Journey To The Unknown – A Short Story


To an onlooker, the lanky boy and the bearded old man walking towards the train station was not an unusual sight; but in the stoop of the boy’s shoulders and the glimmer of anxiety in the old man’s eyes there were so many stories, deeply burrowed, not ready to be talked about yet.  The lanky boy’s life had turned upside down in the last one month.  The old man had been his only support.

The pair walked towards the platform, where the metal serpent stood, waiting to take this boy to a new life. The boy avoided the old man’s gaze, by looking for his compartment, and scanned the names on the list to check out his name and berth.  There it was Arun.S, age 17 years, Seat 27.

There was nothing more to be said really.  The old man gently scratched his beard, at a loss for words.  Both of them looked relieved when the metallic voice came over the PA system, announcing the imminent departure of the Kovai Express to Chennai.  The old man hugged the boy clumsily and the boy’s throat suddenly caught.  If one watched him closely, one could see fear and uncertainty writ large on his face.  But nobody had time for a lanky 17 year old.  He was just one amongst hundreds on the platform, temporary residents of the railway station, inhabiting it for a short while and moving on to other towns and cities.

With five minutes left to go, Arun boarded the train and settled down in his seat and sat by the window.  The old man peered into the train through Arun’s window.

“Take care of the suitcase and call me if you need anything,” he said to Arun.

Arun nodded and mumbled, “Thank you for everything”.

Before either of them could say anything more, the train lurched and gently glided out of the station.  The old man stood stroking his beard, wondering if he had done the right thing by the boy.

Arun craned his neck to catch his last glimpse of the only person whom he could remotely call family. He involuntarily let out a sigh.

There was a young couple, an old woman, who was already asleep, and two children & their parents sharing the coupe with him.  By 11 pm, all of them had drifted off to sleep and the lights had been switched off.

Arun lay down on his berth, but sleep eluded him.  His eyes gazed at the ceiling fans that were spinning with a heavy whooshing sound.  What would become of him, he wondered.  His anxiety was palpable as he tossed and turned.  Suddenly his body would go rigid, as he resolved with every ounce of his willpower that he would make it, come what may.  Then his body would suddenly go lax, as the last of his energy drained away from him, as his mind and resolve weakened again.

His mind spun back to that day, when his life had turned upside down.  He relived it….

He walked back from school. It was another cold monsoon day in the small town of Ooty. The clouds hung dark and heavy and he knew that the skies were about to open up any moment now. As he reached the small hillock atop which was his house, the rain drops started falling in rapid succession.  Holding up his school bag above his head, he ran up the slope, his shoes sliding on the brown mud and the flowing water.

When he finally made it home, he was surprised to see that the door was locked.  He quickly let himself in with his key and changed into dry clothes.  He decided to make a cup of tea for himself and his mother, who had probably been delayed by customers or stuck in the rain.

He went to wash himself in the basin that was in the backyard of the house, where there was no roof but a corrugated metal sheet to protect them from the rain, when they had to use their bathrooms or wash area.  Here, he could hear the metal thump-thump of the rain drops as they fell on the sheet and rolled down to join other water drops down the hillock.

Just as he placed the saucepan on the hob to boil the water for tea, there was a loud banging on the door.

“Must be mom,” he said to himself and went to open the door.  Mr.Raman, his neighbour stood at the door with a huge black umbrella that blocked out all the light.

“Yes, Uncle Raman,” he said.

“Arun, I have some terrible news for you.  Your mom has been in an accident on Commercial Street and was rushed to hospital, but the doctors could not save her.  I am sorry, so sorry,” said Mr.Raman.

He hugged the boy and patted him and said, “Come with me, we have to go to the hospital.”

Arun stood dazed, the sounds of the raindrops seemed to magnify and overtake his brain. He could not think, nor understand or process what he had just heard.

He had only had his mother, nobody else, save for a few friends like the old man. He spent a restless night, waiting for the train to draw into the station and to get started with his new life.  By 6 a.m., he was washed and ready, his suitcase ready to be taken out.

He checked the slip of paper with the address written on it, he knew it by heart by now, but the act of reading it again, gave him something to do.

L.M.K Boys Orphanage

24th Main, 15th Cross, Saidapet

Chennai

He smiled wryly to himself. This moment was where life had brought him to;  17  long years compacted into his physical frame, mental agony and this one suitcase.

An Unforgettable Train Journey


We reach the station in typical Bollywood climax style…with barely 10 minutes to spare. We’ve been looking forward to this 36 hour train journey, on the Rajdhani Express, from Delhi to Bangalore for a long long time. Water bottles, Tinkles & some magazines, and we are good to go. My husband and I have hyped it up a bit for the kids, loaded as we are with memories of our long train journeys as children.
The typical last minute chaos of the station fades away as the train slowly trundles out…..bringing into focus another ecosystem, the inside of the train.
I watch with interest, as people settle down. Strangely, most people are intently focused on their smart phones. Nobody talks or acknowledges their neighbours. So very different from when I was a child. Nobody has the ubiquitous junk food plastic bag from home filled with ‘thattais’, ‘murukkus’ and chips. I smile at this change…as I remember boarding the train and a mere five minutes into the journey the crunchy munching would start. People would talk loudly, share their food and a sense of camaraderie would prevail.
I look up to see what my children are making of this journey. They are very excited…each of them has made the berth their home and invite the other to visit. They do not seem to miss their electronic gadgets at all. They play noughts and crosses & ice cream soda on & off. They relish every meal…and wait for the next one. They like the excitement of cooping themselves inside their berths with the curtains and peeping out now & then to talk to us.
I look out of the window, small towns and villages breeze past. Dots on a map, now here, now gone…the enormity & beauty of our country hit me, as the long serpent chugs away relentlessly. Flashes of people, animals, level crossings …..life goes on outside at a steady pace. From within, they seem to happen in fast forward. I dream about everything and nothing, feeling philosophical and sleepy at the same time. I enjoy every moment, more so, because the children are having a great time.
I yearn for tamarind rice and idlis soaked in milagai podi, curd rice & pickle, another flash from memory.
Before we know it we are in Bengaluru, back to the real world!