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A Really Long Journey

A Really Long Journey

9 mins 16.3K 9 mins 16.3K

It was a lovely day in the August of 2007, the sun simmered on a low flame as the cold winds had just set in the Jammu valley. The rust - ridden compartments of the Jammu Tavi Express chugged behind each other, in a rhythmic chant of open doors clanging, the heavy wheels eroding the time trodden tracks and gusts of wind whooshing by the half-open windows. The train was curling up the tracks dug through the mountains, the old world charm of the steam engine pulling the train ahead competing with the technology of the electric engine pushing it from behind. Little carpets of snow lined the scenic green valley, rectangles of farmland gradually turned into parallelograms and then into triangles and finally dissolved into shapeless entities as they passed by the eyes of passengers gazing out of the windows.

Niranjan sat quietly in seat no 62 of the second class S8 compartment – it was a comfortable window seat he'd boarded from the busy Sealdah station in the heart of Kolkata. Hoards of people had pushed past him , one had almost knocked him down in the mad rush of the crowd, but Niranjan was in a world of his own, his mind was filled with emotions of every kind as he had set foot on one of the longest railway platforms in India. He'd looked down calmly at the ticket he 'd clutched onto tightly in his hand all the way from home, and smiled to himself at the irony of it all.

Niranjan was a handsome boy who'd just turned 24 in the summer that 'd gone by. He was a little stockily built, but had the face of an intelligent man, rustic, but well-educated. He'd chosen a treasured silk kurta in the shades of maroon for this special trip, it had been a gift from his beloved grandmother on his 17th birthday. He remembered how disappointed he'd been on that day . He'd rushed to his room to change into the new dress as soon as it had been presented to him, only to come out crestfallen since it had been too big for him ; but old granny had only let out a little shrill laugh and said , "Don't worry little Niru, perhaps you can save it for a special day" .

Now, Niranajan let his hand slide across the smooth silk and wondered at how things said long ago could carry so much meaning.

The train had come to a grinding halt at the Ghagwal station near Kathua district, one of the last stoppages before it finally arrived at Jammu Tavi. Niranjan looked at people around him rushing with relief and anxiety to fetch food and water for their dear ones, a few women scrambling with milk bottles in their hands, to get a quick refill for their crying babies and some men getting down just for a routine walk and a habitual smoke. Niranjan had been feeling thirsty for a long time and with his water running out of stock, he was tempted to get down and buy a quick drink , but he had an important thing to do. He climbed onto one of the iron railings provided at the sides of each seat, for people to climb onto the middle and top berths, and stretched his hand out on the top berth to pull out a little leather suitcase he'd brought with himself. He dusted it with his old handkerchief , and slid a small key into a tiny lock that held the zippers together. The case opened with a little click , and Niranjan fetched out an old photograph from it.

It was an old black and white family photograph taken way back in the winter of 1984 , when he was just a year old. A bronzed frame with symmetrical patterns cased the picture . a thin crack ran down the glass that'd been used to cover it and wards of dirt had settled onto it, refusing to budge to the many attempts his mother ,Roopali Devi, had made to remove it.

Niranjan glanced down at the picture, as subconsciously, his index finger began tracing each person that had been living in it for the last 23 years. There was his old grandmother, Ranibai Dey, clad in a khadi saree of a shade that made it look black in the monochromed picture, eyes fixed somewhere on the checkered carpet in the foreground, her inherent shyness still not lost in the 77 years that had went by her. His finger moved on to the person seated below her, his father, Chitranjan Dey, a bespectacled man in his late 30's , oiled hair held firmly back, clean shaven and with eyes that reeked of self-confidence. He wore a tailored suit, befitting the stature of the lawyer's office he'd held in the Kolkata High court. Beside him, sat Roopali Devi, Niranjan's mother, a beautiful young woman in her late 20's, shy yet confident, wearing a typical dark-bordered white handloom saree,. She was holding a little baby in her hand, wrapped in so many layers of clothes and cloth - the baby's thumb firmly in its mouth, and the baby quite clearly looking pleased with the result. Niranjan felt a tinge of embarrassment wipe his face as he saw the picture of himself suckling his thumb .

