By Karun Menon
“Did you carefully check the bank account number? May be, you have once again made a mistake with the number…just like last time…You are always lazy! Tomorrow is Shiny’s last date to pay the exam fees. I have told Mini that we will pay the fees next week. So, she can wait. But did you speak to ammachi……unless you speak, she won’t listen.”
“Rinna, you just told me that in the evening. Now it’s 2145 hours… How can I?”
“What are these hours…hours…talk? You speak languages I can’t understand. Why can’t you just say nine forty-five? I really think you should have married that Control phone.”
“You wait, Rinna.”
“Yes. Just wait. It’s the Control!”
He lifted the receiver.
“D. S. Pati, Sir…yes exchanged. But 12619 down, the guard didn’t exchange. Yes Sir, I have sent the message.”
“Rinna…I’ll call later. 16778 has already been locked.”
Zachariah removed his shoes and took his feet out. They were hurting ever since he walked on the track to check the point on the northern end of the yard.
“Sir, Quilon Mail is coming on the down line. I’ll exchange signal, sir.” Solanki got up and rushed out of the cabin.
Watching Solanki’s wiry frame jump across the track to the other side, Zachariah felt a sense of relief. His own state was not half as wretched as the young man’s!
Solanki’s family lived in faraway Dausa in Rajasthan. Solanki went on leave once a year for three weeks. He hardly called them up on his mobile or received calls from them – at least not in front of Zachariah – and yet never complained.
“Sir, your home is just eleven hours away by train; if you go by Madurai it may be a bit longer. But me sir, I can only go home to my picture in the trunk and father doesn’t like my wife speaking on the mobile. But still am happy, Sir. A government job never came easy.”
“But Solanki you are far from home…so far.”
“Yes Sir, far…but now I like the South. People are nice. My girls can study here sometime in the future.”
But Dorasaraiampati was considered punishment posting for most Station Masters in the south. It was far away from any major city. Madurai was a hundred and seven kilometres away and Virudhunagar was also far away. This station stood in absolute wilderness with not even an approach road. You needed to walk to the station from the Road which came to the level cross gate nearby. The British had set up this line when there was a Military Camp close by and the locals named this area around the station after the Dorai or white masters who alighted here. After independence, the Camp ceased to exist, and furious express trains just ran through the station taking pilgrims to the towns of Rameswaram or to Tiruchendur. All that Zachariah or Zach as his colleagues in the Railway called him, had for company was the oppressive smell that the full bloom sugar cane fields locked in the station with.
The mobile rang again.
“I have told you now for the forty-fifth time to speak to ammachi. Today she had dirtied the front room. I cleaned that but she refuses to wear the diaper. I told you to speak. You don’t listen…you think…I am like some cattle in a shed.”
Most of Zachariah’s calls to or from his wife Rinna reached this acrimonious note. Ever since Zachariah came away to take up this posting as a Station Master at Dorasaraiampati or D. S. Pati as they called it in the Railways, it has been difficult for Rinna managing everything alone.
“Now Rinna, what do you want me to do? If I speak on the phone, she will feel hurt. I told you, when I come there, I will speak to her. You ask Riju to go to the home that father Kuriakose had told us about…meet the Sister…find the details…hello…hello…”
She had hung up. This again was usual. The way each of these accusatory calls ended.
Solanki came running in.
“Sir, that 11911 Up has stopped near the outer.”
“Why?” Zach was surprised and knew something was amiss. This was an express train that normally hurtled through their station like a tornado.
“Sir…Senthil…called me on the mobile from the gate.”
Zach got up and tried to wriggle his feet back into the unrelenting hardness of leather.
“Get the torch, Solanki…”
The Control phone rang loudly into the night.
“D. S. Pati! Yes. Sir, I am just going there.”
“Solanki…rush…Some chain pulling. Three more trains would be coming into the block in the next hour…”
They went out into the platform and then slowly got into a run through the platform. The night was warm and the smell of stale beedi fumes filled the air. Who is smoking in the field at this hour, he wondered.
As though he had heard him, Solanki looked back. “Someone in the field, sir.”
They reached the end of the platform and now they were running fast. Zach realized he was not young anymore. He was not able to breathe. His heart seemed to be hitting his rib cage. But Solanki was young; he could run fast and even talk at the same time.
“Sir, all okay at home? Family calling so many times past few days.” Solanki tried to put it together in his newly sown Tamil.
“Yes, Solanki” was all he was able to bring up from his chest.
