The gigantic clock that hung high over the platform displayed its hands at an irritating angle. Exactly forty minutes ago, to be precise, I arrived at the railway station to board a train to Bangalore. And now, forty minutes later, there was still no sign of it. The railway announcement once a while penetrated the untimely wintry winds of April, only to be more nettlesome as ever. The Bangalore express was late by an hour.
I placed my shoulder-bag on the bench and sat on it, heaving a sigh of tiresome exasperation. I felt the metallic bench with my fingers. The cold stuck to my palms, and a rusty metallic smell emanated from it. I drew my jacket closer, and pulled down the scarf tight.
It was cold; bitingly cold.
I swept my gaze hither and thither in an attempt to extricate myself from the complex mazes of monotony. There was no other being to be found at the station; except for a couple of dogs lying down at the far end of the platform, and a snack shop open at the other end. When the 2011 Cricket World Cup began, little did I expect that India would march towards the finals, and win. But today morning, when I was packing my bags for my journey, I did not have the least intention to leave. Though not an ardent Cricket fan as I was once, it was still a good feeling to watch my country perform and lift the cup.
While the rest of the country was engulfed in the victorious celebration, here I was, alone, entangled in the hazy grids of silence.
Or maybe, not alone.
From the far end, where the stray dogs lay sprawled, I could see a thin figure emerge from the thickens of darkness. There was great poise the person maintained. As the figure drew closer, I had no choice but to turn away my eyes in order to escape from the shades of disgust. He slid into my neighbourhood without any hesitation. I brought my bag over my lap and clutched it tight; it housed my personal as well as professional paraphernalia.
I dared to look at the man. He kept staring at me. He was in an old chequered full-sleeve shirt and a tattered lungi; and a reddish-brown towel was wrapped around his neck. A perfectly uneven stubble shrouded the lower part of his face. His hair was a rough and shabby patchwork of grey and white. His eyes were sunk deep into his skull, and so were his cheeks, which made his sharp jawline even more noticeable. He looked painfully thin; with the visible parts of his limbs seeming to have been made of nothing more than diminishing flesh and protruding bone. A smile surfaced his face, which revealed a set of disorganized yellowish-black teeth.
On a whole, the man looked like he had just come out of his grave wrapped in a thin cloth of skin. Or rather, a largely decipherable combination of pain, misery and starvation.
‘Waiting for the train, eh?’ He said.
I expected a stench of alcohol as he opened his mouth; but to my surprise, and relief, I could not sense anything of that sort. What amazed me more were his accent and fluency of the language, which seemed to be in utter disharmony with his personality.
I shook my head. He reciprocated and smiled again, before getting up and walking away in the other direction.
Was he a partially screwed maniac who had just escaped from some mental institution? Or a day-time tramp who purposelessly wandered the empty railway platforms at night?
I had no idea. I instantly dismissed the thought and looked around. The two dogs were now barking at each other, painting some noise over the needles of silence that had been piercing me.
To kill time productively, I extracted a Reader’s Digest magazine from my bag and began to skim through the pages. I stopped at page 46, which carried an interesting headline, and began to read.
At page 56, the train arrived. I replaced the magazine and boarded the train with my bag. The compartment was neither too crowded nor too empty. I footed towards my berth and made myself comfortable. The berths around me were all vacant. I consulted my wristwatch to check the time. The train was punctual enough in being late exactly by an hour.
I gazed out of the window. I could see the other platform at a distance, similarly empty as the first. I then turned around, only to get overwhelmed with a wave of momentary startle. The very same man stood before me, yet again displaying one of his repugnant smiles. He looked even more starved when he stood; and it appeared as if a slight jerk of the train would bring him down with a thud. He brought forward his skinny arm, which held a wallet. It appeared like mine. I snatched it right away and sliced through the insides. Nothing was missing. Before I could pull my head up, the man disappeared into the darkness.
‘Thanks…’ I muttered under my nose; not because he would be able to hear, but not saying so would be an act of cruel ingratitude.
The long siren of the train perforated the midnight air, and the train moved.