CHAPTER TEN: ONE FOR THE ROAD!
I watched the train disappear gradually and tried to recall what she had said in those parting moments. Platform no. 11, was it? And in ten minutes? I had not entirely recovered from the bewildering experience I had only a minute back, but I knew that I had to pull myself up right away. Something inside me suggested, this was only the beginning!
I looked around and checked for any visible signs mentioning platform no. 11, but there were none. Realising that there wasn’t much time to lose, I scampered to the nearby tea stall, and asked for the direction to Platform 11. The tea seller was a tall guy wearing one of those common white vests, probably branded Bapi or Raju, that had now turned brownish, with a small hole visible below his right armpit. He looked a little surprised at my question initially, but calmly pointed his head towards a platform in the distance, and while continuing to pour tea from an aluminium kettle to an earthen cup, he declared;
– “That one in the distance is Platform no. 10, but once you reach there, walk till the very end of the platform, near the public toilet, and you will see a short passage to the left, taking you into the Platform no. 11. But it’s a long walk from here, maybe 10 mins or so.”
I looked straight in the direction he had indicated; it did seem a fair distance away. But I had no choice and I was unwilling to waste any further time asking questions. I thanked him, without even looking back, and then marched away at a brisk pace.
As I kept walking, I realised that the distance was probably even more than what it had seemed, so I increased my pace to almost a sprint. I was unsure how far I had to go, I was uncertain how much time I had left, and I was almost apprehensive about where I was headed. But something inside me kept egging me on, and I scurried along as fast as I could. This manner of following something without asking questions, or seeking answers, was absolutely new for me, something that did not come naturally to me, and I as I thought about it, I nodded my head in disbelief; this was actually happening, and to ME, of all the people!
I kept walking, as instructed, till the end of Platform 10, and the pungent stench of urine and ammonia hit my senses, even before I could see the toilet myself. I cautiously crossed the toilet area, careful not to step on the liquid stains nearby, and indeed discovered a short passage, constructed with floor tiles that looked surprisingly spotless for such a populous railway station. A few meters ahead, the passage led me into another platform, this time Platform no. 11!
The first thing that caught my eye as the platform opened up to my view, was a train slowly moving away from the station. It had just started and was still at its slowest pace and without asking where it was going, without checking who was inside, I made a sprint and jumped into the last passenger compartment of the train. This train, and this platform itself, was in stark contrast to Platform no. 7, and the train I had almost boarded earlier. While that platform was over crowded, there seemed to be barely a soul on this one. As I stepped into the train, I looked around and found three more people in the same carriage. An older man in his sixties, a lady probably around thirty and a little girl, who was probably the same age as my younger son, Raju. The older man was reading a hard cover book titled “Grihadaha”, by the well known Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and he hardly acknowledged my presence. The lady was knitting some woollen wear, and she did look up as I entered the train, but didn’t show any positive or negative expression, as would be considered normal in those days. Both the lady and the gentleman were seated on the same side of the carriage, a few meters apart, but not exactly in front of each other, understandably so, since the whole compartment was pretty empty. The girl was standing next to a window on the other side of the compartment, which was totally empty. She was the only one to smile at me when my eyes met hers, and I gave her an affectionate smile back, which made her content and she turned back to looking out through the window.
After a moment’s consideration, I took a seat close to the gentleman, not exactly the one next to him, but the one next to that. He still did not show any signs of being aware of my presence, and I concluded that he was either too engrossed in the book, or was simply rude. The lady was seated a few seats away to my right, and in front, while the gentleman was in the same row two seats to my left, next to the window. From where I sat, I could see the little girl on the other end of the bogie, humming a song and staring out at the greenery through the window.
Placing my side bag next to me, I decided to get familiar with the other passengers. Since it would be a little flashy to speak to the lady first, I turned to the gentleman and softly remarked;
– “Grihadaha porchhen dada?” (Reading ‘Grihadaha’, elder brother?)
The man looked up from his book, looked at my face, turned the book to show me the cover and coldly remarked “As you can see..”
Undeterred, I smiled at him and asked;
– “Kotodur jachchen?” (How far are you going?)
He did not answer my question, in fact, he just ignored my question and kept on with his reading. That was not very encouraging, so with a hint of disappointment I looked at the lady, who seemed to have followed this exchange and tried to hide a smile as our eyes met. I was intending to greet her once I was done with this small talk with the gentleman, but now, I didn’t want to risk an embarrassment and thus, decided to refrain from making any further acquaintances.
The train moved on, barely making a stop, with all three adults deciding to stay silent. It was the rhythmic noise of the train hitting the track and the occasional humming by the little girl, that made up for the background score. After maybe twenty five odd minutes, wherein the train had made two stops without anyone boarding or alighting our bogie, the little girl decided to end her ‘me time’ and join her mother in this part of the coach.
She came and sat right next to me and we exchanged smiles. I was happy that someone was at least open to human expressions. Then she asked me with a wide smile;
– “Kaku, kothay jachcho?” (where are you going, uncle?)
