The Last Train Home
The Last Train Home10 mins 599 10 mins 599
CHARBAGH RAILWAY STATION, LUCKNOW
Platform no. 3 was bustling with activity. The Lucknow to Dehradun Upasana Express was about to depart in 5 minutes, with passengers running lest they miss their train. I maintained my slow and steady pace, hoping to board it. Suitcases and cartons kept brushing against me, but I had no care in the world. I was lost deep in thought when a child rammed into me with great force. Offering a half-hearted apology, he continued running. There was an even younger girl running behind him, presumably his sister. The boy kept turning around to check whether his sister was keeping pace with him or not. I entered the train just at the last minute. Turns out fate wanted me on the train after all, and I took it as a sign. A sign to continue my mission and not run away from the call of my God.
While I was walking towards my seat at the far end of this coach, I could hear bits and pieces of conversation from the other travellers. A couple was fighting because the wife wanted to go to Shimla for their honeymoon instead of Mussoorie. The husband tried to placate her by saying that there isn't much difference as they are both hill stations. A man was screaming at his secretary for booking a train ticket when he had clearly mentioned he wanted to travel by flight. From the man's fuming red face it wouldn't take a genius to deduce that his secretary was inches away from being fired.
As I reached my cabin, my worst fears were realised. I was sharing the cabin with the two kids from earlier and an elderly lady. A sudden wave of immense guilt washed over me. These innocent people had no idea what fate was about to befall them. I decided to avoid any unnecessary contact and conversation for the sake of my conscience, whatever semblance of it was remaining. But obviously, fate wouldn't allow it. It was never on my side whenever I needed it. The old lady seemed to be struggling to put her suitcase under the seat. Begrudgingly, I helped her with it, putting my suitcase also in the process.
"God bless you, my child," she said, with a grateful smile on her face.
I laughed internally at the irony of it. If only she knew that she needed the blessings more than me.
Initially, I had assumed that the old lady was the kids' grandmother. But when the lady inquired about their names I realised that I was wrong. With that realisation came another. The kids were on their own. My heart was tempted to ask them why that was the case but my brain refrained from acting on it. I couldn't afford a guilt-trip that would lead me off my holy path. In the end, it would all be justified and I would be forgiven. But I couldn't resist listening to their conversation. Technically, I didn't really have another choice. They were too loud and my ears would have picked up on their conversation anyway.
Their family used to be happy initially. Their father had a decent job and their mother used to teach dance to children. All went south after their father was fired and that is when their life became a living hell. Vices like drugs and alcohol caught up with their father, their effects permeating into their once happy family. Many screaming and beating sessions later their mother killed herself, not being able to endure it any longer. She left behind a raging husband who then turned to his children to release his frustration. It was then that the boy, Sameer, decided to run away with his little sister Muskaan.
By the time Sameer finished narrating his heartbreaking tale, everyone in the cabin was in tears. The old lady was consoling the children, while tears ran down her cheeks incessantly. A lump formed in my throat and I was having a hard time controlling my tears as well. I knew incidents like this weren't uncommon but seeing the shattered look in these children's eyes just hurt differently. It was at that exact moment that I realised that everyone travelling in this train must have their own fair share of troubles. Everyone has a story and I was just about to ruthlessly end them all. The weight of the bomb strapped to my chest hadn't bothered me up until now; the gravity of what I was about to do slowly dawning upon me.
The seeds of doubt that had been planted in my brain were quashed by images that flashed behind my eyes, serving as a painful reminder of the reason why I was doing this. As if on cue, I felt my phone ringing. I didn't even have to check the caller ID to know who was calling. I stood up and walked towards the washroom area.
"How are you beta?", asked the voice on the other end.
"I am alright chacha. Don't worry, I am not going to cower and abandon this mission," I replied confidently.
"Of course beta. Your parents would be proud of you. So when are you planning to do it?"
"At midnight when everyone will be asleep. I have already coordinated with my brothers in the other coaches."
"Alright beta. Best of luck. See you on the other side", saying that, he hung up.
I walked back towards my cabin and the sight that greeted me warmed my heart. The children were sleeping, their heads laying on either side of the old lady's lap. I barely smiled and this was one of the rare instances when I did. I lay down on my berth, admiring the bond that they had formed in such a short period of time. I didn't know the story of the old lady but I could tell that she was lonely too. Her eyes started opening and I quickly averted my gaze. My stomach grumbled loudly, waking up the children.
