That morning the world dragged its heavy frame over the mundane tracks and paused more frequently than usual. The ticket counters had long winding queues. Tauseef was not surprised, but when he reached the platform and saw the impossible crowd waiting for the train he knew something was wrong. People clicked their tongues and impatiently watched the distant tracks. The digital timer showed ten past nine, which meant the train should have arrived ten minutes back.
His thoughts of departing the station hastened when a male voice crackled through the overhead speakers and announced a mishap at one of the stations. The train would be late by another 15 minutes. He knew what this mishap meant. They all did.
It was already 11 when Tauseef reached his office. As he crossed the reception, Snigdha motioned him towards the glass cabin and said, “Jaldi jao!” Go fast. “He’s not in a good mood.”
Tauseef groaned. He adjusted himself and pushed the glass door. Ambarish Maity was arguing with someone on the phone. He signaled him to sit.
“Again?” asked Ambarish da putting the phone down
“Another one, Ambarish da.”
The CEO of Sciscope Equipments Pvt. Ltd. sucked his teeth. “Why can’t you leave early? You know these things happen. Besides, how many times have I told you to get a bike or something.”
Many times, thought Tauseef. “I’ll try.”
“Try harder, Tauseef.”
He came out and heaved a sigh of relief. Snigdha stifled a laugh. Jyotsna was at her desk checking her FB profile on her phone. She looked up and almost immediately went back to the screen.
“What did he say?”
Tauseef switched on his PC. “The usual stuff. Where is Paras?”
“IICB. So, another one?”
Jyotsna frowned. “Why do they have to die during the day, and when everyone is going to office? I mean, why can’t they jump off a building? There are so many new construction sites.”
The platform was packed. Some eagerly waited for the train while others chewed condiments like grazing cows. But no one paid attention to the kid wandering on the tracks, who at times picked up something that caught his eye, amidst the rocks stained with paan or spit or urine.
His brown eyes gleamed in the sun. They swept across the platform in swift motions. The loose shirt flapped in the evening breeze. It was stained with mud and grease. The dirty and oversized brown trousers had been rolled up to the knees. When he saw Tauseef, he paused as if he had caught a glimpse of himself in the glass while walking past a showroom.
“Come up. The train is about to arrive.”
The kid shook his head fervently.
Tauseef checked his watch. There was still time. He got down on the tracks. The rocks crunched under his boots. He looked towards the horizon, on both ends. None of the trains had yet arrived.
“Come, let’s go. The train will arrive any time now.”
The boy stuck out his tongue. He found Tauseef amusing.
Tauseef became impatient. He grabbed the boy’s shirt. “Don’t be so rude. Let’s go.”
The boy squirmed and stealthily escaped his grip. He began running. Tauseef wondered how he could run so quickly with his rubber slippers. Tauseef gave chase. “Hey, stop!” he kept shouting, but the boy giggled as if it were a game. Tauseef hoped someone would look at them and intervene. But none of the passengers glanced in their direction, not even casually. Tauseef called out to a man who was busy crushing tobacco on his left palm with his right thumb. He ignored him.
The speakers jumped to life. The lady’s voice crackled over the platform in three different language – Bangla, Hindi, and English. The train would arrive shortly.
The sun was getting hotter. The kid was standing at a distance from Tauseef, lost in his world. A kid was outrunning him. What a shame! Had he not won the 100m race in school for three years in a row? Tauseef mustered his childhood spirit. He decided to sneak on him. Slowly, he crept up on the boy, careful not to make any sound on the rocks. Before he could make his final move, however, the boy darted, as if on reflex.
Tauseef panicked. He barely had a few minutes. “Why won’t you leave the tracks?”
The kid started dancing and mocking Tauseef. He put his hands behind his head and thrust his pelvis in a derogatory manner, re-creating a common Bollywood dance move.
The announcement crackled like thunder, in Bangla, Hindi, and English. Tauseef felt a fear grip his heart. He knew it was time. The train’s mouth had now become visible around the bend. It was rushing towards the platform like a storm. The horns blared. The tracks trembled under the 1,000-ton metal frame, like a virgin teenage bride on the night of her communion.