But what he wanted to say was, “Solanki, please don’t go by my quarrelling on the phone. Rinna is a very nice person at heart. She has single-handedly brought up our two children through school and illness. Never complaining, she catches a bus every morning and hangs on the crowded footboard for 56 kilometres to be precise, before reaching her primary school at Aiyanthodi. She has to work as both of us don’t have much to claim as our inheritance. Our children have to go to good English medium schools. Their school fees, tuition fees, uniforms, school bus fees…so many things had to be taken care of and, of course, saving for their future. Rinna had to work. And then there is Ammachi, my mother!
Ammachi was a strong, fierce woman when Rinna married me. She was both mother and father to me. My father had died in Burma when I was almost seven, as I remember. My mother struggled to run both our lives, tapping rubber from the slopes around our little home and made pickles, achappam, kuzhalappam and even kinnathappam for marriage contracts. She had given our small piece of land near Muthenkavala to a Hindu tenant to till. She would go there all alone, twice a month to inspect and keep a watch. While setting out, she would secretly tuck in a big kitchen knife between her young soft belly and the petticoat. But now she is old.”
They were now running over bits and pieces of broken ballast on the side of the track. The train had halted near the level crossing close to the station and its angry headlight lit the track ahead.
The loco pilot jumped out of the engine like an apparition on to the thick grass. Even in the dark he could recognize Govindarajan. He would drop by sometimes at the station while he was off duty, taking his family to the Valeeswarar temple close by.
“Someone has pulled the chain,” he said, hiding his irritation in fatigue. Zach nodded and they joined him to walk down the track. Many of the coaches were dark in sleep and at a distance they saw the wobbling flashlight of the guard.
The flashlight stopped at a coach far ahead. The guard was calling out to someone in the coach. It was a sleeper coach and when Zachariah and Solanki reached there, they were breathless. The lights were on and the TTE opened the door.
Zach and Solanki got in. Govindarajan stood outside, irritated. Katheeresan the TTE looked helpless and pointed to a single side seater inside the coach and said, “I had asked her to show her ticket, then she gave me this.” In his hand was a five rupee note!
When I asked her again, she did not reply. She doesn’t speak English or Tamil. I asked that military person there and he helped. He asked her in Hindi, and she got angry…she reached for the chain!”
Solanki moved ahead of Zach to the seat. She must be seventy or eighty or older, thought Zach. After a certain time and age, it is so difficult to guess an age, isn’t it? Lines and the hollows of the face stare in defiance at you.
An army Havildar who was in uniform was standing helplessly next to her. She had pulled up her feet to her chest and was sitting huddled on the seat, looking pale with fear. Her eyes darted from Zach to the Havildar in a swish.
With a heavy sigh, the Havildar slowly moved down on his haunches, his belly now cradled on his thigh. His nameplate read Induchoodan and Zach felt relieved silently, at the sight of another Malayalee! Zach smiled and instructed him with an air of familiarity, “Talk to her. Find out why is she on this train.”
Induchoodan slowly moved his weight onto his right leg as he looked at the lady and asked in Hindi, “Maaji, where are you from and where are you going?” The lady looked out of the window into the humming night of the sugar cane fields. The whole coach now watched Zach, Katheeresan and Induchoodan pointedly. Induchoodan once again repeated, “Tell me, Maaji.” She slowly looked back at the Havildar. Her eyes clouded. She cleared her throat, tried to speak but stopped halfway. Only the electric fan above hemmed the stillness of the coach. She kept looking at Induchoodan. He looked down at the floor and then he looked up at Zach and finally said, “She is not speaking.” Suddenly the lady opened her bundle and started rummaging her clothes. There were white clothes indeterminate and old and she got hold of a tulsi bead mala, held it up, looked at it intently for a while, and kept it back. She rummaged further and slowly pulled out a printed foil and gave it to Induchoodan. Induchoodan turned the ticket between his fingers, looked up at Zach and Katheeresan and looked at it again. His eyes slowly met them, and his voice was unsure.
“Isn’t this a platform ticket?”
“A group of people had come in with her at Tirunelveli. I had seen them. They spoke in Hindi. Looked like people who ran shops in the angadi area. They had left much before the train started.” It was a short plump lady in magenta pink salwar who volunteered this information. She got up from her seat across the next bay and walked to them. “Yes, I had seen them. What is the matter, sir?”
Katheeresan showed the ticket. “Platform ticket.” His voice was dry. How could he explain to this old woman that this foil she had in her hand would only permit an entry into a station but was not an authority for travel?
Induchoodan moved closer to the old, frightened face and said, “This…this is not a ticket, Maaji…”
The lady looked helpless and darted gazes at all of them in quick succession and slowly spoke for the first time. “Mukesh had said this train goes to Haridwar…and this…this is the ticket!” Her voice seemed shrill for her age.
