Author: Hiranmayee SaiPriya
As I sat on the platform waiting for the next local, a hawker came up to me. While I was still considering whether or not to eat junk, my stomach growled loudly, still mad at me for having skipped breakfast. I bought a couple of vegetable buns off the vendor and put them in my bag.
I checked my watch. I felt restless by the second and started pacing about the platform because he was nowhere to be seen yet. As the train pulled in, a sense of foreboding overcame me. At that early hour, finding a seat would be the last of my worries, but it was a worry nonetheless. Tearing my eyes off the station entrance, I jostled alongside the thronging crowd, towards the train.
Just then, it happened. In my peripheral vision, I saw a mop of unkempt hair and scrawny limbs. I stopped and turned to wave. Instead of returning my smile, he pushed me onto the train with a nudge. “You need a seat”, he said looking at my bulging belly. All my apprehension seemed to disappear at his voice. He soon began mumbling.
Sure enough, I got a seat. He squatted on the floor beside me, on his square handkerchief. He started this ritual a few weeks ago when my pregnancy started giving me sore feet.
The train ride from Lingampally to Necklace road always seemed long, despite lasting only half an hour. I took out the vegetable buns from my bag and handed one to him, then went on to satisfy my own borborygmus. I saw him eat quietly, with both hands, in his usual rocking motion and with his usual mumbling, which had acquired a quality of white noise for me. As soon as we were done eating, I poured a couple of drops of sanitizer onto both our palms. Its overbearing smell filled our nostrils.
He was too impatient to wait for the liquid to evaporate on its own. He wiped his fingers on the corner of the kerchief he was sitting on, defying the whole purpose. Then he held his hand out, like a child. Despite my guilt at what he was about to do, I could feel a smile forming on my lips. I handed him the tiny bottle of mustard oil, with garlic cloves and black cumin seeds swimming inside the yellow viscous liquid. He poured a dollop onto his palms, inhaled it deeply and started massaging my feet with it.
Now that he got down to his daily ritual, he started mumbling his list a little more clearly, attracting nearly equal numbers of curious and annoyed glances from the other passengers. The stations went by, the train stopping at each. More and more people boarded, making the compartment overcrowded, and me, claustrophobic.
Ayya 50 thousand, amma 50 thousand, chelli 50 thousand, Chammi, 50 thousand, paapa 10 thousand, rape 25 thousand. Ayya 50 thousand, amma 50 thousand, chelli 50 thousand, Chammi, 50 thousand, paapa 10 thousand, rape 25 thousand… and on and on…
I would have attributed my tears to mood-swings, but in the last three years, this white noise had never failed to moisten my eyes. I grew used to his pain, but it never ceased to hold its grip on me.
Clearing my throat, I started narrating the events of the previous evening to him, he listened intently. He always gave his undivided attention to my mundane stories. Maybe that was because he usually had none to tell. After all, how many stories could come out of a life that revolved around government offices during the day and a dosa stall at night? Sometimes he would tell me about this couple fighting at his stall. At others, he would tell how his usual group of customers got off late from the BPO, outside which his stall was located. But more often than not, he would listen. My stories would go on and on, while he had stopped almost three and a half years ago, and quite understandably. Wouldn’t your stories stop if your mother, father, sister, wife and unborn child; all died the same day?
Yes, that’s what happened to Damodar, while he was away working as a security guard at a political party worker’s house in Delhi. The party worker had one fine day summoned him, asking how things were at home. Damodar replied with honesty, on how they barely could manage two meals a day, how his pregnant wife was constantly scared of their child being stillborn, how his sister was coming of age and how his parents were running short on time.
Promptly, the party worker, whose name Damodar never disclosed, perhaps he himself didn’t know, having always addressed him as sahib, suggested a means for his family to make a few extra bucks. Without giving it much thought, Damodar had called his wife Chammi, and the next day, sent them bus tickets that would take them all to the neighbouring village, across the river, for the big rally. All he knew was, that by the end of the day, his family will have 2000 rupees and he won’t have to send them money for a while. Finally, he could indulge in the luxury of some local liquor.
Then tragedy had struck. The bridge had collapsed near the neighbouring village, killing his parents, wife and unborn child instantly. His sister managed to swim to the bank with the help of few of the party workers present there for the rally. But she didn’t make it far either. She fell prey to their lust, was raped and died shortly afterwards. Damodar’s world fell apart. The municipal corporation didn’t even wait for the bloated, rotting bodies to be identified. They were all cremated before Damodar could reach them.
Stricken by grief, when he went back and bawled and wailed, asking his sahib what was left of his life now, all he got was kicks in his stomach and back. Then he felt being heaved up from the floor, – a few words of consolation – some water being splashed onto his face – something about how it was for the better, how he’d be compensated by the government. Everything passed in a blur.
Two days later, the respite was served to him along with a plate of cold roti and dal. The government realised his pain, and that although nobody could bring his family back, he’d be aptly compensated. 50 thousand per member! He would receive extra money as compensation for his unborn child and his sister’s rape too! The government was benevolent after all. Devoid of all hope, and starving since his return to Delhi, Damodar grabbed both; the food as well as the offer. Maybe after half a lifetime of abject poverty, there was something good in store for him. He would start a hotel with that money he thought. Away from all this chaos.…
Thus began his journey, from Delhi to Hyderabad, in search of food, shelter, and compensation. With the little money that his sahib gave, Damodar set up a dosa stall, which he operated during the night. Few people came, but it was enough to make his ends meet. The days, he spent outside various government offices; mumbling, always mumbling.. and rocking back and forth on his haunches. Ayya 50 thousand, amma 50 thousand, chelli 50 thousand, Chammi, 50 thousand, paapa 10 thousand, rape 25 thousand….
In the three years of making each other’s acquaintance, Damodar and I had developed a strangely symbiotic and mutually protective bond. Strangers who met in a local train compartment.
That evening, on our train ride back from Necklace road, I saw him silently wiping his tears. The old babu at the office had been transferred. The new officer knew nothing about his case. So money was still a long time away. When I offered him water, he smiled a sad smile and said – “Your child will also hear my stories, ma… But don’t you worry, one day, when I get my 2 lakh 35 thousand rupees, I’ll repay you for all the food and tickets you got me. I’ll also have you over for a dawat of Biryani.” I didn’t know what to say. My maternity leave was due to start in a week, but something akin to a hunch told me, my child will make his acquaintance too. That’s just the way it works. That evening was silent except for the white noise of his list… Ayya 50 thousand, amma 50 thousand, chelli 50 thousand, Chammi, 50 thousand, paapa 10 thousand, rape 25 thousand…