That winter afternoon, the sky had decided to put on a golden make-up. Some time after crossing the Dhanbad junction, a passenger train disgorged me at an unremarkable station and left slowly, almost with a touch of reluctance. The people who got off with me melted into the wheat fields around; I stood on an empty uncovered platform under a yellow sun and a sparkling sky, with my shadow as the only companion. There was a nip in the air; time hung lazily over the horizon like an invisible mist.
I was at college then, eighteen or nineteen years of age. From the station at Kodarma, a small mining township in Bihar, I would go to a nondescript place nearby. My friend, Anirban Mitra lived there, with his parents and a small sister. His father was the station master there. Anirban had told me that the place was a remote outpost of the Indian Railways and there was nothing there, except the rail station, jungles, and a slender river. Only one passenger train stopped there in the morning. In the evening, a railway engine from Kodarma transported railwaymen working night-shifts to different stations along the route.
The engine was ready to start. Several people stood on its side and rear, holding on to brass handrails. I was excited by the prospect of travelling on a railway engine, but it was not to be.
The engine driver had an unpleasant message for me: ‘Mitra saab’s little daughter has fallen seriously ill. She has been admitted to the Railway Hospital at Dhanbad. The entire family have gone there with her. Haven’t you received the telegram?’
A return train was expected much later. Darkness descended quickly and an icy wind blowing in from the Himalayas forced me into the waiting room. As I settled myself in a long reclining chair smelling of the British Raj, I watched darkness and silence through window panes. It seemed I was the only living being in that station.
The ancient, dimly lit waiting room was eager to tell her tales. … I heard the bangles of a newly wed girl tinkling with dreams and anxiety; felt the utterly hopeless mute fear of a lost child; … the happy footsteps of a husband coming home after years.
‘Waiting for the train to Dhanbad?’ A young man interrupted my musing.
‘Yes, I am.’
‘It’s delayed. Not expected before eleven.’
The stranger, Sunil, was in early twenties, with a slim athletic body and a weather-beaten unshaven face. He looked tired. With a warm smile, he introduced himself as a prospector. The unusual profession surprised me. Hadn’t prospectors – who always wore broad rimmed hats – belonged to an extinct tribe that lived long ago in Africa, Australia, or Alaska, and whose stories have been told by Rider Haggard, Jack London, and our own Bibhuti Bhushan?
Sunil explained that he was into mica mining, which was not very different from gambling. One had to take a tract on lease and start digging. If one was lucky, one would come across a large chunk of mica and become an instant millionaire. But millionaires were in short supply, most of the adventurers ended up paupers. Sunil, a colliery owner's son, too had lost a large part of his inheritance in the quest, but was confident to hit the jackpot some day.
We went to a roadside eatery for our supper. Sunil was a frugal eater: he ate just two rotis and daal and didn’t drink tea. We talked and exchanged addresses. Sunil had lost his parents long before in a car crash near Hazaribagh, and had been brought up by his grandma. By the time we finished supper, we became good friends. We were in that magic phase of life when people naturally trust others and when complete strangers can become friends in half an hour.
As we were returning, a train had just arrived from Dhanbad. Some people were coming out through the narrow exit of the station. Sunil said, 'Let's go back to the tea shop.'
'Why? We've just had our food.'
'Nothing, I just feel like having tea. Surely, you can have another cup?'
Sunil insisted that he pay for the tea this time. When we returned to the station, the waiting room was quiet again. I dozed off. I don’t know how long I slept, I was suddenly woken up by a big commotion: the deserted station had been filled chock-a-block by a milling crowd, animatedly discussing something. I thought I was dreaming; how could there be so many people in such a sleepy station so late in the evening? But it was real. The magical transformation had come about because a circus show had just ended nearby. These were the spectators on their way home.
When a passenger train arrived, a real-life circus performance began. The compartments were full and all the doors were secured from within. The men on the train were not bothered about their unfortunate brethren outside, and refused to let them in. The people on the platform banged doors, tried to prise open windows and made full use of their lung-power. The colourful vocabulary of Hindi four-letter words flowed at its charming best. The folk returning from the circus were no mean gymnasts themselves. Every time the train started, a smart young man would jump on to a buffer and pull the brake lever jutting out at the end of the compartment. They seemed pretty sure-footed upon the buffers and about the intricacies of railway engineering. After a while, a few doors were opened and a surprisingly large number went in. Many others hung on to the foot-boards and buffers ignoring the freezing cold. The train chugged out.
Two more trains arrived and left in the same fashion, and everyone, barring a few old or infirm people like yours truly, managed to leave. By then, the station had been enveloped in a dense fog and no other train was scheduled that night.
Sunil and I walked briskly on the platform to keep ourselves warm. Clattering teeth ruled out a chat. For the first time in my adult life, I prayed to God for a minor miracle. Soon God appeared from out of the fog in the shape of a railway porter wrapped in a ghostly blue blanket. Pointing at a rail coach in darkness some distance away, He said that the dabba would be hitched to the first train leaving towards Dhanbad early next morning.
We thanked the porter God and ran. I climbed on to the pitch-dark compartment first, eager to stretch myself on an empty bunk. But I stumbled on something and fell headlong. Fortunately, I fell on something soft. Soon, it dawned on me that I was lying on a couple of sleeping humans. The compartment was packed like a tin of sardines! There was not an inch of vacant space and the air was thick with the smell of bidi smoke and snoring. But no one minded our intrusion. Sleeping bodies were moved willingly to make room, and somehow, room was made.
When I woke up, it was morning and we were at Dhanbad. Sunil was gone and my purse was empty, except for some small change. There was also a chit of paper with a hastily scribbled note.
I am sorry to do this to you. I had no choice. I told you the first part of my story, which was true. But I didn't tell you that I am a fugitive, on the run from my creditors, who have links with Dhanbad coal Mafia. I will be beaten to pulp if I am caught. So I must run. And in order to run, I must eat. The rupee that I paid for the tea was the last I had on me.
The address I have given you is genuine. My granny still lives there, and cries. The Mafia won’t go to the police, but you can, if you wish. I am at your mercy. But I trust in God, I will come out of the mess that has been created by me and me alone. And I will keep your address carefully. I will pay you back, my friend, some day.”
Shortly after I returned from the trip, my father was transferred out and our family moved to Bombay. So I would never know if Sunil ever came out of his self-created mess.
Trumbull / July 2009