THE LAD AT KATOL RAILWAY STATION
I had a week long stay in the twin city of Secunderabad and Hyderabad to negotiate and select a wholesale dealer for our new product, an electronic household appliance for the region covering the states of Telangana and Andhra. Three bidders had been short listed by the company; I was asked to inspect their showrooms and assess their fiscal worth and report to the board of directors.
I visited all the three dealers and found all three of them nearly good. All of them were fiscally sound and experienced in handling household appliances. It was now for me to recommend one of them following the benchmarks set by the company. I completed the exercise recommending the best of the three bidders.
I was scheduled to return to Nagpur, the next morning. Thus I was free in the evening. I therefore decided to go to Hussain Sagar and take a ride in a speed boat. I just wanted some thrill.
After an exciting time at Hussain Sagar, I reached back my hotel by seven. I had a shower and as I was about to step out for dinner, there was a bell boy at the door.
“Sir, this packet has been delivered for you,” he said handing it over to me.
I was a bit surprised for I knew no one in the town who would send me a gift. I opened the packet and found a classy pearl necklace and a silver hip flask. And to add to my surprise; the hip flask was full of whiskey. I read the card; it was from the bidder who happened to be the one I had recommended.
I was in two minds whether to accept the gifts or not and then I decided to accept them. My logic was simple: I neither favoured any one nor did I ask for them; my conscience was clear.
I made a drink from the whiskey in the silver flask and relished it. I had another drink and then proceeded to the dining hall. My spirits were soaring.
After dinner it suddenly occurred to me that since my work was finished, I could return to Nagpur by one of the night trains. I knew couple of express trains touching Secunderabad late in the evening. I decided to take a chance and rushed to the railway station and bought a ticket for Nagpur.
It is not very uncommon to see trains running late in India. It was therefore pleasantly surprising that the train had arrived on time; big relief in a cold winter evening.
As the Delhi bound super-fast train rolled in, I got into one of the reserved bogies even though I was aware that only passenger with reservation were entitled to enter it. I was confident that I will manage a berth by tipping the conductor.
The conductor was very unfriendly; he grumbled and asked me to wait. However, on his second round he asked me to follow him. We came to the farther end of the coach and before he could open his mouth, I took out a five hundred rupee note and thrust it in his pocket.
The result was that I got a berth. I stretched myself on the berth; happy that I could sleep comfortably. It was ten in the evening; by then most of the passengers had settled; soon I too fell asleep.
And then many of the passengers and I woke up as the train croaked, screeched and stopped with a jolt.
It was dark outside. We learnt that the train had stopped at a way side small station. Everyone was anxious to know the reason. The coach attendant told us that the engine had developed a problem and was required to be replaced and that we may have to wait till a replacement engine arrived from Nagpur, about hundred and fifty kilometres away. That meant we were to wait for three hours after the engine left Nagpur.
It was anyone’s guess as to how much time it might take to find a replacement engine and prime it into active mode.
The station master came out from his small cabin and apologised but had nothing to offer. Since none of the premier trains stopped there, there were no kiosks or vending stalls at the station.
The railway station we had been stranded was Katol; a very small town in the state of Maharastra.
Slowly, the passengers started trickling out. There were very few lights on the low level platform, which even didn’t have cemented flooring. Though I am a lethargic person, I also came out reluctantly.
There were a couple of iron benches on the platform. As I proceeded towards one of them, I saw a man sleeping on a mat by its side, covering himself with a coarse blanket.
“What naivety? Why can’t this bumpkin sleep on the bench?” I was a bit amused.
“Well everyone to himself,” I thought and sat on the bench and opened my lap top.
Might as well play a game to pass the time. I thought.
As more passengers thronged the small platform, there was commotion; the folks cursing the railways for its inefficiency. The man sleeping on the floor woke up; in fact, he was a young lad.
“Sorry, we have disturbed you.” I said apologetically.
“What happened? This train doesn’t stop here,” he said grudgingly.
“Engine trouble. Have to wait for the replacement engine,” I was brief.
