Travelling in a local train, isn’t the best experience, I assure you, especially in a country like India where you are sandwiched between smelling men and loud women. The compartments aren’t the best looking things and with rotting peels of fruits and stale peanuts and polythene bags that swirl to the rhythm of the slightest wind, it isn’t hygienic as well. But apart from that, the thing that separates local trains from the elite express trains and their air-conditioned compartments is the type of people you meet. While express trains have more reserved men and silent ladies with their excessively disciplined kids, local trains portray a far far different picture. The women there are loud and boisterous and so friendly that you start feeling awkward. The men sit in groups and talk about things other than insurances and sports. And the little children with their pale clothes and unruly hair, stare at your food.
I was slightly apprehensive while boarding the local train from my village. I could have travelled to the nearby main station by bus and caught an express train, but I really didn’t have a great experience with buses, so I boarded the last bogie and managed to find a seat by the window. It felt too out-of-place – perhaps because I hadn’t made my hair and people were staring at me shamelessly, or may be, there was something seriously wrong with me. Either way, I had no choice but to spend two hours there because local trains had no toilets and no mirrors! Some compartments didn’t even have those red chains that were required to stop the train. Beat that!
An old hawker pushed a handful of newspapers towards me and asked if I had read the latest news. Though I wanted to buy the newspaper, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to give it a proper read because the evening winds were hitting at me directly and fifteen loose sheets of paper couldn’t make the situation any better. So, slightly shaking my head, I turned away. Beside me, a group of ladies in their heavily brocaded sarees laughed and clapped their hands to something. Squeezed between them were their kids who chewed at the ends of a water pouch. Their eyes wandered around restlessly. Somewhere, a mother slapped her wailing baby and was met with even louder bawling. Men sipped their hot evening masala (spicy) chais (tea), standing near the door and watching the sun dip into the horizon. Streaks of red and orange and purple merged into iridescence as the day slowly faded into nothingness.
Above me, the light bulb flickered lazily, casting silhouettes on the dirty floor below me. I heard a slight buzz and before I had time to imprint the noise in my head, a black beetle flew over my shoulder and landed on the broken side table in front of me. Its tiny legs scratched against the metal surface and the next moment, it was in the air again. It’s abdomen rose and fell and never had I marked an insect so closely. But then, my eyes travelled down to see the little boy who held the little beetle in its hand, shaking the poor creature madly like a dysfunctional toy airplane. Against the constant noise and buzzing busyness, I looked at the boy who stood in front of me in blissful oblivion. The noise didn’t affect him. The wet shirt that hung from one of the upper berths hit him on his bare back constantly, but all his attention was focused on the tiny little creature that had already started crawling on his hand.
From the little light that came from outside, coupled with that from the adjoining compartments, I took time to study the little boy carefully. With a little tuft of hair on his forehead and white little patches on his face, he looked like he was barely ten. His lips were partly open revealing his broken teeth. His eyes held stories. They glimmered with stories of hope. He mesmerized me in an unpredictable way. His other hand swiftly moved up and trapped the insect in its fist. Then, in a blink, he threw it out of the moving train. “Whoosh!” he exclaimed and jumped. The pair of loose pants that he wore, started slipping down slowly and without bothering to look that way, he pulled it up, his eyes trained on the scenes rapidly zoning into the obliterating darkness. It was then, the tiny blue light above my head rose to life and cast an eerie glow everywhere.
The boy turned and met my gaze, before looking down at the packet of chips I held in my hands. Quietly, he lifted his hand and pointed at it.
“You want this?” I asked and shook the packet to hear the rustle of the salted potato chips.
He nodded his head and a slight smile appeared on his face.
“Where are your parents?” I strained my neck to look at the adjoining compartments to see where his parents were. People were very apprehensive when it came to taking things from strangers. We were always taught to stay away from strangers and never take anything they offer.
So, while a part of me wanted to give him the packet, I was afraid that his parents might mistake my intentions. The man who sat behind me turned around.
“What happened, beti (daughter)?” he asked.
“Chacha (Uncle),” I said. “Where are his parents?”
The man seemed like a regular passenger for recognition lit up his eyes when he saw the boy. Which was good, I had thought. Before I knew what was happening, he stood up and charged towards the boy.
“You came here, again?” he shouted, drawing the attention of the other passengers.
The boy’s lips quivered in fear, yet he didn’t cry.
“Go away!” the man lifted his hand. The boy quickly moved away.
“Can’t you hear?” someone else joined the man. “Go away!”
I was getting confused. I had no idea what was happening.
“Stupid boy!” someone retorted.
Surprisingly, the remarks didn’t seem to hurt him. Ignorance plastered itself on his face. He turned to meet my gaze and in a flash, he ripped away the packet from my hand. And then, he made a wild dash.
“What a disgusting child!”
“Throw him out of the train!”
Hurtful words were hurled from everywhere and a man even followed him. After the commotion had cooled down a bit and people had taken their seats, I turned to the same man again and asked, “Who was he?”
“He is always there on the train, stealing food from people,” the man explained. “His parents probably left him on the train and never came back to fetch him. A naughty boy like him deserves the same fate!”
His words made me cringe because they were filled with so much anger and hatred. How could someone hate a child?
“He can’t speak too! Yet, see the guts the child has!” he added.
Shrugging, I turned back and looked out of the window. The story of the child affected me a lot. It was strange how people managed to smile despite their past.
It was surprising how the boy continued to survive when he knew no language except that of smiles and fear and pain. Dreams rose and fell in his eyes, with each passing day. The train was his home and he made new memories each day. He survived and fought. Life wasn’t so easy, he taught me that. Amidst the chaos, I had found a story so painfully beautiful that it haunts me every time I board a train. Each time, my eyes look around, hoping to find the same boy or probably another child like him. Yet, I see no one. His face has blurred from my memory.
But I know, his story will continue to live with me forever.