It came back to me out of the blue–in the middle of working on my research paper, and took me by surprise, how vividly I remembered each detail of it, once it came back, and was I abashed, to have put off memories of him and his goodness!
Seems like quite a while ago, though it must be just a few years from now. I boarded the A.P. Express to go to Delhi. With Diwali approaching, and vacation and good weather with that too, the train was brimming with passengers–teeming would do more justice here, actually…yea, literally teeming with passengers, with not even enough space in the sleeper class (that I chose to travel in, in those days), to put a foot without bumping it into something–be it a piece of luggage or another persons shoe/foot.
The journey commenced that morning, with of course, more passengers in our compartment, than the designated number, of which I happened to be the only female passenger. There were a couple of guys in late teens chatting away, on the berth opposite mine. And others too, all busy with however they chose to pass their time.
It was when I woke up after a post lunch nap that I noticed the teenage boys gone, and a couple of men in their place, one of whom seemed to be in something around his late fifties or early sixties. They seemed to be a group of carpenters traveling back home, the teen aged boys and all.
“Does it hurt?” the sudden query drew my attention to the old man.
“Your foot” he added, seeing a question in my eyes.
“No” I said, and buried my face deeper in the book I was reading. He must have noticed me limp on the foot that was still healing from a ligament tear.
“We may not be ‘big’ educated people like you, but we surely do know things, and can be talked to” the old man said to me, a little later, when I put my book down for something.
I’ve never been one to talk to strangers, and I wasn’t going to then either, especially not when I was travelling alone, and when I was already getting conscious of being constantly stared at, by him; of his talking loudly for my benefit, and of his trying to catch my eye and smile at me. I kept my usual ‘train routine’ of reading until I was sleepy, and sleeping until I was hungry, and then back to reading. And all the while I was aware of this old man trying to get my attention. And I continued to ignore his attempts to chat with me.
“Do you want something?” The very quiet young man who had been sitting and reading on his seat on the same ‘lower’ berth as me, asked me, as the train halted at a station.
“No, I’m good” I said, and he went away, off to the platform.
He came back and sat down at his seat, reading, just like me, until the train stopped for another long halt.
“I’m getting down. I’ll get oranges from the vendor at the platform. Don’t buy them from the vendor at the window. His oranges aren’t good” the guy next to me said, and was gone before I could decline the offer. I was surprised, of course, for he had been so quite all day…hardly making his presence felt.
And there he was, shortly, a packet of oranges in hand, and a smile on his face. It was a breather to see someone whose eyes weren’t leching at me when he smiled, or talked or looked at me–more of a breather, for the annoying old man was gone! I thanked and paid this guy, and we settled down in our respective seats with our books.
Oh boy! But was the irritating old man gone?! He was right back after some time–back to his seat, and back to his leching.
“What do you want for dinner?” The guy asked, a ‘meaningful’ look in his eyes. I told him what I wanted, something telling me to play along. (Must have been instinct, I can say looking back now).
It was Itarsi, and soon the lights would be off and the old man’s leching would go to his berth with him, I thought.
Having had dinner, we got back to our books, and the old man’s attempts to make small talk too had subsided, with this guys having stepped in. He did try once or twice to ask me though, what that guy was to me–our relation. And I had left it at his being narrow-minded for thinking I had to have some relation with that guy, to be talking to him. Well, since I didn’t talk to him in spite of all his attempts, he must have got some ideas!
A couple of hours after dinner, when people started settling down for the night, I breathed a sigh of relief, as I saw the old man go, since he had been sitting in his employer’s berth all the while.
But was I in for some surprise! There he was, that old man, a bunch of newspaper in his hand, asking me to hurry up with my pulling out my sheet and stuff from my bag! It was then that his intentions hit home to me! He was to spread his newspapers and lie there in the night, between my berth and his employer’s!
And this meant lying not even an arm’s stretch away from him (mine being a lower berth)!
I wasn’t going to let this happen! And I said so much to them!
“If you can’t adjust even this much, then maybe you should travel in the AC compartments, madam” said his employer, to my disbelief!
“After all he’s not occupying your seat! He’s sleeping in the common space. You have paid only for your seat, not for the passage!”
“I’ve bought his ticket from the TC” he added almost shouting at me by now, when I said he couldn’t encroach on any place there, if he didn’t have a reserved seat.
Wow! He wasn’t shouting at me just like that! He had support from the railway staff!
“What’s going on? Why are you shouting at her? You can’t shout on her just because she is a lady or because you’ve ‘paid’ the TC for an unauthorized ticket!” The quiet guy, who had called it a night already, came down from his upper berth and took the men to task.
“You go sleep on the top berth” he said to me gently, replacing his sheets there with mine, the look in his eyes made me comply.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of the luggage” he told me, when he saw me peeping down from up there, every now and then, in the night. Safe up there, from the ‘hands’ of that ugly old man, what came next to me, was he may try stealing from my bags, lying next to them.
It was in the morning that that guy talked to me. Told me that he was recently recruited to be a soldier in the Indian Army, and was to get down at Agra–two stations before mine. Asked me if I would be comfortable travelling by myself there on. Offered to get himself a ticket to Delhi If I wasn’t comfortable, for the old man was going to be right there, up to Delhi!
But since it was day time, and just a matter of two hours, I convinced him I would be fine, and he left with reluctance in his walk and worry in his eyes.
The next two hours were the longest and worst ever, with the old man constantly bickering and taunting me about my talking to that guy just because he was able to read and speak English and for his being young and what not.
That he was trying to talk to me so he could help me cure my limp. That with one ‘pudi’ (a small potent doze wrapped in a piece of paper) which he could give me right then, he could relive me of all my pain.
He even tried to pull away my book and make me listen (and agree) when I wasn’t heeding his offer of the ‘pudi’! That repulsive old man! The pervert! Who winked and leched at me whenever he could catch my eye, and made gestures that would embarrass any decent girl!
And all the while I thanked God profusely, for having sent that soldier, who stood up for me that night in the train. The old man could have gotten down to his evil ways were it not for him! I blessed him time and again, and always will, for being the beautiful person he was! For being my guardian angel!
I’m sure that soldier wouldn’t have got down without taking this man with him, had he seen this extent of his ‘conduct’!
And much as I refused to accept this then, I should have let him come all the way to Delhi.
And, all I can say in my defense about letting off memories of him and his goodness is, that it must have been a play of the psyche to obliterate the bad from which that goodness couldn’t be extracted.