The alarm rang earlier than usual that morning. There was a train to catch.
He boarded the train and took his place in the empty compartment. He was always early. He sat himself down at the window seat and opened up the day’s newspaper. A young man, dressed in a crisply ironed white shirt arrived soon after. Babu had noticed him on the platform. His stark white shirt standing out like a sore thumb against the dull, dusty, paan-stained train station. He sat down beside him, pulled out a folder and looked through it frantically. It was stuffed with documents, the ends of the folder bulging out uncomfortably, like a blouse that’s too tight. He pulled out a bunch of papers and put it on his lap, letting the folder breathe easier as he returned it to his briefcase. He checked his watch several times, shaking his right leg nervously as he flipped through the papers.
Babu shifted his attention to the shuffling footsteps nearby. A young man and his wife walked in, their eyes meeting Babu’s momentarily. “This one”, he said to her, putting their bags under the seat. “I’ll just be back”.
She sat by the edge of the seat, keeping her eyes on the ground, her maroon wedding bangles clinking as she pulled the pallu of her saree over her head. Babu noticed little tears by the side of her eyes as she rested her head against the window. She’s leaving home for a strange city with a man she hardly knows, Babu thought to himself, wondering how surreal it all must be for her. Can’t be older than 20, he thought, lowering his newspaper to get a closer look. She was beautiful. Her delicate hands marked with the pale orange of fading henna, her large eyes drawn perfectly with kohl, her lips full, and… The wind blew against her face, letting the bright vermillion in her middle parting peek out from under the pallu. Babus eyes guiltily retreated back to his newspaper.
Her husband retuned soon after with 2 samosas. “Eat something”, he said expressionlessly, handing them to her. He sat down beside her, letting his eyes rest on the young man in the white shirt. “Preparing for an interview?” he asked him. The young man looked up from his papers for the first time since he boarded. “Yes” he said, “this is my dream job”. The young husband’s eyes widened. He leaned forward, “How did you find out about this?”; “Newspaper” the other man replied impatiently, his eyes returning to his papers.
He sank back into his seat and reached for his wife’s hand, “Did you hear that?” he asked her “Mumbai is nothing like here. It’s a very big city. Lots of jobs there”. Babu watched as the young man reached for his samosa, smiling to himself as he took a generous bite.
Babu observed them quietly from behind his newspaper for hours. Watching the young man comb his hair, smoothen out the creases on his shirt and dust his spotless shoes at regular intervals. The young husband who sat back in his seat, his head resting on his wife’s shoulder, the smug look on his face as he drifted in and out of soft slumber. The young woman kept her eyes locked outside her window, trying her best to sit still, so as to not wake her sleeping husband.
It disgusted Babu. He could almost hear their petty, disillusioned thoughts, hopes and dreams. “Let me tell you something”, Babu said almost aggressively. Their heads snapped up instantly, looking at him for the first time since the journey began. “You”, he said, pointing to the guy in the white shirt, “You’re a joke. All dressed up in your crisp shirt and polished shoes. Dream job, I believe. Looks like all it takes to seduce children these days are a few fancy words and a glossy brochure. You’re going to end up sitting at a desk for years, answering calls and bringing chai to a fat man with a thick moustache and thicker skin. Go and join that advertising company before it’s too late. That’s your dream job.” The young man was stunned. He opened his mouth to ask the old man how he knew so much about him, but Babu continued his passionate rant.
His voice got louder. “And you. You mark my words. Only when you’re on the streets, cold and unprotected, falling asleep on bare footpaths with a young wife that will shiver against your chest in her sleep, will you realise how dark it can get, in a city that seems to sparkle with stardust.” His fists were clenched, his teeth grinding against each other as he spoke. “Mumbai is cold, cruel and unforgiving. Pack your bags, take your wife, and get on the next train back home.”
He walked up to the young woman. She kept her eyes on the ground, shifting her feet uncomfortably as he got closer. He took her face in his palms. She looked back at him hesitantly. He took a deep breath. His wrinkled fingers against her youthful skin reminding him how old he really was. Tears filled his eyes as he spoke. “Save some money” he said to her gently, his thundering voice reduced to a whisper. “Your husband will drink it all away and you will be left with nothing for your children. And your children. They wont give you a single paisa” He choked as he spoke, letting go of her face as he burst into violent sobs. They looked back at him in silence.
“Uncle, don’t you have to go home?” a chaiwala demanded, entering the coach like he owned it. “Mine is the next stop”, Babu sniffed softly as he wiped his tears. The chaiwala shook his head, sighing loudly as he left the coach. Babu rested his head against the window, letting the rhymthic sound of the wheels against the tracks soothe him.
“That old man has lost it. He’s here again today, talking to himself like a madman.” The chiawala told the station master as he got off the train. “Poor man. Let him be, he means no harm.” the he said to him. “Hah, he told me he’s getting off on the next stop”, the chaiwala chuckled. “That train hasn’t moved in years” he shook his head, filling his flask with hot tea.
The station master ignored him. Silently watching the old man through the grills as he caught his breath. Every day ended like this. The same conversations with the same people. The station master knew he was talking to his past. His son, his wife, his younger self, in a desperate attempt to start over. ‘
It’s almost poetic’ thought the station master. Every day, the timeworn train, gave an old man the second chance no one else would. And in return, the old man would breathe life into the rusted wheels of the train, allowing it to travel through lush paddy fields, dark tunnels and bustling train stations, one more time. ‘It was probably the only real relationship, the old man would ever have,’ the station master sighed.
When the next stop arrived, Babu gently folded his newspaper, got off the train and made his way back to Lakshmi Old Age Home. He went to sleep as soon as he got there. The alarm would ring earlier than usual tomorrow.
There was a train to catch.