With a loud, lethargic groan, the train had finally started to chug along. There were a number of hawkers rushing towards the compartment door after hurriedly closing their final deals. One of them had dropped a five rupee coin and was scampering along the floor, wildly searching for the elusive metal. A middle-aged man, the father of two kids sitting right in front, who had got down to refill the water bottle, came rushing up the platform before finally pulling himself in. Another groan, short and shrill, and we were heading out of a remote station named Madpur.
Five o’ clock in the evening, and it had already started to grow dark. I was travelling to Kolkata which was still a good two hours away.
My neck was starting to hurt for staring out constantly through the window. I turned to survey the inside of the carriage. It was a chair car with all seats facing one end of the tube. The crowd had thinned, although there were still five or six people left standing at the doorway. Two of them were college kids who had seats but preferred to stand and talk. There was another group of three people engaged in some discussion. They had probably got in at the last station. One of them was an albino with a bright green shirt, cutting a prominent figure in the crowd. Very soon, they wrapped up their discussion, looked up at the compartment, scouting perhaps for empty seats and then proceeded towards the other bogies. I was left surveying the scene, even as the elderly couple sitting by me slept on with nary a care in the world.
That’s when I saw him. A skinny guy of average height had entered our bogie; a bag in his hand. With a lopsided gait, he took a few steps into the cabin and then dropped the heavy bag on the floor. He fished his hand into the bag, procured a total of four books, and turned to face the people sitting in the first three rows.
“Novel, novel – thriller, romance, comedy, tragedy, all kinds of novel … Jeffrey Archer, Paulo Coelho, Dan Brown, Wodehouse – all kinds of authors.”
When had I last spotted books being sold in the train? I clearly didn’t remember.
In the meantime, our bookseller had started displaying more of his collection to the largely listless crowd. Some of them were beginning to show interest. “I doubt he even knows who Wodehouse is” I heard the father in the front row tell his kids.
I looked at my watch. Another hour and a half to go. I needed to pass time.
“Dada” I turned to the bookseller as he neared my seat, “Have you got any travel books?”
He turned to look at me, a faint glint in his eyes.
“This – My Trips to Netarhat – this is an excellent book, unknown author, local story – but excellent book I tell you. Hundred rupees only.” He handed me a thin paperback with a blurred cover page. I could note it was a pirated copy. The summary on the back page comprised just two lines.
“Can you tell me something about -?”
“I will tell you. But first I’ll tell you about Netarhat. It’s a beautiful place – amazing sunset. Must visit. You will visit after reading this book I know.” Whoa! Some confidence the man had. With that, in his near-broken English, he gave me a proper synopsis of the story. Despite not wanting to admit, I was actually pleased.
But I had long harboured this policy of not purchasing pirated books. Writers needed their due. I ended up not making a purchase. If he was disappointed, he didn’t show it on the face. Rather, before moving forward, he smiled and urged me to visit Netarhat nonetheless.
The train rumbled on. More hawkers crossed our compartment – jhaal-moodhi, samosa-wada, misti-doi, and back to jhaal-moodhi*. A number of beggars passed. One of them, a guy who at first sight didn’t seem to have anything wrong with him, actually went on asking for money from each and every passenger. He collected a hefty amount and left for the next bogie.
Right when it struck six, our bogie was suddenly filled with Mohammed Rafi’s voice.
“Likhe jo khat tujhe, wo teri yaad me …”**
I looked around for the source of this beautiful music. It didn’t take me long to find that out. There was a man with a microphone who had just entered the cabin. He had a familiar face – I had definitely seen him somewhere. But it couldn’t be him singing. This was Rafi for real, and I knew it. Trying to catch him in the trick, I focussed my attention on the man – the mouth and the mike. As he was passing by our seat, I noticed to my horror that he had a wooden stump in place of one of his legs. A little while later, he stopped midway. I had caught him.
“He isn’t actually singing, is he?” asked the lady to her husband. The couple had woken up.
“He is”, I told her. I had caught him in the act of performing Rafi nothing like I had ever heard before. A number of middle-aged folk had stood up to listen to him. There was a general appreciation throughout.
He sang two more songs for us, before he turned around going from row to row. Some people handed him ten rupee notes. Most didn’t bother. I was in a fix. I wanted to give him something, but my wallet along with my bag was kept in the top rack somewhere. I hesitated, and the moment was gone. Rafi had left.
We were nearing the final destination. But something kept stinging me repeatedly. In the minutes after our singer had left, some amount of guilt had accumulated inside of me.
I walked up to the basin, washed my face and stood near the door feeling the air on my face. That’s when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a fellow in a bright green shirt flash past. The pigment was missing from his skin; his hair was brown. It was the same guy I had seen an hour back near the doorway.
He walked to the front of the compartment with measured, powerful steps, and a face contorted dramatically, reminding of a circus ringmaster.
SWISH – and he had turned around with a flourish. It was time for a magic show.
Kids stood up on their seats, while rest of the folks craned their necks even as the conjurer turned a rope into a stick, made the contents of a book disappear, made a whole bottle of Coca-Cola disappear, and ended it all with a brilliant vanishing the ring act. A smattering of applause hit the air. Terrific the show was. Before another thing could happen, I took hold of my wallet, secured six hundred rupee notes from it, and promptly handed it to the magician.
On feeling the notes, he looked up at me. “Thank you” he said with a smile.
“Brilliant act”, I told him.
The train arrived at Santragachi five minutes later. This was my alighting station. I got down and proceeded towards the nearest set of chairs. Uncle, who was supposed to pick me up, was stuck in traffic.
With nothing to do I looked around only to find three people at a distance, sitting on the platform floor, engaged in conversation – the bookseller, the singer, and the magician. Now did I remember – I had seen the trio getting up at that station called Madpur. I readied my ears to catch bits of their talk. I didn’t have to; they were loud enough.
“Four hundred” told the singer. He had his only leg stretched, giving it some much needed rest.
“Three hundred, bad day for business … what will I tell them at home?” told the bookseller.
The guilt within me that had seemingly vanished in the past couple of minutes, returned, and returned with full force. What did I think? That I was making up for my mistake by over-compensating for it the next time? Here were three men trying to make a living while leading a life of dignity. And all I cared for was the difference me-not-purchasing-a-pirated-book made!
My insides went hollow. There was no making up for a mistake. I needed to live with that, and hope not to repeat it again.
“Here” said the magician, “Take these two hundred. Return me on my bad days.” He had offered four hundred of his earnings to the other two.
“No, we can’t, we –”
“I told you, return me some other day.” And he had successfully forced the money on them. “For now, I want some of Rafi magic.” The singer’s face broke into a genuinely happy, grateful smile. The bookseller joined in.
A stunned me left the station with “Yeh duniya, yeh mehfil”** ringing in the ears, feeling considerably lighter in the heart.
*There are food items sold in the train, especially in Eastern India. Jhaal moodhi is bhel or puffed rice mixed with spices; samosa and vada are fried Indian snacks; misti doi is sweet curd.
** Hindi songs by the great Indian playback singer Mr. Mohammed Rafi
Sourav is a marketing post graduate based out of Mumbai, India. A big Harry Potter fan, he loves to write short stories and poetry. In his spare time, he likes to indulge in cartooning, graphics design and daydreaming. A college literary magazine and newsletter editor, Sourav wishes to try things from the other side of the table now.