Right from the very beginning, it seemed like it would be an enjoyable and event free railway journey. A quick visual scrutiny made me quite content with the quality of my co-passengers as I light heartedly I settled down on my seat, exchanging warm introductory smiles with my neighbours for the night.
Just opposite me sat a mother-daughter duo travelling in complete confidence with a two year old ticketless traveler. The little fellow, with his appealing appearance and antics, was a real show stealer - the way he effortlessly stole the hearts of all around him with his toothless grin stretched between his rosy-hued chubby cheeks, I could easily foresee him doing the same with many women a handful of years down the line.
The train had rested well after its previous journey and now raring to go, was displaying all signs of restlessness- occasional jerks accompanied by frequent hoots. It was perhaps itching to rush through the night, right across the inky plains that lay waiting for it in the faint moonlight.
“Roshni, what is the time?” the elderly woman asked.
“Ten minutes past ten!” The mother of the toddler immediately checked her mobile and answered.
After the advent of the mobile phone, the all-in-one wonder device, many machines of daily life are on their way to extinction. The watch is surely one of them for the very purpose of its existence has been successfully hijacked by the mobile.
“Only five minutes left for the train to depart. Where are your brothers? Why haven't they not yet boarded the train?" The elderly woman peered out of the window, anxious and a little irritated.
“Don’t worry; they are all on the platform, loitering about.” Roshni casually assured her. "The moment the train makes a move, everyone will just jump in."
"Men will always be men. Like monkeys, always on the move." Roshni’s remark made us smile, all the more since all of us, except the toddler, belonged to the feminine gender.
But after a few more minutes had elapsed and still there was no sign of the men, the elderly woman could no longer sit still. She picked up her grandson and headed towards the compartment door to give the baby a change of setting and simultaneously check on the status of the other members of her group.
Almost anywhere in the world a child is the easiest medium to strike up a conversation with strangers. It is one of the very few topics, the very initiation of which unconditionally melts the in-between awkwardness and makes people, especially parents, open up.
This time too it was no different. The moment I mentioned about the baby in superlatives, Roshni began glowing in visible pride. “He is very clever, much cleverer than other babies of his age. Next two days he will
drive everyone in the family crazy with his antics.” The proud mother grinned, explaining that the whole family was headed towards Haridwar to partake in a religious ritual.
"What have you named him?"
It was an unfamiliar name, a name I had not encountered before and I casually asked her what it meant.
“Well, it is derived from his father’s name, Hitesh. Hitangsh means a part of Hitesh."
As she spoke, she sounded a little nostalgic. It was obvious she was missing her partner who had been unable to join the group for some urgency at his end.
“Your son will grow up into a handsome man.” I tried to boost her up.
“Hitangsh looks like his father.” Roshni cheerfully replied, her mood instantly uplifted.
"My husband is tall and well built. Why, a few days ago the newspapers had carried his picture. They even showed him on TV. Haven’t you seen?” She asked innocently and with so much intensity that I hated to disappoint the proud wife.
Curious about the credentials of the young man, I was about to probe deeper when Roshni herself enthusiastically opened her handbag and fishing in its interiors, brought out a paper cutting.
"Read it! They have written about him." She thrust it into my hand.
Once again I was unable to decipher anything. It was a news item in a local vernacular along with a passport photo of a young man. The print was not clear but from what I could make out, his wife clearly had a right to proud about his looks.
I returned the paper cutting and was about to ask regarding the content of the published matter, but before I could proceed, the grandmother hurriedly returned with the wailing baby. Roshni became busy in pacifying her little one and at that very moment, with a sharp pull, the train kick-started its journey.
Immediately, the mood around the train changed. There were shouts accompanied by frantic waving of hands, shooting of farewells and in the next few minutes the train had left all of them behind and stepped out into the inky night.
Beginning of any journey is always a hopeful time and feels bestowed with immense possibilities or so it feels right then. People are generally in an optimistic mood. They are eager to open up and share details of their lives with total strangers and savour the same in return.
