Off the Track
Off the Track13 mins 409 13 mins 409
The western sky was a blaze of orange and blue hues as the sun set, one summer day. However, at the Central Station in Chennai, the hustle and bustle allowed no time to ponder over beautiful sunsets. Impatient trains waiting for late passengers, screaming children, and loudspeaker announcements were the order of the day.
Skirting around porters and jumping over sleeping passengers, I ran to platform number 7 where the Mangalore Mail was impatiently waiting to start her journey. I was late, the signal was turning amber. I found my compartment and threw myself in. With a sigh of relief I settled down in my seat and breathed for the first time in ten minutes!
Across me an old man probably 75 plus, with twinkling eyes said, “My dear, the train’s engine should be huffing’ and puffin’, not you!”
I burst out laughing and that set the trend for the rest of the journey. Who knew that these Twinkling eyes held the key to the start of one momentous journey in my life.
You must be wondering what changed in my life after that train trip. The Mangalore mail slid out of Chennai Central as usual but when she pulled into Mangalore junction some 24 hours later, I had a new friend and a different take on life. Sitting across me was a nondescript old man, wearing gold rimmed glasses and a broad smile. Looking at him, one would never have imagined that he had so much history in his life. Least of all that he took the night train to success via poverty, abject disillusionment, at times, and was a fighter to boot!
“Where are you headed in such a hurry?” he asked me.
“Journeys end sir, Mangalore. What about you Sir?”
“I think we can quit the Sir-ing and go for Uncle, don’t you think? Since we seem to have hit it off?
“Oh yes of course, Uncle! Where’s your trip taking you?”
“Mangalore too. To make my peace with my past. “
“That sounds awfully serious Uncle.”
“Yes it is, but what’s your journey about, seeing that you made it by the skin of your teeth?“
“Yeah! Just made it. It’s a peace making of sorts too. My Dad was from Mangalore and he’s always had this yearning to go back and eat his fish and re-live memories of his childhood and generally potter around his ancestral backyard. He never got to do it because he fell sick and passed away. I thought I would do the “may-his-soul-rest-in-peace” thing by making this trip for him. All but the fish part, because I’m vegetarian now!!”
“That’s good my dear, “The child is father of the Man??” all smiles!!!
“Oh My!! A litterateur too, Uncle? This conversation just got more interesting !”
If twinkling eyes could twinkle more, they did!
“I just realized that I didn’t ask you your name !”
“Sorry. I’m Vidya”.
“Not at all my dear, just call me Ram uncle. That’ll do for now.”
“OOOhhh ! Okay! I love the mystery. Maybe at the end of the journey you’ll tell me you are Mr. Rattan Tata, or Mr Ford??!! Or is that too much, uncle?”
He didn’t respond to that one.
A sudden quiet crept into his features. Sadness and a faraway look shadowed his eyes. He started talking:
“My childhood was spent on the beaches of Malpe, gorging on fish (same as your dad) and playing cricket with my friends, (not much studying got done) and occasional trips to see Udupi Krishna. Not necessarily in that order but you get the picture.
When I saw you running for the train, I had a flash back of me running for the same Mangalore Mail – but out of Mangalore and headed for God knows where. For a minute I was 18 again, with tears streaming down my face, a hundred rupees in my pocket and fear in my heart – but determined and a stubborn will to make something of my life. Life throws you out of gear for a reason. And will do so till you sit up and take notice and say ‘Enough I get the picture! I’ll do something about it!!!’ Do you know how bleak it was?”
Yes I know the feeling Uncle! I know”. Both of us were silent. Contemplating “bleak” which meant different things to both of us.
The train suddenly slowed down at Basin Bridge.
“See that bench on the station near the TTR’s room? I slept on it for a week before I got a job washing vessels at a tea shop. I lived on a Tea and “single Bun” policy!!
Again, the twinkle. One thing was for sure. He never stayed glum for long. He always found a way to smile.
The man could charm the birds off the trees with that twinkle!
I looked back out of the window at the cement stone and imagined the skinny 18yr old lying on it thinking of what life had in store for him. It’s lovely to sit on cement stones in railway stations and think –THIS IS THE LIFE! But when you actually have to do it for real then it’s not so funny or pleasant. He still hadn’t told me why he ran away from home. I tried to quell the panic when I thought how worried his parents would have been. The child who had a soft bed and some creature comforts was sleeping on a cement seat under the sky, half starved! It must have shown on my face.
He said,” Yes that’s true, I know what you are thinking. It’s all true. Some nights I cried myself to sleep and a sympathetic beggar would come up to me, push some stale food in my mouth and pat me and mumble through slurred teeth, “Don’t cry my son, this too shall pass. Look at the larger picture.”
