Category Archives: Short Stories

The taming of the brew!

Daju’s designation declared that he was the ‘office water-carrier’. His job required him to fetch water, cook food and keep the office clean . No one in my office, wanted to eat the food he cooked. They preferred to do the cooking themselves. There was not much work in the office where I was the district-in-charge. It was a government office in the foothills of the Himalayas. Still in my early twenties, I was struggling to grow a mustache then. I hoped it would give me a serious and more of a mature look. I was having a tough time controlling my staff. They were all older than me by at least five years.
We had a staff count of five including Daju. As the boss there, I lived in an all wood cabin. This was my office cum residence. Next to me on a hill slope, lived the other staff members, some with their families.

Daju is not a name. It means brother in Nepali. Everyone called him that. I do not remember what his real name was, for this story is more than two decades old. He claimed that he was originally from Tibet. His story was that he had sneaked into India as a young boy and joined the army. There he managed to get court-martialed for picking up a fight with a senior officer. For sometime he did odd jobs and moved around. Roaming around he reached this village, liked it and settled down. A Buddhist by birth, he was converted to Christianity by the over-enthusiastic local pastor. A decision the pastor lived to regret for the rest of his life! Daju was a reluctant convert. He rarely if ever went to church. Yet he married a local woman and built a small hut for her. Daju and his wife had six children. Five of them lived with him.His eldest child a boy was working somewhere in Mumbai. Their hut was next to my house.

Every morning at five, Daju would come in and start his days work. Life in the hills started early. In India, due to certain unknown reasons, we have the same time across the country. This even though the country has three time-zones passing through it. Due to this, in the north eastern states, we can see the sun rise at five in the morning and set by four in the evening. The early morning appearance of Daju’s did not trouble me. I had a habit of waking up early since I was a child. Daju would sing old hindi movie songs while he cleaned the dishes. He was blessed with a great singing voice. After the dishes, Daju would wash my clothes, hang them out to dry and then disappear for the rest of the day. Years ago, when he had joined the office , after washing the dishes he used to go off in search of water. Water then had to be fetched from a small stream a few hundred meters away. That was until someone had the brilliant idea of connecting a pipe from the source to the house. With that one stroke of ‘brilliance’ the post of a water carrier became redundant. Over the years, the post in-charge never reported the availability of portable water and Daju kept his job.

For all his good nature Daju had a slight problem. His gentle and would-not-hurt-an-ant nature would under go a dramatic transformation the minute he consumed liquor. Once he had downed a few pegs , gentle Daju would become the epitome of nastiness. He would stand on the street outside the office and vent out his anger and frustration on the world. He would abuse one and all, using the vilest language that could be imagined. The target of his abuses could be anyone ranging from his wife to anyone who unwittingly happened to cross his path.

Since I was new there I was his preferred target. When he was in his Jekyll and Hyde transformation phase, it did not matter to him that I was his boss. He was not bothered by the fact that if I wanted, I could with a stroke of my pen have him terminated. Noting mattered to him. He would stand outside my office and abuse me. His voice loud enough for the whole village to hear, he would make fun of me. The villagers were poor and almost no one owned radio’s or TV sets. Daju was their only source of entertainment . They would all gather around and listen to him and enjoy the show. It was free entertainment and it was fun as long as they were not the target of his barbs. This went on for about an hour or two and then he would calm down, go to his hut and sleep for the rest of the day.

The next day, instead of Daju, it would be his wife who would come in to clean up my office. She would do her work quietly, while I worked in my office. A day later, Daju would be back at his usual time. He would singing soulful renditions of old classics and work his way through the dishes then my clothes and sweep the floors . Not a word was said about his theatrics of the previous day and life would be back to normal.

I was not sure how to react. I was too young to catch hold of him by the neck and advice him and too old to understand that firing him was not the solution. My staff members told me to ignore him. They told me how my immediate predecessor had submitted a complaint in writing to the head office. The result of the complaint was that Daju’s salary was frozen at rupees six hundred per month. His counterparts in other offices got a thousand rupees more. I could not imagine, how he managed to feed his family of five on six hundred rupees a month. This was back in the 1990’s but even then five hundred was a small amount.

The first time he did his Dr. Hyde transformation, I was shocked. I kept a low profile in my office that day. I hoped that people would not have head everything that he had shouted about me. The second time this happened I was prepared. Even then the after effects of this public slandering took a couple of days to wear off. I knew this could not go on for ever. The problem was I did not know what to do. Then fate stepped in.

As I must have mentioned some where in the narrative, that I had the habit of getting up early. Father was an army officer and had the bad habit of waking us up early. I do not remember ever having slept beyond six o clock in the morning. This habit gave me a few extra hours in the morning to kill. I used to do yoga in those days- Yes back then I used to be flexible. Every morning after waking up at five I used to put in an hour of yoga. I used to wind up the session with a few minutes of meditation.

One day I had reached the end of my yoga session and was meditating – basically sitting in the lotus pose with my eyes closed when I heard Daju coming. He was humming a song . The room I was in, had a window and through the window, I could see him peeping in to check if I was awake. Through half half-closed eyes, I could see Daju peeking through the window. Then I heard him gasp. His grip on the window-sill loosened and he fell down. Daju may have been in his fifties then but had the agility of a monkey and the strength of a bull. It took me a few seconds to realize what had happened.

The house I was in was as I have mentioned, made of wood and was old. There were small cracks in the ceiling through which sun light crept in. The sun’s rays would cut though the room in laser like beams. One of the beams was falling on my head. There I was seated in a perfect lotus pose, eyes closed, deep in ‘meditation’ with a halo around my head. For poor Daju that was a sight that took him back to his roots. For a few seconds the Buddhist from Tibet in him was awakened.

Daju was a different man after that ‘vision’. Later that day one by one my staff members came and spoke to me.

“ Sir, what have you done to Daju? He came to my house and apologized for his behavior! This has never happened before in my three years in this post,” said one of them.

“ Daju apologized to me too!” said another member standing next to him.” Did you ask to apologize?”

Later that day Daju came up to me. I was busy at working on some report to be sent to the main office. He stood near the door waiting for me to look up.

“Yes Daju? Is there anything you wanted to say?” I said.

“Sahib, I want to apologize for my behavior over the past couple of days. I have a problem with alcohol. I know that. I cannot control myself when I am drunk. I promise that will not happen again.”

Having said that and without waiting for a response from me, he walked away.

Not that he stopped drinking. He drank but in moderation and when drunk he would come towards me and from a distance shout, “Sahib, I am drunk now. You know what happens to me when I am drunk. I become an animal .I am going towards the forest and will be back later when I am sober!”

With that he would walk away. He would hide somewhere for a few hours returning only after ‘everything’ was normal. The one year I was in that post, he never shouted or abused anyone. He became an ideal villager, a good father and a responsible husband.

Today there are a number of types of yoga – Hatha, Ashtanga, Viniyasa yoga. Some have easier to remember names like hot yoga, beer yoga as so on . I think based on my experiences with Daju, I will create a new variety – Watch yoga. Change your life by watching someone else do yoga!

