Silence, relative though. The background was filled with a myriad of noises, a tubelight gently hummed overhead, a taxi engine idled away, soft strains of a 1970s Kishoreda favourite entertaining someone not too far away. As I stepped onto the Dadar station premises, an all too familiar female voice cut through the night announcing the last train to CST. These recorded female voice-overs are timeless wonders, perhaps contracted in perpetuality, each one uniquely assigned to a different section of Railways, giving the cross-over commuter a heads up – ohh, the voice has changed, this is the Central Railway lady!
I looked at the digital neon-red clock overhead: 1:30 am. Dressed in black shorts and a casual maroon T, which part of my wardrobe I would dare not display at more earthly hours at this location, I strolled over to the only ticket window open and peeped in. Inside, a motley crowd of four or five relaxed looking rail employees lounged about trying to extract as much comfort from the typical strict upright woven plastic chairs. Putting a tenner down on the counter casually, I addressed the more senior looking guy, “एक प्लेटफॅर्म देना”. I always try to use terms that whoever I deal with uses internally, it puts the party at ease and dealings become smoother. Asking for a “platform ticket” would have been too formal. The well-balded man looked up and for a fleeting moment I saw an expression which said “Raja Harishchandra himself standing before me. By God, at this hour why do you need to bother, just walk in man!”. But the professional in him won just as quickly as he quizzically looked at me “अभी कौनसी र्टेन है?”. Three or four heads surrounding him nodded supportively when I informed him that the Janashatabdi from Goa was delayed by over 3 hours, Ahh said he as if recollecting a long lost memory even as a supporting staff scurried away to get me the ticket. Even as I could hear the dot matrix printer labour away under the strain of ejecting my paper ticket, the gathering broke out into tales of how all trains on the Konkan network were delayed that day and how this particular train is rarely affected and the forecast for the next day. I, not to be left behind, placed on record whatever small gems of wisdom I had on the subject matter – those that I had freshly gleaned over the phone from my wife, who was travelling by that train and whom I had come to receive. With a nonchalant wave of hands from either side, I sauntered towards platform no. 8.
The last train having already departed, the other platforms were by and large deserted, except for a couple of well-meaning uniforms looking around for the perpetual drunkards, and a coolie – sorry, sahayak – on platform 4, wrestling with a loaded handcart which refused to be disturbed from its slumber. A sea of blankets greeted me right outside platform no. 8, the contents of which were most likely awaiting the first train leaving in the morning. As I gently side-stepped on to the platform, a welcome committee of three bored looking dogs trying to remain entertained by chasing each other’s tails, made their presence felt. Suddenly, turning around, ears pricked up and growling, they shot out of the platform like bullets – as if they had discovered their real purpose in life, likely sensing some territorial intruders. Leaving me alone – no, not really; that a train arrival was imminent could be gauged from the fact that there were a group of sahayaks sleeping in a straight line just inside the entrance. Since I had to while away at least an hour fighting for survival against an army of commando mosquitoes, I chose to pitch camp there itself since the only working ceiling fan at that time was directly above the sleeping loaders.
Just as I wondered how else could I keep myself busy, apart from logging in to FB, there was a small commotion outside the platform. Two uniforms were waking up the blankets, and urging them not so gently to go somewhere else. The job accomplished, some non-uniforms then proceeded to pour buckets of water in the erstwhile slumber areas. Ohh… I thought, cleaning time! My prognosis though was shortlived cause the gent, the watering business done, simply walked away. The ingenuity of the situation then dawned upon me – all these efforts were only to ensure that the blankets did not return to encroach the space! Oh really, might as well have followed up with a broom and completed the job! No, then he would have been a professional…
Again, silence. Even Doyle would be at his wits end trying to draw juice out of the scenario at this juncture. As I contemplated the meaning of life and the universe and all of consciousness (which gets activated by such peaceful settings) a silver-haired serious looking quite elderly gent, dressed up like he would be leaving for the workplace right away, beckoned me from across the entrance – as if it was a Laxman rekha which he was loathe to cross. As I walked back the few steps, he asked me in cultured English “where can I buy a platform ticket?” One more co-Raja Harishchandra! I explained him the exact coordinates of the only open ticket counter and he scurried away in that direction. He later confided in me that he was there to receive his granddaughter who was travelling alone.
In the next five minutes six more such receiving parties, and gleefully, all with roots in the Konkan, arrived to share the platform. And the night suddenly lit up for the next hour or so. Anecdotes were flying around. Since most of them had farm land in the Konkan, the air was thick with discussions on the updated status of water levels, abundant mangoes, lack of jackfruit crop, soil fertility and village politics. I listened with rapt attention to the farmers’ musings, latching on to every pearl of wisdom, occasionally butting in with my theoretical knowledge (mostly to check if what I knew was indeed what I thought I knew). At that point I wouldn’t have minded, cruel as it might seem, the train getting a wee bit more delayed!
The approaching lights of the incoming train woke me up to reality. I scurried towards C2 and so did the rest to their respective coaches. Ten minutes later as I stowed away my wife’s bag in the boot of my car, I reflected upon the evening. Were they simply caricatures of the night, shadows of the human nature, characters out of the ordinary which appeared striking in not so commonplace settings; and conversations between strangers who had never met before and would most probably never would again – banal or surreal?
No, this is not a work of fiction; here is that Dadar station at 2 am on March 4!
– Narendra Nayak © 2016