This short story is selected as Story of the Month December’2014 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
The cup of coffee in my hand was almost empty when the train’s warning horn sounded. I stared down the small Styrofoam cup, making a face when I saw the dark brown sludge at the bottom. I crushed it in my palm – not too hard – and threw it in a dustbin nearby. I noted the train’s engines starting up, my eyes going to its name. Chennai Express, going from Mumbai’s Dadar Station to Chennai’s Egmore Station. I checked my phone for the ticket confirmation and went through it. Chennai Express, Coach S5, Seat 16, Side Upper.
Since the booking was done in a hurry, I didn’t have any luggage. I was vaguely aware that the train would start in five minutes, so I made away towards my compartment. I bustled past harried-looking people as I kept a lookout for coach S5. I found it after a couple of minutes and hurried towards it, just as the stationmaster waved the green flag. Cursing softly, I managed to board the train as it started out of the station, its great wheels creaking and clanking under my feet. The train built up a decent speed as I waited for passengers to settle down and clear the narrow passage between berths.
I glanced through the text on my phone again, confirming the seat number as the way finally began to clear. I waded in between men who were bending down to settle the suitcases more firmly under the seats and people trying to climb up to the top berth, no doubt to get some sleep. It was only early afternoon, the sun was high over our heads. I traversed the length of the compartment and stopped near the end, finally having reached my seat. I saw that the Ticket Collector was already there. He was a small, sharp man with horn-rimmed glasses and he peered up at me.
“Tickets?” he asked, looking me up and down. I slipped my cell phone out and showed him the text, which he glanced through. “Oh, Side Upper,” he said, and pointed to my seat. I nodded and took my cell back from him. I sat on the side seat and stretched my legs. It hadn’t been an easy day at work, and I was looking forward to the afternoon for some luck.
I glanced across the other seats and noted the other six people in our eight-seat box. The person opposite me was on the upper berth (which was technically my seat) and sound asleep. There was a family of three and a group of three young men.
The family comprised of a father, mother and daughter. The father was a dark, bald man who stared impassively out of the window. The mother and daughter wore matching green salwars, and were busy shifting their luggage under the seat. The daughter seemed pretty, but I didn’t get a better look because at that moment, the father caught me staring and gave me a hard look. I shifted my gaze on to the other group. Students, I decided instantly, going by their age and the rope of an ID card on one guy’s front pocket. He had probably used it as ID proof for the Ticket Collector.
I lay back on my seat and watched out the window, noting the trees and fields passing by. My fingers drummed on my thighs just as the bald man – the father – got up from his seat. He moved across and turned, presumably to the bathroom. Right then, I experienced a severe cramp in my thigh, which caused me to jump in alarm, and resulted in me colliding with the man.
“So…sorry,” I mumbled, clutching my thigh in main.
“Watch it!” he roared, anger flashing in his eyes.
He shoved me rudely and walked towards the bathroom. I turned away in pain and massaged my thigh, aware that everyone was looking at me. I risked a glance at the daughter who was looking at me with disapproval. I grimaced and went back to looking out of the window. In a few minutes, the bald man had come out of the bathroom, and I went in to relieve myself.
I was in there for a short while, but when I came back, there was a small debate going on. One of the three students was waving a hand towards the other and arguing in a loud voice.
“No, no no,” he said. “It’s next to impossible.”
“Says who?” said the student in the middle. He had curly hair and big nerd glasses on. I noticed he had a book in his hand. “It’s just a matter of observation. We see but we do not observe!” he said.
“What rubbish. You can’t make instant deductions by looking at people. That’s why it’s fiction,” said the first guy. I sat down and peered at the book the curly-haired guy was holding and read the title, The Complete Short Stories of Sherlock Holmes. I nodded to myself. So these people were arguing over whether deduction was possible at a single glance. I smiled to myself and kept looking out of the window. The third student had joined in, supporting the first one. Now both of them were ganging up on curly-hair, who had nowhere to go.
In desperation, he turned towards the bald man. “Uncle, what do you think? Is it not possible to make deductions of a man just by looking at him?” he asked. I turned towards them now. I wanted to see what he would say. His reply changed the whole journey.
“I don’t think it’s possible either,” he said. The curly-haired guy bowed his head and the other two high-fived. “There is no Sherlock Holmes in real life,”
“But what if there is?” I asked quietly. Everyone quietened. They turned to look at me. The students looked curious, and the bald man a little annoyed. Evidently, he hadn’t forgotten the accidental collision. The mother was uninterested and was sewing something in her lap. The daughter, I was pleased to see, was looking at me with a strange expression on her face.
