Arun is going to Delhi for his niece Mishu’s wedding. He has been packing his bag since yesterday. In the morning he kept it on the bed and kept pushing toiletries as and when their use got over. He has decided to wear Indian clothes, like Kurta, Pajama and Dhoti for this wedding. His wife got one maroon Kurta, another one he borrowed from his son and rest he had. Arun thought, departure time of Rajdhani (4.40 pm) was very convenient. You get enough time to pack, have lunch and leave the house when everyone is ready for a siesta.
He sat in a taxi just before 3pm to go to Mumbai Central. Other than his small bag he was carrying two gift packets, one from his family and another from a friend. But for these he might have traveled to Mumbai Central by local train. At 3.55 pm he was at the station. His e-ticket was confirmed; but he had no idea about the seat. There was a huge crowd hovering around the reservation charts. It was a difficult task, as he had to take care of his 3 baggages and try to find his name. There! Without too much trouble he saw it, B2/72. He sent an SMS in Hindi to his brother Satish, ‘B2 dibbe ka aagman 9 baje hoga.’
Leisurely he walked down to the compartment, placed his bags on top berth. He felt the comfort of air-conditioning. Mumbai had become quite hot, he thought. It is April of 2008. He was taking so much trouble to reach an even hotter place- Delhi. A dog passed in the passage. It was very unusual, but Arun shrugged it off. Behind the dog, 2 cops were in toe. Now it was all normal and made sense. Sniffer dog got off the coach and went into the next one. Arun, kept his camera ready. When it came out again on the platform, he clicked his pictures. It was a fawn Labrador.
All the seats were not taken. There were 4 people for 8 seats. In front of Arun sat a young boy. Long hair, MP3 player, earphones and a cell phone that rang every now and then, ‘yeah mom, I am on my seat. No it is comfortable. I spoke to papa’. ‘haae, yeah man! Just imagine going to Delhi all alone. I hate it. Can you imagine I will reach tomorrow at 8.30 in the morning? So many hours in this train! I have never done it. Ok dude, bye. You take care.’ ‘Yeah mom they gave snacks and cold drink. OK I will call, when I get there.’ ‘OK papa, which uncle is coming to get me? Fine, but I could go by myself… Ok, I will wait for him. Train has just started.’
Arun surveyed the surrounding further. An oldish retired looking man by the window and an oldish woman in blue Saree opposite him. Woman makes a call. ‘Haan main Rajdhani mein baith gayi hoon. Kal 10 baje pahunchoongi. Station par jaroor aajana. Theek hai bhaiya? Didi kaisi hain? Theek hai, kaat rahi hoon.’ A waiter approaches, ‘veg/non veg?’ Old man says, ‘non-veg. continental.’ Arun is surprised, ‘continental?’ Is he mad? May be he is an ex-army types. He thinks he is in his officer’s mess. Arun tells the waiter, ‘Dinner veg., breakfast non-veg.’ Mr. Continental asks the waiter, ‘Dilli kab pahunchegi?’ ‘8.30’, waiter said. Woman in blue is worked up. She calls her brother again, ‘haan didi, train 8.30 baje panhuchegi. Bhaiya ko keh dena station par jaroor aaye. Theek hai haan, 10 baje nahin 8.30 baje.’ She fishes out a cone of Menhdi from her bag, sits comfortably and starts putting Menhdi on her left hand. The train is shaking a lot, so her crude design is getting cruder. Whenever she looks at her hand, Arun finds her smiling. Old man has taken out a book and is reading. He does not seem to be interested in making any friends. He doesn’t even want to have a conversation. Arun wears his glasses and steals a look at the title of the book. It is a P G Wodehouse. Oh, so old man has got some literary taste.
Train is at Surat at 7 pm. Old woman dusts off the dried Menhdi, takes out another cone and starts decorating her right hand with the left. This is worse. Wrong hand, moving train and shoddy patterns, all point in the same direction- ‘ugly designs’. Young boy was trying to look at Arun from the corner of his eyes, because Arun was doing the most weird thing, writing! He was doing so in fits and starts. Boy noticed Arun’s paper seemed have run out. He is using the back of his e-ticket print out.
Conductor starts supplying beddings to all. Arun has forgotten to bring soap. Luckily a small packet of paper soap is supplied to all. Old woman is sleeping. Her palm is turned upwards to dry the Menhdi. Boy is listening to music. His head hangs low. His hair has covered his face. Mr. Continental PG Wodehouse is still reading. Arun watches everyone and after a few moments, starts writing. Train has left Surat. Dinner is being served. Arun is waiting to see the surprise that is stored in food tray of Mr. Continental. He is opening a paper bag. He is going to blow his fuse at the sight of Continental Parathas. But no. These are toasts! Other cases have boiled chicken with peas, baked potatoes, curds… Arun is happy he did not make his feelings public. His head would be hanging in shame. Arun could not finish one of his two Parathas. He liked Arhar ki Dal that he ate with rice. He also liked the dessert. It was Lauki ka Halwa. Too sweet though. He leaves half of that too. Mr. Continental has cleaned up everything in his tray systematically, of course with knife and fork. He keeps his tray down, picks up his worn out toiletry bag and exits. Woman did not wash her hands before eating. Mr. Continental PG Wodehouse may be thinking, how dirty she is. She kept scraping the dry Menhdi right where she was sitting. Arun too keeps his tray down and goes to wash up.
