"How they scurry like frightened mice with their sorry looking bags and ragged young ones in tow, fearing the train will go away without them. Their only aim in life now being to jump into their dingy compartments and clamber onto their berths counting their luggage and children to make sure they are not left behind as this tidal wave sweeps them off their feet.” Manavendra Singh thought as he leaned out of the door while the Nizamuddin Express approached Mathura station. It would stop here for five minutes and at this late hour there wouldn’t be any reserved passengers. Enough time for him to put down these thoughts into the latest letter to Maya.
Manav had got into the habit of writing one letter to Maya on every trip he undertook. As a senior travelling ticket examiner (TTE) on the northern railway he was virtually on the move all the time, for thirty years now. And the letters never stopped. Starting as the hushed whispers of a newly married man, they had slowly matured into the ambitious yearnings of a senior government employee and now mellowed into the gushing nostalgia of someone easing into retirement.
No one boarded the two tier AC compartment of which he was in charge. He was thankful for that. He had forgotten his reading glasses on this trip and it was a struggle reading the chart in the dim light of the aisle. This was his last journey before retirement. A farewell gathering this weekend and after that he would be a free man. No more weary trips, no more red signals as his train nears its destination, He would settle into predictable relaxation with Maya.
Manav lay down on his berth and thought about the letters he’d written over the years. They had initially been about his experiences, which he shared excitedly with Maya. With his lucid narration he tried to make her feel as if she was with him, by his side. Later, he turned more practical, talking about the significance of places he passed through and people he met. Of late, he tended to muse wistfully on some aspect of life or the other. In the early days, he was on the Rajasthan sector frequented by honeymooners and foreign tourists. There had been times when he had entered their cozy, curtained spaces, coughing politely as he stepped in. He liked writing to Maya about these little encounters. His descriptions of these events bordered on the lurid. He liked thinking about how she would have felt reading it. He could imagine her blushing with secretly joyous embarrassment. Poor thing, she was, after all a naïve village girl.
But these occasions were rare, as his normal duties confined him to the sleeper class compartments. He didn’t mind it. There was a camaraderie among ordinary people which was missing in the stiff, ego-filled upper classes. He had joined in with large families as they tucked into their home-cooked meals carried in hefty steel tiffin carriers. The smells that wafted through the enclosed space reminding them of home as they ate animatedly. Manav missed home food. He liked to write to Maya about it hoping she would feel guilty reading it.
More than being deprived of home food, it was the increasing difficulty of smoking on the train and platform that irked Manav. He had been a regular smoker in his college days but slowly, over the years, with every puff he would be accosted by a sign warning him that he was doing something unlawful. Now, suddenly, he felt like a smoke – anyway it didn’t matter – this was his last trip. He opened his silver cigarette case. It had been a gift from an elderly foreign tourist years ago in gratitude for being allotted a berth. Manav didn’t like to think of it as a bribe and though he did write to Maya about it, he did not have the heart to tell her how he had narrowly escaped from the old man who had mistaken his helpfulness for physical attraction. He had occasionally wondered what would have happened if he had accepted his advances. Now he opened the door, leaned out and drew on the cigarette. The smoke dispersed in a gust of cool wind. The fragrant breeze of the countryside, blew away the miasma of human bodies seething in the airtight compartment, which had seeped into his very being.
Manav shut the door and went back to his berth. His random thoughts rode on the sibilant snore of a passenger emanating from the darkness. “It is such a short journey, make the most of it” He remembered the words that a famous author had written when Manav had asked him for his autograph. The author had signed the book quite willingly and spent the rest of the journey sharing Manav’s bottle of rum. His bonhomie made Manav suspect that he was secretly relieved that at least one person on the train had recognized him. “This man who sits in his room all alone and spins magical words from the secret recesses of his mind is sitting here cross legged with his hand on my shoulder drinking rum from a paper cup cracking non-veg jokes. How do such wondrous thoughts arise from someone as ordinary as everyone else?” he had ruminated in his letter to Maya. He went on to read all the books written by the author subsequently, slightly disappointed that nowhere had the author written anything inspired by his chance meeting with a nondescript TTE. A few months later, he read in the newspapers about the author’s death. Apparently he knew he was dying when he had made the train trip. “It is such a short journey, make the most of it” the dying whisper of one perishable soul to another.
