But the thing that drew his attention was a gunny bag which was left unattended, close to the office. Kelo put down his cup with the tea untouched and bade adieu to Ramsharan.
When Kelo moved out on a mission he resembled an unseen wisp of smoke. He had the uncanny ability of mingling with the milling crowds and of becoming nearly invisible. Unseen by all he slunk up to the Enquiry, picked the bag up and moved away nonchalantly, tonelessly whistling a tuneless number.
Haripada accosted him near the end of the platform.
“Hey,” said he. “I’d been searching for you the whole day. Where had you been?”
“Hunting,” replied Kelo, gesturing towards the bag he held in his hand.
“Huh! Only this puny bag and you call it hunting! Come along. I’ve landed a big fish before the morning mail train and that calls for celebration. I’ve brought a bottle. Pocha and Babla are waiting for us. Come to #5.” Number Five was the Platform Number Five. It was usually deserted for the better part of the day.
Kelo put the bag down in an isolated area and looked about him. Apparently no one had seen him. It was the rule amongst the thieves working in the Station area not to keep the stolen articles with them for long. That is why Kelo put it down and mentally marked the spot where he had kept it. The bag did not appear to contain anything of great value and it will keep till he returned from his drinking spree. He was not worried about his professional colleagues. The thieves in this part, were honest and did not touch the articles of the other thieves. The attractions offered by #5 were too much to overlook. Following his friend, Kelo jumped down on to the railway track and ran to his tryst with the bottle with fried gram, onions and green chilli. The bag could wait, but the beverage would not. It was then that Ranjan had noticed the bag for the first time.
The Officer-in-Charge, Khan, was deeply distressed. The train with the bomb-squad and sniffer dogs was held up at the Junction due to reasons unfathomable. So, the crowd fighting would have to continue for God only knows how long! Added to it was the news that the local minister, Mr. Narayan Tribedi will be coming to the station soon, within the next hour or so, to catch the evening express. Propriety demanded that he should get this #1 platform cleared before he came in. But how, he had no idea. Khan opened the topmost drawer of his table and fished out a strip of antacid tablet. He popped a couple of them in his mouth and started chewing. Something had to be done. But he knew not, what. He put on his cap, tightened his belt, called out to the second officer to remain in charge and walked outside. He was determined to set everything right and spic-and-span by the time the minister arrived.
Mr. Narayan Tribedi was the veritable uncrowned king in these parts. The Opposition spread a lot of rumours and stories about him, but he was in no way perturbed. He was a billionaire, who had risen from the rank and file of his party by sheer hard work, diligence and a strong pair of arms. Detractors said that most of his riches were ill-gotten, but that did not bother him either. He had a very efficient book-keeper who maintained his books so well that even the Election Commission could not find any irregularity there. To his followers, he was a great philanthropist, and to his opponents he was a philanderer per excellence. His rise in state politics had been astronomical and was mainly due to the fact that he never lost an opportunity at public relations. He was a darling of the media too, for with him around there was never a dull moment. Today he was going to Kolkata to attend the Assembly Session. He was going by the evening train.
Kelo was feeling confidant and jubilant. After a couple of quick gulps and another two bottoms-up, he felt on the top of the world. He stood up and stretched. Amidst noisy protestations from his cronies he vaulted down the platform on to the tracks in a bid to recover his bag from #1. As he was about to jump on to the said platform, he stopped dead on his tracks. Where he had left the bag, he could only see a huge crowd of people and an occasional policeman. Kelo decamped faster than one could utter “Jack Robinson” to seek solace in the bottle he had left behind.
Sudhir was sitting on a bench, crestfallen. His mutton korma and coconut laddus were something which could not be forgotten easily. But he could do nothing about it. Suddenly a spark hit his not so bright brain. He should let the police know about it. With resolute steps he walked over to the Railway Police Outpost.
The second officer Chaubey was irate. Just as he was preparing for an afternoon nap, he was alerted by his superior office Khan who was going out leaving in charge. Sudhir entered the Outpost at this juncture.
“Sir,” wailed Sudhir. “My bag has been stolen!”
“What makes you shout? I am not deaf!” said Chaubey.
“Sir, my bag has been stolen,” whispered Sudhir.
“Speak up, will you? Come here. I’ll need all details.”