The old lady took out a tiffin box from her bag and offered it to me. Since there was enough to feed all of us, we all shared the food. After dinner, the children went to their top berths and fell asleep instantly. I was too high on adrenaline to even consider dozing off.
"Where are you headed son? We've barely had time to interact," came the old lady's voice, interrupting my thought process.
"I am going to fulfill my destiny and finally reunite with my parents," I said. Technically, it wasn't a lie, just a half-truth.
"I am glad to hear that. Children should be with their parents. I envy your parents. Not everyone is blessed to have such a caring and considerate child like you. I am a good judge of character and I know that your heart is pure, devoid of any malice," she said.
No one had ever praised me like that. All I got was fake appreciation from people who had ulterior motives at hand. Was she right though? Was I a good person at heart? The answer was crystal clear- I wasn't. No good person would even consider harming such innocent and lovely people. Are these three meant to test my resolve? To see if it would waver and knock me off my path? Loneliness and longing were dripping from her voice and I didn't like the hint of sadness I detected in it.
"What about your children and your husband? Are they not with you? I reckon you have grandchildren too," I asked concerned.
"My husband passed away recently. He was the only shining light in my dark and desolate world. My children are too busy with their lives to pay attention to mine. Matters of the will and property distribution are the only things that draw them in like hungry dogs. Now that everything is settled, they told me they are too busy to handle my responsibility and that they were going to send me to an old age home. That is why I am on this train today. I am going to visit Kedarnath. My husband and I always wanted to go together but now...", her voice drifted away, with a hint of tears in them.
Everyone thinks that life has been the harshest on them, considering their suffering to be the greatest. I used to be one of those people till now. This train journey has put a lot of things in perspective for me, forcing me to accept the fact that pain is something you can't compare. Circumstances are different for everybody- what period in your life does the pain come from, which people share your pain, how you choose to deal with it. Looking at the melancholic and wistful face of the old lady and at the innocent faces of the sleeping children, I wonder if what I was about to do would come as a blessing or curse for them.
"When life keeps pushing you down like this, don't you sometimes hope for it to end?", I asked.
"Well, sometimes yes. But whenever I catch myself thinking like that, I give myself a tight slap. It might seem otherwise sometimes but life is indeed worth living. Seeing the first rain of the year, watching a beautiful sunset, hearing the laughs of little children, holding a butterfly at the tip of your finger- all these little joys of life make the hardships of life more bearable. Moreover, you have to believe that everything happens for a reason. Like us meeting, for example. Two children and an old lady looking for love- it isn't a coincidence we met, it was fate. And I am going to honour my destiny by taking these children with me and giving each of us a beautiful life, a life that we deserve."
After this profoundly insightful conversation, the old lady went off to sleep, leaving a million thoughts in my head. What kind of a heartless person would take away the chance at a happy life for people who endured nothing but difficulties? I could imagine a beautiful future for them- one where the old lady gives these children all her love and they return the love by taking care of her till the end. Would my parents, my God, ever be proud of this sin I was about to commit?
But isn't that what had happened to me? Years ago, hadn't my chance at a beautiful and fulfilling life also been taken away? In 2002, my family was peacefully living in Gujarat when they were brutally taken away from me. I had to watch helplessly as people broke into our homes. My sister helped me hide and the kind neighbour took me away, but not before watching all three of them die right before my crying eyes. Humanity is dead and there is no hope for it anymore.
Unwavering in my steely resolve, I looked at my watch. It was 11:30. Time had come for people to pay for what they did. I took a last look at the old lady and the children, and made my way towards the centre of the coach.
HARIDWAR RAILWAY STATION
An old lady and two innocent little children were sitting at Platform no. 1. News had spread like wildfire about the bombing at the Lucknow to Dehradun Upasana Express. The incident was really severe and the officials were looking into the case, trying to figure out who was behind it. The old lady had a slight hint as to who it might be, but she really wanted herself to be wrong. She had always taken pride in being a good judge of character, but had she failed this time? How could she be so wrong about him?
But then she remembered how he had woken them up at 11:45 when the train was reaching Haridwar station and asked them to get off the train. She was mildly disoriented, but he had said that Kedarnath would be closer to Haridwar. Trusting him, she had said her goodbyes and left with the children. Before she left, he had said something to her which hadn't made sense then, but it did now.
"Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity. There may just be some hope, or maybe there always was. But I had just decided to overlook it. Today, I am returning the favour which my neighbour had granted me all those years ago. Goodbye. Take care of yourself and the children."
When she looked at the children sleeping in her lap, she refused to believe that the man was absolutely wrong. Why see the world in black and white when grey is such a beautiful colour?