“What could be larger than this??”I sobbed. It wasn’t until years later that I figured it out and I went back to thank him but it seems he tried to flag the West Coast Express down and didn’t make it. Even in his madness or drunken stupor he taught me a very profound philosophy. I’ll never forget that.”
“Are you ever going to tell me why you ran away from home?” “What about your mom and dad? “
“Hey slow down quiz master! Are you planning to write a book on me?”
“Hey there’s a thought! Can I??? Would I??? A Biography of sorts?? It’s very tempting, uncle. “
“Before I say anything, do you write? And what do you do, besides running for trains?
“A little freelance writing. But mostly a stay-at-home mom. “
“Well, that should be okay.”
He was distracted by the dinner trays that were being passed around.
“Let’s eat,“ he said.
Over dinner between mouthfuls of chapatti kormas, he resumed.
“Let’s leave the parents part for the last chapter. De piece d résistance, as it were, because they were the trigger –the jumping board that catapulted me to reality.”
The train pulled into Arakonam Junction. The noise inside the train, and outside ,silenced our conversation and we ate quietly.
After the cacophony of station noises subsided, and the only sound was that of the clickety clack of the train speeding in the quiet of the night, I ventured slowly. “I somehow feel that you are now the patriarch of a large family and that you have inspired and motivated many people to be something in life because you learnt it the hard way. You made life easier for your family and whoever you came in touch with. In your own right, you have arrived somewhere and that was by sheer determination.”
“I also somehow feel that the reason I “huffed and puffed “into your compartment is also part of some larger plan. What say you, Uncle Ram? And you are just throwing me bits and pieces of your life to make me hunger for the whole thing, isn’t it?”
“What larger plan would that be my dear?” (Oh! Tongue in cheek is it?)
“I don’t know! You tell me!!”
“You tell me why would I pick someone literally off the train to write my story? Can you give me one good reason?”
“Well, you told me about the cement seat in Basin Bridge. Nobody tells random people that they did this and that unless they are comfortable with that person, strangers notwithstanding!”
“Hmm. Do you have a law degree or something under your belt my dear? Thought you threw rule 276 subsection 123 at me!!” he guffawed.
Not knowing how to respond to that, I smiled tentatively.
Ah ha! Speechless for once!”
I stared out of the window into the night. What was it about this man that seemed familiar? Was it because a chance meeting was leading to something we both knew had destiny written all over it?
Did these things happen only in books or was it real? Was I supposed to learn something from this gentleman?
“No my dear”, he said, “Books mirror life. My story is strange, but I think, as you say it needs to be written to show people how to handle situations, if ever they came across such things. That life is not a moral lesson to preach about and to tell people that this is how we make it from humble beginnings to dizzy heights.
We tell people that when one goes hungry for many days even dry bread seems like manna. When someone betrays you, you get up and still have the courage to do what you believe in.
Our victories are not celebrated my dear, it’s our failures, our mistakes that make us human, or rather humane.
Sachin Tendulkar, the world’s greatest cricketer, God, batting at number 4, but how many know the fears he would have faced; they must have been worse than facing a Brett Lee or a Malinga. “
This journey was more than a routine one I realized!
“So where did you go from living on the Basin Bridge cement seat?
Before he could answer, the train pulled into Katpadi Junction. It was 10pm. Right on time.
The passengers had already made up the berths and the attenders had brought the blankets and sheets so everyone was busy getting ready to retire for the night. I really didn’t want to sleep. The conversation with Uncle Ram was just beginning to get mystical and I was hankering to get to the bottom of his life story.
After the hustle and bustle of getting ready for bed subsided, and lights were switched off, the only sound in the compartment was that of the elderly gentleman snoring loudly in the next cubicle.
“Do you think somebody’s riding a motorbike in here?” a soft voice whispered. I snuck under the sheets to stifle a guffaw.
“I fell sick” he said. What uncle? Are you sick”? I asked.
“To continue, I said I fell sick. Stale food and no proper sleep took its toll and I had a burning fever sleeping out in the cold. My drunken friend whom I metaphorically named Jeevan, meaning Life, covered me with newspapers and brought me hot tea. One night the fever raged and I thought I wouldn’t make it. But you know fate has other plans. In my delirium, I heard a thunderous sound. It was actually someone running down the footway steps in a darned hurry. Followed by police whistles and the voices of authority yelling at someone to stop! The guy ran past me and shoved something under my head. It was the purse he had picked. !!! He jumped down onto the tracks and met the Shatabdi Express head on. The train sped on unaware of the body on the track and in the commotion that followed, nobody realized that the thief had put the bag he stole under my head. Neither did I.
