I was 21, and had just graduated from University. I had to travel to Chennai from my home town to attend some interviews I had lined-up. I had to take a bus from my town to another, bigger town and then board the Nilgiri Express that would take me to Chennai, after an overnight journey.
It had been raining heavily on & off that day. My Dad came to see me off at the bus stand. The bus slowly snaked its way down the mountains and reached a small town called Kallar. There the bus stopped for no apparent reason. I was in a state of semi-sleep, and loud voices woke me up. We discovered that a huge tree had fallen across the road due to the heavy rains. I panicked now. It was another hour’s drive to the train station.
The driver conferred with the conductor of the bus and they asked all of us to get down and cross the tree. There was a lot of laughter as not only we, but people from buses and cars behind us, had fun climbing over the tree to the other side. We walked to the closest road junction, and after about thirty minutes, another bus that was travelling in the same direction agreed to take a few passengers. The bus bulged at its seams with the additional load.
I finally made it to the railway station with 20 minutes to spare. Little did I realize that my wrist watch (the winding type), had stopped a few minutes before. Totally oblivious to this, I dropped my bags on my seat, nodded at the other passengers and stepped off the train to pick up water and some take-away dinner. I paid for the food & water and stood in line. There were many passengers before me and there was nothing to do but wait. The PA system crackled and the lady announced the departure of some train. I barely listened to what she said. As I turned my head to look at my train, I suddenly saw it lurch forward and glide slowly out of the station.
I shouted and waved madly, as I ran on the platform trying to board the moving train. A good soul put out his hand and I clutched it to jump on to the train. In this madness, I stubbed my toe and dropped one of my slippers on the tracks, gone forever.
I thanked the man, and realized that I was in a totally different compartment. I had to walk down the train through the vestibules to reach my compartment. Imagine, stubbed toe, one slipper missing, harried looking woman, limping. I suddenly remembered my wrist watch. The dial was stuck at 6.40 p.m. I was at bursting point by this time. I finally made it to my berth.
In the fifteen minutes following my absence, the entire coupe seemed to have been taken over by this one woman, who seemed to have brought bags and suitcases for all the passengers on the train. There were bags lined-up on my berth as well. When I looked at her, she said, “Oh! sorry, I thought the berth was empty.”
I smiled politely and helped her move her bags out of my berth and sat down. No dinner, no water, no slipper, hurting toe. Well, what a crazy day.
When my heart had stopped thumping like it was trying to leave my body, I lay down to catch a few winks. I could hear the sounds of people eating. Wonderful smells wafted my way.
By 10 p.m. people had settled down for the night. That’s when my day/night got crazier. The Ticket Checker showed up to check our tickets. I opened my wallet, no ticket. I looked frantically, emptying every single thing from my wallet and my handbag. I remembered keeping it safely. The TC looked exasperated. He told me to look for it and that he would finish checking the others and come back to me. I went crazy, I looked everywhere in my handbag, every nook every cranny. I even went as far as to tear the lining to see if the ticket had miraculously gone in there. No luck.
The TC came back and asked me to pay a fine or get off at the next station. I pleaded with him and showed him my University ID card, my license. He saw them but did not budge. Finally, I paid up. I was so embarrassed as he issued another new ticket. I curled up to sleep and then the sorry tears came. What a perfectly horrible day.
The interviews went well and I landed my first job. I was very busy trying to learn the ropes. The train incident was forgotten after I had narrated it many, many times to my family. Life slowly settled down to a new rhythm.
One Sunday afternoon, I was at a loose end and decided to catch up on my reading. I pulled out a book from my cupboard and as I flipped through the pages to find the page I had last read, a small piece of paper fell from it. It was my train ticket. I remembered now; I was reading the book before I left home and had used the ticket as a book mark.
I smiled at the memory.