The young man smiled. “Get prepared to spend the night here. The replacement driver must be sleeping with his wife. He has to be extracted from his bedroom ... not very easy.” He chuckled.
I was amused at his sense of humour.
“I say, now that we are stuck at this forlorn place, is there any scope of getting tea or coffee?’
“No way sir. You have to wait for another eight hours. The vendors come only after eight in the morning since the first train stopping at this station comes at eight thirty in the morning.”
I was disappointed but just to keep the conversation alive, I asked him, “What’s your name?”
I am Birj Kishore; Birju in short.”
“Well Birju! Do you live nearby? I mean how far is your village from here?”
“Not very far, just one mile.”
“Tell me, why do you sleep here?” I was awkwardly inquisitive.
“Sir, my father was a mazdoor - a factory worker in a sugar mill at Nagpur. The sugar mill was closed dawn because of labour trouble and the mill owners didn’t pay the wages. My father had taken a loan for building a small house from a money lender. Since he could not repay the loan, the money lender arrogated the house. My father who was suffering from lung infection died of the shock.”
Birju waited for a few moments and then continued. “Sir, would you believe? My father had repaid the loan amount but the interest itself was whopping 36% per annum.”
Birju paused, stretched his arms and then continued his story with a smile. It was a childlike smile.
“We are left with our old mud hut. There is my mother, my sister and my newly married brother. My mother and sister sleep in the cow-shed of the same money lender. In lieu, my mother works in his farm during day time.
I was speechless.
Birju seemed to be compulsively garrulous. He started again.
“Sir, you would agree that I have to be considerate towards my brother. I want him to enjoy the marital bliss. So I come over to this place and sleep under this platform. Better than sleeping in the open barn and always be worried of snakes.”
I was moved by his story and it surprised me that the lad had no animus towards the money lender or his fate. He was all smiles talking to me.
He picked up the threads once again. “I cook meals for the station master. The poor guy is away from his family and he is a clumsy cook. I therefore cook his meals in the morning. He allows me to share the left over. The station master is a holy cow; a thorough gentleman; the poor soul never questions me.”
Birju had a passive listener in me and perhaps he felt I deserved something to drink.
“Sir, wait. I will ask the station master if I can make a cup of tea for you - only for you.”
I was selfishly happy for I badly wanted to have a hot cup of tea.
Birju came with a kettle of tea and a glass tumbler. The tea was too sweet for me but I had no option. And he brought two paranthas and some pickles also. I was simply delighted. It was no less than having a dinner in a five star hotel.
There was some activity on the platform. Birju told me that the replacement engine was about to arrive. Passengers started returning to their compartments. And then I realized that I had spent five hours in the company of this village lad.
I wanted to give Birju some money. I took out a hundred rupee note and extended it towards him.
“Sir weren’t you hungry?” He suddenly asked me.
“Yes, I was.”
“You wanted something to drink, right?”
“Of course, I did.”
“The tea and paranthas were from station master’s kitchen. I just brought them from there. So if you want to pay for your them, please give it to the station master.”
I was stunned. What a clear headed and principled approach this village bumpkin had. He was dismally poor and yet he was not willing to accept the money.
I was stranded for words. To save face, I asked him, “Tell me, why you were sleeping on the ground, when there are benches on the platform?”
Birju laughed. It was laughter of a crystal clear soul. I looked at him, waiting for him to speak.
“Sir, the benches are made for the passengers who buy tickets and travel on trains. How can I sleep on a bench when I don’t pay for it?”
I felt as if I had been slapped on face.
I felt mean and low. It dawned to me that my conscience had turned opaque by the festering blisters of self deceit. I felt as if the expensive necklace I had accepted was a string of poisonous berries, and the silver flask, a faecal pot.
Birju must have read the dark shades crossing my face. The village bumpkin wanted to part with a cheerful note.
“Sir, frankly speaking, I prefer to sleep on ground because the benches are too old; they squeak and whine a lot,” he said winking at me with a glittering smile.