The next morning, amidst the hustle and bustle of trains and passengers coming and going, I sat up groggily and drank the tea my man Friday brought for me. The newspaper which had been rolled up as a pillow flew off and there under it was a black purse! Suddenly, I realized that what happened was not a dream and I quickly picked it up and put it in my pocket. Shivering with fear and remnants of fever, I shakily walked to the restroom. There, on the stinky commode, I sat and opened the purse. I counted twenty thousand rupees and then a small brown paper packet emerged from the folds of the notes. Four tiny diamonds opened out and blinked at me. My heart started beating fast and I quickly wrapped up the diamonds again. The notes, I shoved into my pocket and hoped it wouldn’t show. “
“My God uncle!! What a turn of events! What did you do? Go to the police or what?”
The train pulled into Jolarpettai Junction and late night milk drinkers had their fill. A few minutes later, silently and without warning, the train crept out and picking up speed, hurtled into the night.
“Uncle? Are you awake? “
Did he go to the police and surrender it or did he get caught? The suspense was killing me!
“I kept the money and the diamonds!” a soft voice floated past me.
We had passed Salem, around 2am. Neither of us was asleep. I was waiting for him to continue. The hot milk had awakened the ones who had had it, and a loud discussion on whether hot milk helps one sleep or not started in the next cubicle. The ticket collector came by to check if there were any stowaways, and he was pulled into the milk discussion.
“Oh no, you don’t,“ he wriggled out of it and said obviously the hot milk hasn’t put you to sleep as yet so end of discussion!!’ He winked at me as he passed and said,” Midnight talks will go on till Mangalore. I need my beauty sleep.” He stage whispered. And left. Finally, the compartment settled down and once more it was quiet.
“Don’t judge me, dear, “he said. “No food, no place to sleep but on cement slabs and newspapers for sheets, I just thought it was God sent.“ Hurriedly, he explained it and said he checked into a hotel and scrubbed many months of dirt and grime off his body and finally ate a full meal.
The rest is history my dear. The rest is history. With that money and diamonds in my pocket, I changed the course of my life and skyrocketed to fame. Not a day has gone by that I don’t think of that night and what would have become of me if it hadn’t happened to me. Destiny? Fate? The thief’s fate was my destiny? I have no answers. The highs in life come at a price that we have to pay. Someday.”
The torment in his face made him so vulnerable that I reached out and told him, “Uncle, I read somewhere that we are all prisoners in life, some of us are in cells with windows and some of us without windows. You can choose to be in which cell you want to; there is nothing good or bad only thinking makes it so. “
“My dear miss Shakespeare, trust you to have an answer, I should have known it the moment you threw your bag into the train and almost missed it!!”, smiling through the wet eyes.
The sun rose on Shoranur Junction, 6am and coffee and tea and idly and vada packets galore.
We folded our blankets and decided to stretch our legs on the station. I looked into his eyes over steaming coffee.
“Uncle, the ghosts that you are carrying? Please send them down this track. This railway track. Not worth carrying. See these cement seats? They are granite now. Shiny. Comfortable. The money and the diamonds? A huge industry now...livelihood of thousands taken care of. This is the larger picture. “
Too much lecturing? Too much philosophy? Uncle??”
“No no, I need to make my peace with it. So saying, he ran to the front of the train and climbed into the engine and blew the horn. In the commotion that followed, he was taken to the guard room and questioned. But in two seconds he came out smiling and flushed with victory. He must have been a really big wig to pull off such a thing without a jail sentence.
“Well uncle that was the shortest arrest in history!” I exclaimed.
Back on the train, inconsequential conversations, many cups of tea, and many stations later, there came the bridge we had to cross before reaching Mangalore. The river was in spate, and the train crossed the bridge with the sound of the hollow echo of the water, and the railway track in tandem; it was sheer poetry in motion. And then came the anti-climax; it just pulled into Mangalore Junction and sighed to a stop. Journeys end. For both of us.
But there was one thing that we hadn’t bargained for. There were police men all over the platform. Uncle Ram looked at me. A cold fear gripped my heart. Did they come for him? Or What? With a brief hug, he picked up his bag and got down from the train.. The policemen were following him .I stood at the door of the compartment straining my eyes to see him. But he had merged with the crowd. Did they come for him ? Did he get away? I still don’t know.
I never saw him again.
12601 Mangalore Mail pulled into platform no 4. Journey done, 16 hours and a lifetime of memories.