The sunken hollowness of her eyes met Zach. Zach looked down. He felt uneasy inside the pit of his stomach. The way he felt when he had waited as a child for his father’s body to come home by road from Ernakulam. He hadn’t forgotten that sensation. A deep catch in the pit, which like a hungry serpent rises to hold your vocal chords tightly, so tightly that you want to scream but can’t.
The lady in magenta now slowly sat next to Induchoodan. A dried string of brown jasmine stuck to her hair. She looked at the trembling lady and turned to Induchoodan and said in Tamil, “Sir, tell her not to be scared…we are there.”
Zach lost track of the hours. The night seemed to swim in his head. The train finally started. He saw the guard’s cabin of 11911 finally dissolve into the humid night, at the northern end of the yard. Tomorrow the train would reach the big city at mid-morning emptying her coaches onto those huge platforms. May be Induchoodan would have to catch another train and the lady in Magenta and dried jasmine would walk out into the hot morning sun and catch an auto home.
“How do people do this, Sir?” Solanki shuddered in disgust. Leaving an old lady on a train with a platform ticket and telling her a story of a pilgrimage! Where have people reached?” Solanki’s eyes seemed disturbed for the first time.
“Who must be that Mukesh…she was talking about Sir? Or has she lost her mind…sometimes old people make stories in their head, isn’t it?”
It was a long process and Zach had to call the Control. The police inspector who came was a lady and she was speaking to the SP on the mobile. She was huge and imposing but when she spoke, she seemed kind. She also did not know Hindi. Induchoodan once again asked all the questions to the lady in Zachariah’s room. The lady Inspector had asked all passengers to stay in the coach, except Induchoodan and the lady in Magenta. Later, after much persuasion, the old lady got into the inspector’s vehicle. Induchoodan had assured her she would be okay. They even found a mobile number of someone in Itarsi in her bundle. The inspector had said she would take that lead.
Zach walked back into the SM’s room leaving Solanki on the platform. He sat on his Chair. The wall clock read ten minutes past two. In Railways, they referred as 0210hours which was one more of Rinna’s peeves.
He picked his mobile and scrolled down the contacts. He stopped at ‘A-chi’. That was a shortform for Ammachi that Mini had coined while feeding his contact list. He pressed the number, and he could hear the long rings. Ammachi would sometimes be unable to sleep at night and those days would call him up at two and three, complaining and asking him for reasons why she couldn’t sleep.
“She is sleeping. Why are you calling now?” Rinna’s voice was sharp but hushed. “She had a bad cough, so I just gave her the Kashayam that she likes…the one with long pepper and brandy. She is asleep now. You disconnect now and call her in the morning.”
Zach was silent.
“…and…and…don’t worry…I am sleeping in her room. She will be okay by morning. I will make her speak to you after breakfast and her wash!” Rinna’s voice was soft.
“Rinna…Rinna, you go to sleep now.” Zach said slowly.
He kept the mobile on the table and stretched himself. His eyes closed and head rested on the steel rim of the chair. Tired sleep descended from the warm concrete in swirls and he wrapped his arms around himself. A snuggle routine of his childhood he still carried. His head dropped and a faint smile lay drying on his mobile’s display.
It was the first day of June, the mid of the Malayalam month of edavum and the monsoon skies had opened fiercely. His new Bata shoes and white socks were wet. He never wanted to go to school and he hated rain, but she had insisted. Now there was this huge frog looking at him menacingly from a new dark puddle on the first step. He screamed and clung to her wet nylon sari. Irritated, she moved her umbrella from her left to the right hand and looked down. “What now…it’s only a small frog!!”
He still stood frozen.
She bent down. Adjusting his school bag on her shoulder, she lifted him on to her left arm and covered his head and hers in the white cotton towel that lay on her shoulder. Standing tall with him in her left arm and the black umbrella in her right, she took a breath.
And they ascended slowly…one step after another.
Glossary: Dorai: Tamil word for the erstwhile English Masters; Achappam & kuzhalappam: Deep fried delicacies made in Kerala, India; kinnathappam: A sweet steamed-rice cake popular among the Christians of Kerala; Angadi: Tamil word for bazaar or market; Kashayam: Medicinal broth; Edavum: The Malayalam calendar month which runs from mid-May to mid-June.
Karun Menon is a Civil Servant with the Indian Government and now works as a Financial Adviser on the Indian Railways at Chennai, India. He has been a student of Indian Classical music for more than two decades and has an abiding interest in literature and culture. His earlier work has been published in Indian Literature, the prestigious Journal of the Indian Academy of letters, Mirror, India Magazine, and The Indian Express. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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