I was standing on the platform, on a hot summer afternoon at the New Delhi Railway Station, waiting for my train to Calcutta. It was a Saturday, and I was on an official trip, and hence, travelling alone. The Station was cheerful with its routine hustle; a mother was trying to quieten her child, Hawkers were trying to sell you everything from a Packet of chips to metal chains (for tying up your luggage), Coolies were bustling with the luggage of disgruntled passengers who were simultaneously shouting at them for charging so much, the Passenger Announcement system was beaming with the bored voice of an uninterested lady who received no kind of attention from the mass of people on platforms, people were crowding outside internet booths to look up for train timings, STD/ISD Booths were being used by the police to catch a quick nap, the shark eyes of the Platform ticket collector were searching for suspicious people. The Howrah Duronto was late as usual by an hour. A group of artists were singing while sitting on their luggage (The Desi Jugaad for safe-keeping your Belongings), the Platform smelt of Piss and Paan stains. An aged worker was using all his strength to scrub off the Gutka stains from the Railings of the staircase, abusing and giving a bloodshot look to anyone who tried to spit there. They wouldn’t react, they would just find another space for their satisfaction to spit and move on.
As I kept noticing everyone on the platform, I noticed an old man, maybe 60-65 years old who smiled with an innocence of a 10 year old child who was just given a big piece of chocolate. He was unaccustomed to whatever was happening around him; he seemed to be enjoying it. He had a very simple clean-shaven face, with a white moustache hanging under his nose, he was also handsomely tall, but you couldn’t notice the long legs unless he stood up. There were a group of children happily dancing around him along with their pet street dogs, while he was buying ice cream for everyone. He looked like a South Indian for sure (For Indians have a god gifted ability to spot one of their own kind very easily). He was wearing Khadi pants and a white shirt, with a shawl draped around which was quite surprising given the fact that, Delhi Temperatures were battling to reach a Half century. I noticed he was travelling alone, given the fact that, he had only one suitcase alongside him. His Eyes suddenly diverted towards me, and I felt my heart racing; he instead gave me a pleasing look and nodded with a pleasant smile. I smiled back at him, just in time to hear the Howrah Duronto Singing and chuffing along the stained rails on to the platform.
The Indian Railways follows a very dramatic and judgmental approach towards its passengers based on the class of ticket you book. My ticket was booked in the second class AC Compartment, which as the name suggests was the second best Compartment in the long Rail car. The Ticket Collector personally greeted me as I entered the compartment with my eyes searching for my seat number. I finally reached my berth, and pushed down all my luggage beneath the seat. My berth smelled of freshly put bed linen covers and a soft Pillow courtesy of the Indian Railways. The AC was leaking at a point from the top with drops of water slowly dropping on to the floor, and no one cared about it, as long as it wasn’t falling on them. I was greeted by two fresh faces who came and sat in front of me, both occupying the top and lower berths. They shook hands with me, as we exchanged names and compliments. They both were well dressed, and were equally tall enough and well built, with a joyous sense of humor making fun of each other. One of them was either Bald or clean shaven by choice, and the other was bespectacled and still had the crop on his head. The train started moving slowly as teary eyed people stood by the doors of their platforms waving to their loved ones and unknowing onlookers on the platform, who too waved them back wishing them a good journey.
As the Howrah Duronto started gaining its momentum, the curtains of our side, were slid open in a courteous manner and I see the same old man holding his suitcase standing there. I momentarily get up and help him with his suitcase as we slid it under the berths. The Berth allotted to him was the top one, and I asked him to take mine at the bottom so he wouldn’t have to take trouble climbing up. He smiled at me again saying,” Onnek Dhonnobad baba (Thank you so much Son).” The first thing that hits my mind is he couldn’t be a South Indian; he spoke Bengali with a wonderful accent. We sat next to each other on the lower berth (knowing that the upper one would be used only when sleeping), with the other 2 guys sitting out in front of us. He Introduced himself in a pleasant undertone,” Good afternoon! My name is Ramalingam Iyer. I am happy to be in company of three wonderful passengers. ” Although, we all didn’t know each other, we all felt his warm greetings, as if our hearts knew that we were waiting for this moment for years. He insisted the three of us to call him Rama. He had an aura of positivity which was defined by the way he sat, the way he talked, he showed no signs of fatigue, sleepiness or even bad health. A guy came and stood by us, the apron on his chest gleaming with the words ” PANTRY “. I was still wondering how I was right about Rama being a South Indian. The Guy served us all a cup of tea, and a packet of biscuits, as he turned to us, he immediately saw Rama, and touched his feet. Rama blessed him and asked him about his well-being and health, then making small talks about the guy’s family.
