The old timepiece struck eight right at the moment when Arpita was just about to yank her mouth for a long drawn yawn. She flipped at its sudden commotion and winked her long eye lashes to see the time on the old time machine placed atop Platform No. 3 at the Doon Railway Station. On a public holiday, the place is deserted and the long shadows of the dark night was making a mystical halo in the suspicious nook and cranny of the colonial structures lying beside the metre-gage lines. She was waiting for the Mussoorie Express of 10 which would take her to Delhi in the morning for a very important meeting with a big-shot corporate body. Passing on the time in the meantime was putting a heavy burden on her. She got a free ride at 6 from her guest house and had hence arrived at the station much earlier. She didn’t think of the consequences then, of having to wait for almost four hours in a virtually deserted station, without nothing much to do. Most of the passengers will arrive surely after 9.30 and in this chilly December night, rest assured, the number will be very modest. People prefer to take day buses to Delhi at that time of the year.
Arpita wrapped her shawl tightly once again but the wind was even shaking her bones. She is otherwise a strongly built girl with years of gyming behind her. But the Doon Valley winter can sometimes even shake the Polar Bear, so the saying goes around their colony. Arpita was thinking back, ruminating in the meantime as she was just wondering if she has tightly locked all her belongings back at her room in the Guest House. Of late, ever since the arrival of her new roommate Satarupa, things have suddenly and strangely started going missing. Small small things, but even the smallest toiletries are frightfully expensive nowadays. At first, Arpita thought of misplacing them while at a show. Being a media presenter, her life is an endless stream of hustle and bustle from one place to another. But she soon realised that some of the things were actually left at home. Like her body freshener, exclusively kept for indoor use, which she likes to spray while at home, during her long breaks. She is a bit addicted to fragrances. She generally keeps this bottle outside her personal almirah, the item being one of the least she could bother about. But every time, after coming back from a show, it would feel lighter. She would not have minded but for the missing of other items too while she was either at the shower or at the local bazaar for the daily necessities. For a long time, Arpita was flummoxed about the entire turn of events. But how would an outsider come and take these small things breaching the tight security at the gate? And except her and her new roommate, only the landlord couple – an eighty year old retired Army Major and his equally old wife reside in that well-spread out house of Vasant Vihar situated close to the Military Academy. The household helps are all temporary and the two guards at the gate are with the Major for the last thirty years and extremely reliable. Arpita initially thought that Satarupa would eventually tell her about all those items she has used without ever asking, thinking the entire matter to be trivial. But she seemed totally oblivious of everything. It also looks extremely rude and wrong to ask a two month old room-mate if she has taken any item without her knowledge. Arpita was in a fix.
Whereas, only the old lady and Satarupa stay by the house all day. Satarupa is trying for a job in this state capital. Divorced from her husband a few years back, and leaving her rich landowning Punjabi family at the hills of Lansdowne, she came down here all by herself to do something of her own. She wanted to prove her mettle to her family (and probably also to her ex-husband, Arpita guessed, about whom she still talks a lot) all by her own, and hence rented this room, more to be in the company of somebody than to save on her expenses. She was supposed to read and prepare for the competitive exams all day, but instead Arpita always found her whiling away the precious time singing and listening to Bollywood songs. Somebody probably has convinced her sometime in the past that she has a great voice and she can tread someday in the footsteps of Lata or Asha Tai only if she continues practicing. This is turning to be a real pain for Arpita. For all the things in the world, Arpita can never be rude to anybody and cannot just divulge the hard fact to Satarupa that she has been disillusioned all her time. It is one thing to be singing with friends and another to the public. Arpita herself being a very good crooner, which she has used successfully sometimes in her shows just as an added attraction for the target audience there, could hardly take the bold step of going professional. It needs a real genuine good voice together with years of hard work and practicing and also various yoga postures to improve on her vocal chords. She is happy being an anchor for the time being. While at her guest house, she somehow manages the all-day noise torture in the name of crooning from her roommate.
Looking at Satarupa, Arpita also wonders sometimes if this chubby girl from a well-off family, never prone to struggle or hard work, actually would go on to do something of her own. Somehow, Arpita is suspicious of the fact that Satarupa just wanted an excuse to look for a second husband in a big city. She has never told Arpita squarely ever the reason for the break-down of her first marriage. Arpita is not curious though. But she is quite taken aback by the missing of her things recently just after Satarupa’s arrival. “What could be the reason?” “Is Satarupa a kleptomaniac?” A certain condition, a mania where a person is compelled to steal. “Or is she just plain greedy?” “And if she is a kleptomaniac, why couldn’t her rich family notice it and treated her till date?” Arpita is just unable to solve the puzzle and the matter is slowly taking stress on her now. This was the last thing that she needed, in her daily struggle to strive for a good honest life.
Arpita’s reverie was suddenly broken by the approaching of a footstep. Glancing her head to the left, she saw a slightly built man approaching the same bench where she was sitting. The man probably was also looking for the same corner-most seat in this station, where he could stave off the chilling winter wind flowing inside. But Arpita’s primordial sixth sense of a woman made her a little giddy, noticing the man coming slowly, she wanted to gauge him carefully. If this chap tries anything hanky-panky, Arpita was sure, with her martial arts training, she could outdo him easily. She remained alert.
