On weekday evenings around 8:05, it is veritable bedlam at the Howrah Railway Station, Kolkata, India. The commuting crowds in their thousands run around like scurrying rabbits, jostling and shoving and pushing like maniacs, to catch their homebound trains. They come to Kolkata to earn their living. This railway station, popularly called Howrah, is one of the two that connect this city to the rest of the country. With twenty or so platforms, it can handle several inbound and outbound trains at the same time.
I am from Laheriasarai, an obscure sleepy little town in northern India, about 400 miles northwest from Kolkata. A typical fifteen year old not-so-mature Indian boy, I have come to Mankundu on my school break to spend a couple of weeks with my cousin and his family. He has an auto parts business in Kolkata, a 40-minute commute by train. This is my first trip out of home, so I am a little nervous.
There isn’t much for me to do in Mankundu. Except for my cousin’s mother, his wife and their one year-old son, I know no one else. Rather than sit at home and get bored, I go with him to Kolkata every morning. Occasionally, he takes me around the sightseeing spots in the city, but generally, I sit in his office watching him conduct his business and return to Mankundu together at the end of the day. But, on this day, he’ll be late going home, so he asks me to return alone.
“I’ll get lost,” I say.
For me, Kolkata is huge, beyond anything I had ever imagined before. When I first laid my eyes on its teeming crowds and the congested and chaotic traffic, navigating through its reticulated network of roads, I was mesmerized.
“You won’t get lost,” my cousin assures me and writes down the directions on a piece of paper and tells me to follow them to the dot.
I take the Howrah-bound cable car from Dharmatolla Road, one of the major thoroughfares in Kolkata, just as my cousin has advised. At five minutes to 8, the cable car reaches Howrah. According to my cousin, the Mankundu-bound train will depart from Platform #4 at 8:05. “It always leaves from Platform #4 at this time,” he tells me. I rush headlong into the station as soon as the cable car drops us off. I see a train at Platform #4. There is a long line of would-be passengers at the ticket counter, and, since, by this time, I have less than 4 minutes to catch the train, I decide I’ll buy the ticket on-board the train.
“What time will this train depart?” I ask the train conductor standing at Platform #4.
“8:05,” he says. This confirms what my cousin told me about the departure time.
I get on the train and fight my way through the throng of passengers to a vacant seat.
Exactly at 8:05 the train starts to snail out of the platform. Being a commuter train, it will stop at every station it passes by to drop off and pick up passengers. There are several such stops before Mankundu. I keep an eye out for the names of the stations the train passes so as not to miss mine.
The compartment is sardine-packed. There are no vacant seats anymore. People are standing shoulder-to-shoulder clinging on to the straphangers. Some are hanging outside the compartment like bats holding on to the handle bars. It is quiet inside. At the end of the day, people must be too tired to kick up conversations with strangers. An occasional peddler roams the cars hawking his wares. I open my newspaper and try to catch up with what is already old news. I didn’t have any lunch. Except for a few rounds of tea and cookies in the cousin’s office, I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. My cousin’s wife is a good cook. Every meal she prepares is sumptuous. I look forward to a nice meal when I get home.
Just as soon as the train leaves Sheoraphuli station, the ticket collector shows up to check the passengers’ tickets. By my calculation, I am still about 30-minutes from Mankundu.
“Can I see your ticket, please?” he asks, stretching his hand toward me.
“I’ll have to get it now. I didn’t have the time to buy it at the station,” I say.
“Where are you headed?” he asks.
I give him the money, and he gives me the ticket and moves on.
“This train is going to Tarakeswar, not Mankundu,” the fellow sitting next to me says as soon as the ticket collector leaves. I know that after Sheoraphuli, the lines fork and the trains go either to Tarakeswar or Mankundu, not both.
I remember what my parents had told me before I left Laheriasarai: “Be careful in the trains because there will be crooks prowling around to swindle gullible passengers.” I have heard many stories about scheming thugs in and around Kolkata, so I am thinking perhaps the guy sitting next to me is trying to trick me. After all, I am only 15 and look even younger.
“You should get off the train at the next station and take a train going in the opposite direction,” he says.
“But there isn’t any train going that way until tomorrow morning,” the guy sitting next to him says.
I don’t say anything to either of the two guys and try not to show what I am going through in my mind. I don’t want to believe them, but my heart starts to thump. In spite of all the warnings that have been pumped into my head, I feel there may be some truth in what they are saying. It is only a few minutes after 8 p.m. If what they are saying is true, it will be a long wait for me through the night before I will get to Mankundu! Where will I go at this time? I don’t know the area. Do I have to spend the night on the station platform? My aunt, cousin and his wife will be so worried about me! They don’t have a phone at home, so there is no way to contact them.
As these thoughts are swirling through my mind, the train reaches the next station. Without saying anything to anybody, not even thanking my well-wishers sitting next to me, I stand up like a zombie, and, unmindful of the consequences of what may be in store for me, I push through the crowd and get off the train. I am the only one to get off at this stop. A few seconds later, the train leaves.