“What do you mean?” asked the bald man. “You’re saying people can make logical deductions based on a single look? Like Sherlock Holmes?” he asked, his tone half-taunting, half-jeering. The first and third students grinned, but curly-hair was still curious.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” I said, feeling my confidence rise. “If we could just see beyond what we want to see, it’s quite easy to know facts. Things are always more than what meets the eye.” I said and glanced out of the window. The train was picking up pace. We’d reach the next station in half an hour.
“It’s easier said than done, isn’t it?” This time it was Student No.1. “I mean, even if you could train yourself to look beyond the ordinary, you have to be extremely intelligent to deduce things from what you’re seeing. Or are you telling me you know people who can do stuff like this?” he asked.
I nodded again. “I do know people who can do this. In fact, I’m one of them,” I said. Everyone looked at me sceptically. The bald man actually scoffed and turned away.
“So you don’t believe me,” I said. My fingers resumed tapping my thigh. “What if I make a small deduction right now?” I said, wagging my eyebrows. Curly-hair was the first to speak.
“Go on, then.” He said, his tone more aggressive than I’d expected. It was a challenge then. I cast my eyes around the train and fell on the bald man. My eyes narrowed. He caught me looking.
“What?” he said. “Oh, you’re making deductions about me. I bet you can’t find out a single thing about me,” he boasted. My eyes rested on his face, looked down his body and came back up again. I closed my eyes.
“Ex-Indian Army. Your final rank was Lieutenant General, retired recently. In fact, you had a going-away party this morning.” I said. The students looked incredulously at me and turned to look at the bald man. Their eyes widened.
The bald man was looking at me with eyes open wide. His mouth was half-open in shock as he pointed a shaky finger at me. “What…yes! Yes, you’re right!” he said. His wife looked shocked too, as she had finally put her sewing down and was staring at me. The daughter had a small smile on her face.
Now the students looked positively excited. “How did you know all that?” they asked me. I shrugged and smiled. They shook my shoulders and begged me to tell.
“I just observed,” I said with a wink. Then I leant back and put both my feet on the seat. “It’s all right there. The way you sit, back straight, arms on your thighs, head back, eyes forward. The way you stood, the way you walked, the way you ordered me around when we collided. All that screamed Army man. But if you were still in the service, you’d have dressed in your uniform which you’re proud of. But you didn’t, so that told me you were retired. Your hands are steady, you’ve got no nicotine stains and you’re quite fit at this age, which told me you didn’t smoke or drink. But your eyes are rimmed with red, just slightly, which meant you’ve had a drink today right before you boarded the train. You combine drinks with retirement, and the obvious answer would be a going away party. As to how I know you’re a Lieutenant General, I’ll be honest with you, it was a shot in the dark. But a good one. You hold your right shoulder a little lower than your left, as though something heavy is on it. Possibly the medals you’ve received during service, though you’re not wearing them now. Old habits die hard.” I grinned devilishly at them.
They looked absolutely shell-shocked. Everyone had their mouths open and they were staring agape at me. The bald man had actually turned in his seat to look at me, and his eyes shone with admiration.
“Remarkable!” he said. “Just remarkable.”
I was too far in to stop. I just couldn’t. I love it when I bamboozle people. “I have more if you want,” I offered. They all sat up a little straighter. I put my hands on my temples and massaged it softly. Then I looked up at him.
“You’re going on a trip to somewhere nearby, certainly still in Maharashtra. But it’s for a vacation, not a business trip. Possibly going to a relative’s place. You had Samosas for lunch. You play a string-instrument, possibly the Violin. Finally, you’ve just drawn money from the ATM before boarding the train. Am I right?” I asked him, smiling.
He grinned again and nodded excitedly at me. His wife too, was smiling. The students were in total awe of me. The curly-haired guy couldn’t close his mouth.
“Explain,” said the first student. I nodded and took a breath.
“The cash from the ATM was the easiest. I can see the tip of the receipt peeking from the top of your front pocket. From your suitcase, I can see the trip is not a long one. The suitcase is small and compact, can’t hold more than two sets of clothes each. This means that you are going to stay in the house of relatives’ where you would either wear their clothes or wash your own. Of course, it could have been a short business trip, but unlikely. If it was, all your expenses would have been paid for, and you didn’t need to draw money from the ATM in the first place. But you did, which ruled out a business trip.”
