The Post-Master General
A train journey in India is almost invariably an interesting experience and something that I normally look forward to. Even such a one as the Hyderabad Express run from Bangalore, generally considered a boring one by seasoned travelers. But then I was booked in first class, destined to spend some twelve hours (if the train was not late arriving at Hyderabad) cooped up with three other equally bored and therefore irritably uncommunicative fellow passengers. It was early June and the heat of the day showed no signs of abating even though it was getting on to be five in the afternoon. Bangalore had lost its hill-station climate a few decades ago under the pressure of its haphazard metamorphosis into a metropolis. It must have been over thirty-five degrees centigrade under the gently circling blades of the ceiling fans attached to the girders spanning the railway platform at a uselessly great height. I squinted balefully at the one over my head and pondered the railway’s inscrutable sense of purpose in providing such amenities and yet ensuring that the public remained deprived of their benefit.
With relief I saw the train pulling in to take up its position alongside the platform. As it crashed and clanged its way to a grinding halt, people exploded into action all along the platform. Scattering like so many chicks with a huge dog in their midst, coolies, passengers, kids -- the whole welter of humanity in the station ran around helter-skelter. A young college student, hurdling over a family sprawled in the midst of this havoc over a late lunch, nearly slammed into me but for some nimble footwork on my part. By his frantic yells I guessed that he and his friends had been guided to the wrong end of the platform in search of the ‘unreserved’ compartment. I grinned to myself -- the poor lads were in for a rough night, because by the time they reached the compartment, every inch of space available would be occupied. In all probability they would have to content themselves perched between the toilets on whatever was handy. I knew how that felt -- I had once done a long night myself in a similar position with a bunch of large milk-cans as seats.
Stepping lightly around the indignant mother as she glared after the sprinting boy, I avoided the pool of water behind her where she had washed her children’s hands. After all, it is unthinkable for any self-respecting Indian mother to let her family sit down to meals with dirty hands. She swished a straw fan at a swarm of flies buzzing about them as her little ones tucked into aloo paranthas and sarson ka saag -- as near as I could make out from the appetizing smell.
I scanned the numbers scrawled in chalk on the compartments -- my ticket said I was in compartment F2. I passed several second class compartments, hubs of frenetic activity as the train settled noisily down to wait for departure. In each cubicle little dramas would unfold as the journey wore on -- new friendships struck, fights for luggage space fought. Here a gang of school-kids returning home from boarding school were savouring freedom from discipline with hastily snatched drags from shared cigarettes, there a Gujarati marriage party was already opening up huge steel cans filled with fried snacks that would sustain them during the long, hungry hours between dinner and breakfast and in yet another cubicle four serious old men were shuffling cards and discussing stakes for their game of rummy.
I loved the rush and bustle of second class compartments with its endless variety of humanity letting its collective hair down for all to see. Such places were a treat for any voyeur and I looked up ruefully at compartment F2, thinking of what I would be missing.
Because I knew that nothing ever happened in first class.
A journey in those dull green cubicles which doomed four otherwise possibly interesting souls into an unwanted intimacy was not at all my idea of fun. I brushed past a portly, fortyish man wearing tight white pants, white shoes, a loud purple shirt and chunky gold rings on his fingers, who was intent on cajoling the Travelling Ticket Examiner for an instant and out-of-turn reservation with an equally loud voice. I grimaced as I heard the TTE tell the man to wait in cubicle A -- he would ‘do something’ for him once the train started. Cubicle A was going to be my particular prison tonight and I didn’t fancy sharing it with the fat man.
I entered the cubicle to find the first occupant already installed. This was a sallow-faced guy of some twenty-five years, thin to the point of sickliness. He had a long head with the contours of his skull sticking out forwards and behind. His straight jet-black hair was gleaming with oil and yet refused to lie down, waving about instead like clumps of grass. Gaunt brown eyes stared nervously out at me from behind steel-rimmed glasses. His fingers clutched a copy of the latest India Today, which he hastily drew up to hide behind as I swung my suitcase and over-night bag smoothly on to my upper berth. His skin-and-bones frame was covered by a pink cotton shirt with a pale floral print and pastel-green trousers. I had him slotted for a nerd immediately. Perhaps a little uncharitably, I speculated on his sexual preferences. What the hell, I was in a black mood.
