The Guilt

The Guilt

10 mins

Salil was thoroughly enjoying the train journey. It was the very first time that he was travelling with me and we were on our way back home after visiting my parents down south.

This summer had been unforgettable for him as he played with gay abandon with several cousins, who were all living as a joint family under the same roof. He had several “annas” to take him to the coconut grove and savour the tender coconuts or to the mango grove and experience the unmatched joy of plucking the mango which hung within reach of your hand. The gang would have come prepared with salt and chilli powder and once they had plucked a sufficient number of mangoes, would sit in the shade and bite into the mangoes gleefully.

The juniors would also spend a lot of time in the palm grove and pester the workers there to cut down the “nungu” or ice apples to quench their thirst and beat the heat. Salil had never seen them and he found it very tasty and yearned for more.

Another pastime was to jump into the water tanks into which fresh water was pumped from the bore wells. The tanks were large enough for five or six boys to have a gala time. After bathing in this, they would wring out their shirts and run aimlessly in the open ground, drying themselves in the sun.

The kids would all come home, shouting and screaming as if raising a war cry and compete with each other to sit on the lap of grandma. Salil was the youngest of the lot and as this was his first summer holiday with his grandparents, he was pampered and everyone indulged him. While my mother regaled them with stories, my father would take them with him in the bullock cart to the nearby market. The cart ride was again a new experience!

It was time to return home as the month-long vacation was nearing its end. I was both happy and relieved that Salil had completed his school home work too, with the help of his cousins. The projects assigned to children these days in schools, really test the skill of parents and are not at all something that the children can do by themselves and as this was done, I was spared the agony of completing it for him.

With a heavy heart, but loaded with all goodies from my “maika”, we were given a warm farewell. The nearest rail head being Coimbatore, which was a good three hours’ drive from our house, we left after tea to catch the train at 9 p.m. A couple of Salil’s cousins came along with my father to see us off at the station. Since it would be past midnight when they could return home, my mother had packed their dinner too! Once we arrived at Coimbatore station and had settled on the platform at the place where our coach was likely to arrive, the packed dinner was served to all. There was so much noise and merriment, but the kids, blissfully unaware of the surroundings were playfully shouting and yelling at each other.

When we had finished dinner, Salil went with his “thatha” and got himself some books to read in the train. He was all smiles brandishing a stack of magazines and story books, which he carefully shoved into his back pack. The train was on time and both of us occupied our seats while all our luggage was neatly tucked under the berths.

As always, it was a tearful goodbye as I was the youngest in the family and my father’s pet. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable vacation for both of us and the thought of getting back to the daily routine was with a lump in the throat. Since Salil’s father had gone to the US on an official tour, I could spend the whole vacation without any worries. Once the train started, Salil started exploring and did not want to go to bed before finishing at least one story book. Our onward journey was by flight which he did not enjoy at all, as he felt the seats were cramped and he could not look around. Here, we had a coupe to ourselves and that made all the difference.

After an hour or so, my tired five-year old, fell asleep. After some time, I too called it a day and prepared myself to spend more than forty hours in the train! The next day was uneventful but enjoyable and after a long time, I too enjoyed yielding to the temptations of buying all the snacks sold by vendors in the train, on the pretext that I was satisfying Salil’s wishes.

On the second night of our journey, I could not get sleep as both of us had slept for quite some time during the day having nothing much to do. It was past midnight and though Salil was dozing, I was wide awake. I was browsing the live train running status on my mobile and to my pleasant surprise, I saw that the train would be stopping at Bhopal for a full ten minutes! 

Pranav, one of my bank colleagues and a good friend of mine, had taken an inter-circle transfer to be with his parents in Bhopal some years back. What could be more enjoyable than meeting him after so long, but I hesitated as it was at a very odd hour. The scheduled time of arrival was 3.45 a.m. Still, I could not contain myself and immediately sent a message to Pranav, giving details of my coach number and asking him if he could find it convenient to meet me at the station. I had not expected him to reply as I thought that he might have gone to bed, but within a few seconds, he called to say that he would be extremely glad to meet me and asked me to be awake when the train reached Bhopal.

