Fiction Sad

Bhirgaon Railway Station is on the fringe of the Tadoba Tiger Reserve. The Railway line separating the tribal hamlet of Bhirgaon from the Reserve is the hamlet’s lifeline and only connection to the civilization. Though the railway line is a busy one, only two pairs of passenger trains, one each in the morning and the evening, stop at Bhirgaon. Every morning, men from the hamlet take the morning passenger train to Mallad, carrying wild honey, custard apples and exotic herbs, sell their produce by the day and return by the evening train. Another pair comes from Mallad in the morning and leaves for Mallad in the evening. Though this pair is not of much use for the hamlet except in emergencies, it serves the station staff to commute from Mallad. Raghu and I took the train from Mallad that day to reach Bhirgaon.  

Raghu was the station assistant and I, the station master. In remote stations like Bhirgaon, only two persons man the station. The station master is in charge of the station and the station assistant assists him. In places other than a station like Bhirgaon, station master is the boss of a station assistant and they behave as such. But, in Bhirgaon, when you are working together, especially nights, and occasionally hearing the distant growl of a tiger, hierarchies break down and you become one team fighting the primal fears.  

“Sir, I will not be continuing for the night duty today.” He said while we were still in the train. 

Bhirgaon is a place one gets posted to as a punishment. It is reserved for the rebels and the non-conformists who have the spine to speak up. But the punished also have ways to exact a compensation. The official duty hours are twelve hours a day, but in exigencies, when the other station master or assistant is unable to attend the duty, it is allowed to continue the duty for twenty four hours with a payment of extra time allowance, which is a hefty sum. So, it is not uncommon of station masters and station assistants suddenly getting sick in rotation. Everyone knows the loophole, but nobody questions it because they know that whoever gets posted there would do the same thing and the rule could not be changed.  

I do not feel apologetic about exploiting the loophole. It is not easy to work in a god-forsaken place like Bhirgaon. There is not a single cemented house there to live in, let alone a hospital or a school.  In addition, the duty hours are long and taking commute time into account, there is hardly any time left to even take proper rest at home let alone spending quality time with the family. And most importantly, the station staff have to put their lives at risk during nights to rectify any signaling or track defects. Though I have not seen a tiger myself, Raghu has seen it dragging a cow across the tracks and into the forest.  

“Why, you have lots of money already?” I taunted him.  

“No Sir, it’s my daughter’s birthday tomorrow. I told her I will take her to the zoo.” 

His daughter was still 8 years old then. He had no need to worry about the dowry as of then, unlike me. I have two daughters, eighteen years old and fifteen years old. I remember being like Raghu when I was his age. But the bond with my daughters had changed. I loved them the same, but it was more distant. It could be the work, or it could be just the age, their age and my age.  I sometimes wondered if I would ever walk with them hand in hand, like I used to when I took them to our fields. But then, I didn’t have much time to wonder about those things. I worked hard for them. And that is how I felt I showed my love for them.  

The train was on time at the station. I went to the Station Master’s room. Kishen, my fellow station Master had already packed up, his eyes drowsy from twenty four hours of continuous work.  

“All good?” I asked. 

“Yes. Control instructed the grant of welding work after this train” he said grabbing his bag to leave by the same train in which I had arrived. He then added before going out. 

“The old one has not eaten yesterday.” 

Well, the station staff of Bhirgaon shared one secret. An old woman lived in the station. Needless to say, that was not allowed. Nobody knew when she came here and from where, but she had made it her home. When I had joined there three years ago, she was stronger and could go to the village to get something to eat or cook for herself if we gave her grain and vegetables. But she had grown weaker, and she hardly moved out of the station.  When we come to duty, one of us usually brings something for her too. Since the time Raghu had joined the station two years back, he was the one who usually brought her food.  

“Raghu is there. She will eat now.” I replied to the Kishen. 

I came out with the flags in my hand to signal the train when I saw Raghu sitting with the old one as she started to eat. Her eyes were filled with gratitude, not so much for the food, but for the love. We needed her as much as she needed us. In dreary and slow nights, the comfort afforded by the thought of the mere presence of a fellow being is immense.  

I signaled the train, granted the welding work and settled down to write compliances for the inspections when Raghu came over from the other side of the station building, the jungle side. A shed was made for the station assistant on the other side of the track to watch the moving train for any abnormalities. In Bhirgaon, that shed is grilled to protect the assistants from wild animals, mostly tigers. 

“Sir, I will go to the village and come back in half an hour.” Raghu asked me.  