Unzipping the bag I brought out my i-Pod and the Jack Higgins I had bought on the platform. As I plonked myself by the opposite window I spotted a chai-walla passing the window and got myself a glass of piping hot tea. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the nerd eyeing the smudged glass tumbler with horrified disgust. The tea tasted all the better for that.
As the chai-walla collected his money and turned to go he was stopped by a booming voice.
“Arre-oh, chai-walla! Where are you running? Give us also a glass!” The loudmouth had entered and begun to make himself at home immediately. “These poor fellows, don’t know how to do business, eh guru?” This he addressed to me and in spite of myself I had to give an answering smile. The fellow might be brash and loud, but he exuded an earthy charm with his broad grin. Two of his front teeth were gold-capped -- going by the robust health of his other teeth, the capping was more flash than dental necessity. He flung his shining maroon briefcase on the berth and took out a fat roll of hundred-rupee notes from his trouser-pocket before fishing about for the small change the chai-walla waited for. The briefcase seemed to be all the luggage he was carrying -- it probably contained his papers and a toilet-kit -- all that an itinerant businessman needed for an overnight trip. That and the wad of money.
Wiping a dripping brow with a vast white monogrammed hand-kerchief, he settled down on the berth beside me and extended a plump hand.
“Myself, Anupam Chandra, guru,” he boomed. I discovered soon enough that he called everybody ‘guru’. “I am going to Hyderabad on business. Fantastic place, Hyderabad. Many friends I have. Like Bangalore only. I have so many friends here also. What is life but business, eh, guru? And what is business without friends, eh, eh?”
With a loud guffaw at his witticism he held his palm out for me to clap with my own in acknowledgement. This I dutifully did, caught up by his spontaneous chatter. I felt compelled to introduce myself, my disdain for his brightly-coloured shirt, white pants and shoes and gold rings evaporating in the warmth of his bonhomie.
“Trivedi. Chaturnayan Trivedi,” I said, surprising myself by using my full name after God knew how many years, with a complete stranger too. I have always been called ‘Chats’ by my friends back at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, where I am a member of the faculty of operations research. That was the effect of Chandra’s forceful charm. I also thought that the name Chats would have got a surprised grunt in return -- another reason for using a more Indian form.
Chandra’s relentlessly friendly gaze continued to bore into my eyes and I had to continue.
“I am -- “, I began tentatively, not knowing whether he would even begin to grasp what I did for a living, “well, I teach and do research at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. My field is Operations Research.” I waved my hands futilely and I guess somewhat comically, to help him visualise my specialisation. I hoped that he might think it too much of an effort and ditch further questions. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that I had sparked an interest in the youth opposite me. So far Anupam Chandra did not seem to have noticed his existence.
My hopes were quickly dashed. The man’s curiosity in his fellow beings seemed boundless.
“Ah, research! Very good, very good! You are having PhD?” I told him yes. Before long he had extracted a comprehensive synopsis of my last three years since I had joined the Institute after getting my MS from Columbia and PhD from UCLA.
“Wah!” he gushed. “What a peaceful life, guru. You are so lucky, can follow your studies all by yourself without the hurry-burry of the outside world.”
I shot him a sharp glance, to see if he was pulling my leg. For it was hardly a secret that academic life in Indian institutes was unhurried and carefree -- with all expenses paid and very little pressure to stick to deadlines of any sort. It was a great life -- subsidised grub, subsidised lodging in a well-maintained campus, even subsidised movies -- what the hell, it was addictive in the extreme. And my share from a reasonably steady stream of consultancy projects added some useful income to allow me a few indulgences of the good life. But if Anupam Chandra was pulling my leg, he didn’t show it.
He turned his sparkling eyes to the youth opposite us who quickly hid his face behind his magazine. That wouldn’t have deterred Chandra one bit, but he was saved by the entry of our fourth fellow-passenger.
