I looked at the approaching train and wondered.
It was a late evening spread out in every matter and mind. The exhausted faces were barely visible in that dim light. The faces wanted a respite from the remembrance of a day just about to pass.
The platform no. 2 stood like a temporary rest-shed in spite of all the activity and the ambience that the station provided. Families made up of humanity of all ages, crowded in clusters and sat at almost every empty space on the ground. The male members stood around them and sometimes moved for errands for aliment. Children sat on the lap of their mothers and from a distance it resembled a constellation of packed cases and luggage of various shapes.
The announcements were almost pre-timed as the trains approached. But they came like loud bursts of disapproved noise through the speakers that made jarring sound from the vibrations of the grills. Most of the audio was redundant in that setting since there was so much information floating around by word of mouth.
It must be quite a routine, this repeatability of events for those like the tea-stall vendors, the utility storekeeper, the part-time beggars, the coolies and many others who were daily passengers. Very few were different from this category.
I happened to be one of them.
I moved to a place where there was a small family of four sitting on a bench and I just managed to get a small place for myself as well. Mr. Bharatwaj and his family looked like a bunch of assorted flowers collected on a vase. It had an appearance to strike you as something almost complete, decorative, clambering as a kind.
My space on that bench was limited but I hung on since there was no other room available near by. And I sat there as part of the family, picking up pieces of information from a never-ending volley of words, which came from the side of Mrs. Bharatwaj.
After sometime the platform was becoming empty and the announcements had also died down. I offered to the family to take leave and move on to the next seat in sight, but in vain. Mrs. Bharatwaj quickly stopped me and said, “There is enough space in this place. How much room does a man need, anyway?”
I looked at my two sides and found the statement a true depiction of my current state and I decided to stay there. By this time I had known that Mr. Bharatwaj was a cloth merchant residing at Virawal. He was doing well in the last couple of years. He had his contacts at Delhi and Haryana where the whole-sellers curtail was strong. But the prices were cheap and he quoted lower prices due to the volumes he purchased which was always in bulk, four to five times in the year that coincided with the different seasons.
This was one of the summer trips to the capital and he was happy with the deal. The designs were quite striking and new. Mrs. Bharatwaj occasionally accompanied his husband to Delhi where her mother stayed with her only son. She also visited some of her friends in Delhi and their families.
“ Bhupi, this time Urmilla had taken me to her doctor at the Lalpath Clinic, you know and I must say the Clinics have improved a lot,” Mrs Bharatwaj went on in her usual monologue.
“Bio-data and patient symptoms are archived properly in computers and Urmi showed me some peculiar case-histories.”
Mr. Bharatwaj appeared little amused by the facts but kept on listening.
“Bhupi, you remember our first visit to the Appu Ghar in ’86, the Columbus had just come. I was clinging to you and you held me like a child. Remember?”
Mrs. Bharatwaj complained that she had missed him at the Appu Ghar this time although Urmi was a good company that the children liked.
I imagined Mr. Bharatwaj negotiating at the whole-sellers’ curtail struggling with his arguments on logistics, credit-terms, volume discounts and the like.
He must have been late at her wife’s place almost fully exhausted from the day’s proceedings and the long trips to the city.
Overall it appeared to be a successful trip for the entire family. Each one collecting different dividends, stealthily keeping them as condiments for the next few months, to be utilised sparingly in times of need.
When the train arrived I had almost forgotten that I had still a journey to make. I wondered at the approaching train as it entered the platform unannounced, almost like a trespasser distracting the empathy that we had developed for that place. We boarded the train and took our places. The luggage was quite heavy and I helped to put them at the right places. Mrs. Bharatwaj took the place by the window; the son took the upper berth and Mr. Bharatwaj the berth facing his wife.
“Take care about the purse”, Mr. Bharatwaj told his wife as she was putting that inside her hand- bag. She prepared a bed for the child and started feeding her from a bottle. Mr. Bharatwaj prepared his own bed while his son opened a book. I quietly sat at the window looking at the darkness and the stars.
Mr. Bharatwaj went to sleep within minutes and I heard him snore after some time. I could hear the turning of the pages while Mrs. Bharatwaj completed inspection of the luggage. She carefully opened each one of them and closed them after inspecting. Satisfied, she took her place at the bed but did not go to sleep.
She asked me where I was going and I told her about the impending customer-visit at Pipiliakalan, which was some distance away from Virawal. As she was talking she kept on opening her hand- bag and then closing it after inspection. She then said that she had a habit of over-sleeping at times and specially in trains and requested me to wake her up at Ajmer.
After this I went to sleep and woke up when I heard the whistle. I raised the window and the light of the morning came rushing in hurting my eyes. I could see that a station was approaching and I could read the name, “Ajmer”.
As I looked at the place where Mrs. Bharatwaj slept, I found it to be empty. Mrs. Bharatwaj was stooping low and when she got up I found her with make-up, hand- bag in her hand. She took the sleeping child and told me that she was going to the toilet.
After some time Mr. Bharatwaj woke up. He enquired about his wife and told his son to get up. He stepped on his slippers and went in the direction of the coach-door. I sat and watched as if like a self-proclaimed watchman of the family.
The train stood there immobile at the Ajmer Station for more than five minutes. Mr. Bharatwaj had returned with his son with a pack of ‘Samosas’.
He asked me whether his wife had returned and before I replied he started towards the toilet. Within seconds he came running back.
His wife was missing from the toilet. I casually told him to look at the other toilet, which he did. The boy ran towards the coach door. The first whistle had blown when I first sensed the tension. It had taken its time to come, but it came strongly.
Mrs. Bharatwaj was nowhere to be seen.
There was no time to search and check. I told Mr. Bharatwaj to pack the things immediately and get down. I helped them to take away the things. When they had just gathered the luggage on the platform the train started to move.
Mr. Bharatwaj stood there holding his son in one hand, surrounded by the luggage. His son was crying and I stood there at the coach-door speechless.
I had not told them that Mrs. Bharatwaj had told me to wake her up at the Ajmer station.
The lightening speed of actions had overtaken the denouement I would never know. I stood at the door looking back at the stint of acquaintance with a quad of bonds that never existed perhaps. I was not sure.
But I remembered those words, “ How much room does a man need, anyway?”