I am standing at the open door of the compartment, with a cup of tea in a hand, and a lit cigarette in another. Watching the trees passing by, the sound of the rail engines roaring with energy gave me a glimpse of childhood and my joyous rides on trains. I was travelling in a Train almost after a decade, and yet the Indian Railways still remains the same, with perhaps some minor changes. I walk back to my berth, and see that the discussions have turned to Mamata Bannerjee and her inane orders of getting the city of Kolkata painted blue, to remove all traces of the floating red that ruled the city for years. The Middle aged guys were business partners, who had come to Gurgaon for a meeting to strike out a deal with a big company, which fortunately went well for them. I told them about my job, and how I was going there for some official work. We all looked at Rama, who silently was staring out the window. It was 6 in the evening, when the Howrah Duronto resumed after a brief halt from the Kanpur Junction. The Ticket Collector, a little senior in age, with dark black spectacles hanging on his nose, and chewing paan, comes and sits in front of us, as we show him our tickets one by one. He looks at Rama, and greets him warmly, he asks him, if he is comfortable and whether he needs anything; Rama Courteously makes the routine small talk and they both shook hands firmly, before bidding each other wishes. The Curtains drop over, as the guys in front of us, look at us with a sheepish grin on their faces. The Bald guy jumps out with excitement hitting his head onto the upper berth, and then laughingly takes out a bottle of Old Monk Rum from his Bag. They invited me and Rama to join them, and with the dusk demesnes of the night, we readily agreed. The Guy from the PANTRY was called again, and was given clear instructions to arrange 4 glasses, a bottle of water, and some ice cubes along with some Chakna (Savoured snacks). Me and the guys meanwhile walked towards the end of the compartment, we each grabbed a cigarette from the silver Marlboro box i carried and lit up. We smoked silently staring into the world outside, as Rama reached to us, and asked if he could join us too. We gladly offered him one. At the end of our session, as we walked towards our berths, we saw the guy from pantry waiting for us excitingly and had already set up with everything on a small table which he miraculously brought from somewhere. Rama paid him a generous tip, as he sought his blessings and left off to attend others. We poured in our first pegs of Old Monk rum, and with thumping cheers, took a sip from our drinks.
The Train was increasing its speed, it had to reach Dhanbad Junction on time, the water droplets from the AC vent were still dripping with an even slower precision, the compartment was quite empty and not much chaos persistent. Rama looked up to us, and, thus began his story:
“It was called Madras during those days, I was working as an assistant to a Tea Seller, washing all the glasses while his boss would be serving tea to passengers cruising on the platform or refueling as their train made a halt at the Junction. I was an orphan, raised by the tea seller, washing cups by day, and sleeping on the platform by night. We never took a break from our business, seldom divulging into roaming the city by foot and taking a bit of some cool breeze by the glorious Marina Beach. The 19th century had seen Madras being linked up with two big cities of the country by the Indian Railways, Bombay and Calcutta. I was fascinated by my outings, i used to day dream about roaming outside, living with a family, going to school and studying, enjoy my evenings by the sea, while my boss used to hit me with a spatula which was still hot from stirring the boiling tea. I was 7 or maybe 8 years old at the time, a kid who had no ambitions as such, his only talent being, washing the cups and making tea. The Police came one day and took my boss away on some case, leaving me alone and helpless. I didn’t lose my courage though; I survived for two days on the money that was kept in the box by my boss next to the utensils. With the last bit of money I had, I bought some food and jumped on to the Howrah – Chennai Mail, and 36 hours later, as the carriage doors opened, I got down at the beautiful Howrah Junction, a marvel of the British architecture portrayed from its construction. It was the largest and the oldest railway complex in India. Back in the day, it had 15 platforms which was a big thing in those days and catered to thousands. I couldn’t speak the language and yet, I watched everything going around, not all was different I thought, with the only difference being the Language and the food people spoke and ate respectively. It wasn’t long enough before I got out of the station, and roamed the city on my own. I soon found a job at Burra Bazar at a small yarn shop, whose owner was a madrasi like me. He instantly liked me, for he used to keep telling all his companions about how hard working and talented I was. His family used to stay in a small village near Anaicut in the district of Vellore. He wasn’t married, and had come to Calcutta on recommendation of his friend. Interestingly I was never named in my whole life, and I could never tell anyone my name for I had none. When he took me into work, after a few months, he reached to me and gave me his surname and named me Ramalingam. He made me stop coming to work, and took me to his small house which was just near the market in posta just north of burrabazar. The apartment was built in a big merchant’s courtyard. I was soon put into a govt. school where I began to learn Bengali and English. I had already picked up Hindi by working at the bazaar for months. I soon gathered