He was in his sixties, of medium height and spare build, with a strand of wispy grey hair which had been allowed to grow long on one side so as to be plastered carefully across his scalp to cover his baldness. Flashing spectacles threw a pair of watery, grey-rimmed eyes into a magnified image of petulant erudition, reflecting a lifetime spent being constantly interrupted by lesser beings in his pursuits of great importance.
He was dressed impeccably in a brown tweed jacket, the patterned silk scarf around his neck tucked neatly into a brilliantly white cotton shirt. The crease of his trousers was razor-edged and his highly polished shoes completed the picture of a gentleman of the old school. Only the faint sheen around the elbows of his coat and the knees of his trousers spoke of the limited choice his wardrobe offered. He struggled in, first with one, then with another large suit-case, manouvering them with unaccustomed difficulty under the berths. Finally, retrieving from the corridor a somewhat frayed blue plastic airbag which sported a shoddily done Pierre Cardin logo, he subsided into a corner to recover from his exertions.
Obviously a government functionary, I thought to myself – and one who was unused to travel. Judging by his age and the fact that he was not accompanied by hangers-on of any kind, he was probably proceeding on leave or retirement. More likely the latter. Soon enough I was proved right in my assessment.
It wasn’t long before Chandra had gotten the old man to talk about himself. His name was Philip Wilson and had just retired from the position of Post-Master General at the General Post Office at Bangalore. He had wound up his meagre establishment -- he was a bachelor -- and was headed back home to Hyderabad to settle down in a small cottage he owned behind the Railway Colony in Tarnaka. He had lived an unblemished existence throughout a long and unremarkable career and risen through sheer dint of age and seniority to his last rank. He did not drink or smoke, since he felt that they reflected weakness of character.
He had indulged in only one pastime in his life. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening for the last ten years that he was stationed in Bangalore, he had played bridge with his cronies. The first Thursday of each month the foursome had also played at the Bowring Institute.
During this introduction even the ebullient Chandra’s spirits seemed to wilt just a bit -- such was the coldly antiseptic personality which emerged. At the mention of bridge however, he brightened up again.
Turning to the opposite window, he yanked the nerd cheerfully out of his magazine and demanded if he could play “brizz”. Startled like a rabbit in the night under the hunter’s torchlight, the guy stammered that he could and I saw that he regretted it instantly.
Chandra was ecstatic. “Ah, we all play brizz! Then the time will pass easily, my friends.” So saying, he pulled a pack of cards from his briefcase and began shuffling them expertly. I piled a couple of suitcases on top of each other to serve as a dealing table. It was only after I fanned the cards of my first hand that it occurred to me that Chandra had not bothered to ask if I could play. He had just assumed that I could and for some strange reason I felt amused by this unstated confidence.
Sitting as we were, I paired up with Mr Wilson and Chandra with the nerd, who went by the name of Ravi Kiran. Unnoticed by us, the train had pulled out and left the city behind. The stifling heat gradually gave way to a gentler temperature as the sun lowered itself. We had the fans going and the windows open to let the evening breeze in. Soon we entered Andhra Pradesh and the land became even more arid and dusty.
Chandra kept up a constant chatter, introducing the TTE when he came to check our tickets as an old friend, though he must have met him for the first time in his life at Bangalore station less than an hour back.
“You seem to make friends too easily, Mr Chandra,” observed Mr Wilson with a disparaging glint in his eye.
Chandra was not perturbed in the least. In fact, his inexact command of English interpreted ‘too easily’ as ‘very easily’ and he smiled happily at what he took to a compliment. He repeated his earlier witticism, thumped me on my thigh and held his palm out to Mr Wilson, who looked quizzically at it. He obviously had no clue what the gesture meant, having avoided physical human contact as far as possible all his life.
