“8:10:23″ said the digital clock hanging between two metal rods from the asbestos roof.
The two “:” and the last number continued to flash every second and seemed like it would be the last thing to stop on this planet.
Anil climbed down two stairs at a time, making it to the platform just in time for the 8:13 Churchgate fast. Borivali station at this time in the morning was a sea of people. A sea that converged towards the railway tracks when the train arrived. A sea that went into a low tide the moment a train departed. Colours blended within this sea. An individual, for a change, took solace in being a part of this sea. There was a strange sort of comfort in being a part of this fluid mass of aspirations and disappointments.
“8:12:55″ flashed the digital clock. The lady on the speaker system announced the arrival of the next train. He stood at the same spot. A spot he had marked out well in the past 2 years. Two steps to the left of the chai-shop at the back. That’s exactly where the entrance of the train would position itself. The train slowly made its grand metallic entry and the crowd bustled, many entered the train, many got out of the train. Within a few seconds, the train began to pull itself away from this crowd which seemed ready to cling-on to the train if given such a chance.
Anil boarded the train in the same fashion as every other day. A lunch box in one hand and the Marathi newspaper in the other. His cellphone in the right pocket and the wallet in the left. He always kept them that way since it was easier to verify periodically, just in case a pick-pocket decided to try him.
Going a few seconds back in time to the scene at the station just moments after the train’s arrival. Raju and Shankar were two kids living in the small kuccha houses along the railway lines. Raju was 14 and Shankar was 13. They both walked along the rail tracks every day to pick up plastic bags. The kids made fun of Raju since his surname was Gandhi.
“Full name”, they would ask.
“Raju Gandhi”, he would say and they would burst out laughing.
“Gandhi picking plastic bags! Who has heard of that?!”, they would scream and laugh.
That was a joke heard often along the railway tracks.
Raju too would join in the laughter, not quite aware of the significance of his surname in this country.
Today, the two boys stood between the last and the penultimate bogeys of the train. The metal rod connecting the two bogeys was in front of them.
“What are you doing?”, Shankar asked him.
“Tying this thread between the two bogeys”, Raju replied.
“Tell me why.”
Raju quickly tied a small piece of thread from one end of the metal rod to the other. The string appeared to be connecting the two bogeys.
“Today evening, after picking up the bags, we shall wait for this train and check if the thread is still there”, Raju said.
This made Shankar very happy. Happy for a simple reason that he had something to look forward to in the evening.
Anil held the railing in the train with one hand, while his other hand held the lunch box. Sandwiched between his arm and his body was the newspaper. He waited with a little impatience for the train to reach Andheri. Around 6 months ago, he had seen her board this train at the Andheri station. She had noticed him too, but never bothered to acknowledge his presence for over 2 weeks. For 2 weeks the two exchanged glances, and a little bit of tentativeness. Finally, he had made the effort to talk to her when she disembarked at Churchgate. That was 6 months ago. A week later, they had their first meeting near the nimbu-pani walla at Flora Fountain. A month later they were officially girlfriend-boyfriend, as the boys in Anil’s building termed such ‘affairs’.
But today was different. In fact the past one month had been different. She was always too busy to meet him. And whenever she did meet him, she always came along with a colleague.
“Busy cant meet 2day” was the standard SMS that flashed on his cellphone every day for the past week. Today she didn’t board the train at Andheri. He bent a little and looked through the sliding bars of the windows of the moving train. No sign. He dialled her number and rested his cellphone between his ear and shoulder. Busy tone. 5 minutes later, the same SMS.
“I don’t think it is going to work out Anil”, she had told him a few weeks ago
“But why?”, he had stammered and clenched his fist in frustration.
“I just don’t feel it. That’s why.”
“What do you mean you don’t feel it? What about all those walks? Remember our conversations every evening at Juhu? What was that? ”
“What was that dammit. Why dammit. Why?”, Anil was a sensitive person.
“That is how it is Anil, and please stop screaming.”
“Screaming? That is a bother? Oh, sorry, I didn’t know that”
“Behave Anil. We are mature adults”.
“Oh, ofcourse we are. We are bloody adults. We do such things nonchalantly”
“I had never seen this side of you”
“What the…? I am at fault here? Wow, this is great. I am sorry for my flaws lady”
When he lost his anger, it was a little late. She had left in a huff.
After that day, it was the same SMS. Every day. No phone call, no conversations.
She was a nice girl. Conservative to the extent that conservatism was demanded by her family and society. Outgoing and the so-called modern girl. Hard-working and a typical Bombay girl. She knew how to get her way around in this city of mazes. She had risen the hard way to be an assistant sales girl at the fashion boutique in Churchgate. Anil was a nice guy. But not really the kind she wanted. She liked him initially, but he turned out to be a very soft-spoken, docile guy.
She had developed a liking towards him, but was never able to turn that liking into something as powerful as love. After debating a few days with her own self, she had finally broken the news to him.
“18:14:43″, the watch at Borivali continued to do its work. The train from Churchgate arrived. Raju and Shankar waited for the train. The bogeys aligned themselves perfectly so that the metal rod connecting the last two bogeys was exactly where the two boys were standing. The thread was intact. Both took pride in it. An unexplainable thrill overcame the two kids. Their creation had worked. A thread tied by them was actually still there even though the train was out the whole day. Incredible. A rationale mind or the mind of an adult would have been unable to comprehend this strange source of joy. But for the children, this was special. It was something they had let out in the bad world and it had returned un-harmed.
Anil was now frustrated. The whole trauma was taking its toll in his relations with his family and friends. For one last time, he messaged her if she would see her the next day.
She couldn’t convince herself completely that she didn’t really like him. She knew she did. She thought about it all day and finally messaged back – “Sorry for past behavior. Want to meet you. Miss you.”
He replied stoically, “When. Where.”
“Chrchgt stn 5 pm” came the reply.
Anil wore his special shirt. The one that he had got stitched last year just before his first job interview. The lunch box in one hand and the newspaper in the other, he waited at the Borivali station.
“Let me tie the thread today”, Shankar said.
Raju looked at him and stepped back. Shankar tied the thread, muttered a prayer for its safety and stepped back.
The train left the station in an eagerness that seemed to reflect Anil’s sentiments.
Andheri arrived. No sign. A frantic call from her – “Sorry sweetheart, got late. Will reach office late. See you in evening. 5, don’t forget”.
He accepted the apology. His heart settled down to beat at a normal rate.
She had to cook for her younger brother today since her mother was visiting the temple.
“This delay had to happen today”, she muttered to herself. The train was missed and so she waited for the next one. During the day, there was unusually high traffic at the store. Many people shopping for the upcoming festive season. 4:30 and no sign of the end of the day.
5:00 and she was talking to a customer.
Evening came fast for Anil. He reached the station, glanced at his watch and at the big digital clocks all around. 5:00:01 flashed the clock, with the “:” blinking irritatingly with precise regularity. She wanted to call but couldn’t. Anil waited. He knew this was it. She didn’t want to meet.
Boarding the next train to Borivali, he shut off his cellphone in disgust. The train reached Borivali and the kids were there, right next to the tracks.
With smiles on their faces, the two boys ran towards the last two bogeys expectantly. The thread had snapped and was not to be seen. Shankar felt dejected. Raju was disappointed and swore to himself that he wouldn’t allow Shankar to tie it tomorrow.
The train left the station in a slow fashion.
Anil walked back trudgingly towards the overhead bridge.
Raju and Shankar loitered back across the tracks, kicking each others plastic bags in turns.
All three blended into the surroundings and it was difficult to distinctly identify anyone in this sea of people. A sea which gave that much needed solace.