When the ticket checker asked me where I was headed, I had no clue.
To say that the day had been eventful would be a huge understatement. I had woke up to a regular morning. Durga Puja was round the corner, our half-yearly exam was already over and it was a matter of days before the autumn breaks began. While our chemistry teacher taught us redox reactions that day, her colleagues just lent us our exam papers with all our answers ticked or crossed and the total awarded marks displayed on the first sheet. After recess, when it was the maths teacher’s turn to share our marks, we were a bit tense. The questions had been tough and I expected a narrow escape. As the teacher distributed the sheets to the other students, I hurled sharp prayers towards whichever God might be kind enough to ensure my safe passage. When the teacher looked at me, frowned and gave me my paper, I took it from him, shut my eyes and shot one last prayer before opening my eyes to check the marks first. It read twenty eight slash one hundred in figures (28/100).
I wiped my eyes and looked at it again. Unfortunately, wiping the eyes didn’t seem to change anything on that wretched paper – it still displayed twenty eight marks for me. With cold sweat dribbling down my forehead as well as my neck, I thought hard for a plan B. It took me a couple of seconds to think one up. I needed to pray hard again, but on different lines this time. God, or whoever listened to my prayer, needed to go back to past to make my teacher careless enough to have clubbed two sheets while turning the pages. This would leave at least five answers unchecked and I would just need to approach him to check them. Shutting my hopeful eyes once again, I threw a sharp prayer at the same authority as earlier.
When, after scrutinising the whole paper, I failed to trace any such sheets but realised instead that the answers were mostly a workout of futility, the cold sweat renewed its post on my forehead and neck. The eighty six at English and eighty nine at Bengali that the respective teachers shared in the next two periods helped nothing. It looked like I had to go back home to a violent burst of curses that my mother was bound to shower on me. I could already hear her saying, “My worthless son is destined to repeat class nine. No matter how big sacrifices I make, the nincompoop is bound to return with marks worth his pea-brain.” She would possibly go on like that all day and a considerable part of the night as well.
They say desperate times call for desperate measures. Towards the end of the Bengali class, when the teacher as well us my fellow-students awaited the bell signifying the end of that period, one such measure occurred to me. What if I didn’t return to my mother’s verbal assaults and ran away instead?
Two hours later, I got off a bus and walked into the Howrah station. Having blown most of my money on the bus ticket, I decided to hitch a free train ride. From amongst the numerous trains waiting at different platforms, I picked what seemed to be the cleanest one. It was somewhat empty as well.
As the train ripped past the sprawling farmlands with green mustard or paddy fields interspersed by steel-coloured ponds, coconut trees or small towns with shabby buildings and unfashionable people on foot or on cycles, I fell asleep.
A tap on my shoulder woke me up. It was close to sunset now. The ticket-checker was towering over me. He demanded my ticket and I offered him a blank face in return. He stared at my cloth and asked, “Why are you in school uniform?”
Another blank stare later, he declared, “You may try to come up with some cockamamie explanation, but I’m sure you ran away from home. What was it, flunked your exam?”
“Teenage trouble? Your knockout classmate is not interested in dating you and going to watch Pyaar Ka Punchnama with the school bully instead?”
I gave him a disgusted look this time.
“So flunked your exam it is then, huh?”
He grabbed my arm and commanded, “Come with me now.”
The train had stopped by now. We walked out of it into what seemed to be a busy station – less busy than Howrah, though.
Having walked for a couple of minutes, we reached an office. The signboard atop its doorway read “GRP Durgapur”. We walked through the door and the ticket checker pointed his finger at a wooden bench at a corner. “Sit there,” he said. I obliged.
He talked to a grimly policeman seated at a table in front of us, “I need to deposit this kid with you. He has run away from home.”
The policeman said, “Hmm. Thanks for taking the pain. Let me order a cup of tea.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I would like to decline. Unless it’s necessary for me to sit here for some paperwork regarding the kid, I’d like to go away instead. It’s been a long day.”