a lot of marwari friends, who had a huge influence on me, learning their cultures and dialects too. Every Saturday evening in Posta, one of the educated bengali Marwari trader would call all us children near the Hoogly river, as we sat down to hear humorous poems written by Sukumar Ray. Our favourite collection of all would be Abol Tabol which were really non-sensical but humorous. On a fine rainy day, after I came back from school, I ate my lunch my father would cook for me before he left for work. As I was looking out the small piece of window, I saw a small girl playing out in the Merchant’s garden. I ran down and gaped into a small hole in the wall, watching her play in the rains. It didn’t take long to meet her too; her name was Mrinmoyee which I didn’t know at the time meant Sita. The years passed by, as we both grew together, while my father’s business kept growing steadily, and we moved on to better houses, I would still see her, meet her every day, talk to her, and at the end would walk along the banks of the Hooghly river. I soon got a job with the eastern railways, and started my journey roaming around the northern and the eastern parts of the country. I got too busy with work, returning seldom back to Kolkata, but never failing to meet Mrinmoyee. Meanwhile, my father’s health kept deteriorating at that point. After two years into the eastern railways, I went to my father and asked him to talk to Mrinmoyee’s family for marriage. Those two years, we exchanged a lot of letters, letting our love know for each other, promising to roam around the country together, giving our yet to be born children names. He didn’t like the idea at first, but never was he hesitant nor did he ever dismiss my request. He went to their house the very next day with his long term friends who acted as relatives on our behalf. He left in the morning, and did not return till the night dawned, while I was eagerly pacing down in our house, consciously looking at the watch and window with anticipation.”
Rama had stopped at this point, and we realized, that the bottle was over already, and our dinners had arrived. Me and the middle aged men ate our dinners noisily and at a fast pace, so the story could resume again. Rama was as subtle in eating as his approach towards other things. The Rum was knocking us off already, and we were growing restless with anticipation, no one spoke as Rama ate, all thinking and imagining scenes from what could have happened. He finally finished eating, washed his hands, and came back to sit down with us. The Guy from Pantry came with some deserts and some paan as he cleared the table and dinner plates away. We all sat down peacefully, as he resumed:
“It was almost past midnight, when father returned, he was alone and fatigued. He sat down on his rocking chair, as I went and sat at his feet. I asked him, if he talked to her parents. He didn’t say anything. He quietly sat upright, looked at me with teary eyes and started crying. I consoled him, constantly pestering him about what happened and whether he was humiliated. He told me that Mrinmoyee and her parents never knew that I was an orphan, and in this society, which boasted of Culture, high thinking and respect, they had no intentions of getting themselves linked with an orphan. I didn’t cry, neither did I feel sad or depressed; I was still confused about all these years, about those memories and letters, the friendship bond that outgrew both Ram and Sita. My tears had dried up since the first time the dishwasher was hit by his boss, the first time he didn’t get milk to drink at Madras Junction, the first time he was left helpless on the platforms. Father got into more depression and soon passed away in 2 months. That was the only moment in my life I couldn’t stop crying, I took up smoking and drinking to relieve the pain, but the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. I kept getting a lot of letters, but I wouldn’t open any single one of them. My Father’s dying wish was his ashes be buried in his village in Vellore. I had soon left the eastern railways and got promoted as Chief Personnel officer at Central Railways. I started operating out of Delhi Cantonment, and eventually was moved to Madras junction. Oh the vicious circle of life! Left as a dishwasher, unknown to the dogs, and today getting a salute to wherever I go. I did as my father had told me, and I kept working alone, living alone unknown to Kolkata, and everyone else who were there for me. I started living at my Family’s farm in Anaicut.
Two weeks back, I had received a letter from Kolkata, my heart started racing with emotions, I resisted myself from opening it, but I still went ahead and opened the letter. It was 5 pages long, it was written by a gentleman from an orphanage, in Kolkata asking me to come and inaugurate the same. The foundations were laid by Late Ms. Mrinmoyee Bannerjee in tribute of Mr. Ramalingam Iyer.”
He was left with a pale face as he stopped his story. I was almost on the verge of breaking into tears but held myself back, The Bald guy was already teary eyed, and the spectacled guy was crying silently. We didn’t dare ask what was written in the letter, for all we know, Rama was going back to the place he calls home after so many decades.
The Duronto finally halted at the Howrah Station next morning, as we all grabbed our luggage and bid goodbyes to each other. I got down on the platform, and it was pouring heavily. My boss called me to take a taxi and meet him at the Guest House. I looked back to find Rama coming on to the platform and finally heave a sigh of relief. A sign of Happiness lingered on his face, he looked at me and I could see that his eyes were already filled up with tears.
He was Finally Home.