A random act of kindness

It was supposed to be a punishment transfer. In my case, I got it because I had just joined a government service. I was packed off to a remote village, high up in the Himalayan mountains. There were no tarred roads in the village. A dirt track linked it to civilization. A bamboo hut with a corrugated-sheet roof became my office cum residence. On records, I was the district-in-charge and had a staff of four who reported to me. These four were local villagers and hardly ever attended ‘office’. Most of the time I was alone in my office. I read books and listened to music a lot those days.

I was twenty-four year old and took all this as a challenge. There was no work as such. We were there to keep an eye on the village and its inhabitants. I would send out long reports to bosses in distant cities. To while away the time I went on long walks around the village. That was how I made a few friends – two shopkeepers and a beggar. The villagers were poor and the shops in the village stored few provisions. My radio operator knew how to cook. He taught me how to boil rice and make chapattis. That was how I survived during my one year in that village.

One day around halfway into my posting, I had to meet the District Magistrate who was visiting the neighboring village. I went for the meeting along with one of my staff members. It was a distance of about five kilometers. Over the muddy roads it would have taken about three hours. We took a short-cut. Walking through the mountain pass and stepping around massive trees we reached in about two hours. Needless to say, I was tired. My assistant suggested we rest for some time at the house of his friend.

The house was more of a hut with cracks in the mud wall. It was dark inside. By the time my eyes got accustomed to the light inside I realized that the family was having dinner. It was about four in the evening. People in the hills slept by six, so dinner was early. With no electricity and no money to buy oil for lamps, there was no point keeping awake after dark.
Without a word the lady of the house put out another plate for me. There was no table. The family – My staffer’s friend, his wife , the man’s mother and his four children were all sitting on the floor eating out of steel plates. The children were staring at me as they gulped down handfuls of rice mixed with a watery stew. As I stood there in my designer jeans , t-shirt and brand new sports shoes, I was acutely aware of their tattered clothes and the ragged condition of the hut. I did not want to eat. These people were poor. I was a tough for them gt enough to feed their children. Add to that an extra mouth to feed… I refused

“ Sahib, they would feel bad if you do not eat!” my staffer said.

I looked at their faces, they did not understand my Hindi and I could not speak their language. I could see that they looked offended.

I sat down on the mud floor and began eating. Silently we ate. Nine of us in a dark room as pigs ran outside the house. It was getting dark and I did not want to be late for the meeting. So I gobbled up what was plied on my plate. The second I finished the lady of the house filled my plate with more rice. I protested and she gave me another hurt look. She pored a watery stew and added huge chunks of some vegetable. The food was bland, it had no spices, no taste. All that it had was a pinch of salt to make it edible. Again, I finished off the entire plate. This time I covered the plate with my hand to prevent her from filling it again.

“We have to leave,” I said, more to the people in the house than to my staffer.
I thought I would give them some money but was prevented by doing so.

“They will feel bad. You are a guest in the house. Guests do not pay.”

I felt odd but thanked the people in the hut and quickly walked out. No one came out as I left. With two plates of rice in my stomach I was finding it difficult to walk but we had an appointment to keep and I returned to my world.

Over the years, I have seen and read a lot about acts of charity,generosity and kindness but I am yet to come across an incident which comes anywhere close to what I experienced in that hut three decades back. It takes a big heart to give when you have almost nothing of your own.

Dancing with the daffodils…

Delonix regia - Royal Poinciana - Gulmohar 02

It was a bright, sunny day with clear skies in May The chill of winter was fading out and the Indian summer had not yet fully set in. I was fourteen years old and in my last year at school. My father was in the Army. We lived in an old bungalow, in the middle of a hectare of land. At home, all our blankets had been spread out in the compound. They were not needed anymore and were being sun-dried, before being packed away. We had a massive gulmohur tree in the compound. The tree was in full bloom and looked something like the photo here. This is not a photo of the same tree, but I think you get the idea.

I saw my blanket spread out under the massive canopy of the Gulmohur and with nothing else to do ran over and stretched myself full length on it. As I looked up, I could see that the flowers of the tree stopping the rays of the sun from reaching me. I did not mind. A gentle breeze was blowing and before I knew it, I fell asleep. I must have slept for a couple of hours. Then a kick woke me up. It was my sister’s way of waking me up for lunch. I did not get up immediately. I lay there for a few more minutes. The sun was now right in the center of the sky, but the dense foliage above kept things cool all around me.
Three decades have passed and now I am in my late forties. I have traveled across the country and seen a lot of places. Somehow, when ever I try to think of a peaceful memory from my past it is the few hours that I spent under the shade of the gulmohur that come back. Those couple of hours when I slept peacefully in the shade remains the best memory I have from my childhood. I never understood poetry but I think this was what Wordsworth was trying to convey when he wrote

.They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils…..

Star Crossed Lovers

Nannu and Kuttapan were the owners of the only two shops at the Neyyarinkara Railway Station. The station had two platforms. Platform one had the office of the station master. The entrance to the railway station and the ticket counter was right next to the station masters office. Platform two was just a long stretch of concrete with a roof.

Nannu ’s business establishment had started as a tea shop. Over the years he started stocking sweets and snacks. With the change in the climate and the frequent droughts, he started storing bottles of mineral water. He stored them in a small cooler which was his pride and joy. The cooler had cost him a small fortune and also took up a quarter of the space in his shop. The investment paid off with the increase in business. Customers were always ready to pay a little extra for the ice creams and cola-bottles that he stocked in his cooler.

Kuttapan ’s shop was adjacent to Nannu’ s. Kuttapan stocked newspapers and magazines in his shop. He was a young man and unlike other men in the village was educated.   His marks in his tenth board exams were good and could have got him into one of the better colleges. The only problem was Kuttapan did not want to continue his studies. He wanted to start a business. He argued with his parents. Kuttapan ’s point was that he did not see any merit in continuing his studies with little or no guarantee of a job in the future.  Disregarding the objections of his parents he decided to set up his business. His parents never forgave him for that and cut of relations with their son. He started distributing newspapers in the village. He did that by walking door to door. From that he progressed to a small stall near the bus stand. A year later he rented the shop on the railway platform.  He employed a boy whom he gave charge of the newspaper stand at the bus stop. Business was good as there was no competition.    He and Nannu did not get along well.  It was not business rivalry as they dealt in different commodities. It was something more than that.  Nannu was Kuttapan ’s father.

For the villagers it was a funny state of affairs having a father and son as owners of adjacent shops but not on speaking terms. Nannu ‘s wife Kuttapan ’s mother agreed with her husband’s stand and had stopped talking to her son.  The parents had great dreams for their son. They had wanted him to study and eventually try for a government job. The boy had inherited his stubbornness from both his parents. Now in his mid-twenties Kuttapan was living on his own and enjoyed the freedom it gave him.

“Nannu bring two glasses of tea and some sweet buns to the Station Master’s office,” said Nagappan, the licensed porter at the station.