Though he liked to have a drink himself, Manav dreaded having to deal with drunks on the train. Thankfully he didn’t have to tackle too many in his time. He could never forget an encounter with a mousy-looking, middle aged man during in his early days in the 1970s. He had tried to jump off the train but only succeeded in falling flat in the aisle soaked in his own vomit. Manav had got him off the train at the next station and out of human consideration refrained from reporting him to the railway police. The man had left behind a bag under the seat. Not knowing what to do with it, Manav had opened it to see if it contained anything valuable. He found only revolutionary literature inside and was shocked when he recognized the picture of the person on the back cover. It was the same man but here he was young with fiery whiskers and beard. “The Revolution is dead. Long live the Revolution!” wrote Manav in his letter to Maya.” The same creative fire that produces outpourings of magical thoughts in one mind incubates violent revolt in another. The same drink that generates bonhomie and friendliness in one, aggravates misery and loneliness in another….”
These days however, it was not possible to conceal one’s identity while on a train what with the need to produce your identity card for bookings. Manav remembered meeting a graceful young lady travelling alone and being surprised to see from her identity card that she was beyond forty. He had turned the card over to see if it had her telephone number. When she got off the train, his gaze had followed her wistfully. He had selectively forgotten to write about this encounter to Maya. We are so habituated to classify people by their looks, their names and the neighbourhood they live in. There are those, especially in the AC class, who take offence when asked for identification papers, as if their names, their faces, are proof of their bona fides. Manav had developed these filing cabinets in his mind, every face, every name got boxed into one of them. Every identity reminded him of something else. His life on the train was a flowing river of continuous association with his ever-alive past. A procession of names and identities, meaning precious little in their own right but all important in his job. In one of his letters to Maya he had recounted the words of a fakir who, when asked for his identity papers had whispered with a smile, “My whole life has been a search to know who I am. If you can find out, do let me know!”
The train came to a halt with a sudden lurch. Had someone pulled the chain, wondered Manav. There was deathly silence now in the compartment, even the snorer had slipped into deep slumber. Manav could faintly hear a muffled sob from somewhere inside the bogey. It sounded like an elderly woman. She was on an upper berth and clutched in her arms he could vaguely see, wrapped in a red cloth, what looked like an earthen pot; the one used for carrying ashes from the crematorium. On the berth below, someone who looked like he could be her husband lay spread eagled oblivious to the world. Manav wondered whose ashes it was. He knew without knowing that it was that of their son or daughter. And the old man had taken a few sleeping pills or drinks to slip into nothingness while his wife confronted reality wide awake. He wouldn’t write about this to Maya – it would only make her sad. Anyway he was going to be home always from now on, so was there really any point in writing?
Manav looked at the glowing hands of his watch in the darkness. Another three hours and he would be in Nizamuddin by the break of dawn. The train started again, as suddenly as it had stopped. He laid his head on the pillow and listened to the quiet sobs of the old lady punctuated by the renewed rasping of the invisible snorer. Before he knew it he was asleep.
He woke up as the train pulled into the terminus. Passengers were already crowding the corridor as if anxious that the train would leave before they alighted even though it was the last station. He hurriedly folded the letter, put it into an envelope, wrote Maya’s name and address on it and kept it in his front pocket ready to be posted. Usually he posted the letter at a station during his trip. But this was his last letter and he felt it was important to wait till the end of the trip to post it. He stepped on to the dimly-lit platform once all the passengers had alighted. Posters of the latest government campaign on cleanliness stared back at him from pan-spattered walls. It was too early to report to the duty office, he could do that later. He walked wearily to his quarters nearby. He dropped the letter into the post box outside the Railway sorting office.
There would be no more departures and arrivals anymore. No more itinerant letters from faraway places. He had to remember to take his jacket to the dry cleaners one last time, wash away forever the familiar smells of his everyday life. He climbed up the stairs of the quarters. When he was younger climbing up three floors was something he took in his stride. Not anymore. He needed to pause after every floor. Finally, getting to his flat he fumbled in his pocket for the key. Opening the door, he walked into the darkness. On the floor, where the postman had slipped it under the door, he found a letter. Without opening it, he put it on the top of a pile of unopened letters. There was only one more letter to come, he thought, the last one. It had only to make such a short journey. He looked through the window at the post office and the red post box down below. Those who send emails wouldn’t understand this, he mused. It takes only a minute for an email to reach you from the other corner of the world. This letter would take a day or even more to be slipped under the door. He looked at the picture of the young woman on the wall. “And that will be my last letter to you, Maya,” he whispered and switched off the light.
Over the years, the milkman and newspaper boy had known that they need not ring the doorbell, a note tucked in the grills would tell them if the wares were to be left outside or not. The only one to ring the doorbell was the postman the next day. Seeing the bottle of milk and newspaper still at the door, he knew he shouldn’t expect an answer. He slipped the letter under the door and trotted away.