He could have left it at that, but Mr Wilson kept on. “True friendship is deeper than the deepest ocean. All my friends are gentlemen and scholars, Mr Chandra. Rare to find, eh, Mr Trivedi?” I ground my teeth with the effort to stop myself from shooting off an acidic reply. We were barely at the beginning of a long journey and the old man had started in on Chandra who was, after all, doing his bit to keep the party going. Sure, the businessman was not half as educated as Wilson, but he at least didn’t make any bones about it. I stole a glance sideways, but Chandra was oblivious of any ill-will.
“Ah, you talk such fine English, guru! Gentil-man and ischolar! Wah!” he exclaimed. The man seemed pathologically incapable of speaking without exclaiming. I grinned broadly at the way he separated ‘gentleman’ into two words. Wilson frowned.
Chandra leaned forward as I shuffled the cards for the next deal. Tapping Wilson confidentially on the knee, he said, “I know one such gentil-man in Hyderabad! He is my great friend. He is IG Andhra Police. Mr Sambashiva Rao, you know? I meet him through brizz only. Very helpful man. Whenever I have problem I go to him.”
“What, is he on your pay-roll? Such a senior police officer?” sneered Wilson. As I sent the cards flying out I saw Ravi Kiran’s hand cringe at this mention of corruption.
Chandra was immensely amused. “Arre, no, no, guru! What are you saying? Sambashiva Rao like me personally, guru. No money. He only told me of opportunities in AP. That time he was high officer of AP Small Scale Industries Corporation, you know? He told me of auction of sick industries and told me to bid. That is how I come about to have very good business in Hyderabad, guru.
“And you know?” he leaned forward to tap Wilson again on the knee. The old man couldn’t draw it away fast enough and I grinned at his discomfiture. “I sold my everything to buy this unit. Even my wife’s gold jewelry! Guru, I put my heart and soul into this business. For three years I struggled not knowing if I could pay my workers’ salary next month. So many times I even borrow money for my children’s school fees!
“And now, by the grace of God I am settled. Mr Sambashiva Rao, he helped me with guidance only. No money. What are you saying? He is very honest man. Today the stage has come where he has put my name for best small-scale businessman award this year! Of course, government is full of people who take money. I have lots of friends like that also, what guru?” here he winked at me and I laughed out loud.
Wilson was clearly at a loss for words, not able to come up with a remark cutting enough. He frowned as he examined his cards.
We complemented each other well at the game though, Wilson and I. His was a scientifically calculated approach whereas I was always on the lookout for the bold gamble for a slam. And we quickly learned how to play to each other’s strengths. Chandra and Ravi Kiran lost steadily. Chandra’s style was spontaneous and inconsistent while his partner the nervous nerd played ever so cautiously, never venturing big bids unless prodded vigorously by Chandra. So flustered would he be whenever he emerged the bidder that Chandra took to controlling the play from where he sat, handling both their hands at the same time. On such occasions, with the run of play following an unnatural cross-wise flow, Ravi Kiran would withdraw further into his seat, for all practical purposes becoming a part of the furniture.
“Well, Mr Trivedi, and what takes you to Hyderabad?” asked Wilson after a while.
“I am going to attend a conference, Mr Wilson,” I replied, my eyes leaving the cards briefly to meet his.
I should have known it. Wilson’s eyes lit up just a little. “A nice paid holiday, what? How long is this jamboree to last, may I ask?”
This streak of Wilson’s was turning out to be quite a pain. I wondered what his problem was. He had tried to put Chandra on the defensive with callous references to his lack of education, fortunately without any success. Somewhere along the line he had even muttered that ignorance was one of the worst crimes against the exalted state of man. Chandra’s command over English was too weak to catch the meaning though his smile had slipped a bit just then. He had realised as much as I did that we would either have to bear the old man’s insulting talk or face the prospect of a long and silent journey. And Chandra abhorred silence as much as nature abhorred vacuum.
Now Wilson seemed to be turning his malicious tongue on me. Chandra had been kidding me in a good-natured way off and on about the laid-back campus lifestyle and now Wilson began to use this in his attack.