“No worries, then. We’ll take over from here.”
Throwing a glance at me, the ticket checker left. Mr. Grimly Policeman asked me, “Where’s your home?”
With blank stare intimidated by his khaki uniform, I opened my mouth, “Rathtala, Howrah.”
“Howrah? And you’ve come all the way to Durgapur?”
“Why on earth do people do such crazy things?”
Blank stare returned, as a plausible answer eluded me. It was dark now. A moderately big clock on the wall behind the policeman showed seven o’ clock.
“I’ll call up borobabu. He will arrange for your return,” saying so, he picked up the receiver of an outdated landline phone and dialled.
After what was evidently a conversation between his borobabu regarding me, he dropped the receiver and told me, “He’ll take an hour to come here. In the meantime, do you want some tea?”
By now, my mind had worked up another escape route. I said, “I’ve been on road for a while. Is there a restroom I can go to?”
He pointed towards a door not too far away.
I meekly walked through the door and shut it behind me. There was a window on the opposite wall, and a set of six opaque glass slats acted as a blind. There was freedom behind it. The geometry box, lying in my shirt pocket so far, came handy. I used the protractor to unplug all the six glasses, jumped past the window and ran across the railway lines that were there.
Two minutes later, I found myself panting inside a dilapidated building in a forlorn part of the railway yard. I was pondering on my next course of action when I heard a commotion outside. There was a good chance that the policemen were in pursuit. I quickly entered the nearest room around.
It was phantom-dark inside it. While that creeped me a little, I also hoped that they would not search for me in that god-forbidden room. That was probably a correct assumption, as the noise outside gradually died. I was suddenly aware of someone else breathing inside the room, and my forehead was moist again with cold sweat while a strip of ice ran down my spine. By now, my eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Before leaving the room in panic, I looked around to see who the other person in the room was. Sitting on a chair at a corner was an old man with a very familiar face. Had it not been for his brilliant eyes, the huge white moustache would make him look like a walrus. I groped in my mind to figure where I knew him from.
Turning those flamboyant eyes at me, he asked, “You’re Arnab Chatterjee, aren’t you?”
I was not scared anymore, and answered, “Yes Sir.”
So he knew me as well. Was he my grandfather’s friend? Or perhaps my mother’s relative? This was more likely, as more than half her folks are railway employees. He must be one of those hardly working government employees who picked this quiet cosy corner to relish an afternoon nap.
He asked, “Running away from low marks?”
Something in my countenance must be a blatant giveaway. I replied, “Yes.”
“Do you know who run away? Cowards.”
I nodded, although I had reason enough to believe that this generalisation didn’t apply to me.
“Sir, where do I know you from?”
Before he could answer, we heard a child wailing near the door.
It was a boy of perhaps eight or nine. Other than during Saraswati Puja, such a little boy roaming around in kurta is a rare sight. He stood at the doorway and wept.
We marched towards him and I asked, “What ails you, kid?”
He took about ten seconds to drain some more tears and then croaked, “My parents – I somehow got separated from them.”
The railway man asked, “Please tell us how it happened.”
“I was walking with my mother across the railway crossing. She held my hand. My father was left behind as he had stopped at the cigarette store to smoke. When he called us from behind, my mother stepped back. A train engine approached us at that instance and separated us. When it passed, I saw no-one at the other end.” He broke into a sob again.
The railway man asked, “Can you take us to that spot please?”
The kid nodded and started walking. We stepped out into a young night.
“What’s your name?” I asked on the way.
Having just walked for five minutes along the railway line, we saw a throng of people gathered near the railway crossing around two hundred metres ahead of us. As we got closer, a faint scream, originating from the crossing, unblurred. When we reached its earshot, it manifested as a heartrending cry of a woman who seemed to be at the centre of the crowd. When we got closer yet, we saw, amidst the group of speechless onlookers, this woman scrabbling at a child whose blood-smeared body lay on the ground. Sat beside her was a silent man with the dreariest eyes I had ever seen.
