Despite being enervated by the scorching heat of June and old age, Govind Mishra managed to board the train on time. Upon entering the compartment he intently gazed at his ticket, straining his bespectacled eyes to ensure his seat number. A young gentleman noticed him wobbling under the weight of his humungous luggage and decided to assist him.
“May I help you uncle?” he implored taking a look at the emaciated body of Govind.
“It will be great favour.” Govind replied, readily giving his ticket to the helper.
He glanced at Govind’s ticket and said “Your seat number is 12.”
A winsome smile escaped Govind’s lips as he expressed his gratitude to the boy.
“My seat is just adjacent to yours.” The young man said adjusting Govind’s luggage on the shelf with great difficulty.
The tea sellers and bread pakora hawkers yelled in the coach hoping to sell all the items they had, before the train began to crawl. The moment Govind and the young man settled in their respective seats, the train whistled announcing its departure from the Lucknow railway station. After half an hour the boy extracted a tablet PC from his bag and got engrossed in reading R K Narayan’s Malgudi Days. Govind obliquely scanned the subject matter on the device and involuntarily responded, “In our times we had no option but to visit libraries if we wanted to read. Technology has advanced exceptionally.” The young man courteously handed the gadget to Govind and began to elucidate its features and functions to him. The myriads of literary documents accumulated in the little electronic equipment astonished the elderly man.
“Are you a writer, son?” he naively questioned the boy as he handed the tablet back to him.
The boy grinned, offered peanuts to Govind, and said, “No uncle. I am an English honors student in Delhi University. My name is Abdullah Qureshi but you may call me Abdul.”
Abdul was the only child, or to be precise, the only hope of his parents who were middle class artisans in Lucknow. On realizing that both of them originally belonged to Lucknow, a conversation about the rich cultural legacy of the city and affluent lifestyle of the people ensued between the two. A few hours elapsed in discussing the magnificence of Asfi mosque, intricacy of chikan embroidery, exquisite gemstones stores in Hazrat Gunj market and the exotic biryani and kebabs served in Aminabad.
“Why are you going to Delhi uncle?” Abdul asked Govind without a shred of diffidence.
Since both of them had become reasonably acquainted with each other now, Govind confided in him the long chronicle of his precarious health and that he was going to his son and daughter-in-law in Delhi. His newly-wed son had to leave Lucknow with his wife after he got appointed as a manager in a private firm in Delhi. Govind had coped with his isolation and erratic health for two years but now he was too despondent to carry on, all alone. Rohit and his wife had persistently urged Govind to come to Delhi many times and this trip was when he had finally decided to visit them.
“Attention please, there will be a short deferment to this service. The inconvenience is deeply regretted.”
Govind and Abdul were busy exchanging pleasantries when the train came to an abrupt halt.
“I hope it’s just a signaling fault and not a technical malfunction for Allah’s sake,” said Abdul impatiently repositioning himself in his seat.
The passengers eagerly waited for the journey to resume but the recorded voice continued to offer a mechanical apology for the delay after every ten minutes. After sometime the travelers started grumbling audibly, the babies gave out ear-shattering cries and a complete mayhem broke out, but the train like an incapacitated patient did not budge.
“What’s the matter?” Govind asked a fellow passenger who had just ended a call with his relative in the other compartment of the same train.
“Some communal conflict over beef in Aligarh.” The man answered incoherently.
The train must have stopped a few kilometers before Aligarh to reassure the security of the passengers, thought Govind. Abdul instantaneously checked the news updates on his phone and informed Govind that a Muslim named Iqbal Hussain was lynched by a Hindu mob for allegedly consuming beef and one hooligan among them even thrashed his wife and son.
Abdul stared at Govind in incredulity and gasped for words. “It’s such a shame that a man was killed for his choice of food. Cow slaughter may be a sensitive issue for the Hindus but it doesn’t empower them to kill a person.” He shrugged his shoulders in repugnance.
Govind grasped Abdul’s hand and tried to explain to him to the best of his ability, “Son, the Hindus are culturally conditioned to revere cow like a mother and hence they perceive cow slaughter as violence perpetrated on their mother’s body.”
Though Abdul nodded his head yet his abhorrence was indisputable.
Govind continued, “Neither the Hindus nor the Muslims are to be held accountable for such reprehensible incidents but the individuals who politicize food, culture, religion and everything else for their benefit.”
Govind’s philosophy annoyed Abdul, and in a fit of rage he said “Muslims have always been targeted by the Hindus.”
Govind observed him incredulously and was appalled to see the jovial young boy talk in terms of Hindu-Muslim.
“I beg to differ. Both the communities have a lot of mutual respect for each other.” Govind tried to placate Abdul.
“Sure and what happened in Aligarh is one classic case of mutual respect.” The sarcasm in Abdul’s words did not go unnoticed by Govind.
“Why can’t both the communities mind their own business and be strictly confined to their circles only?” Abdul scowled.
Govind laughed at his childish suggestion and replied, “That’s what politics aims at, Divide and rule.”
Govind told Abdul that he had lived in Lucknow for thirty years and had known many benign people, most of them being Muslims. He also recounted how they had always given a helping hand to each other in the moment of crisis, since humanity prevails over blind allegiance to one’s creed and caste.
“Well all that is theoretical stuff fit for preaching,” Abdul said, evading eye contact with Govind.
Govind sensed the boy’s resentment and tried to change the topic of discussion to assuage him.
Abdul who was too exasperated to talk said, disconsolately, “Uncle I am feeling tired. Would you mind if I sleep for a while?”
“I would not mind at all my boy.” Govind flashed an agreeable smile at Abdul.
The journey recommenced after a wearisome break of two hours, giving the passengers a sigh of relief. While Abdul pretended to sleep, Govind’s phone vibrated. It was a call from his son.