The mother daughter duo had already declared the purpose of their journey and now it was my turn to find out more about the other occupants of the coup- the two girls conversing amongst themselves in high decibels and splashing radiance all around them, as is so typical of that age.
While talking with them, I learnt that there were sisters hailing from a traditional Indian family based at Haridwar. Their father was an orthodox priest but the girls, as evident from their attire and attitude, were a product of the modern times. They had relocated to the big city of Delhi where one of the sisters was studying to be a doctor, while the other was pursuing a course in fashion designing.
Now, during a short break in their college, they were headed home and expectedly were in high spirits.
Having lived the life of a hosteller, I could easily visualize the pattern of their present lives - a live of fun, friends and of course full freedom.
When I asked them which place they preferred more, hostel or home, “hostel” they immediately chorused in unison.
“Of course once in a while it feels good to be at home, eating mummy made food and getting pampered by the elders. But that is all. We have outgrown Haridwar and the life over here.”
“Complete studies and get into jobs.”
"What about marriage?" I asked and hearing my query, they began giggling.
"Marriage will happen much later after we have forged ahead in our career. We want to live life on our own terms, at least for another few years." The budding medical practitioner's response was instant and spontaneous.
"Marriage puts life into a fixed mould. Family responsibilities restrain your life.” The to-be-fashion designer too was equally vocal about her preferences.
I could not help but agree, glancing at Roshni who was now trying to put her baby to sleep. She looked younger than either of the two girls, yet her life was already saddled with a series of responsibilities- that of a daughter-in-law, wife, mother and God knows what other.
The train was racing through the countryside in full steam, the rain drenched landscape portraying a pretty picture of contentment and exuberance. The weather was cool and refreshing. Outside our window a calm evening was slowly maturing into a restful night.
Roshni was listening to songs in her mobile phone. The two girls were watching a movie on a laptop. Reading, once one of the preferred forms of time pass in trains was almost obsolete. Thankfully, the other – conversing with co passengers still hadn’t lost much ground.
At dinner time, the fragrance of mint chutney, an array of pickles and ghee coated roasted parathas emanating from the adjoining enclosure, rented the air. The girls had packed their dinner from a fashionable outlet and feasted on fries and burgers. Roshni had only fruits as she was observing a fast. The baby was offered many things but had none, making a huge hue and cry every time his mother attempted to push a
morsel into his mouth.
“He has taken exactly after his father!” Roshni proudly stated. “My husband too is very picky and fussy about food. Chapatis! They have to be piping hot! Curries! Nothing else but freshly cooked!"
"So your whole day must be spent just in the kitchen, appeasing the master’s appetite?” One of the sisters commented with a giggle.
“Why just day? I am sure the same holds true for the night!” The other added with a mischievous wink and Roshni blushed.
“How did the two of you get married? Tell us about it!” they asked in between the bites and Roshni readily opened up, delighted at the chance to revisit the sweet memories of not so long ago.
“The very first time I saw him, I was completely bowled over." she glowed in reminiscence. "He had come to play a football match in our neighbourhood. All the time he was there, I just could not take my eyes off him. During the break, I served all the players food. He looked at me deeply and what a look it was! That whole night I could not sleep at all.”
"And would you believe it, few days later there was a proposal from his house seeking my hand in marriage?”
It was a simple love story, nothing extraordinary about it. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married and before they celebrate their first anniversary, the new member in the family has arrived.
A cycle which has been repeated countless number of times through the quiet procession of centuries. Overall the same story enacted everywhere, yet each individual account is endowed with so much flavour and freshness!
"How old were you when you got married?"
Roshni closed her eyes for a moment as she made some quick mental calculations.
"About sixteen. I am nineteen now."
"Oh my God! That means you are younger than us!" One of the girls exclaimed.
"And a mother already!" Her companion added. "I am sure you have seen nothing of the world except wherever you live!”
"My husband and son are my world. I am very happy in mine. I hope you two too find happiness in yours." Roshni stated with unexpected maturity and dignity, leaving her listeners momentarily stumped.