“Not that you gentlemen need much of a holiday, what with the unhurried academic schedules, I think,” he said primly. That was rich, I thought with irritation, as I remembered weeks on end of long lonely nights I had spent working on tricky research problems in addition to my teaching responsibilities at the department. And as for this particular conference in Hyderabad -- there was going to be a prestigious international audience -- it had taken several months of hard work to put my paper together. Absorbed by these thoughts as well the hand being played, I did not reply immediately. Taking this for a retreat on my part, Wilson pressed on.
“Take Mr Chandra here. He has not educated himself but has at least staked his life on a gamble and made it pay off. That is a somewhat redeeming feature of his make-up. I wonder if academicians living in their ivory towers could ever have something of that kind to commend themselves with?” He leaned back and crossed his legs to survey the result of his barbs.
“Arre, guru, I don’t know all this commend-shommend business, but I understand recommendations! I recommend three no-trumps,” Chandra cut in with a guffaw to change the subject. “Bhai Ravi Kiran, wake up, you are so silent! Say no?” The three of us joined in the strained laughter as the nerd concurred nervously with the game bid, but Wilson was not going to be drawn off.
“What might be the nature of your contribution to this --” here Wilson twisted his lips in a sneer, “-- conference, Mr Trivedi?”
This was where he got off, I thought to myself. “In this case the ivory tower has extended a helping hand to the fast-paced world of big business, Mr Wilson. This -- jamboree, as you call it -- is actually the Seventh Asian Advertising Congress. A lot of international corporate bigwigs are going to be present. I am slated to present a paper on the use of dynamic programming in media planning. I’ll spare you the technical details. Suffice it to say that my work represents a break-through in a highly specialised field which guides these hard-nosed gentlemen in investing a great deal of money -- crores of rupees, millions of dollars. The stakes, as you can imagine, will be high -- both for me as well as for the Institute which is paying for this trip.”
I guess these words, somewhat out of sync from my usual light and easy banter, had a dramatic effect on the others. Ravi Kiran’s eyes showed a new-found respect towards me, Wilson lowered his in confused retreat and Chandra slapped me heartily on the back.
“Arre, guru, what big words you use, eh? Now I take back whatever I said about your campus! Many big people will be there, eh? Guru, you and I should talk about this. But not now -- now we must enjoy the game! What’s your bid, guru? My partner said three no-trumps, no?”
I studied the cards in my hand and looked up at him. The merry twinkle in his eye remained unaffected as I threw out the quiet challenge.
“Double,” I said.
Chandra grinned at me and winked, laying down his cards since no-trumps had been Ravi Kiran’s bid. He reached out to take his partner’s hand and was surprised when the nerd suddenly spoke, “I’ll play this one myself, Anupam.” Clapping his hands in approval, Chandra lay back and watched the deal’s progress, casting an approving eye on every move. Though it was a tricky bid, the youth carried it off, neatly finessing my king of spades to clinch the deal and the rubber.
Chandra was effusive. ”Ravi guru, you have shown your style now! Shabash! Now let’s see what more you can achieve! Your deal,” he concluded, tossing the pack across the table.
Chandra’s praise could not have come at a more inopportune time, because the old man turned his hateful eyes on Ravi Kiran.
“Yes, indeed, let’s see what you can achieve. Talking about achievements, what do have to say for yourself, young feller? What do you do for a living, if anything?”
“Hey, hey, lay off, Mr Wilson,” I butted in, my anger aroused. I thought I had had the old man silenced but the monster had found a new prey. “What the devil are you up to anyway? Here we are, four perfectly normal human beings shut up in a cubicle for a long night. We’ve been trying to keep the party going and you’ve been hell bent on screwing everybody’s happiness from the word go. What the hell’s your problem?”
“My dear man, nothing to lose your shirt on. All I’m doing is asking the boy a civil question. Surely a strapping young man in his mid-twenties must do something to earn his daily bread. All I want to know is what it is that he does in life. Is that too personal a question?”
I backed down, fuming. My fists had balled up in my anger. I released my breath slowly and looked at Chandra, who placed a calming hand across my own.