He was Station Master Kalidasan ’s right hand. Every morning he would have a cup of tea with the station master while reading the morning newspaper. They would discuss world and local news while dipping the sweet buns in the hot cup of tea. There was a scientific principle behind the dipping of the sweet buns in hot tea. Dip it in for too long and it would turn soggy and fall into the tea. Dip it for a very short time and then it would not soak enough of the tea. The art was to get the dip-time just right. Both the Station Master and the porter had mastered the art of the dipping. They practiced it every day.

“Ask Kuttapan to bring the morning newspaper,” said the station master as Nannu the tea vendor, put the two cups and the plate of sweet buns on his table.

Nannu did not answer. As he went out of the station master’s cabin, Kuttapan the newspaper vendor stepped in. He was waiting for his father to come out of the room. He did not want to be in the same room as him.

“This morning’s paper, saar!” said Kuttapan, “I have still not received last month’s payment. Just wanted to remind you, the total was about two hundred rupees. I included the magazines and children’s books you took for that official’s visit.”

The previous month a government official and his family had come to the station. They had picked up some magazines and comics from Kuttapan ’s shop. The bills were yet to be settled.

“Yes, yes I know. I have sent a request to my boss to sanction the funds,” said the Station Master.

“It is two hundred rupees! For that you need to send a request?” said Kuttapan.

The station master detected the tone of sarcasm and cringed.

“Yes! Even if it is a rupee I have to apply to my boss for permission to spend it.”

“No wonder nothing happens in the Government!” said Kuttapan in a low tone as he walked out of the office.

“What? What did you say?”

“Nothing Saar! I was saying that it would be great if I got it by the end of this week. I need to pay the vendors.”

“Arrogant kid,” said the station master.

“Kid! He is about twenty-five!” said Nagappan.

“Does not know how to talk to elders.”

 

Kuttapan made his way towards his shop. As he came close he saw a young woman standing there. He smiled and the girl smiled back. Nannu, Kuttapan ’s father and owner of the tea shop, could not help peep from his shop. He noticed that the girl was wearing a scarf which covered her hair and just showed her face.

“It is seven and you have still not opened your shop?” said the girl.

“I reached late. Had an accident in my kitchen this morning.” Replied Kuttapan as he opened the shutters of his shop.

“What accident?”

“Well…I was making tea. The water was boiling and I was about to pour in the milk when Shanku jumped.”

“Who is Shanku?” the girl said.

“My cat.”

“You have named your one-eyed cat Shanku?”

Kuttapan nodded, “He reminds me of a friend from school who was a good football player.”

“I do not remember any one-eyed football players in our school?”

“He joined after you had left. He was not one eyed. It was just that most of the times when he kicked he would miss the ball and fall. It was funny to watch him play.”

“I thought you said he was a good football player.”

“Yes, he was good as a source of entertainment. We always had a good laugh when he was playing. My cat is like that. Always bumping into things. Even when he can see it with his good eye he bumps into it.”

The girl laughed and Kuttapan joined her. On the empty platform the sound carried in both directions. From the station master’s cabin Nagappan the porter who was just finished his tea, poked his head out.

“Saar! Did I not tell you that there is something going on between Kuttapan and that Muslim girl!”

“What Muslim girl?” said Station Master Kalidasan looking up from the newspaper he was reading.

“That girl, Saar!”

Now Kalidasan poked his head to look.

“Who is that girl?” said Kalidasan.

“That is Nadira, Najeeb the butcher’s daughter. She studies in a college in the city. Every day she travels by the seven thirty train to Trivandrum. In the evening she returns by bus. She is a final year B. Com student at the Women College in Trivandrum.”

“Naga, how do you know so much about that girl?”

Nagappan had to answer quickly to clear his reputation.

“Sir, I see her standing near Kuttapan ’s stall every day, talking and smiling.  I thought of doing a quick ‘background check’ on her.”

“What are you two doing?”  a voice from behind made both the men stand up straight.

It was Dr. Shivaraman, a retired professor who was staying in the village with his daughter. His daughter was a teacher in the village school.

“What are you two government official doing peeping out of your office?  Are you not supposed to be doing your work?”

“Good morning, Doctor,” said Nagappan. He was the first to recover. Kalidasan sprinted to his table and sat down.

“I want a ticket to Trivandrum,” said the Doctor, “You did not tell me what was so interesting, that both of you had to set aside your office work and peep out of the office.”

“We were just discussing if there is something going on between Kuttapan and Nadira, Najeeb’s daughter,” said Nagappan.

“Najeeb the butcher?” said Dr. Shivaraman.

“Yes, Doctor. Her train is at seven thirty but she reaches the station at six thirty and stands near Kuttapan ’s newspaper-stand and they talk the whole time.”              “Is it against the law to talk? I was not aware that there was a rule against talking on a railway platform.”

Both Kalidasan and Nagappan understood what the Doctor was trying to convey.

“You are right doctor it is none of our business,” said the station master, “here’s your ticket.”

The Doctor pocketed the ticket and walked up to platform.

“Do you know what you son is up to these days?” said Nannu, the minute he reached home that day. Seeing the blank look on his wife Janaki’s face he continued, “He is in love.”

“What?” said Janaki.

“Yes. He is playing the role of Majnu in real life.”

“Manjan who?”

“Majnu. Laila-Majnu. Woman did you not go to school. Have you not read the story of Laila-Majnu the star-crossed lovers?”

“I went to school, but we were not taught romantic stories. What has that story got to do with our boy?”

“That son of your ’s is in love.”

“If I am not wrong you were also responsible for his birth. Who told you about this ‘love’ thing.”

“I see it every day. Right in front of my eyes.”

“What do you see every day? Stop speaking in riddles and tell me what is happening.”

“Well there is a girl. A Muslim girl, who come to his shop at six in the morning. She stands there and talks to him till the seven thirty train arrives.”

“What happens when the seven thirty train arrives?”

“She leaves for Trivandrum on that train.”

“She comes from Trivandrum to talk to him?”

“No! Are you even listening?” said Nannu, “She is from this village. She gets on that train and leaves. She does not come on that train.”

The next morning Kuttapan was talking to Nadira when he saw someone familiar climbing the stairs to the railway platform. It was his mother. Kuttapan had not seen his mother in months. She looked older and weaker. She had a folding umbrella tucked under one arm. From a distance Janaki could see the young woman standing near her son’s shop.

“That is your mother, isn’t she?” said Nadira.

Kuttapan nodded. He had never seen his mother come to the railway station. He wondered what had happened to trigger the visit. Nadira knew a little bit about the history between mother and son and moved away from the shop.

Janaki ignored her son all together and went up to her husband’s shop.

“Is that the woman?” said Janaki.

“Yes. That is the woman.”

Janaki walked up to Nadira who had now standing with the crowd waiting for the train.

“Are you from this village?” said Janaki.

“Yes. Aunty,” said Nadira.

“Did I say you could call me Aunty?”

