It was a regular Thursday. Like any other-work interspersed with thoughts about life and beyond. Some more work, and then plans to reach the station on time.
I had a train to catch, with a right foot that causes me to limp occasionally.
It was at a quarter past six that I decided to finally 'pack up' and leave. Early though t'was, but considering my not-so-mobile condition, it was clearly time to go.
I found myself at the platform at 1930 hours, on the dot.
Catching the 2210 hours, Lucknow bound Lucknow Mail, and waiting on platform no.16 is like second nature to me by now.
Some rajma-chawal priced at Rupees 20 for a 320 gram packet ( I could not help but read it, as the price was mentioned so big and clear) came to my stomach's rescue.
1945 hours, it was, and I was sitting on a bench. Cold winds blew and the winter chill made the few people (waiting for the train or preparing to go to sleep for the night) hanging on to every word the announcer uttered, shiver.
Not many people for that time and platform though.
I usually enjoy watching the on-goings at the railway station; each announcement reminds me of episodes, places, people and triggers countless thoughts in my head. Simply put, I do not struggle to while away time.
So, I plugged myself out to the tune of some Hindi melodies from the days of yore, when all at once I realized I am being ‘watched’.
Adept at it now (by virtue of the ‘over-protective and respectful sentiments” of our men folk towards women), I chose to look away…thinking whether I should get up and leave.
A few minutes passed and I quite forgot about it as the radio beckoned me yet again. After some time I threw a careless glance at ‘the spot’ and the stranger was gone. I heaved a sigh of relief.
I was in for a bit of a shock as I turned my head the other way. The stranger was standing right in front of me, asking whether I could move to one side and give him some space to sit down.
Considering there were other vacant benches nearby, my first instinct was to bluntly refuse or even walk away.
I thought for a second, and made some place for him, plugging myself out yet again.
It was then that I realized that the stranger was trying to initiate small talk with me.
Announcements and pushcarts were the only other sounds that broke the silence there. I unplugged the radio and asked him to repeat what he had just said. Here I shall try to quote our conversation, almost verbatim:
Stranger: Madam, where are you going?
Me, quite nonplussed: wherever my train has to take me!
Stranger, trying to carry the conversation on: Madam, still, where to? Which train?
Me: To Lucknow; Only one goes from here and I know which one is it. Thanks!
Just as I was about to plug myself out yet again, he said,
Stranger: Madam (with some hitch in his voice, as he must have sensed my discomfort)…
Stranger: Actually madam…
Me, thinking to myself whether I should just get up and leave…who all can I summon for help,…
Stranger: So madam, don’t mind please, actually…I was observing you for a long time…
Me: Yes. Okay…
Stranger: Madamji, actually I am an army man. Madamji I saw you sitting alone here on this platform, only woman…and the police in that corner (he pointed to a far end of the platform) are not too sober. They made me leave my bench there, hurling expletives madamji. So I came here, as I saw you sitting, just to sit or stand by your side to keep you safe.
Goes on, and madamji, I have seen life, and many people, I can understand who is what kind of a person. So please do not mind, I just came in case we have a situation here.
Me, smiling: Ah! Yes, I can see you are an army man (his hair cut, posture and way of sitting cross-legged gave him away).
Where do you come from and where do you go?
Stranger: From J&K madamji, and I am going to Howrah on T.Duty.
Me: Okay. Where from, in J&K?
Stranger: From Uri madamji.
Me: Oh. It must be rather cold up there?
Stranger: No no madamji, not very, just a little below zero at times…and we are all used to it.
I felt humbled by that remark.
Stranger: So madamji, are you from Kashmir?
Me: No, from Uttarakhand, though I was born and brought up in Lucknow.
Stranger: Oh okay madamji.
(On some second thoughts)…are you from an army background?
Me: Well, yes and no. A lot of my family and friends and their family have and still serve in the Army.
Stranger: Ok madamji. So you definitely know a few names of divisions and units?
Me, laughing: Are you trying to test my knowledge?
Stranger: No madamji. Nothing like that. I trust your words. (Smiles)
Me: Thank you. I understand. (I too reciprocate his smile)
Stranger: Madamji, an army man has traveled far and wide and as one I have seen the world and life from close quarters. We do a lot for our country and countrymen, but we do not get the respect we should, madamji.
Me: I quite understand your words and your sentiments behind them. I am with you on this.
Stranger: Yes madamji, it shows you understand.
(By this time more people had started getting on to the platform, and there was quite some hustle and bustle. I had not cared to check the time off late. Some people I noticed were staring at the two of us talking.
Soon, a middle aged man walked by, and asked us to shift and give him some space to sit too.)
The stranger and I resumed our conversation.
Stranger: So madamji, when we come to civil life, we find it difficult.
Me: Yes. I understand.
Stranger: We are honest people madamji and people just want to make fools out of us. This, when all we want from the Nation is some respect.
Me: Yes, I understand. I truly can.
Stranger: So madamji, I am also happy that this time our General saab is an infantry chap.
First time for the Army madamji. He is a very good man madamji.
Me: Ah. (smile)
The third person: Ah, so you are both from the Army?
Stranger: I am. Madamji has family and friends/their family who have or are served/serving the Nation.
Me: Yes. (smile)
The third person: The Army, it should really be respected. The army men do a lot for us. High time we acknowledge them and respect their gesture towards the Nation, towards us.
Stranger, smiling: Madamji also thinks that way.
Me: Oh, absolutely. We should move away from jingoism though, and feel more often and in a non-contextual way. Yes!
Stranger: Yes madamji. (smiles)
The third person: Very true. (smiles)
Also, there is some not so good news about the Army lately. Not a very nice thing.
Me: It is with every organization. Exceptions are always there. But why don’t we focus on the good instead…it clearly out weighs the bad?!?
Stranger: Yes madamji. Yes…we have a good General Saab now. He is taking good care of us. These things keep happening. We try not to lose our morale at such times. Our officers help keep our spirits high.
The third person, smiling: Nice to hear that from you. Good. We are happy to know that.
(Announcer: Train so and so, from NDLS to Howrah to depart 3 hours late than its scheduled time of departure, from platform number 14. We regret any inconvenience caused to you by this.)
It was 2100 hours by now.
Stranger: Okay madamji, I will go now. My train is at 0030 hours, but I must go.
Me: yes, you must go to the designated platform. It was nice talking. Happy Journey.
Stranger: Okay madamji, same here. Happy Journey to you too.
Jai Hind madamji.
Me: Jai Hind! (smile)
The third person, smiles: Okay (waves to the stranger)
(The stranger smiles and leaves)
The third person: Amazing sentiment. We definitely need to respect them more.
Me: Yes! The Nation must!!
The third person: So, what about you? Where do you study/work?
Me: I work with the TATAs.
The third person: Oh! Another great organization. A few of the honest ones at the top. Good!
It was 2115 hours by now. My friends came calling so I took the third person’s leave.
After a few minutes passed, the train chugged into the station. We boarded and got ready for our journey.
I do not know whether the stranger understood that he was preaching to the convert all this while...or rather he did...for he singled the third person out in the conversation...including me in most of his assertions.
I was quite dazed for most of the time that night. There are some moments in life when you cannot quite figure out why or how something happens. You just sit dazed through them, trying to make the most of these poignant moments.
It was one such night.
It was quite a Thursday. Unlike any other!
- On the night of 20th January, 2011 @ the New Delhi Railway Station.