The name of the station is Diyara. I have never heard of it. It appears to be a small station and is completely deserted. In the middle of the platform to one side is the station master’s office. He’s the one who sells tickets and takes care of the comings and goings of the trains. The station is surrounded on all sides by thick dark wooded areas which look even darker because of the moonless night. The platform is dimly lit by low wattage bulbs atop light poles.
I take hurried steps toward the station master’s office and stand in front of its only ticket counter. There is no one manning it. I peer through the window. It is quite small inside. Someone is sleeping on a cot in one corner. I guess it must be the station master. I try to wake him up by tapping on the window, but he tries to wave me away. I persist.
“What do you want?” he says, visibly annoyed.
“I need a ticket for Mankundu.”
“Come back tomorrow morning. The next train leaves at 6:30,” he is about to go back to sleep, but I interrupt him.
“Is there any other way to get to Mankundu tonight?” I ask, my voice subdued with concealed fear and nervousness.
“If you follow the track through the woods on the left of the platform and walk about two miles, you may find a bus,” he says. “I’m not sure you’ll find one at this time, though.”
“Is there a hotel nearby?” I ask.
“No,” he goes back to sleep.
I am thinking the man on the train was right after all. There is no train going back tonight.
On summer afternoons during school breaks in Laheriasarai, I had walked in the woods with my friends many times and had, in fact, enjoyed those walks. But, this is different. The night is pitch-dark, and the woods are dense and deep and eerily threatening. The silence is punctuated occasionally by the susurrus and frog calls. I don’t entertain any thought of embarking on a two mile trek through these woods.
Obviously, this station is in the middle of nowhere. There is no human habitation anywhere as far as my eyes can see. My heart sinks at the prospect of having to wait out the night alone on the platform. The low wattage bulbs atop the light poles aren’t doing much to dilute the darkness. I don’t have a book I could try to read. In the confusion of worries just before I got off the train, I left my newspaper on-board. Fortunately, there are a few benches on the platform. Fatigued and exhausted, both mentally and physically, I lie down on one of them and try to get a handle on my bearings. I am carrying a fair amount of cash in my wallet and wearing an expensive imported watch. These would be reasons enough for a robbery anywhere, more so in this tiny little deserted outpost. I am worried about my cousin and his family worrying about me, wondering where I am and what is happening to me. I am cursing him for forcing me to return alone despite my fears and reluctance to do so.
The night trudges along slowly, still many hours to go before the break of dawn. Reclined on the bench, between being alert and exhausted, I must have dozed off. I am awakened by the choppy cacophony of approaching voices. These are the voices of a group of six teenagers engaged in loud discussions about something I can’t decipher. With my arms raised skyward and slowly swiveling them behind my back, I stretch, letting out a quiet yawn, and pretend to be someone waiting for a soon-to-arrive train. I am chilled with fears of being mugged and robbed by a gang of young thugs, but I fake a look of blithe unconcern and fearlessness. The teenagers are headed in my direction. I brace myself for the final drama of my life, the denouement of hours of misadventure, my metamorphosis into a bundle of bloodied flesh and bones that will be discovered in the slow unfolding soft light of dawn by some hurried passenger scurrying to catch the day’s first train. As the gang comes closer, the faces of my cousin and his family, and of my parents and my siblings I said goodbye to not too long ago, flash before my mind’s eye, and the pain of not being able to see them one last time well up inside me like a volcanic eruption. I feel an ache thinking they will never know whatever happened to their loving little boy. I take my wallet out of my pocket and put it on the bench next to me and take off the watch and place it next to it. As the gang gets closer, I am ready to part with my worldly possessions and rest my faith and hope in their kindness to let me keep my body and soul in one piece.
They are about ten feet from me now, their quick shuffling paces turn into slow strides, their chattering only a wave of muffled voices, and the hand gestures that accompany those muffled voices resemble a ballerina’s hand movements. And, now they are on my left, within easy reach of me. But, they don’t stop. Instead, they throw a casual sideways glance at me and move on. I don’t make any eye contact. With one more leisurely stride, they walk past me, their muffled voices gradually returning to choppy chattering as before, and, their hand gestures once again accompany their ongoing discussions.
Emboldened by a guarded confidence that I might survive the night after all, I put the wallet back in my pocket and put on the watch and go back to waiting out the night. For a while, time seems to be poised at one point, but then I must have dozed off because when I wake up, the dawn is stirring on the woods beyond, and the commuters have started filing in on the platform. I walk up to the station master’s office and peer through the window. He seems to be getting ready to start the day. I take my position in the line to buy my ticket.
The Mankundu bound train arrives exactly at 6:30 as the station master had told me the night before. Before boarding, I ask him and several passengers to make sure it is the train that will take me to Mankundu. The last thing I want to do is to take the wrong train again and get tossed around like a shuttlecock.
There are many empty seats in the train unlike during the rush hours at Howrah. I can pick and choose. After a brief stop, the train leaves.
In about 30 minutes, spent and sleepy, I am back at my cousin’s home in Mankundu.
“Where the hell had you been all night?” my aunt greets me as soon as I step inside the house.
“I need a cup of hot tea before I can talk,” I say.