“No. I just call all elders Aunty.”

“You did not tell me if you are from this village.”

“I am Najeeb Mohammad’s daughter. He has a shop near the mosque.”

“Najeeb the butcher?” said Janaki, she had meant the butcher to come out like a slur. It did come out as she had intended it to. Nadira nodded her head. She found it strange that people who had no problems eating non-vegetarian food considered the butcher’s profession as inferior to other job’s.

“Yes, Najeeb the butcher,” said Nadira stressing on the butcher.

“What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for the train, like everybody else.”

“Why?”

“Why does anyone wait for a train? To travel. I study in a college in Trivandrum.”

“What are you studying for?”

“I am doing my B. Com from Women’s college.”

“What com?”

The train had arrived at the station and people were slowly walking towards the coaches. Nadira started walking towards the nearest door.

“Are you coming aunty?”

“Keep away from my son,” said Janaki.

In the commotion on the platform Nadira did not hear that. All that she saw was that Kuttapan ’s mother was not getting on the train. She found that surprising.

 

“Nannu I hope you are aware that the girl who stands near your son’s shop and talks for hours with him, is a Muslim?” said Nagappan.

Nannu had come in with the usual two cups of tea and the sweet buns.

“What girl?” Nannu replied feigning innocence.

“The one who can be seen talking to him every morning.”

Nannu did not reply.

“Look Nannu. I know this is none of my business but you should be aware of the consequences. You son is a Hindu and that girl is a Muslim. If the villagers get a whiff of this, they will descend on this platform and set it on fire.  You should advise you son to stop this nonsense.”

“I know, Saar, but the boy does not listen to me.”

“You are his father,” said Nagappan, “You should make him listen.”

Nannu went back towards his shop. He could see Nadira standing near the shop. For a minute he contemplated going up to them and giving them a piece of his mind. Then he remembered the last time he had tried it with his son.  It had been some other problem then. Kuttapan had not held back and had shouted back at his father. There was a sizable crowd which had gathered for the train. The last thing Nannu wanted, was to create a scene.

“I will ask him mother to talk to him.”

 

The office of the Hindu Samajam was next to the temple in Neyyarinkara. It was not a part of the temple but the office bearers considered themselves as the torch bearers of the religion.

“We need to call a meeting!” said Sunil. He was the local secretary and he was addressing the local area committee president Anil.

“For what?” said Anil.

“There is a problem that has come up. There is this newspaper vendor at the railway station, Kuttapan who is love with a Muslim girl.”

“Kuttapan? That tea seller’s son?”

“Yes. Do you know him?”

“Know him? He was my class mate. He was the smartest boy in our class. He always scored the highest in math’s and science subjects.”

“I am not sure about him being the brightest. If he had any brains he would not have gone and fallen in love with a Muslim girl.”

“Are you sure about this? The Kuttapan I knew, that tea seller’s son was a very practical no-nonsense type of boy.”

“I have got this information confirmed through a number of our party members. Every day they can be found talking at the railways station for hours.”

“Hmmm. The last thing we want in this village is a Hindu boy converting to Islam.”

“We will not let that happen as long as we are alive.”

 

On the other side of the village, the office of the Muslim Youth Majlis was also in session. Abdul the convener of the forum was in discussion with Sajid his youth wing leader.

“Is this true -this story about Nadira?” said Abdul.

“Yes. It is confirmed. I have seen this myself.”

“Is she out of her mind. Are all the Muslim boys in this village dead that she goes and falls in love with a Hindu boy!”

“I was wondering the same thing! We need to go and talk to Najeeb. He has to control his daughter.”

“That will be of no use. He will not listen to us. Remember what happened when we went to his shop the last time.”

Abdul thought for a moment. It was the annual fund collection drive for their Majlis. Abdul along with five of his associated, all dressed in their Sunday best and carrying receipt books were going door to door in the village. They had targeted the Muslim shopkeepers and household only. There was no point in going to the Hindu households. The Hindu Samajam members also never came to the Muslim areas to collect funds. That day, Abdul and his group had reached Najeeb’s shop while he was cleaning his chopping knife.

“Assalamualaikum Uncle,” said Abdul.

“Waalaikumsalam….” The response from Najeeb came automatically.

He knew Abdul and his friends well.

“What brings you boys to my shop today?”

“Uncle we have come to collect funds for the Majlis,” said Abdul.

Najeeb did not answer. He continued sharping the blade

“Uncle, how much should I put in as your contribution? Will be a hundred or five hundred?”

“Write zero,” Najeeb said.

“Uncle it is for the Majlis’ activities. We help poor people, children and women in this area with these funds?”

“Really do you now? Then how about helping me. I am poor. I need money for my children’s education. I will also like to get some funds to repair my house. It has started to leak in some places!”

“Uncle, are you making fun of us?”

“It is you boys who are making fun of the villagers. Why don’t you earn something and donate your money for your majlis and its activities?  You will never do that, will you?  Instead all that you want to do is to run around with these receipt books.”                By now he had finished sharpening the blade and looked ready for business.

Abdul remembered the last meeting with Najeeb quite clearly. He did not want to repeat that experience.

“Lets us go and talk to our leaders,” he said.

 

“That girl is standing there talking to him,” said Nagappan, “It is like clockwork. Every morning she is there.”

Nagappan was standing outside the station masters office.

“I hope I am transferred from this station before anything bad happens,” said the station master.

“But Sir! You told me that this is your last posting before retirement.”

“That is true. I do not want to be in the middle of a riot. I want to spend the rest of my life living comfortably off a government pension. I do not want to die in a silly riot in this village of all places.”

 

The office of the Hindu Samajam was packed to capacity. All leaders big and small had gathered. Those who had already occupied the few available seats held on to them for fear that the others might grab them. Some members who were wiser were sitting on the ground.

“This problem has to be resolved. We cannot let a Hindu boy marry a Muslim girl. Next, he will want to convert to Islam.  Then we will have more Hindu men and women wanting to convert. That cannot be allowed. I will not allow that to happen as long as I am alive,” thundered Anil the leader of the Hindu Samajam. The office of the Muslim Majlis was seeing similar activity. The leaders there fretted and fumed and instructed their members to be prepared for any eventuality.

 

Inspector Gopalan was preparing the weekly crime report summary for the Circle Inspector when constable Dhanapalan burst into the office. Inspector Gopalan hated it when his staff members disturbed him. He looked up and glared at Dhanapalan.

“Have you forgotten your manners?” said Gopalan, “Have I not instructed everyone that they should knock before entering my office?”

“Sir! we have a problem. There is a chance of riots breaking out here.” Said Dhanapalan, in his haste forgetting to salute the inspector.

“What riots?”

“Riots sir. Between Hindus and Muslims.”

“Where?”

“Here Sir! In Neyyarinkara.”

“What?”

Gopalan had always been a bit slow at grasping the crux of important matters. You had to explain things slowly to him. Which may have been the reason why all his batch mates were now his senior officers.