The night thickened and all the passengers began preparations to retire for the night. Inflatable pillows of many colours emerged along with an array of bed sheets and blankets. In a corner of my seat was a sealed earthen jar and as I proceeded to lift it and put it on the floor for spreading my sheet, the baby's grandmother almost snatched it from my hand.
A little intrigued about the way she acted, I enquired about the contents, but the elderly woman pretended she had not heard my question. Instead she got busy with securely placing the pot in a corner of the berth which had been allotted to her.
Her actions made me feel that it contained some yummy eatable- perhaps sweetmeats which she didn’t want to disclose for courtesy demanded that once she did so, she should offer the same to her co passengers. And she clearly was not in a mood for that.
The event created a certain awkwardness between us which hung on and solidified as both of us, occupants of the two lower berths in the coup retired for the night. We lay down hardly two feet away from each other, but the distance was much more and our eyes were deliberately avoiding contact.
I do not know for how many hours I had slept but the next time I awoke there was absolute stillness in the compartment, punctuated only by the sound of the rails and occasional snorts of snoring emanating from the adjoining enclosure. The darkness outside had begun to dilute and my gaze fell on my neighbour. She was seated in a huddled manner with the earthen pot in her lap. Eyes closed, her mouth was slightly open and her lips quivered in consonance to the train's motion.
Lying on my berth, I was watching her, when she suddenly opened her eyes. Noticing me awake and observing her, she leaned forward and whispered. "You wanted to know what is there in that jar. Well, it contains the sacred ashes of a very dear one, someone who has just departed. The entire family is heading towards
Haridwar to immerse his ashes in the river Ganga so that the departed soul is set free."
I was startled and for some time, I could not speak. Then I eyed her carefully. Her subdued looks, the colourless parting between the spread of hairs yet to age. The
signals of grief were all there. Why hadn’t I read it before?
I expressed my condolence for the untimely departure of her husband when her statements startled me again.
"My husband passed away long back. These ashes are my son's."
Outside a new day was just beginning to taking shape. The invigorating aroma of dew drenched fields drifted in through the open windows, but for a moment I felt as if the train had entered a tunnel.
"My son." She looked straight at me.
"He was just 21 years. Tell me is that any age to die?" Her voice though subdued, sounded extremely shrill.
"You mean Roshni’s husband, the father of the baby?" Still in a state of shock, I asked with some apprehension and in between her stunted outbursts of grief as she nodded, my heart sank.
I suddenly felt claustrophobic. Why, just a few hours ago his wife had spoken so normally about him, about their times together and his achievements, the details of which I was yet to decipher. "How did you happen? Accident, illness.........." I asked in a low voice.
"None of that. Murder, cold blooded murder." The mother had wiped her tears and her voice was coarse and crackling.
"What! How did it happen and when? Have the police been able to nap the culprits?"
"How can they?" She gave me a sad, stiff look. "When they themselves have committed the crime!"
“What!!!!!!!!” I cried out again, unable to control my tone. Thankfully the train was running at quite a speed and my high decibels were absorbed by the sound of the train’s motion.
And then out emerged the entire account, the heartrending story of a horrific custodial death in the backyards of our country’s shining capital. Her son Hitesh was like any other normal young boy from a lower class family who had abandoned school midway and set up a vegetable shop in the market. He, like many other young men had a habit of drinking. The nights he went overboard he would turn into a demon with no control over himself, what he said and what he did. He would beat his wife, break her bangles and abuse everyone in the foulest of languages and at times, even get into scuffle with neighbours.
24th May 2014 was one such day. Hitesh returned home well after midnight in an inebriated state and in an extremely foul mood. He kicked away his dinner, abusing his wife for letting it go cold. It was a routine matter and his family had got used to it- he would shout, scream at Roshni, give her a few lashes and then drop off to sleep. But that night he seemed to have been endowed with unlimited unbridled loads of energy. He just would not stop.
"It was as if he had been possessed by the devil-eyes blood red and bulging and almost popping out. He looked so fearful that I myself was afraid of my own son."