I was looking forward to meeting him. Both of us were batch mates and he was a great support to me when I was posted in a very difficult branch. I had to manage a clerk who had perpetrated a fraud and was facing inquiry, a security guard who was always inebriated and the Gram Pradhan, who had political backing and would expect loans to be sanctioned left and right without proper documentation. Added to it, a lady branch manager had never been posted there before me and the villagers looked down upon a lady at the helm of affairs. When I represented my case to the Management, I was told that they had chosen me for that branch as they felt that I was the right person who could set it right. I did not take it as a compliment, but on the contrary, felt that it was a punishment. It was then that Pranav got himself transferred to my branch as the Accountant and together both of us were able to cleanse the branch and also earn a good rating during Branch Inspection, earning us membership in the elite Chairman’s Club.

Though we kept in touch through whatsApp and e-mails, we both felt that this would be a good opportunity to meet after many years. Two and a half hours passed by very quickly while I was recollecting memories of our association. 

When the train was entering the platform at Bhopal, I was right at the door of our coach waiting to catch a glimpse of him. There he was, right at the place where our coach was to arrive. He came inside and both of us chatted merrily reliving our past. Salil who was sleeping till then, got up hearing us. Pranav, in his inimitable way got friendly with Salil who then went and sat on his lap. He had brought us a big hamper of fruits and a lot of goodies. The ten minutes were not enough but provided the best time for us to meet. He said that his house was about an hour from the station and though I apologised to him for calling him at an unearthly hour, he said that he was delighted to see me and brushed away my apologies. He also gave me his visiting card asking me to come to Bhopal on my next holiday, promising that he would show us all the tiger reserves and tourist spots in and around Bhopal.

That afternoon we arrived in Delhi, back to home and business. I had to report for duty only on Monday and that weekend our family would re-unite with Kapil’s return from the US. Salil was waiting impatiently to tell his father about all that he did that summer. He also went to his study and made a card to welcome his dad, where he had drawn the coconut and palm groves in our village. When Kapil came home, Salil had a lot to tell him and on his part, Kapil listened to his detailed reporting very patiently.

We then went about our routine and were busy in our own way. Kapil’s business was picking up after his US trip and one fine day, he called to say that he was coming home early and said that he would pick me up from my office as he had some exciting news to share.

Filled with curiosity, I wrapped up my work and was ready to leave when he came. On the way, he said that his US clients wished to open an office in Bhopal and had delegated the responsibility of setting it up to him. He said that he planned to make a trip in August and suggested that both Salil and I should accompany him on a suitable weekend.

Both of us were quite thrilled, but Salil felt that travel by air was not as much fun as that by train. When the name Bhopal was mentioned, his eyes sparkled and he exclaimed - "Oh! We can meet that nice uncle too!”

We were all set and on a Friday night we checked into a hotel in Bhopal. The next morning Salil and I planned to scout around while Kapil attended to his work and then visit Pranav in the evening. Salil was overjoyed to go up and down the escalators in the Mall and as Kapil said that he would join us only post-lunch, both of us had our lunch in the food court and went to a movie in the multiplex. By that time, Kapil was through with his work and all three of us had tea together and took a cab to Pranav’s place.

Kapil was asking me to inform Pranav in advance about our visit, but I wished to spring a surprise on him. We did not have any trouble locating the place and were happy to see Pranav’s house with a sprawling garden. I had brought with me home-made snacks which Pranav always liked and also gifts for his wife, children and parents.

In all eagerness I rang the bell. The door was opened by a lady who looked far from cheerful. I mentioned Pranav’s name and she asked us to come in. As soon as we sat on the sofa, our gaze fell on the garlanded picture on the wall. We were all taken aback! Just a couple of months back we had chatted with him happily, and now he was in a frame! We expressed our shock seeing him thus. She then told us that one night he had received a call from some friend.  He was very excited and had hurriedly left home but did not return. Around four o’clock in the morning they were informed by the police that he had met with an accident and had died on the spot. Since he was in the Bank and well known, they could immediately identify him and inform the family. His wife kept saying that she could not find out which friend he had gone to meet never to return. She thought she could trace the number of the friend who had called him on his mobile, but as it had been smashed in the accident, they could not find out. She was inconsolable and I simply shuddered to think that I was the culprit.

We stayed for a few more minutes, left the things I had got for them and left, not before Salil blurted, “Amma – this is the uncle who met us in the train!” Kapil and I hastily pulled him away and left. I am carrying the guilt since that day. 

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