His finger moved up , and he thought to himself that it had now traced a full circle, literally and figuratively, as it now rested on the face of the man because of whom he'd undertaken this journey. It was his grandfather, Sahukar Nirupam Dey, a frail old man in his 90's in the photograph. He wore a khadi kurta-pyjama with a short sleeveless jacket on top, the traditional dress of the clan he belonged to and was so proud of, the Bengal contingent of the Indian Freedom Movement. His face was covered with a snowy white moustache and beard, the mark of a learned man in the times of revolution. Niranjan's eyes teared up for a little moment, as he saw his grandfather's eyes peering at him from the photograph, telling him, it seemed, to complete the journey he'd started with the purchase of a ticket 100 years ago.

Nirajan slid the photograph from the frame , and behind it, lay a small letter tucked away neatly. Just as old granny had told him when she had handed over the ticket to Niranjan , "Beneath the picture, you'll find a letter. Open it only when you are about to reach your destination".


April 11, 1985:

I hope this letter finds you in good health, my dear Niru. And I hope you are seated in seat no 62 of the Jammu Tavi Express, with a photograph in your lap and letter in your hand. I know your mind must be full of questions. And herein, I hope you will find the answers.

It was in the summer of 1908, when I was only 21 yrs old , a young man ready to lay his life for the country. I was at the Howrah railway station on the way to Bhaderwah, a small town near Jammu. It was then that I'd seen a small cutout in the ticket window, saying that the British Raj controlled Indian Railways have issued a scheme that enables a person to buy a ticket anytime in the future, regardless of the date and year. I don't know what struck me then, but I knew I had to buy a ticket for the future, something for the family to treasure, and perhaps, for a reason yet unknown to me.

It was then, that after much deliberation with the clerk at the ticket counter, who, I must admit, with valid reason, failed to understand why I was buying a ticket 100 years ahead, I managed to purchase this ticket in your hand..

"Kintu, aap to rahoge bhi nahi Nirupam Sahab!! " , he'd joked.

I knew he was probably right, but I wanted to gift a unique present to my grandchildren. Call it my flight of fancy or just a plain irrational act, but I did purchase that ticket. 2 Rs and 16 Annas… I still remember the price.

I know I have only a couple of years more to live, and I have had a wonderful journey – I've worked for the British and fought against them , been fortunate enough to walk with the great Mahatma, I've been witness to the birth of a new India, my heart had swelled when Nehru gave the first speech in free India, I've been through the ups and downs of marital life with your grandmother, and each moment has been so treasured. We've been fortunate to have Chitranjan as our son and my heart almost burst with joy when Roopali handed you over in my arms for the first time - all wrapped up from neck to toe , you took a moment to study my wrinkled face and then you smiled at me.

Life is all about journeys, Niru. I adore you and this ticket is the only gift I can think of giving you, it is not a ticket, it's a journey into your past . I hope you will fulfill my wish and undertake this apparently pointless journey , but I assure you, you wont be disappointed when you reach your destination. "

Niranjan closed the little letter his grandfather had left behind for him and noticed he had a little tear in his left eye. He managed to wipe it off, as the steam engine at the front whistled for one last time on this journey. "JAMMU TAVI" – the yellow and black board on the platform announced.

Niranjan packed his suitcase in haste and stepped down onto the stony platform. He looked around for an exit signboard, when his eyes fell on a little piece of paper stuck near the 'Arrivals' section, on one of the old pillars on which the platform was built. It was a dirty old newspaper cutout with a black and white photograph of a man on it and something written below it.

The paper had turned a rusty papyrus yellow in all the years that had passed by and was shredded badly at the corners and it was difficult to make out whose photograph it was and even harder to read what was written below it.

Niranjan's heart skipped a beat as he peered closer. It was the photograph of his late grandfather, Sahukar Nirupam Dey, in a neat turban wrapped around his head and dressed in a vintage 3 piece khadi suit.

And below it, in his grandfather's slanted writing, were three almost incomprehensible words:

"Welcome , my child" .

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