Hitesh’s widowed mother unable to handle her son’s volatile behaviour, called a policeman who was out on night patrol. She requested him to keep Hitesh confined at the police station till the morning, by when his hangover would hopefully be gone and he would return to his normal self. The policeman readily agreed.
“They did return him the next morning, but his lifeless body. We were told that at the police station, he had got into a scuffle with the policemen and they had to beat him in self defence, when one of the blows accidentally proved to be fatal.” “But why did they beat him? If he had become uncontrollable, there were so many options- they could have tied him with ropes, kept him confined him a room.” If the solution seemed so simple and natural to a common citizen like me, why had it not occurred to the police? Was there something else?
“Exactly. But that is not what had actually happened. Later on, we learnt that the policemen had beaten him to settle some old scores- Hitesh had once been rude to a constable and that man along his companions seized this chance to take revenge. They beat him so badly that many of his internal organs got ruptured.” It was hard to believe that all this had actually happened, that a young life had been terminated in the hands of those designated to protect it. But disbelieving was also not an option. Now I understood why and how Hitesh made it to the papers and TV. Law makers turn law breakers- the headlines would have screamed one fine morning.
And as it happens in our country, after the damage has been done, there would have been a huge hue and cry about the custodial death. The predictable blame game would have started- politicians blaming the police and the police issuing statements in self defence. The media too would be busy in making a killing by showcasing the entire incident in fullest possible detail with viewers lapping it all up, comfortably and securely seated in their own cosy confines. Earlier, the traditional state run news channels would be content to just communicate the news, but the trendy news channels of today know how to sensationalize an incident and make it “the” issue of the day and for the next few days. They would have vied with each for that exclusive coverage - gory visuals of the body, short documentary of the shoddy setting where Hitesh lived and how he lived, peppered with carefully chosen comments by a fashionably dressed anchor. For example, a pretty young reporter flashing manicured nails would be proclaiming to the viewers “You see, here is the half-finished sweater Hitesh’s wife was knitting for him. Will she ever be able to hold it again?”
The in-depth coverage would be followed by an expert’s analysis of the incident- how the victim was hit, where all he was hit and which blow had been the most damaging. And that’s not all. To further spice it up, the anchors would have gone overboard to get a few bites from the victim’s mother, wife and anyone willing to say anything. They would have showered them with stupid insensitive questions like – So, how are you feeling now? Do you miss him very much? Will you remarry? (This one to the victim’s wife)
Then, a few days later, a few transfers and suspensions here and there and promise of investigation by the authorities, everything is forgotten and pushed to the backyards of public memory.
I am sure the same thing would have happened to this family too-the media would have ensured that they had their fifteen minutes of fame and then all the channels would have moved on to cover another “interesting” news item, leaving the family more battered and broken.
“The main problem is now with her.” The grieving mother glanced upwards towards her daughter in law. “She fainted on hearing the news and after she regained her consciousness two days later, she just refused to accept what had happened.” “She still believes that her husband is away at work and will return. She refused to let go of her bangles and we didn’t have the heart to snatch them for her. Just waiting for her to give them up on her own!!!”
“It broke our heart to make the baby light the pyre, which he did with such cheerfulness as if he was playing a new game. What will happen to them now? A woman without a husband is like a bird without a nest!?” Her voice floated outside the window where a new dawn was beginning to emerge, birds crying out to each other from their resting quarters. It was a call to step out into a new world brimming possibilities but their
exuberance failed to uplift the mood in our coup.
I stared at the idyllic face of the baby so contently asleep beside his mother and then my gaze shifted to Roshni who had slumped into a dreamless slumber. The way she clung to her little one was explanation enough of the constant ongoing tussle within her.
Denial gave her the comfort of dwelling in her make believe world but lines had begun to form on her tender forehead, denoting that though she had denied acceptance of the tragedy to the entire world, in her sub consciousness she was well aware that her husband would never return and a part of him is what she would have to make do with for the rest of her life.