“What’s the matter, sir?” I asked one of the dumbfounded onlookers.
He said, “This woman was crossing the rail-line with her child ten minutes back. That man sitting there is the father. He had stopped to smoke at the cigarette store there. Perhaps because of the loud music played at the store, they didn’t hear the approaching train engine. The father called out to alert them. The mother stepped off the line, but the kid somehow tumbled. Before she could flinch, the engine trampled the child.”
Wasn’t the story somewhat familiar? I looked at the child’s face and, despite the blood screen, recognised him as Rahim. The blood smeared kurta affirmed his identity. All my hairs stood in attention and I became as still as a dripping ice-cube.
It took me immense courage to look around myself for the boy. The only Rahim around was, however, the one lying dead like a sandwich on the ground. The one that walked with us for the last few minutes had vanished.
“It’s ok,” said the railway man. His assurance sounded immensely soothing. “The police will be soon around. You’ll be in trouble if they catch you here. Let’s go.”
He sounded wise now. Leaving Rahim, or whatever was left of him, and his dejected parents behind us, with the dark sky with its pinned stars and a proud half moon above, we approached the station’s din.
I checked the railway man’s face to figure whether he was scared like me. He, however, seemed unfazed. I asked him, “Do you think he was a ghost?”
“Who?” His ignorance surprised me.
He cleared his throat and said, “Ghosts don’t exist.”
“But he came and met us while his body lay there at the crossing. What do you think of that?”
He stopped short, forcing me to halt as well. Turning those flamboyant eyes at me, he said, “Human mind is an amazing device. It does some beautiful things. Consciousness itself is a grand gift. What you saw, or for that matter what you see, is a manifestation of your mind, of your consciousness.”
He resumed the walk and I followed.
We reached the bustling station. While ascending the railway platform, he said, “In the exam called life, you flunk when you run away. A tougher exam awaits you when you flunk. Run again and the exam gets tougher yet. The best thing you can do is to face these exams bravely.”
We were close to the RPF office now.
“Rahim will never come back to his mother. He’s dead. You’re still alive. Walk in through that door now and let the RPG folks take you home.”
Perhaps it was his authoritative voice, perhaps it was the fact that I was too scared, after the day’s events, to alienate him, or possibly the fact that his suggestion was sensible beyond doubt that convinced me. I walked through the door again that evening. It took me a moment to notice that I was walking alone. I turned back and he had disappeared.
A shrill cry came from inside the room, “There. Borobabu, the slimy imp is back by himself. Come here, Mr Globetrotter. And don’t dare prank us again.”
Besides Mr Grimly Policeman, the man who was evidently Borobabu was also there. I blurted out, “A train hit a little boy at the crossing.”
“We’re aware of it. Our team must have reached them by now. Now you come and sit here at my desk.”
Borobabu demanded, “What’s your name?”
“And your home telephone number?”
I obliged again. He dialled as I dictated the number to him.
“Mr Chatterjee?…This is Amol Prasad from RPF Durgapur. Your son is with us…No, he’s absolutely fine…That’s not necessary as two of our officers are about to leave for Howrah in a bit. They’ll carry the kid for you. Please arrange to pick him up from Howrah station, though…Mentioning that was not necessary, Mr Chatterjee. It’s part of what we do everyday…all right then, bye.”
While he talked, I watched the big framed posters on the wall opposite me. Gandhiji smiled at us. Tagore’s sharp eyes denounced me. The third poster was of an old man. A man with a very familiar face. A man with a white moustache so big that had it not been for his brilliant eyes, he would look like a walrus. A man who had spent a good part of that evening with me. The railway man. And it suddenly fell into place.
I asked Mr Grimly Policeman, “Is that ex-chancellor Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee?”
“Need I more proof to conclude that this generation is doomed? He called himself Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay and not Mukherjee.”