The man however sat quietly down on her left hand side and started reading a newspaper which he had brought along with him. Time passed away slowly, but still very slowly. The man seem to have got completely consumed in the paper and did not look at Arpita at all. She noticed that he is short and slight, middle aged and must be around anything close to fifty, ordinarily dressed but clean, must be one of those million Indians whose middle class lives do not give them much room for opulence. Arpita suddenly said hello to him instinctively and proceeded towards a general conversation, like about the whereabouts of his destination, if he too is headed for Delhi or some other place before the national capital. “Namaste” was the first word that came out of the man’s mouth. ‘Wow’! Such nice manners!” Arpita felt totally at ease by now. ‘Deviji, I am not going anywhere, I have just come from Moradabad in search of work here’, replied the man. Arpita was taken aback a little bit, “Then, what are you doing here at a Railway Station now with the night getting cold very fast?” She blurted. The man slowly smiled and it seemed to her that she has asked something very amusing. The man had a beautiful smile, totally bereft of the slight tweaking of the mouth that you come across so often nowadays in the big cities in the name of a smile. The man replied that he plans to spend the night in the station in order to save some money. ‘Is he a miser or doesn’t he really have much cash with him?’ Arpita looked nonplussed for the time being. She then let out a sigh and took her mind off to somewhere else, none of her business what the man will do with the night, she thought and looked at the station clock once again. She felt a little impatient now.
After some moments, with the sound of clinking of some metal, Arpita looked back at the man to see that by then he has taken out a tiffin box from his solitary bag. He seems to be preparing for his dinner. Arpita felt the hunger pangs in her stomach just then. She had originally planned to take a meal in the pantry car of the train, but probably the long idle wait without anything has made her hungry. She was thinking of getting up and going to some other bench, when the man offered her his food. “Deviji, I forgot to mention my name and you did not ask too, my name is Abhinav, I have five paranthas with me and I am requesting you to take atleast two out of them. Since I would be taking it from the same tiffin carrier, rest assured the food is safe and sound”. The man politely said this. Arpita thought that she might have looked really weary from the long wait and the man also has to be extremely polite to notice it. However, Arpita accepted the offer because one thing was that though she was really hungry by then, she could not also refuse the man. There was something in his voice, a certain poignancy and assurance maybe, or the very calm and politeness that he exuded while sitting there in that dark and chilly night.
For making small talks and also to make the going more comfortable, Arpita asked him about his home and family, thinking that it’s a courtesy to ask about the well-being of one’s family in India, while taking small pieces of parantha from his box. But the man suddenly went blank and his eyes seemed dreary, for the first time he was not reflecting the easy charm that seems to have come to a person from years of wisdom. Arpita felt uncomfortable thinking that she might have unknowingly touched some painful chord of his heart. She vowed in her mind not to carry on the inquisitiveness again and to quickly divert the discussion to some mundane stuff. But the man started replying just then “Deviji, I have no home and neither a family. My entire family, wife, my only small child, my home all perished in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Nobody survived. Nothing survived. I don’t know how I have survived, probably I have done something really bad in my previous life to have continued like this ever since. I have been roaming since then from place to place, wherever I could get some work. My expertise is in textile crafting and the search of this trade has taken me to various places where I have stayed in guest houses, as a paying guest or in dharmasalas or anywhere I have found a little accommodation. Right now I am a bit low on money as I have been laid-off since last month. Somebody told me that there is good work opportunities in the Doon Valley and hence I have arrived here.”
Just then the whistle blew and the long dark winding juggernaut of the Mussoorie Express was seen entering the platform. The suddenness of the appearance made Arpita a little bit restless. She quickly got up wiping her fingers on her handkerchief, trying to erase the grease and the oil of the North Indian paranthas from her hands. She realised just then that she had to look up for her reserved seat on the railway charts to confirm her booking and that won’t leave her with much time. She quickly bade goodbye to Abhinav and went towards the train.
Just as the compartments took speed, and Arpita being nicely settled by then on a window seat, she suddenly remembered Abhinav and tried to look out of the window shutter to see if she could still find him seating by that bench on the platform and if possible wave a last goodbye. But by then, the train has taken speed and the outside world of the old buildings and the platforms were all lost to the unbearable lightness of this universe. ‘Oh God’, Arpita suddenly felt a hollowness inside her, a certain unspeakable pain. She just remembered that she has not even told her name to that platform man Abhinav. Here is a man, a man who has lost everything in his life, whose entire existence has been a floating void till then, a man who doesn’t know where will he go next, where will he find his next meal. He said he was low on money, and hence even on a cruel December night, he was ready to spend the time in a railway station. Inspite of all that, whatever little food he had, he shared it with Arpita and Arpita on her part did not even remember to share her very name with him! Arpita was flabbergasted for the moment, there in her guest house, she was putting up probably with a spoilt child, a kleptomaniac or a thief and still not taking any action against her roommate, just because she represents the civilized face of a society. And here, she probably met the only genuine human being in her entire life till then and did not have the minimum courtesy to get herself introduced to him and give him her address for the future! As the night grew darker outside, Arpita sat through it without even putting her eyes together once. She was shivering but she was not sure if it was from the cold anymore.