“Dwip, dwip,” the familiar sound of raindrops hitting the roof woke Kannan from his disturbed sleep in the dilapidated restroom. He looked outside with the vague and senseless hope of seeing rain starting to pour; senseless indeed he was told, it had not rained in Manad or its surrounding areas for the past two years. It was as if Lord Indra had punished its people for some unforgivable sin. Hopeless as it was, the culprit turned out to be the leaky tap of the dirty washbasin.
He got up and stretched himself while looking around at what had been his shelter for the past few hours. There were no chairs and the condition of the restroom was despicable, something that would have earlier revolted him, but the past ten years had shaped him to survive in the worst of conditions. Also, it had been a very long and tiring journey till Manad. Yet it was with much difficulty he had gone to sleep, the sound of the humming mosquitoes in the background. Again so familiar……….
He slowly walked to the washbasin to freshen himself. Catching his reflection in the small mirror, he could see that his face looked worn out, aged far beyond than it should be. His eyes that were once big and sparkling with life and innocence looked dead, as if he had lost his soul. The broad forehead had a long scar that ran horizontally from one end to the other, something one would have mistaken for a wrinkle. Once a charming lad, now he had grown into a numb and distraught man lacking the very spirit that was so common in youth.
The rusted clock on the wall struck seven, another half an hour for the connection train to Nellur. Not much had changed over the years. Even in his childhood days, as he remembered, one had to wait at least five hours for a connection train to Nellur. Nellur was a small area comprising mainly of a lower middle class population. But it had played a great role in the communist growth of the state for it produced some of the greatest leaders ever. In spite of this not much was done for the upcoming of the area by any of its so-called faithful sons. His grandfather, Shankaran Nair, a great philanthropist at heart, had tried much for the betterment of the situation. He had submitted at least hundred signed petitions to many of the big shots but to no avail. These petitions were usually accompanied by his most eloquently written letters. As he grew older and became poorer in vision he would dictate letters to Kannan, who would obediently write them down and save a copy for he cherished his grandfather’s art of writing.
Shankaran Nair’s enthusiasm for the cause of the poor was unflinching and his blind charity, as Kannan remembered, had almost rendered them poor. He had say to Kannan, “Someday we’ll have direct trains running to all major destinations from Nellur, you see my boy, someday.” Someday indeed. The announcement “Kannur express travelling from Kannur to Nellur will shortly arrive on platform number 1” echoed throughout the station and brought Kannan out of his reverie. This was the one and only local train that ran twice daily between Kannur and Nellur.
He slowly gathered his knapsack and walked onto the platform. A plastic wrapper was flying about in the wind, coming down several times only to be blown up again by the wind. He smiled wryly, thinking to himself that there could be a no better euphemism for his life.
The platform was a holocaust of garbage, strewn with half eaten food packets, leaves, newspaper pieces, and cigarette butts. As a kid, he and his cousin Chinnan had religiously collected the remains of the cigarettes their grandfather had discarded. Shankaran Nair had picked up the habit while he was serving for the army during the Second World War. He had started on cigars but as the financial situation dwindled he skipped to cigarettes and eventually beedis. Later he was so often seen smoking a beedi that the local kids nicknamed him beediappan. The slightly deaf Shankaran Nair always mistook this name for appoopan (grandfather) and smiled in back in reply. Kannan remembered with guilt of the times he too had joined the local kids to do the same when his grandfather passed by. But these were rare occasions like when he was angry with his grandfather for punishing him or Chinnan. The name, however, stuck with Shankaran Nair till he went to his grave.
With his cigarette, Shankaran Nair mesmerized Kannan and Chinnan by blowing out halos of smoke. Later Kannan and Chinnan would collect the meagre remnants of the left out cigarettes and try the same, but try as they may they just could not master the art. They ended up coughing till tears came from their eyes and with immense adoration for their grandfather’s skill. Kannan thought how silly and innocent those days were. Today, Kannan could smoke at least two packs of cigarettes without getting tired of it. He had learnt to smoke even stronger stuff, the very stuff that saved him from his pain and the very stuff that had made him numb now to any kind of emotion.
A wind of dust rushed before him as the train slowed down on the platform. Most of the compartments were empty and Kannan would not have preferred anything better. He was in no mood for getting into small talk with fellow passengers. Besides he didn’t want to run into anybody he knew, the chances of which were quite high considering that Nellur was a small town and that he belonged to a well-known family.
Yes, a well-known family that was pushed into the shadow of notoriety by a dark cloud on one fateful day.... Only if one could rewrite fate, he thought, he would have erased that accursed day from it and everything else would have taken its natural course. He had done this several times already, writing and rewriting what his life would have been if things had been different, if he hadn’t ......……….the sudden jolt of the train, as it started to move, put a stop to the further thoughts. Kannan gave out a sigh of relief as the train slowly pulled out of the station. Yes, the wait had been long, he was finally getting out of Manad, and the final six-hour journey towards home had at last begun. He felt no excitement, no pain, no happiness; the numbness over the years had really crept in. He felt surprised for he was hoping for a change in his demeanour, going back home after ten years would have done that to anyone. Deep in his heart he knew that he wasn’t expecting a homecoming of any sort.
What homecoming could he expect, wasn’t this the return of the prodigal son?