Govind clutched the phone with his shriveled hands and greeted his son in the most pleasing temper, “Hello Rohit. How are you?”
“Dad where have you reached?” A tremulous voice answered back.
“I will reach Delhi in a couple of hours but why are you so anxious?” said the concerned father.
Govind’s son told him that the murder in Aligarh had led to an outrageous uproar of the Muslims in Delhi who were pelting stones, blocking highways, damaging public property and bellowing slogans on the street to make their indignation felt.
“Are you and Madhu alright?” Govind asked nervously.
“Dad, we are pathetically stuck in this turmoil on our way back home. Please wait at the Delhi railway station till the situation is pacified.” Rohit’s briefing startled Govind.
“Are you safe son…?” Govind had barely finished the question when the call got disconnected. He frantically checked his phone’s signal and repeated the words “Hello Rohit” several times, but nobody answered back. Govind immediately called his son but his calls went unanswered.
Only one station ahead of Delhi, the next stop was Ghaziabad. A number of ominous thoughts plagued Govind’s mind as he contemplated the plausible reasons behind the aborted call. He desperately struggled to dispel his fear about something unfortunate having happened to his son and daughter-in-law but it made him more miserable. Profuse sweat broke on Govind’s face and he began to rub his chest vigorously. In no time, he started convulsing. The co-passengers flocked around his seat inquiring about his wellbeing. Listening to the commotion, Abdul raised his head in alarm and saw Govind in a state of discomposure. The train had already slowed down as it was nearing the Ghaziabad station.
“What happened uncle?” panic-stricken, Abdul questioned the hoary man. Govind muttered something totally incomprehensible to Abdul.
“Probably it’s a heart attack.” The passengers whispered and insensitively exacerbated the situation, not willing to do anything more about it.
Without further ado, Abdul hurriedly unbuttoned Govind’s collar and began to gather his belongings. As soon as the train stopped at the Ghaziabad station, Abdul hastily rushed to the door and threw his and Govind’s baggage on the platform. He scurried back to Govind and helped him stand with his support. Abdul’s action astounded the passengers as he made his way through the aisle of the coach with Govind. After deboarding the train, he cautiously made Govind sit on an iron bench stationed on the platform and searched for the nearest hospital on his phone.
“Hello Yashoda hospital,” a glum female voice reacted to Abdul’s call.
“Please send the ambulance to Ghaziabad railway station. There’s an emergency,” said Abdul, wiping the perspiration off his forehead.
“It will take fifteen minutes, sir,” replied the receptionist.
Abdul turned to Govind and encouraged him, “You will be alright uncle. Don’t worry,” even as he tried to hide his own trepidation.
After half an hour, the hospital staff arrived with a stretcher on the platform and laid Govind on it. Abdul collected the luggage and silently followed the team. Govind was admitted in the emergency ward while Abdul uneasily waited outside. The doctor came out of the chamber instructing the nurse about the amount of anesthesia to be induced in the patient’s body. Abdul mustered all the courage that was left with him and went to the doctor.
“How is he doctor?” he asked.
“It was a case of mild cardiac arrest but he is stable now. We will keep him under observation for two days. Please fulfill the formalities.” The doctor answered with a professional detachment and left to examine other patients.
Tiny drops of moisture sparkled in Abdul’s eyes but he was unable to configure why. Before he could grapple with his intense emotions, Govind’s phone began to vibrate. Abdul took out the phone from his left pocket. It was Rohit’s call to inform Govind that the agitation had been controlled by the police. Abdul told him about the entire incident and gave him the address of the hospital, simultaneously assuring him that he would guard his father till he reached the spot.
Abdul quietly sat in a corner and reflected on the conversation that had occurred between him and Govind in the train. He thought Govind was right in asserting that the communal situation was not as wretched as we thought. ‘Also communal tension is simply an opportunity for astute politicians to bolster their vote banks and thus they fuel it for their selfish purpose. The imprudent people do not realize how they are manipulated in the name of religion.’ With this single experience he had understood the essence of human life which countless books and articles had failed to teach him. He felt apologetic for the unsympathetic replies he had given to the poor man but at the same time when he ruminated on what he had learnt, a deep sense of satisfaction overwhelmed him. He smiled at how the Hindu-Muslim binary between him and Govind dissolved in the stream of humanity in the hour of need.
It was midnight when a slender-framed man in his thirties entered the waiting area with a lady. From their bewildered temper and distraught countenance, Abdul estimated that they could be Govind’s son and daughter-in-law.
He approached them and asked the man “Are you Rohit?”
“Yes. You must be Abdul.” He replied.
Abdul handed over Govind’s luggage and phone to Rohit and directed him towards Govind’s ward. As Abdul collected his possessions and prepared to leave, Rohit embraced him and thanked him for his generosity.
Govind regained consciousness by the morning and was euphoric to see his son and daughter-in-law in front of him. Rohit disclosed the series of events that had brought them there and also Abdul’s benevolence that had saved his life. Govind felt content in his heart that destiny adequately conveyed to Abdul what his words could not. The sequence of his thoughts was interrupted as his daughter-in-law gave him a glass of fruit juice and newspaper. With a face beaming with complacency, Govind opened the newspaper to read the headlines. The top news was ‘Communal savagery unleashes in Aligarh and Delhi: No space for humanity.’
Govind smirked and murmured to himself, “All what this country needs is more people like Abdul.”
The journey had truly left an everlasting impression on both Govind and Abdul.
Four prosperous years have passed since this incident. Currently Govind lives with his son and daughter-in-law in Delhi. Rohit and Madhu have a two years old son now whom the family has affectionately named Abdul.