The wind was gushing into my face. Jolting me from my thoughts and at the same time, putting me to sleep. I was in the middle of nowhere. Fields on one side of the tracks and few mimics of a hill on the other. The train cut through the night as a python does through a dense forest.
Trains have been my choice of transport from my time immemorial. Born into a middle-class family, it is your literal ticket of a break from the routine you call life. The trains put me in touch with the childhood I so dearly missed. A time of my life, I cling on till the last inch.
I couldn’t even get a reservation this time. People argued me to book a taxi but I could not have let go an opportunity to catch up with my childhood. I couldn’t wait to be seated at the door.
The wind and my fatigue conspired to put me to sleep, and the alertness of my mind kept me awake. A toddler, a couple of smokers and a newly wed couple apart, the whole bogie was deep in sleep.
My station was 2 hours away, and I had to be awake. You don’t find a lot of people sleeping in my seat. At least, not a lot of them alive.
“Sir, Would you have some tea?” A voice broke my slumber.
It was a kid, around the age of 12-13 years, carrying a kettle and a few earthen cups with him.
“Sure, why not!” I was pleasantly surprised to find tea at such an hour.
He poured me a cup. It wasn’t the best tea, but he sure had tried hard. In my condition, I couldn’t demand any more.
“Why are you selling tea at such an hour?”
“Actually, Sir I should have been home till 11. But the train I usually catch was cancelled and this was the only one after that.”
“Good for me. I got a cup of your awesome tea.”
“Good for both of us sir.”
His politeness surprised me. I had the closest to what I could call a companion in this otherwise lonesome journey.
“What’s your name?”
“Hey! That’s my name!” I was further surprised.
“No, it’s mine.” The child in him spoke.
I knew it was to lead me into a depressing path, but I had to ask him.
“Why do you have to work? Why don’t you study?”
“Because I know how to swim.” Not in my wildest dreams, I could have expected that answer.
I was obviously surprised. He knew I was. He went on.
“You remember the train accident over the Kosi river last year?”
“We were on the train. Papa, Maa and I. I was asleep with my head in Maa’s lap. We all were too tired. We had gone for darshan and it was 435 steps to the temple. Papa and Maa were asleep as well, leaning against each other.
Suddenly I was woken up by a loud noise and massive jolt. Before any of us could think or comprehend, we all were in a free flow and with a splash, ended up in the river. Three bogies, all submerged.”
I expected tears to roll down the kid’s eyes, but there were none. Maybe because he had cried all he could, already. Maybe he has told the story so many times, that it has become a story instead of an experience. Maybe because he is a fighter.
“Water started filling the bogies in no time. Everyone wanted to be out of the dying train. Water, darkness, fear, panic and grief – it was a flood. My instinct was to swim, but neither Papa nor Maa knew how to.
Silly people! Had the courage to run away from their families, start life from scratch for their marriage but were scared of water.”
He smirked. I didn’t know how to react. You could console a grieving person. What do you do to one who has moved beyond it?
“The last of Papa and Maa I remember was them waving at me. Not just to send me away from drowning but a genuine goodbye. They had tears. They were dying but were concerned about me living alone!”
I was dumb-founded. Maybe it was a reaction he usually got, so he continued.
“We three was the only family I knew. Due to the un-blessed marriage of my parents, I knew no grandparents or uncles or aunts. I knew I had to survive on my own and Maa brought me up with such dignity that I could not beg.
So I pawned the last thing I had of my parents – a gold chain. Bought utensils and started selling the only thing I knew to cook. And here I am, 2 hours late to meet Moti.
Moti is my dog, by the way.”
I gathered the only words I could at that moment and said, “Can I have another cup of tea?”
“That’s why I am here sir.”
He poured me another cup. Took his money and left.
I tried to offer him more, but he returned me the exact change. I remembered he was doing it for his dignity.
I was awake. More than I ever was.
There I was – a man clinging on to his childhood as firmly as he could.
There he was – a child who already was a man.