“Sir! there is a chance of rioting here. There is a rumor going around the village that a Hindu boy is preparing to elope with a Muslim girl. Both groups will come to blows if that happens.”

“Is this news confirmed?”

“Sir the part about both the groups preparing to hit back – that part is confirmed.”

“Who are the leaders of the groups?” said Inspector Gopalan.

The gravity of the situation, finally registered on him. He picked up the phone and dialed his boss the Circle Inspector. Two hours later two trucks packed with policemen in full riot gear stopped outside the Neyyarinkara Police Station. Gopalan called up the Neyyarinkara Village School Principal.

 

“Let me summarize what you asked. You are asking me if fifty policemen can set up tents in a corner of the school playground?” the principal said.

“Yes,” Inspector Gopalan said.

“Why?” said the Principal.

“I cannot tell the details at this point of time. It is very important that you support me on this matter. I can have the Circle Inspector call you up and make this demand.”

The principal thought for a moment.

“As long as they do not create a problem for my students, I do not have any issues.”

That night the tents came up and the riot police set up a temporary headquarter near the football goal post.

 

The next morning Inspector Gopalan looked at the line-up of his constables and began assigning tasks to them.

“You there, I want you to go to the office of the Majlis and get the names of their leaders.  Also ask their leader to come and meet me today at ten a.m. sharp.”

“You go to the Hindu Samajam! Do the same. I want their leader here by 10 a.m.”

After the two had saluted and left he called Dhanapalan, his special branch man.

“Find out what kind of weapons have been collected by each group. Be careful, this could be dangerous.”

Gopalan then called up another constable and gave him a different set of instructions.

“I want you to fetch Kuttapan ’s parents.”

With his men dispatched in different directions, Inspector Gopalan called his boss and updated him on the progress.

“Let me know in case there is any trouble. I do not want this to escalate,” his boss’s voice came over the phone. I will inform the Superintendent of Police, who will inform the District Collector.”

 

By ten a.m. Inspector Gopalan’s office resembled the Neyyarinkara Fish market on a bad, rainy day. In one corner stood the bearded, skull cap wearing members of the Majlis and on the other side stood the Hindu Samajam members dressed in saffron. In between the two groups stood Nannu and Janaki, Kuttapan ’s parents. The area around the police station was cordoned off by the riot police.

 

“Start from the beginning,” said Inspector Gopalan, “When did this romance start?”

Nannu looked at Janaki and she looked at the impressive wall clock behind the inspector’s table.

“I am asking you a question?” said Gopalan. He was losing his temper.

“How do I know. I noticed this a few days back. That girl is always standing there talking to him.”

This comment incensed the Majlis members.

“She is being forced to come to the stall every day by that vendor,” said one of the Majlis members.

“How do you know this?” said the Inspector.

“Why would anyone in her senses come to a newspaper seller at six in the morning?”

“Does she come there at six in the morning?”

“More like seven,” said someone, “The platform is closed at six. The station master unlocks the gates around six thirty.”

“Then why did you say six?” said Gopalan trying to find who had provided that wrong information. He could not spot the person.

“That girl is after our boy,” said the Samajam members.

Nannu and Janaki nodded their head vigorously.

“How do you know that?”

“He is good looking and has a steady income. She is after him for the money,” said Janaki.

“Who said he is good looking?” said a majlis member, “Our Muslim boys look better.”

“Stop this nonsense and do not speak unless I ask you to,” said Inspector Gopalan, “Does anyone here know when this romance started?”

“They were in school together,” said Abdul, the Majlis leader.

“How do you know that?” said Inspector Gopalan.

“I was in the same class. We were all in the same class till the sixth standard and then Nadira moved to the Girls high school.”

“Were they friendly in those days?” said Gopalan. All the heads in the room turned towards Abdul eager to hear his answer.

“Not that I recollect. Kuttapan was a studious boy then. He had his head in his books at all times.” said Abdul.

“That is true Saar. My boy was a good student in school. This girl has spoilt his life,” Janaki pitched in.

“Let him speak for himself,” said the Inspector, “Who is Kuttapan?”

People turned and looked around. Then someone said, “He is not here Saar!”

 

Inspector Gopalan realized his mistake. He had missed calling some key members in the episode. He called one of the constables and asked him to fetch Kuttapan.

The crowd came out of the Inspector’s room and waited on the Police Station verandah. The Muslim’s on one side the Hindu’s on the other. The riot police surrounded the station. After a long half an hour Kuttapan arrived.

“Come here, let me see the hero of our story. So, you are the boy who has created all this problem,” said Gopalan as Kuttapan stepped into his office.

Kuttapan did not understand what was happening. Then he remembered.

“Saar! I have asked the Station master to pay me the money. I remind him every day. I will pay the vendors the two hundred rupees the minute I get it.”

“What two hundred rupees?” said Gopalan.

“The money I owe the newspaper vendor… for the magazines that were taken from my shop. You called me to discuss by when I would be paying that right?”

“No. Someone please explain to him why he is here,” said Gopalan. He could feel a throbbing sensation in a corner of his head. He began massaging his forehead with his finger-tips.

“We want to know about your love affair?” said one of the leaders from the Hindu side.

“Love affair? What love-affair?” said Kuttapan.

“The one with the Muslim girl,” another voice said.

“Which Muslim girl?”

“Nadira.” About ten voices from different corner of the room said this together.

“What about her?”

“Explain your love affair with Nadira,” said the Hindu leader again.

 

Kuttapan just stood there staring at the crowd of people. The conversation did not make any sense to him. The constable who had come to his book stall had been very rude and had warned him of dire consequences in case he did not come immediately.

 

“Are you in love with Nadira?” said Inspector Gopalan, finally decided to do the interrogation himself instead of letting the villagers do it for him.

“No. What nonsense! Why would I be in love with Nadira?” said Kuttapan.

The crowd started murmuring amongst themselves.

 

“Inspector Saar, apply your third-degree methods on him. The boy is lying,” this bit of advice came from none other than Janaki.

“You are his mother are you not? You want us to beat him? What kind of a mother are you?” said Gopalan. Janaki slid away from the room.

“I am not lying.   I know her from my school days.   Whenever she comes to the station she comes over to my shop and we talk. What is wrong with that?”

No one had an answer to that question. This was a twist in the story that was not expected.

“What about your plans to convert to Islam once you got married?” the Hindu leader fought back.

“Who spreads such silly rumors? I am an active member of the communist party and an atheist. Has anyone of you ever seen me in the temple?”

Those present there thought back. There seemed to be some truth in that statement.

“Call Nadira and we can prove this,” said someone from the Muslim side.

“She would be in college now,”

“Then get her father Najeeb here,” said someone from the crowd.

 

Again, the crowd settled down to wait for Najeeb to come. They sat down in the police station verandah where ever they found space. This time the lines between the two groups were not so distinct. Kuttapan sat by himself not aligning with either of the groups or his parents.

 

“Do you know this man?” said Inspector Gopalan to Najeeb.

“Yes Saar. He is Kuttapan. He runs a newspaper stall at the station.”

