Prashila Naik dreams of retiring into the idyllic landscapes of Ladakh. Outside that dream, she is a technologist and writer, currently based out of Bangalore. Her work has been published in various online literary magazines, as well as dailies from her home state of Goa. She is particularly terrified of lizards in all shapes and sizes, and spends a lot of time worrying about things she thinks, are wrong in her life.
“Don’t share your lunch with your friends today. OK? I have applied lots of ghee on the puranpolis. Such expensive food one should not share,” she says with mock sternness.
He nods, and with a wave of his hand turns around, the smile on his face still persistent for only he can understand the irony. As he climbs down the paan-stained stairs of his decrepit building, he feels a trickle run down the length of his back. As if on cue, the back of his palm reaches out to wipe his forehead and then his cheeks.
By the time he is on the road leading to the railway station, his T-shirt and his back are stuck in an embrace of damp coercion. He wipes some more sweat off his face and his neck, this time with the embroidered handkerchief his mother has given him, carefully managing to keep himself at a distance from the other passersby. They are not always rude, but he has had his share of bitter experiences, especially with women, young women in particular. The way their heads turn and their noses scrunch in disgust, he has seen it all. He wrings his half-drenched earlobe, angry at how all unpleasant memories seem to be just at a stray thought’s distance, when an incessantly honking tw0-wheeler wheezes past him, almost causing him to lose his balance and tumble sideways. The pillion rider, a young woman dressed in a bizarre outfit that looks like a sari but isn’t, turns around to look at him, and then much to his surprise, smiles. Fascinated by her sudden interest and her largely pretty face, he smiles back at her, only to see her mumble something to herself and look away. Only when he gets to the railway station does he realize that the woman’s smile was just her way of mocking his clumsiness.
He doesn’t let his mind dwell upon that thought for long enough, for he has finally reached the place where he can be at ease with himself. He gets on the bridge, easily assimilating into the already rampant crowd on it. Subconsciously, holding onto the railing and his eyes fixed on the pert behind of a young man right in front of him, he is no longer aware of or concerned with the streams of sweat running down his neck. The young man though, much to his instantly arising disappointment, takes a turn to get on Platform 2. He has a huge urge to follow the young man and find out which train he will end up boarding, but soon the urge turns into shyness, for he is unable to decide why he would want to do something like that. By the time the shyness recedes on its own, he is already near the turn leading to Platform 4. He likes this pace, likes how life is always and relentlessly on a move here. If only he could spend his entire life on the railway station, scuttling from one platform to another, traveling from one random train to the other, letting himself drown into that sea of people where no one cared about the unbearable stench his body let out or no one suggested brands of deodorants he needed to ‘try’ out.
He sighs uneasily and walks up to the weighing machine, his routine boarding point. The digital meter tells him that the train is due to get there in less than a minute. He wipes off his forehead and neck as if in preparation and looks down at the tracks. The filth and disarray, so burgeoning there, do not bother him as they once did, their abandoned degeneration nothing more than another one of the myriad sights he is forced to witness with every passing day.
The train arrives on the exact second and he turns to look at its approaching form. He can barely register the specifics of the next few seconds, as a gushing crowd pushes him forward and then inside the train. He likes the almost rhythmic manner in which these entries and exits happen, likes how he has to put no effort from his side, likes how the nameless and faceless men around him – all probably stinking in their own way – accept him as one of their own. And so when the journey eventually ends and he is pushed out of the train and onto the platform, he momentarily struggles to get himself back on his feet.
It takes him a few minutes more than usual to get to his college. Even as he debates on the apparent futility of attending all the lectures and the abysmal possibility of him ever becoming an electrical engineer, he suddenly notices the presence of a huge crowd in the campus. A closer observation reveals that they are his fellow students. He looks through them, trying to find a known face, even as he is secretly delighted by the possibility of not having to attend any lectures for the day. He spots Abhay and a couple of his female classmates, leaning against the principal’s 1980 model Mercedes. Abhay is flanked by the girls who are busy laughing, holding onto their stomachs with one hand and covering their faces with the other. It must have been one of his senseless jokes, he thinks to himself and walks up to them.
“Look who is here. Kedar Kamble,” Abhay says the very second he spots him walking towards them.
Anita, one of the two girls, stops laughing just then, and in a gesture that is so delicately executed, that it’s only his extreme sensitivity to his own unfortunate ‘condition’, that makes him acutely aware of how her hand has skillfully moved from her mouth to her nose.
“Why are you late Kamble? What happened?“
“Nothing, missed one train,” he lies.
“Anyway, you did not miss anything. All these fathead students are simply on a strike.”
“Strike,” his eyes brighten at that word.
“Strike for what Abhay? And for how long?”
“I don’t know Kamble, one day, two days, three days. Anyway, who cares how long it goes on. It is only a strike.”
He nods, pleased with this important information and yet somehow curious to know why the strike was on, a curiosity he cannot quite decide if he should or should not acknowledge.
“Anyway we were just planning to go to the canteen. You want to come along?“
“No, you carry on,” he is pleasantly surprised with how fluidly he has said those words, his curiosity instantly disbanded.