“Well if that’s too embarassing a question for you, my friend,” continued the mean old bugger with a snigger, “at least tell us what takes you to Hyderabad.”
“I am going to take the cure for asthma,” said Ravi Kiran in a small voice. Hyderabad has this family which has devised a so-called cure for respiratory ailments which involves the revolting practice of swallowing some species of fish found in the Moosa river smothered in a yellow paste of herbal concoctions. The poor sods have to swallow it live and whole. And many of them are pure vegetarians -- not having eaten even an egg before in their lives. Not surprisingly many of them try to throw up. Knowing this the dispensers quickly gag the “patients’” mouths with their hands, forcing them to swallow. Literally hundreds of believers flock to the city every summer in the hope of being rid of chronic problems like asthma and bronchitis. So that was what poor Ravi Kiran was after. I pitied him.
I expected Wilson to pounce on this open admission of weakness on Ravi Kiran’s part, more so since the guy had been silent and nervous all along. Easy prey for Wilson’s acid tongue, I thought. But the wily old man held back on that one, changing tack slightly.
“And you are travelling alone? No family to keep you company at this distressing time?” His voice carried a veneer of concern, leaving no room for either Chandra or me to intervene.
Ravi Kiran squirmed in his seat, unused to the attention he was getting. “My father is too ill to travel and my mother had to stay back to look after him. I had to make this trip now because the cure is not available in any other season.” He looked apprehensively about the cubicle, seeking escape where there was none. Chandra and I watched warily.
“Ah, an only son, I see. An only child, no doubt?”
Ravi Kiran nodded dumbly.
“And your parents are much older than you, no doubt?” Ravi kiran nodded again, hanging his head.
Wilson clicked his tongue with sympathy. His reptilian mind was readying for the strike and I watched to see what form it would take. The cards lay upon the table as Ravi Kiran had dealt them, forgotten for the moment.
“I can picture the little family, my friends. Old parents ever so grateful that their prayers for a child have been answered at long last, albeit in the form of a sickly boy. Who then proceed to spend their hard-earned money on medicines and hospitals for their only child. Protective as only such parents can be -- have to be, since the poor souls know of no other way of tackling their misfortune -- young Ravi Kiran has lived a life sheltered from the trials and tribulations of the big, bad world.
“Now we see him, grown to man’s estate, nervous on perhaps the first train journey he has undertaken alone in his short life. Why, he’s probably afraid of the very shadow which dogs him! What a desperate need it is that drives him to journey far from his sheltering parents -- who need to be sheltered themselves now in their old age -- that he goes chasing after a quack’s cure like so many thousands of ignorant fools do year after year. And most of all, no vocation to provide for him after they are gone.
“Well, my boy, they say that the meek shall inherit the earth,” he paused for dramatic effect, “but only when the rest of us are done with it!” Here he raised his face to the ceiling and let out a barking laugh in short, grating bursts through pinched nostrils.
Even the bonhomous Anupam Chandra found this too much to bear. He exploded in a violent paroxysm of rage.
“Oy, guru!” he yelled, springing up on his plump legs, the skin on his face matching his shirt with an angry purple, “I think you need a good thrashing and if you don’t shut up immediately I will give it to you! Out of respect for your age I have kept quiet! Enough of nonsense! I am patient man, but even after my friend,” indicating me with a wave of his bejewelled hand, “has told you to shut your dirty mouth you don’t understand? If you cannot understand educated man’s language, then I know how to explain with another language,” he said, shaking his fist under Wilson’s face.
I shot a restraining hand out which he shook off. But he remained as he was, glowering. Wilson regarded him coolly for a long moment. For some strange reason I got the feeling that the old man would have wanted Chandra’s blows to rain down on him.
Once again I began to wonder at his motives in vitiating the atmosphere of that claustrophobic cubicle in this way. He was a crusty old bachelor, that much we all knew. Perhaps he had been jilted in love all those years ago in his youth. Perhaps there was some deeper dissatisfaction in his inner being that he himself could not account for. Because he definitely did not seem normal. Going back after completing his career, heading for home and hearth to hang up his boots and put up his feet for the evening of his life -- you know, that kind of stuff -- I would have thought he would be looking at the world with a new perspective -- with a wiser, kindlier eye and with relief in his heart that he was at last going home.