Tauseef became desperate. He chased the boy with every ounce of energy, but the wretched urchin outran him. He was heading straight towards the oncoming train. The gap was lessening. “Why are you doing this?” shouted Tauseef twice over the sounds of the blaring horn. On the platform, a hundred bodies pushed back a couple of inches, their heads cocked in the direction of the train, waiting impatiently to fight their way into the already-full compartments and squash under the pressure of the pressing bodies.
None looked at them.
Tauseef gave up. The train jogged in with a loud horn. The crowd had already taken up their position on the platform, ready to jump on the compartments, some even before the train stopped. It was a skill they had mastered over the years to stay ahead in the race. The train did not sound an alarm or a warning for the kid. Tauseef jumped aside and rolled onto the rocks. The boy stood there; his head turned towards Tauseef. The giant metal frame rushed into his tiny body.
Tauseef jerked from his sleep. He had been dreaming.
The sky, now stripped of the evening sun, had turned mahogany. Darkness was approaching fast. It had been a hot and humid day, but nothing unusual for June. Tauseef had experienced worse. After emerging from the underground tunnel in time for the 6:14 train he had immediately cursed under his breath. The crowd was not as overwhelming as the morning rush, but it was still enough to feel dissatisfied. With each passing second, it would swell until the train arrived. Then the damp and reeking bodies would collide and shove each other as they made their way inside. At times, foul words would be used. Sometimes, it would turn into a fight. However, by the time they carried their tattered and weather-beaten bodies back to their families, the arguments and fights would have ceased, and the next morning, life would go back to its usual self.
That is how it went, for days, for months, for years.
Tauseef had spent his whole life near the railway tracks. His house was a stone’s throw from the nearest station. During winter nights, the sounds of the announcement and blowing horn gleefully permeated through the concrete walls and still darkness. His school and college were also near the tracks. During his travels as a salesperson, he would stand at the gate for hours, his earphones plugged in while the wind mercilessly slapped against his fair skin and ruffled his brown hair. Through the rusted window, he witnessed the seamless change in scenes. First, the buildings disappeared and gave way to open fields. Then came the trees. Why did the trees look different in villages? Tauseef would always wonder. Lush, sturdy, and full of life. Then came the people, their language, clothes, and habits. Slowly, the world egressed – fresh and clean – like a snake shedding its old skin.
It was dark now. The lights at the tea stalls sprang to life. The smell of brewing tea and milk filled the air. A man squatted against the wall of the STO office and sold ghoti gorom. By the slender light of a kerosene lamp, he mixed bhujia, diced onions, green chillies, and tiny pieces of hog plum in a steel bowl and packed them into small newspaper pouches. Near one of the red stone seats, another seller squatted selling ice apples.
Tauseef got up and walked towards the edge of the platform. The empty seat was immediately occupied by another man.
As he stared at the dark sky, a distant horn made him jump. He took a few steps back while others moved closer. A pair of glowing eyes appeared around the corner and slowly crept towards the crowd, devouring the tracks along the way.
In the illuminated tracks, he saw a little boy, standing in front of the jogging train. Tauseef could not make out much except for the loose shirt and oversized brown trousers. He was a silhouette but Tauseef could make out his brown eyes turned towards him.
“Someone save him!” He screamed. But the crowd could not hear him over the sound of the horn. Tauseef was numb to say anything more. Trembling, he scrambled back to his old seat. His hands and feet had gone cold and his heart pounded desperately against his ribcage. The tremor rattled his body.
He sat there for a long time. Slowly, the train pulled out of the station and with its departure a calmness descended on the platform. Tauseef picked up his bag and walked back through the tunnel.
The bus came to a halt. The passengers who were already irritated at the traffic were now voicing their opinions about the state of public transport and the current government. The rising temperature and pressure of sweaty bodies pressed against one another worsened it. By the time they reached office, they would have turned into rags. The bus killed the engine. The other cars around them had done the same. One of the passengers inquired with another passenger on the next bus.
“There has been an accident,” he replied dismissively. “It’s a beggar I think, a little boy running on the road, unmindful of the traffic.”
Tauseef heard the conversation and looked at his watch. He got down and walked towards the thick crowd. He could not get a good look, but he caught a glimpse of a bony leg. It was covered with a pair of dirty and oversized brown trousers – stained with mud and grease – and rolled up to the knees.