“Your daughter studies in a college in Trivandrum, does she not?”

“Yes Saar. Talking of Nadira, Last week, I finalized her marriage. It will be two months from now.   Since you have asked me to come here I thought I would bring you an invitation card as well. Please come even if for a few minutes and grace the occasion.”

“Who is she getting married to?” said Inspector Gopalan.

There was pin drop silence in the police station now.

“The boy works in Dubai in a construction company as a supervisor. He only has leave for three weeks and we have set up the marriage during that time. After the marriage, he and Nadira would fly to Dubai.”

“Has the marriage been fixed with your daughter’s approval?”

“Yes Saar! They know each other.    Saar you did not tell me why you asked me to come here.”

Inspector Gopalan did not have an immediate answer.  Nor did he have a reason to continue the questioning. Najeeb and Kuttapan were allowed to leave.

The crowd began to melt but Inspector Gopalan asked them to stay.

“So, who was the person who started this rumor?”

No one replied to the question.

“Because of you fools now I have a lot of explaining to do to my seniors. Clear out of the compound before I throw some of you into the lockup for spreading false rumors and disturbing the peace.”

Within minutes the police station was empty. An hour later the riot police, pulled out their tents, loaded them on the trucks and drove out of Neyyarinkara.

The next day morning as Nagappan finished his morning cup of tea in the Station Manager’s office he stepped out. He yawned. His last night’s sleep had not been proper. He had tossed and turned. Every time he tried closing his eyes he would see the face of Inspector Gopalan chasing him. As he looked at the two shops on the platform he saw something which stopped him in his tracks.

There was a young girl standing near Kuttapan ’s newspaper stall, talking and laughing. For a second, he thought it was Nadira, but then he looked carefully. It was not Nadira, it was someone else. The girl has a shiny cross around her neck which she was playing around with while speaking.

Rags and Riches

The sleepy village of Neyyarinkara was shaken out of its stupor as the bogies of the Kanyakumari Express came to a grinding halt. Very few trains stopped at the station. The station was the pride and joy of Kalidasan Rajendran its Station Master.  He had put in thirty-five years of service in the Indian Railways. Rising from the lowest level possible in the organization, the posting as a station master was a dream come true for Kalidasan. He would have preferred one of the bigger, better equipped and important stations. With just one year of his service left, he got Neyyarinkara. He flagged the trains, issued the tickets and occasionally checked the tracks for damage. In this tiny railway station, he was lucky he was not expected to work as the porter too. Nagappan was the official porter at the station. He was also the un-official station master – in Kalidasan’ s absence.

Life was comparatively easy for the two as very few trains came their way. All this changed, one bright sunny morning. The station master and his assistant were aghastwhen they saw a group of men, women and children all attired in bright colored clothes, alighting on to the platform. The Kanyakumari Express was scheduled to halt for thirty seconds at Kalidasan’ s station.  The station had only two railway tracks. There was a delay in clearance from the next station and Station-Master Kalidasan could not let the express through. He was forced to halt the train for more than its scheduled thirty seconds. This extended halt gave the group an opportunity to jump off the train.

“Get back in! Get back in!” shouted Kalidasan as he saw his spotlessly clean platform filling up with a ragtag group of gypsies. No one in the group listened to him. Some of the woman were busy talking to each other while others yawned and stretched out their limbs. The men in the group began sorting huge bundles, which contained their belongings. The children in the group were busy racing each other down the length of the platform. The passengers in the other compartments, at least those who were awake, began craning their heads through the windows to see what all the noise was about.

The phone in the station master’s cabin began ringing. Kalidasan ran back to attend to it. Nagappan the porter stepped in for his boss. “Did you not hear what the station master just said?”

Kalidasan got the message that the line ahead was now clear. He came out and blew a whistle. This was a signal for passengers, that the train was about to leave.

“Get back on the train,” said Nagappan, “the train is about to leave.”

“We wanted to get down here?” said one of the women, showing a mouth full of betel-leaf stained teeth.

Nagappan could see the station master waving his green flag. The train driver blew his horn – a final warning for any passengers who had stepped out to get in and then released the brakes. The Kanyakumari Express started moving. One by one the compartments passed by. The passengers on it, those who were watching the commotion on the platform, had lost interest and were now looking ahead to their journey.

“Show me your tickets,” said Nagappan resigned to the fate that this group was now here to stay.

“Are you the boss here?” said one the women in the group.

“Saar is the Station-master,” said Nagappan, pointing at Kalidasan who was still waving the flag, “I am his assistant.”

He made it sound impressive and important.

“Are you married?” said one of the younger woman in the group, winking at him, licking her lips with her tongue.

Had Nagappan been fair skinned, people would have said he blushed. He quickly turned away from her. Something told him that she was trouble. Facing the men in the group he repeated his request.

“Ticket please?”

“I have a ticket.” One of the men in the group volunteered.

Nagappan reached for the stub the man held out. It was a ticket, but Nagappan was not sure for what. There was a message printed on it in some strange language. There was the number five and a rupee sign printed next to it. Nagappan turned it around and looked at it from all directions.

“What is this?” said Nagappan.

“Ticket,” said the man

“Ticket for what?”

“Bus ticket,” said the man.

Nagappan sighed.

“I want to see the ticket for the train journey.”

“Oh! The train tickets?” said the man.

“Yes! Show me the train ticket,” said Nagappan, “You got down from that train. You need to buy tickets to travel on a train.”

“No. We do not want to buy any train tickets. Thank you,” said the man refusing politely.

“I am not offering to sell you tickets!” said Nagappan, “You have to buy tickets, before you get on the train.”

Kalidasan, the station master saw that his un-official second in command was getting no-where in the discussions. He now stepped in.

“Do you know that travelling without a ticket on a train is an offence? You can be jailed for this!”

Kalidasan said it in a loud voice. He meant to cover the whole group in that tone.

“Do they still provide food three times a day in jail?” a man in the group asked his friend standing beside him.

“Yes, but they will make you work,” said another man in the group who had recently got out. “When I was there, I got to eat an egg once a week.”

“That is nice.” His friend replied.

“All of us cannot fit into one cell” someone in the group observed.

“They separate the men from the women,” said the recently released man.

“That must be boring,” said the young woman, the winker. She was still eyeing Nagappan and moving in.

“Saar, why do you not grow a moustache?” said the winker who had by now managed to get close to Nagappan without him noticing it, “You will look a lot better. Manlier!”

Nagappan jumped aside. He knew something had to be done about this lot before things got out of hand.

He went up to Kalidasan his boss and said, “Saar! We have to clear these people off the platform. The passengers for the Mumbai train will be arriving soon.”

Station Master Kalidasan said, “You are right. We will deal with them later.”

The two walked back to attend to the more important task at hand.