By the time Sudhir had finished speaking, a faint snoring could be heard from Chaubey’s side of the table. Sudhir sighed and sat back in his chair. He knew that the stakes were huge, so exasperation would lead him nowhere.
Chaubey’s slumber was but short lived. The shrill trill of the telephone cut mercilessly through his veil of sweet dreams. Sleepily he grabbed the offending instrument and grunted into the mouth-piece like a hibernating bear in the dead of winter. But the voice coming in through the wires blew the sleepy threads in his brain away like a cobweb in a whirlwind. Frantically he rang the bell. A constable jumped in and saluted.
“Ramdin, get everybody ready. The minister is coming in twenty minutes.”
Poor Sudhir tried to remind the officer about his lost bag. But Chaubey waved him aside.
“Yes, yes, I have noted it all down. You come back after the minister had gone. If your bag has remained lost for so long, then it won’t come to any harm if it remains lost for an hour more.” Sudhir dejectedly came out of the room.
The crowd around the unclaimed baggage had thinned out. Time is the best remedy for any emotional upheaval. So, with the passage of time, interest in the article in question had waned. Now, there were more policemen than onlookers. Sudhir saw the Officer-in-Charge out there talking to a group of several constables. He knew Mr. Khan by sight, so he thought that he would address his woes to the top brass around. But as he came up to the officer, something else drew his attention. It was his bag! And it was being closely guarded by a number of guardians of law! The elated Sudhir scampered up to the group of policemen and elbowing all aside, pounced upon his treasure. There was a spontaneous uproar as the policemen thought that the bag would explode in an instant and all of them, including Mr. Khan, dived for cover. When nothing happened Mr. Khan crept out from behind the bench where he had taken shelter and grabbed Sudhir’s arm.
“Why did you take the bag?” he asked in his best interrogative tone. “Is it yours? Then how come it was here for so long? Where had you been? Who are you? Can you prove that it is your bag?” Sudhir was flabbergasted at the barrage of questions. The crowd began to gather once again.
“Sir,” Sudhir almost began to weep. “This is indeed my own bag. I can prove it. I had lost it sir, and now it has come back to me.”
“Can you prove that it is yours?”
“Yes sir. There are containers filled with mutton korma and coconut sweets.”
The officer shooed all the curious onlookers away, dragged the terrified Sudhir into his office, locked the door and checked all contents of the bag himself. The mutton was indeed tasty, as were the sweets. No ‘seizure list’ was prepared as no case diary existed. Within a quarter of an hour all ‘evidence’ had been consumed by the men in khaki and Sudhir was happy that he had got his bag back. Only then did Mr. Khan ring up his higher authorities to report that the case was solved and the bomb squad was no longer needed, neither were the dogs of war.
The Minister arrived within the next twenty minutes. He was followed by a long retinue of personal assistants, security personnel, party workers, admirers and, of course, the media. He strode on to Platform #1 with long, purposeful strides. In the middle of the platform, he broke his stride and came to a stand-still with such suddenness that his retinue crashed in to each other. He called for the O.C. of the Railway Police. Mr. Khan stepped up and saluted smartly.
“Mr. O.C., where is the piece of unclaimed luggage that is the talk of the town today? I would like to address the crowd there. And why is the bomb squad late? What action have you taken? I demand a written explanation. And arrange for a press conference for me on the spot on this issue alone.” Tribedi turned back to the camera, gave a dazzling smile when he noticed that the camera was running and patted his already sleek hair in place.
“Sir, there’s no issue. The case has been solved. The baggage has been claimed and taken away by the lawful claimant. The bomb squad has been called off. There is no crowd to address. And, sir, if you want a press conference…”
“No need.” Tribedi flashed a million dollar smile. Then he drew Khan close to him, draped his arm over his shoulder in an avuncular fashion and turned to face the camera. “You see, what a fantastic officer we have here. Please give him a big hand, will you?” As everyone broke into a spate of clapping, he muttered from the corner of his mouth into Khan’s ears, “I’ll get you transferred to a remote area, you ba***rd!”
The long-overdue express was announced to be coming in on platform #3. All hurried towards the overbridge and platform #1 became almost deserted. Sudhir scampered over the steps with his overnighter slung over his shoulder and the empty gunny bag with its empty containers clutched in his left hand. The minister stepped into the V.I.P. Waiting Room. The Express train whooshed into platform #3. A drunken song broke out from platform #5.