Now usually, that is such an innocuous question to start a conversation, but this time, I suddenly realised that I did not know the answer, and that made me nervous. Trying to hide my discomfort, I gave her a smart grin and answered;
– “ Let’s see how far the train can take me!”
Despite not looking up at either of them, I could really sense how the gazes of the man and the woman shifted towards me at that instant. Luckily, just then, the train started to slow down and the gentleman sat upright, closed his book and tucked it inside his bag. The train came to a gradual halt and the gentleman, without even a glance at anyone else, slowly walked to the door and descended to the small platform. A fleeting thought came to my mind as I debated with myself, if I should also get off the train at this station. But the station seemed pretty small and I was pretty uncertain, so instead of alighting, I moved to the window seat that was just vacated, and still warm from my co-passenger’s sitting posture. The engine driver sounded the air horn to alert passengers that it was about to depart the station. The stop was hardly for a couple of minutes. But suddenly I felt a nudge on my elbow, which I had placed on the window sill. It was the old gentleman!
He lowered his voice almost to a whisper and told me;
“Sorry for being so rude earlier.”
“It’s o…” I tried to be civil, but he didn’t allow me to complete the phrase.
“You need to get off this train at the sixth station from here. Wait for someone to pick you up there. Don’t be nervous. Remember, station no. six after this stop.”
It took me almost a minute to close my mouth which was gaping wide at this point. The train had started to move and I suddenly regained my ability to speak, as I desperately tried to ask the gentleman;
– “Wait! Please listen! Where..?”
But he tapped my elbow one last time, and stepped back from the moving train, as the distance between us started to increase. I could see him for another fifteen seconds or so, and he was standing there, with his gaze fixed, smiling at me, as his frame became smaller and smaller, and eventually disappeared in the distance.
As the train gathered its usual speed, I remembered my co-passengers and turned towards them, to find both of them immersed in their own actions. It didn’t seem that either of them had seen or heard the final exchange between the former co-passenger and me. I took a deep breath and pondered over what had just happened, and the instruction that was conveyed to me. Sixth station!
The little girl came next to me and started chatting with me. It helped me forget some of the anxiety that was probably showing on my face. She asked me where I lived and I told her ‘Haldia’, and she fished out a small notepad and wrote it down. I spotted a spelling mistake and showed her the correct spelling. Then I asked her where she lived, and she said she will write it down. She wrote on another piece of paper and handed it over to me; it had ‘Naihati’ written on it and this time the spelling was correct.
Soon, we were laughing aloud and writing some random words and phrases on pieces of paper torn from her small notepad. We were both enjoying as time seemed to fly, and even the lady was smiling; she seemed relieved that someone kept her daughter occupied. I was also trying to keep a count of all the stations that passed us by, but amidst all this joy and light moments, I was not entirely sure if it was the third or the fourth station where the lady stood up and told her daughter, that it was time for them to alight at the next station. The little girl, her name Chumki, almost looked sad and even made me promise, that I will come to Naihati to see her some day, and I assured her I would. There were pieces of torn paper lying all around us, from our writing exercise over the last forty five minutes or so. The lady commanded Chumki to pick the pieces of paper up before she left, and the little girl admirably agreed and set out to pick all the pieces lying on the train’s floor. Since some of them also had my hand writing on them, I helped her by picking a few myself, but she took possession of all of them eventually. The train stopped and we said goodbye to each other and I even walked to the door to see them off. Chumki, as a parting gesture looked through the pieces of paper and handed me the one with ‘Naihati’ written on it and said;
– “God promise? You will come to Naihati?”
As I nodded with a smile, she turned and went down the steps with her mom. I waved at them as they walked away, and soon the train started to move and I was on my way again, all by myself this time.
I seated myself back and tried to remember how many stations we had crossed but felt a little confused if my ‘sixth station’ was now two stations away or three. Definitely one of the two, so I decided to go by my hunch.
The next stop went by and I convinced myself that there should be two more stops for me. Then another stop came and I peeked out of the window to see if anyone alighted at that station but found none. There was no one to be seen.
Was it this one? No, this must be the fifth? Or was it the sixth?
I had made up my mind to get off at the next station, as I clutched onto the piece of paper that Chumki had given me. The train sounded the air horn again and I looked at the paper in my hand with Chumki’s handwritten ‘Naihati’ on it. I gave a smile to myself; the girl was really so charming! The train started moving and I decided to preserve this piece of paper as a memento from our lovely little time today. As I folded the paper, I suddenly noticed there was something written on the other side as well. I turned it around and saw the words ‘Banghaat’ written on the reverse. We did discuss names of different places, but I couldn’t remember ‘Banghaat’ among them. Suddenly, a thought struck me and with one quick movement, I looked out of the window. This small station had a small wooden board with the word ‘BANGHAAT’ written on it.
I swiftly picked up my bag, and clutching the paper tightly in my palm, jumped off the running train and landed on the small platform of Banghaat station!