Abhay nods and wishes him goodbye. The girls are already on their way. At that instant, he feels a strange revulsion and it isn’t because the girls have ignored him; but because Abhay is so genuinely nice to him, his geniality almost to the point of being nauseating.
He watches the girls burst out into another bout of laughter at something Abhay has said, and then turns to look at the entrance. Few professors are now standing there, some of them trying hard to reason with the college General Secretary, who is in no mood to listen and clearly enjoying all the attention he is receiving.
He wipes the sweat on his face and begins to walk towards the gymkhana. Nargis, the three-legged mutt he has forged an easy friendship with, usually spends her mornings in that area. But when he gets there, she is nowhere to be seen. For a few seconds, he is worried that the college authorities have somehow got rid of all the stray dogs in the campus, but just then, Nargis emerges from behind the gymkhana wall, clearly not alone, the roguish, brown-skinned pariah dog he secretly calls Amrish Puri closely walking behind her. Nargis spots him and tries to display her happiness with a hearty bark, but her companion, clearly not liking this unwanted human company, lets out a howl of annoyance and then threateningly jumps towards him.
He steps back and then slightly humiliated turns around. With nothing left to do on the campus, he decides he will get back home and watch some old Hindi movies with his mother who would be all too happy to have him back early.
The railway station, still every bit as crowded as it was when he had left it, does wonders to his agitated mind, as he walks up to a juice counter and asks for two glasses of carrot juice, intently watching the juice boy shove carrots into the juicer, when an idea strikes him. He could spend the whole day doing something he has always wanted to do, go back and forth in those trains, shuttle from one line to another, one suburb to another, disembark on a railway station he has never been to before and then just as well step into a train without checking its eventual destination. With a monthly second class pass, it wouldn’t even cost him a rupee. Excited by the possibilities and eager to put the impulsive idea to execution, he hastily gulps the two glasses of juice down and walks up to the approaching train. But since the train is a fast local, it just whooshes past him. His enthusiasm slightly dampened, he kicks an empty tetra pack of frooti down on the rails and puts his hands inside the pockets of his pants. The timer shows that the next train, this one he makes an effort to notice as a slow local, will be arriving in exactly 3 minutes. He decides to spend those three minutes, watching the timer perform its countdown.
Somewhere through the second minute though, a sudden and painful yelp startles him and he looks in its direction. He spots a man wearing short pants, or is that a boy – it’s hard to make sense of his age from his boyish feet. Many other men surround the boy, accusing him of something. He sighs disinterestedly and then looks away, but the next second, he hears more jeers coming from the same direction. This time, it’s the other men. Despite himself, he turns around and sees that the thief has somehow managed to escape from his captors and he probably only has to thank his boyish feet for how quickly he has managed to get himself away. This time he can also see the thief’s face. It is a young face, maybe 15, maybe 16.
“Chor, pocketmaar. Stop him,” one of the men screams. The thief, now close to him and suddenly exposed, stumbles and slows down.
“Catch that chor,” another man screams.
Overwhelmed with the knowledge that he is in the midst of a robber getting caught in real and even more overwhelmed with the possibility that he could somehow contribute to it, he spreads both his hands around the thief and tries to stop him from going any farther.
“Chhee, that smell,” he hears that thief’s absentmindedly uttered words that very second and is taken aback by them, involuntarily loosening his hold. Taking advantage of that lapse, the thief manages to slip out of his arms and resumes his run. But by now, seething with anger and helplessness, he hastily lunges towards the thief and with one sharp kick on his shins, manages to bring him down. All the other men manage to get there too, trapping the thief from running away.
They all look at him with respect; he has after all managed to stop a conniving thief all on his own. A few of them pat him on his back. Some young girls too have seen his display of bravado and are busy staring at him with what surreptitiously looks like admiration.
His heart racing, he looks down at the thief, all the more young in his pain and misery.
“Saala thief. How many pockets have you picked on this station? You lousy rat,” one tobacco-chewing man screams and then places a swift kick on the thief’s hip. The boy writhes in more pain.
“Give the wallet back,” another one screams.
“I have not taken any wallet.”
“Liar, still lying. We will break your bones. Give the wallet back.”
“Saab, I don’t have any wallet with me. I swear on my mother.”
“Saala liar. Swearing on your mother? Do you even know who she is? You son of a whore.”
He cringes at these words, somehow ashamed of himself, for he finds it extremely easy to believe every word of what the boy has said.
“I think he is right. Maybe you are mistaken. He would have returned the wallet if he had it,” he says and all eyes now turn on him, no more admiration and respect inside them.
“You college boys. What do you understand about losing a wallet. Your parents pamper you, give you all these modern clothes, these bags and money. What do you even know? Ask your father what will happen to him if he loses his wallet,” the man who has lost his wallet screams in a voice that is by now hilarious in its desperation.
He opens his mouth to respond, but, at that moment, he sees the boy’s accusing eyes fixed on him. He stares back in a display of sheer defiance and then abruptly gives up. Nearly on the verge of tears, he turns around and begins to walk, away from the thief, away from the tobacco-chewing man, away from the man who has lost his wallet, away from the girls who were possibly admiring him. A fresh trickle of sweat slides down his temples. He doesn’t wipe it off.