“OK. To get something for the old one?” I asked. 

“No Sir, I got her rotis and dal for today and tomorrow. I want to get custard apples from the village. My daughter likes them a lot. I will be back in half an hour.” he said and rushed. I always wondered how Raghu could be so cheerful and energetic all the time. I do not trust people so much and I do not make friends easily. But Raghu was the exact opposite. 

He came back exactly in half an hour as he said, with two baskets of custard apples. One for him and one for me. He put them in my room and took a couple of them from his basket as he went out. I knew that they were for the old one.  

It was 5 PM that day, one hour before the end of the shift when I got a call from the section inspector. He said that there wouldn't be a reliever that night if Raghu had not performed the night duty. It is not unusual for a station to be staffed by just the station master, but it becomes very difficult to manage without an assistant if there is a signal failure or a track failure at night. That too, with the threat of the tigers, it is even more risky. So, I called Raghu to the room. 

“Raghu, your reliever is not coming. Can you do the night shift also and leave by morning train?” 

His face turned pale for a moment, but he quickly regained cheerfulness and said he would do it. I felt sorry for him, but I thought at that time that it had to be done.   

While leaving he took the keys of the waiting hall to open it for the old one to rest the night. It was the daily ritual for the station assistant to ensure that the old one was well settled in the waiting hall before night set in. 

During the nights, a pall of terror descends over the station, especially when the night is cloudy and moon-less. The eerie silence behind the incessant chirping of the crickets fills the heart with a dreadful anticipation of doom. The Station master’s room and the station assistant’s shed become their respective bastions. Raghu has a playlist with him to break the eerie monotony of the chirping crickets. He does not play loud, but when some song touches him deeply, he cannot resist the urge to share, and he turns on the walkie-talkie for brief moments for me to listen to. That night, I heard the song ‘Bin Tere’ sung by a young boy Vaishnav in an audition. That night was particularly uneventful.  

My wireless set buzzed. 

“Mallad passenger blocked, Sir?” Raghu asked me.  

“Yes, it should be two blocks away.” 

I had not checked the exact location of the train with the Control as the train was mostly on time. But as I was packing my bag, the adjacent station informed that the passenger would come after a freight train. It was not unusual. It only meant that the passenger train would be delayed by ten minutes, which would be made up enroute to Mallad. I finished my packing and thought of calling Raghu on Walkie Talkie to inform him that the passenger train would come after ten minutes. But, by that time, the freight train was also passing the station. So, I went out to exchange the signals with the pilot of the train. The train passed safely, and I returned to my room and preparing the documents for charge handover when I heard a disturbance on the walkie-talkie. It could have been from Raghu or the Pilot of the freight train. I could only discern the word ‘obstruction’. I called up on the walkie-talkie to clarify. But there was no response. I completed my work, packed my bags and came outside to wait for the passenger train. Kishen and Raghu’s reliever were arriving by the passenger train.  

I was looking for the arrival of the passenger train when I caught sight of the old one crying. I went to her to ask if everything was alright. But she was inconsolable. I brought her some water which she sipped amidst sobs. She picked up the two custard apples she had and got up. But by that time, the passenger train was already arriving on the platform, so I had to leave her there and rush to signal the train in.  

“Where is she going?” Kishen asked me pointing the old one walking towards the rear end of the train. 

“She doesn’t seem to be well.” I said. 

I was about to board the train when I saw the pilot of the train coming running towards us.  

“Master, Raghu’s body is by the side of the track” the pilot said 

The freight train had hit Raghu. One might find it strange that a person dealing with trains day in, and day out could get hit by a train in broad daylight. But it does happen and happens commonly.  What happened was clear, but how it happened was not. He spoke to me before the freight train and this passenger train had not hit him. I don’t know if he confused the freight train with the passenger train, or if he was not expecting that train and was crossing the tracks carelessly, but it had hit him. It was not an attempt to die. The train hit him on the side and pushed him away from the track right onto the signal box. There were no visible injuries on him except for a fracture at the back of the skull. His face was as clear as when I had seen him the day before. We carried him in to the passenger train.  

I went to the room to collect my bag when I saw the two baskets of custard apple lying there, waiting to be picked up. I left them there and boarded the train. The train had already passed the station when I looked out of the window to see the old one limping her way into the jungle, with the two custard apples in her hand. I told Kishen about this on the walkie-talkie. And Kishen had sent the assistant to look for her. But that was the last time that anybody ever saw her.  

I took out my phone and called my elder daughter. 

October 22, 2022 03:40

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