One of the few trains that stopped at the station was the Mumbai express. Twice a week, it ran from Kanyakumari and went all the way up to Mumbai. The next station after Neyyarinkara on the route was Trivandrum, which was the capital city for the state. The train came practically empty to Neyyarinkara. This was not the case at the next station. A large number of passenger would board from Trivandrum.  It was comparatively easy to book tickets and board in Neyyarinkara. This was the only reason people came to this tiny railway station.
The halt was for two minutes. In that brief period, the passengers had to find their compartments. This required running along the length of the train with the ticket in hand. The next step was to get in with all the luggage by pushing and shoving through a sea of other passengers.  Once in every member of the family was to be accounted for. Now luggage and family in tow, the walk down a narrow passage to find your seat started. All this while it was important to pray to God that no one else was occupying your seats! Thankfully, the Mumbai express only came to Neyyarinkara twice a week.

The train was scheduled to arrive at eleven thirty a.m. The train passengers started arriving by ten a.m. Mumbai was the commercial capital of the country. The city of opportunity and dreams – Mumbai attracted people like sweets attracted flies.

The Mumbai Express had air-conditioned, sleeper and general compartments. The difference between them besides the facilities was in the ticket price. This difference could also be seen in their passengers.  The AC compartment passengers wore costly clothes and dragged along designer luggage bags. The passengers of the sleeper classes came dressed more sensibly with their luggage packed in an assortment of bags, polythene covers and carry all’s. The general rule in India is that for every person travelling, five of his relative’s tag along to the railway station.

The Mumbai express was on time. Within the first minute itself most of the passengers had clambered aboard and found their seats. Kalidasan flagged off the train. He prided himself on his record of keeping trains on time. The teary-eyed relatives who had come to see off their loved ones departed. By eleven forty-five a.m. the main portion of the platform was again deserted.

The group of gypsies had gathered in a circle towards the end of the platform. The women were sitting and the men standing around them. The children were running around the group, chasing each other. The men looked at the facilities in the station. It had a strong and sturdy roof. There were water taps – which functioned and there were a lot of open space nearby. The discussed between themselves and quickly reached a decision. This was their new home.

“Saar! What do we do with these people?” said Nagappan.

“Not now, Naga! First let us have a cup of tea. Has Nannu opened his shop? Ask him to send in two cups of tea,” said Kalidasan, “and also some sweet buns.”

Nannu owned the only refreshment shop on the station. The other commercial enterprise on the platform was a newspaper stand. Nannu ’s son Kuttapan was the owner of this establishment. Father and son were not on talking terms.

“Two cups of tea and two sweet buns”, said Nagappan to Nannu, “bring it to the Station master’s cabin.”

As Nagappan walked back to the station masters cabin he saw the members of the group take out sheets and spreading them out on the platform.

“You cannot spread your things here.” Said Nagappan.

“This place is empty. We just need a little space,” said one of the men.

“No! you cannot live on a railway platform. This is government property,” said Nagappan.

“Where will we go Saar!” an old woman in the group said. Her face was full of wrinkles and she had gaps in her teeth.

“How do I know?” said Nagappan, “Go anywhere you want but you cannot stay on this platform.”

The members of the group began to grumble and discuss amongst themselves. After a few minutes they began picking up their things and started walking away from the platform. Nagappan was happy. He had made them move out. Eager to tell the station master about it he rushed back.

“I made them leave!” he said almost shouting the words out. Station master Kalidasan was sipping his tea and spilled some of it on his clean white trousers as he received this news.

“Let me see,” said the station master and went towards the door of his cabin and peeked out.

The news proved to be correct. The platform was again empty.

“Good work Naga! Now drink your tea before it gets cold.”

They drank tea occasionally dipping the sweet buns in it. They did this while reading the morning newspapers. This was their daily morning routine. The next train was a goods train that passed at twelve. Then there were no trains on the route for the rest of the day.

The weekend passed peacefully. Three trains of which two were goods passed each day through Neyyarinkara. The Kanyakumari Express came in at six a.m. The first goods train, India 10 passed at twelve and the second, India 33 passed at seven thirty p.m.  Kalidasan and Nagappan would reach the station half an hour before the scheduled time. Fifteen minutes after the last train for the day had passed and once they had received the message that it had reached the next station, they would leave locking the station doors.

Every day Nagappan came to the station on his bicycle. On his way he would pass by the house of Kalidasan. The station master would be waiting for him at the gates with his lunch box in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other. Nagappan would remove his tiffin box which was attached to the back seat and hand it to the station master. Kalidasan would take both the tiffin boxes, put them in a cloth bag, place the folded newspaper in the bag and climb on the seat behind Nagappan. Then Nagappan would cycle his boss to the office.

It was five thirty in the morning as the two railway employees arrived at the railway station. The black sky in the east was giving way to a reddish hue. The street lights were still on as they reached the station gates. Kalidasan jumped off the back of the cycle while Nagappan locked his cycle in the cycle stand.

“What is that?” said Kalidasan.

“What is what?”

“That,” said Kalidasan point in the darkness.

Nagappan looked in the direction. A couple of huts had come up on the open ground near the station.

“That was not there yesterday,” said Nagappan.

The two went up to check. As they neared they realized it was the same group that had landed at the station a few days back.

“Those people have come back. They are setting up a full-fledged colony here,” said Nagappan.

“What do you want?” a man’s voice called out from one of the huts.

“Why are you people still here?” said Kalidasan.

“This is not your railway station. This is open land. You cannot ask us to leave.” Said another voice in a tone of defiance. A few men came out. There was silence for a few minutes.

“Saar! I think they are right,” said Nagappan, “This land does not belong to the Railways. We cannot tell them to leave.”

Kalidasan nodded his head. The two walked back to the station. The Kanyakumari Express was due in ten minutes. Nagappan unlocked the station gates and they started their days work.

Days passed and the huts remained where they were. During the day the men would go through Neyyarinkara doing odd jobs in an effort to make some money. The women and children stayed behind. The group would fetch water from the taps on the platform. At first Nagappan thought of driving them away but then allowed them on humanitarian grounds. Months passed way.

Every year the rains came in June and that year was no different. The rain God worked over time and opened up his bounty on the village in the first week itself. It poured continuously. The fields turned into ponds and the rivulets into rivers. The Neyyar, the river which flowed through the village, overflowed and broke its banks.

One Tuesday morning Kalidasan was busy preparing his reports when the phone started ringing. It was the senior Station Master from Trivandrum. The airport at Trivandrum was flooded and flights had been cancelled. A senior government official who was scheduled to travel to Mumbai by air, and his family members were stuck in Neyyarinkara. The family would be travelling on the Mumbai Express. Kalidasan was tasked to make arrangements for them. He was asked to ensure that the family was not inconvenienced in any way.

Kalidasan put the report aside and ran out of his cabin. He called up Nagappan. As Nagappan came running the Station Master noticed the gypsies, huddled in a corner of the platform.

“What are they doing here?” said Kalidasan.

“It is the rain, Saar! Last night’s downpour has washed away their huts. They are waiting for the rain to stop.”

“What a time for them to them to come and occupy the platform!” said Kalidasan. He quickly summarized the message he had received. He added some instructions.

