Birds of Autumn (Chapter 1)
Birds of Autumn (Chapter 1)
Chapter 1 (Railway Station)
New Delhi railway station with all its glory, vibrancy and filth was overcrowded, as it usually is any given time of the day.
The crowd on each of the sixteen platforms of the railway station swelled up and down, in a sinusoidal pattern, with the arrival and departure of the trains on that platform. If the crowd was building up on one platform, it would be dwindling down on the other, and the cycle continued endlessly.
They say life is a great leveller, but so is a railway platform. People from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds, with contrasting political ideologies, stand shoulder to shoulder, ignoring the intimate play of bodies rubbing against each other, muting the caste, class and religious consciousness for a while.
No other place showcases equality, fraternity and diversity better than a railway platform. Probably the authors of our constitution took a cue from a railway platform.
The camaraderie between co-passengers of different backgrounds is one of the sweetest things on earth, almost divine.
Wonder why people prefer to live with ilk but travel with strangers.
It was a cold winter afternoon, when the chill in the air was perceptible, thanks to the fresh snowfall, night before in the Himalayas. The sun though out, was a pale replica of its mid summer glory, due to the pollution from stubble burning in the historic breadbasket states of Punjab and Haryana.
The railway station was crowded more than usual today, due to festival season.
On almost half a kilometre long platform no. 10 there were very few benches considering the number of passengers that use the platform each day. Most of the passengers and their companions who had come to either see them off or receive them were standing.
Few women and children had spread bed sheets on the platform and sat on it while some others had found pieces of cardboard or old newspaper to sit on. Some families had sat their kids on the suitcases and large boxes they were carrying.
On one of the benches in the middle of the platform just in front of the staircase, four middle-aged men were sitting.
They had been sitting there for the last two hours and neither of them had spoken a word during this time. They were avoiding eye contact with each other as well as the passengers on the platform.
Whenever the beat constable would pass them, their bodies would stiffen. A couple of times when the constable paused for a moment to have a good look at them, they positioned themselves for flight, but the constable quietly passed by.
This guilty body language was not lost on the constable, who had spent the better part of his career on these railway platforms.
The constable knew something is fishy.
It was odd to see men sitting too close to each other or men sitting together and not smoking.
Men sitting together and not talking was hardly an eyebrow raiser but not smoking and sitting too close to each other was certainly a giveaway.
Add to this the fact that the four carried no luggage. But that can be explained, can't it? They were there to receive someone or were travelling on an emergency and didn't have time to pack.
What raised constables Arun's suspicion was neither they sitting too close to each other nor not smoking, but something else. Even constable Arun himself was not sure what it was.
It was a case of his professional instincts, which had never let him down. Loud alarm bells were ringing in his head.
Arun was not an ace detective or expert in tracking serial killers. He was not even a smart constable. The best cases he had solved in his career were related to stolen baggage and ticketless passengers.
Occasionally cases of the lost child would make his day. Something to show to his superiors and justify his salary and most importantly his posting at the railway station.
Arun hated the cases of runaway boys and girls or eloping couples. Such cases invariably always came with too much drama. Not worth the efforts. He had learned to turn a blind eye on such cases.
The other cases Arun hated the most and never ever took them to the police station were those of abandoned old people. He rather took them to either Jama Masjid, Shiv Mandir or the big Gurudwara, depending on their faith.
There he would treat them to a sumptuous meal, tuck a few hundred rupees in their pocket and touch their feet before walking away.
Arun had marked these four and understood that his presence had made them uncomfortable.
He stopped patrolling and positioned himself a few yards away from them at a tea stall from where he could watch them but they can't see him. Even if they turned around and looked for him, they would only see people having tea on a crowded tea stall.
"5 years. It's been bloody 5 years" finally one of them spoke in a hushed, whisper like voice as if talking to himself, but the other three heard him loud and clear.
The one who spoke was turbaned, definitely a Sikh. He was sitting in the middle.
The one on his right had a flowing long beard with a skull cap, popularized by Bollywood as a typical identity of Muslim men.
The one on Sikh's left was a short, stocky, dark, clean shaven, bald man. Had it not been for the cross hanging from a chain around his neck, it would be impossible to say anything about his religious identity.
The fourth one was announcing his religious affiliations a bit too loudly with the saffron kurta, rudraksha wrapped around his wrist and the big tilak on his forehead.
Except for the man in the saffron kurta, all the others were dressed in jeans and t-shirt, exactly the way they used to dress up 5 years ago during their engineering days at IIT Delhi.
They were surprised that the fourth one was dressed differently. After all their lives have mothballed that fateful day 5 years ago.
"Did we have to kill them?" the guy with the cross hanging from his neck said in a voice which was more of a groan rather than a query. Torment was clearly visible on the face of the four men.
Any wise man could have seen that the four of them had been living in hell for years now.
The four were Majeeta, Abdul, Adam and Ashutosh. Coaching batchmates, engineering classmates and best buddies till their lives were thrown upside down, by a tragic incident, on Diwali day, five years ago, when they were forced to take different trains from New Delhi railway station, at the same time, promising each other to meet up after five years, on platform no 10 of the same railway station on Diwali day.
Next Chapter: Chapter 2 (Booze)