I waited on the platform. All around me there was noise. A baby was crying out somewhere. Three college going youngsters were screaming after a passing interstate train. A small girl moved around with a basket screaming out the rates. The local chaiwalla was engaged in a word match with a local drunkard. The platform was in a mess. I mused as I looked around. The chaiwalla was just adding crushed ginger pieces to his kettle. The aroma spread throughout the platform. People turned to look. I bit my lip in hesitation. Two minutes later, I had one of the most delicious cups of cutting chai in my hands. My hands shivered in the chill.
One old lady was crying on a bench. Somehow, she didn’t look out of place. Tears were falling freely down her cheeks, and she made no effort to wipe them away. A classic example of acceptance of the worst, I gazed at her and understood. I checked my watch. The train should be five minutes away I decided. Sure enough, the announcement came and I geared up for the usual scuffle. The train came accompanied by all its usual sounds and aches. There was no scuffle, I realized after I got in. Sunday. It is funny how you don’t realize what day of the week it is sometimes. It’s like what Anita Desai said. My life had subsided into the backwaters.
I sat down next to the window and slipped a cigarette between my lips. The old man in front of me gave me a stern look. “You mustn’t smoke in public places,” he told me. I stared back at him. He reminded me of my father. “I’m sorry sir,” I said, and put the cigarette back in its case. I desperately needed a smoke. ‘Later,’ I said to myself.
I looked out of the grill. The city was whizzing past at the speed of sixty kilometers an hour. I felt blank and empty. Maybe I was just bored. The train was like the younger me. Surging through the tracks of life, every step with a burst of energy, meeting people on platforms, taking them on its journey, dropping them and moving on. I was always moving on. What happened then? What happens to trains that stop moving? Are they turned to scrap?
I desperately needed that smoke now. My fingers kept twitching and I touched my pocket to feel the reassuring corners of my case. I looked across at the old man. He was staring at me. I turned away self consciously.
“How old are you?” His voice was a deep rumble. Maybe he was in the army.
“I don’t know… Thirty or something. Why?” I disliked this man.
“And already given up on hope, son? Life is not all hurdles. There are breaks. You cannot give up.” Yes. He was exactly like my father.
“Right,” I replied. I did not appreciate his sermon.
“How long have you been smoking?” he asked.
“What’s it to you?” I expected a row. He really seemed like a retired army general or at least a cop. He broke into a smile. “I’m just making conversation son. It is a long journey. So, how long have you been smoking?” His eyes pierced into mine. He must have been an interrogating officer.
“Five years now.” I relented. His eyebrows arched slightly. Five years was big in his book.
“Are you a retired cop or something?”
“I was in the army, yes. I retired of course.”
“My father was in the army, too.” I couldn’t help noticing that I as the one making conversation now.
“I know,” he winked. “You look exactly like him.”
I gaped at him. So he knew my father. And if he was still in touch with the old man, he probably knew my situation as well. Damn.
He took out his briefcase and placed it on the empty seat next to him. He fished out an old photograph from the first compartment and handed it over to me. Three young generals stood in attention while a Chief awarded them.
“We were promoted that day. The man in the middle, General Sharma, do you know him?”
“Yes,” I replied, my eyes still glued to the photograph. “Father still talks about him,” I continued without looking up.
“Everyone who knew him, talks about him. He was a great man. And do you know why, son?” His eyebrows arched again. “Resilience. That man fought everyday of life with vigor and courage. And he never, ever lost hope.”
I knew where this was going. And I had no desire to talk today. “Are you here to visit my father?” I enquired.
“Yes, he called me. He wished that I speak to you.” His tone had a sort of finality to it.
I laughed. I should have guessed it. “I’m sure he’ll be pleased.” I said.
He shifted forward. His elbows were perched on the corner of his knees, and his fingers coiled around each other. I prepared for the usual, well rehearsed sermon. “Life is all about such setbacks, my boy. Life will always give you hurdles. It will always be a battle for survival. But do you know what makes you win this battle?” He paused for a breath. His eyebrows were knit in concentration. This time, I raised my eyebrows. “Hope. You cannot lose hope. Hope will take you through everything and keep you alive and kicking till the end. Believe, young man, believe. Believe in ……” I was distracted.
I stared out of the window. There was a butterfly fluttering along the window. It gave me relief to look at it. I kept staring. The butterfly kept fluttering. Then it came and perched on the window sill. It had yellow wings with black streaks. The sunlight made a webbed shadow of the creature on my palm. It was a tender scene. I’d never felt more relaxed. Suddenly, it hopped, and flew out. A fast local came from the other direction and hit it. That was my life story as I knew it, I decided. I turned back to the old general. He was looking at me with a strange sort of tenderness in his eyes.
I smiled at him. He did not smile back. “Next station, Sir,” I whispered.
He got up with me and carried his briefcase to the door. Life is full of hurdles, he is right, I thought. But when all the hurdles come at the same time, how do you really deal with it? You just go on, I suppose, till death shows its presence at your doorstep. “The last enemy that will be defeated is death.” Honestly, I’ll probably just welcome him with open arms.
Two things.. 1> I wrote this story when i was really depressed. So.. No need to worry.
and 2> The butterfly analogy/symbolization is not my idea. Its Suvidhy’s and he’s a mate. A million thanks to him.