I sensed someone sitting in front of me.
Clearing my throat, I spoke, “Hello. Can you tell me why has the train stopped?”
“Oh hello madam! I am sorry I am not aware of the reason. But the pleasant weather it is, I don’t mind this halt,” the man said chirpily.
Finally, some company. It was not easy sitting alone in the compartment for the entire journey.
“Where are you going though?” he asks.
“Ohh…I have been there once or twice. It’s a nice place..”
After a brief ten minutes, the man starts humming a song.
“Isn’t this weird? Us sitting here quietly and not talking!? Let us talk. So tell me, has anyone complimented you before for your eyes?” he blurted stopping midway his song.
I smile. “Thank you. Wish I could see through them too.”
“Ohh…I am sorry. I did not know,” the man says.
“It’s alright,” I say and smile again.
“What is happening outside?” I ask, trying to keep the conversation going. I did not want the quietness to creep in again.
The man says, “Oh! Outside…” as if he was waiting for me to ask him so that he could do his favorite thing which was, to speak.
“The train has stopped in the middle of nowhere. But you know what ma’am, nowhere is my favourite word. It’s my favourite place. And this nowhere looks as beautiful in its chaos and mess as the word sounds in my mind. The chaos that I’m talking about is not of people and vehicles but of nature. It seems as if trees and shrubs are fighting to spread over this area here, right outside our windows. The trees are densely laden with huge leaves. The leaves are of a pleasant green colour and they are still. The leaves and the birds sitting on the branches of the trees, all are still. As if they are validating the old saying, there’s always calm and peace before a storm. Here, in this case, ma’am, the storm is the city awaiting our arrival and nature here, in this nowhere, is the calm and peace. There is also a small building sort of thing, in the middle of this nowhere. It’s a two-storey building. It is in ruins and the walls look as if they would fall off when this train would restart with a jerk. Ruins and nature go along like old lovers, don’t they? The sky is a crisp light blue and there’s absolutely no sign of a shower happening, which again proves that we should never trust the radio announcement when it comes to the weather. I never trust them. Do you trust the radio announcements though?”
I smile within. I was right. He wanted any chance to speak.
We started talking about the weather and radio announcements and the topic hopped, skipped and jumped to many random things including government, ice popsicles or kulfi- which one is better, my family and background, his anonymity…
Suddenly, the train jerked and started moving ahead. It was about to enter a tunnel.
“Do you know ma’am, this is supposed to be the second longest tunnel in this region?” the man said.
“Oh. I did not know that.”
“There are many stories to it. Lives have been lost etc etc…” the man said.
“What-” I was cut short as the train pulled itself in the dark tunnel and the clattering of the rails increased so much that I could barely listen to myself.
As the train emerged from the dark tunnel, it jerked and stopped yet again.
“Ah! Not again. Why has it stopped now?” I ask.
There was no answer.
I thought the man must have gone to the washroom.
There was some commotion at the boggy connection and I heard footsteps walking towards my compartment.
“Hello, Miss! May I see your ticket?” a grumpy voice said.
“Yes sure.” I felt the side pocket of my tote and took out the folded slip. Handing it to the TC, I asked, “Why has the train stopped again? And how far is Virnagar?”
“Miss there is some technical issue. You have to get down at Virnagar?”
“Its the next station. Only 5 minutes from here. The train will somehow drag itself till Virnagar and most probably, it will halt there for a few hours so that the glitch can be solved,” he said and handed over the tickets to me.
“Ohh..do you mind sitting here alone? If you want, I can shift you to another compartment,” the TC said.
“Ohh don’t worry. I have company. He must have gone to the washroom.”
“Okay. In that case, I will have to check his ticket too. I will wait here for him,” he said.
I nodded again.
Ten minutes went by and the TC got impatient.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know sir. You can go check in the toilet.” I suggested.
The train jerked again and pulled itself towards the Virnagar station. The TC helped me gather my luggage and moved towards the boggy door.
I was confused. Where did the man go?
The TC was more confused and pissed off and mostly, at me.
“Miss where is your fellow passenger?”
I did not know what to say.
“I don’t know Sir,” I repeated meekly.
As the train pulled into the station, the TC got a late idea of checking the passenger list and noting the name of my fellow passenger. I could see that he was very adamant on knowing about the man who was trying to escape the TC.
The train halted at the station and I got off with the TC’s help.
I stood beside the bench, waiting for Vimal to come pick me. The TC had gone back inside the train, I guessed.
After a while, the TC tapped on my shoulder and after reintroducing himself, he said, “Miss I have checked the entire passenger list. There were only 22 passengers on board. The man you are talking about is not on the list!”
I did not know what to say again.
“Thought you should know. Anyway, you can wait in the outer waiting room. Come, I will take you…” the TC held my arm.
As I walked away from the train and the platform, I kept quizzing myself about the man.
Did he run away because he did not have a ticket? Or, was he- I was cut short by Vimal’s voice and I decided to leave my passenger and his thoughts back at the station, on the platform and in that train compartment.