The students nodded appreciatively. I kept one eye on the outside. The train was beginning to lose speed, which meant my station was coming up. “But how did you know I wasn’t going out of Maharashtra? I could have been going to Karnataka or Andhra!” said the bald man.
“And the samosas and the Violin!” chimed the students.
“Yes, the samosas. I can see a little bit of crumbs on the collar of your shirt, possibly where they fell off as you ate them. Also, I can see the oils glistening on your fingers and just the top of your palm, nowhere else. Only holding a samosa can give you an oil pattern like that.” There was an appreciative whoop from the curly haired guy. I was in no mood to stop, and I motored on.
“As I said your suitcase was small, but I also noticed that you hadn’t packed any dinner. An Army man like you, you probably have loads of experience with trains and food in trains. No way you were going to travel with your family without packed food. But you didn’t, which meant you didn’t need food for the night. Ergo, you would get off before nightfall, which meant it wouldn’t be beyond Maharashtra. Lastly, the Violin. You have calluses on your left hand from plucking the strings and a small groove between your right thumb and forefinger where you hold the bow. Also, you have a small, but noticeable callus on your chin, which is where you hold the Violin to steady it.”
I let out a breath and lay back again. “That’s all.” The train was approaching the platform now,
Everyone stared at me. And then they began to clap. They clapped loud enough to make the other passengers peer from their beds.
“Astounding!” said the bald man and came up to shake my hand. I shook his hand and the students’. I smiled at the mother and the daughter, and I noted that the father was not staring daggers at me this time. Score, I thought.
The train pulled up at Kalyan Junction, and the groaning and moaning resumed as the train ground to a halt. I jumped to my feet as the train stopped completely.
“This is my stop,” I said. “Nice seeing you.” They nodded up at me with barely concealed looks of wonder on their face as I stepped down from the station. I checked over my back to see if I wasn’t followed, and I walked briskly. I walked out of sight of the train, down a familiar corridor and into a busy street.
I turned left and headed down a winding lane, which was dotted with seedy shops. I strode over to the end, where there was a half-constructed wall. I climbed it and seated myself in a comfortable position. Far away, the train’s horn blasted, and it moved away. I let out a huge breath.
Phew, I said. Then, I grinned to myself. I slipped a hand in my pocket and took out a wallet. It was a battered old thing, easily thirty years old. I flipped it open and inside it was a photo of a man with an army-style haircut and a thick moustache. If you looked closely, the man had a striking resemblance to the bald haired man whom I’d just met.
The bald man – the father – gets up from his seat. He moves across and turns, presumably to go to the bathroom. Right then, I experience a “severe cramp” in my thigh, which causes me to jump in alarm, and results in me colliding with the man. I remembered how my hand had gone in and out of his back pocket in a fluid motion. I had pinched his wallet easily.
In a few minutes, the bald man had come out of the bathroom, and I went in to relieve myself. I took my time to go through the wallet in the bathroom to learn things for my “deduction” show. I opened the wallet again and looked at the things inside.
There was a photo of the bald man dressed in full uniform, holding a glass of alcohol. Around him were people of the same age. It was probably taken during a party, and the banner above his head said We Will Miss You! A going away party, and the timestamp was of the current date. I looked at the insignia on his shoulder – The national emblem over crossed scimitar and baton. Lieutenant General – Ex-Indian Army. Your final rank was Lieutenant General, retired recently. In fact, you had a going-away party this afternoon.
I threw the photo out and picked up the next item in the wallet. It was a crisp train ticket for three people. The destination was Pune – You’re going on a trip to somewhere nearby, certainly still in Maharashtra.
The next item was another photograph. Of the bald man, playing a violin. You play a string-instrument, possibly the Violin.
The next was a receipt for five samosas. The timestamp was for the afternoon of the current day. You had samosas for lunch.
The last item was what I was aiming for. Twenty crisp thousand rupee notes, still a little hot from the ATM. Finally, you’ve just drawn money from the ATM before boarding the train.
I smiled as I lifted the notes from the wallet. I counted them and put them in my pocket. Then, I stuffed the rest of the items in the wallet. I looked at my watch. It was 3.30 p.m. I jumped down from the wall and landed lightly on my feet. I turned the wallet over, trying to see if it would be of any value. I decided it was worthless and I tossed it over the other side of the wall. There was a train back to Dadar in half an hour, and I planned on showing off some more deduction skills.
I whistled softly as I walked back to the station, the afternoon sun harsh on my neck. But I knew that it wouldn’t last long, for the sun also, is more than what meets the eye.