“Ask Nannu to keep a pot of tea ready. Also ask him to keep some good quality biscuits, snacks and bottles of water separately. Have him take out the cutlery and also wash it properly. It should be spotless. Naga, I want you to personally check everything. Ask Kuttapan the newspaper stand owner to keep some of the latest film magazines in my cabin. Borrow a sofa from the nearest furniture store. Tell them we would return it by twelve!”

The two went off in different directions. Nagappan went to get the cutlery, biscuits and the magazines. While Kalidasan went on to clear up the mess in his cabin. He arranged the tables, swept the floor and even wiped the windows!  By the time the arrangements were in place it was nine fifty a.m. and time for the regular passengers to arrive.

The V.I.P ’s arrived in a fleet of cars with a police escort.    The local police station had been alerted and the entire force was there blaring sirens clearing the way. As the cars came to a halt outside the station Kalidasan and Nagappan were present there to receive them. The official was accompanied by his wife and two children. Kalidasan in his enthusiasm offered the dignitary his hand to shake.

The official did not shake the hand instead he told Kalidasan, “Get the luggage.”

“Yes Sir!” said Kalidasan.

Nagappan stepped in to save his boss the indignity and went to collect the luggage. The family had a large number of suitcases and bags. The police constables in the escort party helped with the remaining pieces of the baggage.

Meanwhile, Kalidasan took them to his cabin and offered them the tea and biscuits.

“It is so stuffy in here!” said the official’s wife.

She was dressed in a silk sari and wore a sleeveless blouse. She was carrying a costly hand bag. The smell from her perfume filled up the station masters cabin. Kalidasan had never seen a woman in a sleeveless blouse before, nor for that matter had he ever seen someone carry a handbag in the village. He tried hard not to stare.

“Madam! Please take some magazines,” said Kalidasan.

“How many people are there in this office?” said the official as he looked around the tiny room now more cramped with a sofa placed on one side.

“There are only two people here Sir! I am the station master Kalidasan Rajendran.  We have a licensed porter at this station, Nagappan.

The official nodded his head. The toilet in his office was bigger than this cabin.

“What time does the train arrive?” said

“Sir! it comes in at eleven thirty a.m.” said Kalidasan. He had hardly completed his sentence when the phone rang. The train was on its way to Neyyarinkara.

“Sir! it would be reaching here in five minutes.”

Kalidasan expected the official to get up and start walking towards the platform. Instead he took up a magazine from the heap and began leafing through its pages. His wife had already started reading a movie magazine, while the children were helping themselves to the snacks on the table. Kalidasan bit his lips nervously. The train would be there in a minute.

“Sir I will have the luggage placed at the spot where the air-conditioned coaches would be stopping.” He said and rushed out of the cabin.

He ran out and instructed Nagappan to carry the luggage towards the spot where the compartments stopped. The police constables and even the inspector helped him. By the time they had set all the pieces of luggage down the train pulled in. Kalidasan looked back but the V.I.P family was nowhere in sight. He ran back to his cabin. The regular passengers had started running and scrambling in their efforts to get in.

“Sir! the train has arrived. Your luggage is in place,” said Kalidasan.

He could not ask this senior official to start walking towards the train. The official showed a total lack of concern. Minutes passed. It was time to flag off the train. Kalidasan started to sweat.

“Sir! I hope your stay here was comfortable!”

The official snorted. He got up and gestured at his wife who was absorbed in the magazine in her hand. Reluctantly she got up. She calmly collected the magazines and started walking towards the door.

“Come on children!” she said.

The children took a couple of packets of the snacks and the bottles of water and followed her. As the passengers on the train and those on the platform looked on, the official and his family members walked at a leisurely gait towards their compartment. Nagappan had by then placed all the luggage inside and was waiting for them along with the policemen. The police inspector saluted and the family got on the train. By the time Kalidasan had flagged off the Mumbai express, it was ten minutes late. It was the first time that a train had got delayed at his station.

“What is the total expense we incurred on this visit?” said Kalidasan.

“Five movie magazines, three children’s comics. Three packets of snacks were consumed. Five packets of snacks were taken. One packet of biscuits was opened and half consumed. One tea cup was dropped on the floor and has cracked. Three bottles of bottled drinking water were also taken. I will get the exact rates from Nannu and Kuttapan. My guess is, it will come to about five hundred rupees.”

Kalidasan shook his head in dismay, “I am not sure how I will show this expenditure.”

Half an hour later the phone rang again. As Kalidasan listen he felt dizzy. He collapsed at his chair.

“What happened Sir!” said Nagappan as he saw the look on the station managers face.

“The official’s wife’s hand bag is missing,” said Kalidasan, “Oh God! What will I do now?”

He had hardly finished the sentence when the police jeeps were back. Inspector Gopalan and his men rushed down and came into the cabin.

“The official’s wife clearly remembers that she had the bag with her when she left the cabin, so you do not need to worry, Kalidasan,” said the Inspector.

Kalidasan heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Then it must be somewhere on the platform.”

They all rushed out and began searching.

There was nothing on the platform. Then Inspector Gopalan saw the group of gypsies huddled in a corner.

“Were they here when the family arrived?” said Inspector Gopalan.

“Yes, they have been here since this morning. They live in huts across the station. Yesterday night’s rain washed away their huts.”

Gopalan signaled to his men and they swooped down on the group. Within minutes a police van came and the whole group was taken to the police station to be questioned.

“Saar! Do you think those people would have taken the hand bag? I was there near the luggage the whole time. They never came anywhere close to us. The policemen were also there with me.”

“I do not know Naga. I have no idea what happened.”

Later that night as the two were preparing to leave the phone began ringing. It was Inspector Gopalan. The bag was recovered. It was found between some bed sheets on the train. It had slipped from the official’s wife’s hand and she had panicked thinking it was lost. Gopalan said that he was letting the gypsies go. There was no need now to keep them in jail.

Kalidasan and Nagappan did not say anything as they went home that night.

The next morning as Kalidasan opened the ticket counter he saw a man from the gypsies group standing.

“Saar! Give me eight full and five half tickets for Kanyakumari.”

The man handed over the money for the tickets.

As Nagappan came in he saw the group walking towards the train. The woman the one who had winked at him, looked at him and said, “Saar, do not grow a moustache. You do not have the strength to carry it!”

As the train halted the men loaded their belongings.  One by one they all got in. No one turned to look at the place they were leaving. They knew they were not coming back.

“Saar, I got you some tea,” said Nagappan as he placed two cups on the table.

The two sat in the small cabin sipping tea. After some minutes of silence Nagappan said, “Saar! Do you think what happened was right? The gypsies did not steal anything and yet they were forced to leave this place. The official and his wife took away magazines and snacks worth hundreds and we end up paying for that from our pockets! It just does not make any sense.”

Kalidasan sighed.

“Naga, that is life. You still have a lot to learn. Now please can you open all the windows in this cabin. That perfume from yesterday’s visit is still floating around in this room. I want some clean air to come in.”