Arun has picked up Midday newspaper, supplied by train staff. He reads cartoons and then glances at the ‘horoscope’. First sentence under his star, Libra is, ‘a long planned journey will materialize.’ He finds it spooky. He tears off that part and keeps in his pouch. Someone mentions name of Bahadur Shah Zafar. This kicks memories of two Rafi songs in his mind, ‘lagta nahin hai dil mera’ and ‘na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon.’ Arun hums both songs almost entirely to himself. He realized he can not sing well now. At 9.15 Rajdhani is at Baroda. It is only 4 min late. Arun does a few stretches on the platform to relax. Signal turns amber; he boards the train, but doesn’t want to go to his seat as yet. He strikes a conversation with attendant, ‘how do your duties rotate?’ ‘I go to Delhi, then return by the same train in evening and reach Mumbai at morning. Then I get 2 days off.’ ‘Where is your family?’ ‘In Mumbai only. We have railway quarters for us.’ Arun says, ‘that’s not bad. You get a lot of rest time for about 40 hours of work.’ Attendant agrees.
Passengers have started making their beds. Next stop will be Ratlam, which will come very late at night. Arun has kept Mishu’s gifts on his berth itself. He does not want to put them down. A large Gujarati family is making a lot of noise. The kids are screaming but no one is controlling them. Everyone is busy talking themselves. Arun is clearly getting upset. He shouts twice, ‘shut up’. No one heard him. He takes out his forecast and reads again. Last part says ‘you should acknowledge feelings that obstruct your spiritual and emotional growth.’ He thinks about it and feels better. Everyone is on the verge of dozing off. Kids are shouting softly now. Every one of them feels that saying those words before sleeping is most important.
Arun is back from the loo. Old woman goes to the loo. Young boy does not go the loo. Old man, Mr. Continental Wodehouse has been to the loo and is now in his Lungi. His worn out bag hangs above his head. Arun covers with the sheet. His fits his legs in the narrow space next to the gift boxes. He stares at the ceiling. Some lights go off. More lights go off. All lights go off…
Arun is turning in his bed often. It is dark. Train is fast and unobtrusive. It is doing its job well. Only one person is snoring. Surprisingly it happens to be the young boy.
Arun is seen getting down. He seems drunk while walking to the toilet. It is nearly 5am. In another 3 &1/2 hours he will be in Delhi, he thinks. He wants to avoid a queue outside toilets, so he brushes his teeth, has a wash and comes back to his berth. It is 5.20am now. Lying on his berth, he looks at the large open window. He sees smoothly changing patterns of trees and rails on the other side of the window. He notices that exterior is soaked in a faint natural light. He seemed to be awed by the pre-dawn, soft, uniform, cool and peaceful light.
Mad ideas start entering Arun’s head. Or perhaps his head is generating them. He thinks about that he has been travelling with his legs towards the engine. That means during this journey his beard wouldn’t grow too much, as the speeding train will keep it pushed in, to some extent. He wonders what would happen to his spinal disks? Would they be relaxed due to being pulled away rather or will get squeezed together. He is confused. Yes, a lot of blood will go the head that may enhance intelligence. But if his head was on the same side as the engine then beard would have been longer due to being pulled out of his cheeks. And whatever happen to his vertebrae pulled or sqeazed, he would be a shorter or a taller man when he gets off.
It was getting brighter by the minute. There is a bottle of water at the window. Arun watches the window behind the bottle and fleeting landscape behind the window. He takes out his camera and shoots a few videos of the action without actors. 6am bed tea. He refuses it; too early for him. 7am breakfast is being served. Even this is too early, he thinks. Old woman is again dusting dry Menhdi right near her. Mr. Continental is having his breakfast. Young boy is too tall for top berth. He eats up with only his head raised a little. Arun is not tall, so he sits tall and eats. Mr. Continental is back to Wodehouse. Young boy has gone to sleep again. Old woman straightens her legs on the berth and lifts her blue Saree above her knees. She looks up at Arun and turns towards the window and again does the same. She applies a cream on her legs and starts massaging. With every movement of her hands on her knees she does ‘aah, aah’. She ‘aahs’ for a few minutes and then closes the cream bottle. Smell of eucalyptus oil is hanging in the air. She is looking at Menhdi on her hands and smiling softly. Arun is wondering, perhaps she can not see too well. Good for her. She can at least appreciate the Menhdi she worked so hard to apply. Rajdhani halted at New Delhi station right on time. Arun is carrying all his stuff by himself. He is softly refusing help from coolies. After a whole lot of in-activity, some exercise would be good for him; he thinks.
Hundreds of thoughts that Arun thought about, have exited his head. They now exist only on small little pieces of paper; legible – perhaps to him only. His phone rings. Anil and Shyam are waiting outside the station for him.