Yet here he was, doing his damnedest to get us all riled up and succeeding phenomenally. What did he want from us -- a good thrashing? Surely not, such an obviously scholarly persona would be revolted by physical violence. But violence there was in his heart, acid on his tongue and some kind of hatred in his eyes as he looked at us through the large lenses of his glasses. Perhaps he envied us our youth, which he himself had lost long ago.
But I sensed something else in those eyes too. It seemed as if there was in those watery eyes a limitless despair, haunting, shadowy and just barely perceptible. What was it? Surely he was well read enough to be able to diagnose himself? Well, if he needed any help in that diagnosis I was more than willing to provide it – because by now both curiosity and anger had been aroused inside me. After all, we had all told him about our backgrounds but he had told us very little about himself. And he had done his best to spoil the mood of the party all along. I leaned forward to ask my first question.
“I write poetry.”
The words hit me by surprise and my jaw dropped open. Then I saw that he had an equally startled look on his face and realised that the words had come not from him but from the skinny figure in the corner.
“You asked me what I did for a living. And assumed out of hand that I did nothing. Well, I write. Poetry. And it pays the bills. For me and my parents.”
You could have knocked me down with a feather. I mean, I know poets exist, since that stuff does get written, doesn’t it? But here, in India? In a blooming railway compartment? I mean, I had never met one of these guys before -- I guess you know how I must have felt.
But friend Ravi Kiran was quite oblivious of the consternation his words had caused. He was gazing with cool defiance at the old man beside him. No, not defiance, it was more like cool composure. He was like a man transformed. Naturally shy and diffident, his hackles had been raised by the old man’s tirade against not just him but his parents as well.
He pulled out from a bag by his side a slim volume and held it out for us to see. The cover had the words “Cliffside and Other Selected Verse by Ravi Kiran Mathur”. Then he proceeded to read out the title poem.
I’m not much of a poetry freak, you know. I go in more for the rugged outdoors for my leisure and stick to hard facts and figures of in my field of operations research when it comes to exercising those little grey cells. But this guy’s stuff was good. No wonder he had got it published. By a leading American firm -- he must have made a tidy packet on it. He told us later that it was his second volume and had a contract in hand for a third. Not bad going for our little nerd, I thought to myself.
He read out in a clear, sonorous voice. He obviously had a good ear for rhyme and rhythm and read the poem with practised ease. I must admit that I forgot most of the lines as soon as he read them out, but the last few lines stuck in my head because of the emotion which he packed into them and I think also because of the devastating effect they had on Wilson.
I ran onwards and upwards to the very edge,
The joy in my heart clad my soles,
Far behind me swayed the bridge,
I cared not, I feared not,
I was free – I flew.
We, Chandra, Wilson and I, stared spellbound at Ravi Kiran in silence as the train clattered steadily on. It was a truly magical moment for me as well as for Chandra on whom, largely unschooled in these things though he was, the poem had been almost as sublime in its effect.
“That was supremely beautiful,” said Wilson. We turned to him in surprise, not expecting such handsome praise, especially since his attack on Ravi Kiran had been particularly vicious. “Beautiful and touching,” he added with a peculiar catch in his voice, “I wish I had read that thirty years ago.”
I looked at the old man keenly. There – I saw it again, that infinite despair in the eyes. Quite suddenly, I had a mental picture of a lonely figure plodding on through life without anyone to turn to for support. I pictured him at work, his keen intelligence led astray by a coldly supercilious attitude towards his less intellectually endowed colleagues. That attitude had probably lost him a good many friends in the office. I pictured the life-long bachelor returning to an empty house every evening for thirty years, no one to share his little victories or defeats with. No one for him to share life with in the prime of his youth, no one to provide for him in his old age. No one to miss him in Bangalore, no one to welcome him in Hyderabad.
I looked into the depths of his soul at that moment and I knew that I had him there, utterly and totally defenceless.
I moved in.
“Well, Mr Wilson,” with as mild a voice as I could muster, the loathing for the old man still afire in my heart, “we have all told you of our hopes and ambitions. Each one of us has displayed for the others’ benefit our achievements. You are so much more experienced than we are. Surely yours will be a story worth telling. In your long career -- by the way, how long, Mr Wilson?”
" -- thirty two years.” I could barely catch the mumbled words. I knew then that I had him good.
“Ah, thirty two years, sir, and retiring as the Post-Master General, no less! Then surely there are so many interesting stories in your fund of experience that we would be eager to hear. The floor is yours!”
He tried to speak but the words were mumbled and indistinct.
“Speak up, sir, we can’t hear you,” I said remorselessly.
He tried again. “In thirty two years,” he started in a faltering voice, “in thirty two years I --” tears clouded his glasses as he looked back over thirty two years of wasted life, knowing that he couldn’t turn the clock back. He couldn’t continue.
Chandra looked on with a bewildered but amused expression, first at me, then at him. The old man seemed to wither in front of our eyes. He couldn’t lift his gaze to meet ours. Even the poet Ravi Kiran sensed the moment at hand and sat up straight, his glance flitting rapidly between me and the old man. The train rumbled on, slowly dropping speed. We were approaching Guntakal, where it would stop to pick up the dinner plates we had ordered earlier.
Then the poet began to recite from memory those famous lines from Kipling.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute,
With full sixty seconds of distance run,
The world -- and all that’s in it -- will be yours,
And what’s more, you’ll be a man, my son.
The three of us got down at the station to stretch our legs and, I think mainly, to get away for a while from the vicious old bugger in the compartment. There was plenty of time since the halt was for forty minutes. The three of us strolled about the open-air platforms of the junction, which was brimming with normal life. The breeze was warm but we breathed deeply as if it were a refreshing gust from the sea. We feasted our eyes on the brightly lit scene as if we had just emerged from the darkness of a dungeon. Scores of hawkers rushed around, hurrying to make the most of the long train full of passengers. It was as busy as any bazaar and as varied.
I loved this scene. Because it was real.
When we returned he had changed into a faded set of pyjamas and was sitting as we had left him, staring with unseeing eyes at the platform outside. His skin was ashen, his face immobile. He did not stir when the train pulled out, nor did he move when the bearers brought our dinner plates.
An hour later, we at last turned in, leaving him in the same position, not having uttered a word, his plate still lying untouched beside him. A twinge of pity ran through my heart for the old bugger, but I cut it out and, turning out the lights, went to sleep. Enough time to set him right in the morning, let him stew his own mind for a change during the night, I thought to myself as I drifted off.
Early next morning I jumped down from my berth and was brought up short by the sight of the old man’s unopened dinner-plate lying where it had been left by the bearer. Wilson was nowhere to be seen. His jacket and trousers as well as his shirt and the old silk scarf hung neatly where he had left them the previous night. I looked out into the corridor. The dawn was breaking. One passenger stepped out into the corridor and stretched himself. I went to the toilets at one end to brush up. When I came out I checked the door opposite -- it was empty. I frowned at the silly feeling of apprehension and walked back to our cubicle. Ravi Kiran was stirring but Chandra was still snoring loudly.
The old man’s berth was still empty. As I looked at the dinner-plate, I felt a growing sense of unease stir inside me. I went to the toilets at the other end of the compartment and tried the doors. They were both empty. There was no vestibule connecting the compartment to others in the train.
I was now certain. The old man was missing.
I rushed back to our cubicle and roused Chandra. We were completely at a loss to explain his disappearance. All his bags were exactly as he had stowed them when he had boarded the train back at Bangalore. I riffled the pockets of the jacket and trousers. They had the usual stuff -- wallet, keys, ticket, handkerchief, some scraps of paper, we even found his driving license and a credit card -- nothing had been disturbed.
We looked at each other grimly.
“Should we pull the chain?” I asked.
It was the poet who answered, “It is pointless.”