Short Story: The Wanderer
By Saurav Ranjan Datta
The old timepiece struck eight right at the moment when Arpita was about to yank her mouth open for a long-drawn yawn. She started at the sudden commotion caused by the gong while waiting at the Doon Railway Station. On a public holiday, the place was deserted and the long shadows of the dark night created a mystical halo around the suspicious nooks and crannies of the colonial building. She was waiting for the Mussoorie Express that started at 10pm for Delhi. Passing the time was becoming a burden for her. She had got a free ride from her guest house at six in the evening and, hence, arrived at the station much earlier. She had not taken into consideration the long wait. Most of the passengers would probably arrive only around 9.30pm on that chilly December night.
Arpita wrapped her shawl tightly once again but the wind continued shivering through her bones. She was otherwise a strongly built girl, a regular visitor to the gym. Arpita was wondering if she had securely locked all her belongings back in her room at the guest house. Of late, ever since the arrival of her new roommate, Satarupa, things had suddenly started disappearing. Small things — but even the smallest toiletries are frightfully expensive nowadays. At first, Arpita thought she had lost them at work. Being a media presenter, her life was an endless stream of hustle and bustle from one place to another. But soon, she realised that they went missing at home. However, it would be extremely rude to ask a two-month-old room-mate if she has taken any of her things.
Satarupa was the only one who stayed in the guesthouse all day as she was preparing for some exams. A divorcee from an affluent background, she needed to prove her mettle to herself to regain her confidence. Arpita felt she also wanted to prove her mettle to her family and probably also to her ex-husband. She still talked a lot about her ex-husband!
Arpita’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps. She saw a slightly built man angling to sit on the bench that she had occupied. It was a bit sheltered and, in a corner – where the chilling breeze had less access. The man probably was also looking for a sheltered seating. But Arpita’s primordial instinct as a woman on a lonely railway platform made her a little apprehensive — if he tried anything shady, she knew enough martial arts to take care of herself.
The man sat down on her left side quietly and started reading a newspaper which he had brought along with him. Time passed slowly… still very slowly. The man seemed consumed by the contents of the newspaper and did not look at Arpita at all. She noticed that he was short, slight, middle-aged, around fifty and ordinarily dressed but clean — must be one of those millions of Indians whose lives have no budget for opulence.
Arpita suddenly felt benevolently inclined towards the man. She greeted him.
“Namaste” was the first word that came out of the man’s mouth.
Arpita started feeling at ease. She asked him where he was headed.
He said, “Deviji (madam), I am not going anywhere. I have just come from Moradabad in search of work,” replied the man.
Arpita was taken aback a little bit.
She blurted out, “Then, what are you doing here at a railway station now with the night getting cold very fast?”
The man smiled slowly. He had a beautiful smile that seemed to come from the heart and lit up his face like sunshine– very different from the slight tweaking of the mouth that you come across so often nowadays in polite circles. The man replied that he planned to spend the night in the station in order to save some money.
“Is he a miser or doesn’t he really have much cash with him?” Arpita wondered, feeling a little nonplussed.
She then let out a sigh and decided it was none of her business. She looked at the station clock once again. She felt a little impatient now.
After some time, Arpita saw the man taking out a tiffin box from his solitary bag. He seemed to be preparing for his dinner. Arpita herself had been feeling a bit peckish. She had originally planned to take a meal in the pantry car of the train, but probably the long idle wait made her hungry. She was thinking of getting up and going to some other bench, when the man offered her his food. “Deviji, I forgot to mention my name and you did not ask too. My name is Abhinav. I have five paranthas with me and I am requesting you to take at least two. Since I will be eating out of the same tiffin carrier, rest assured the food is safe and sound.”
Arpita accepted the offer because she was really hungry by then and she could not also refuse the man without sounding churlish. There was something in his voice, a certain poignancy and assurance maybe, or, was it his calm and polite demeanour that made her trust him?
While eating, Arpita asked him about his home and family.
The man suddenly seemed to recede behind an iron curtain. He stared glassily. Arpita felt uncomfortable thinking that she might have unknowingly touched some painful chord in his heart. She tried to divert the conversation to mundane stuff. But Abhinav did not respond. Arpita kept quiet. Abhinav suddenly jerked out of his silence and started to speak in a sad voice, “Deviji, I have no home nor a family. They all perished in the Bhopal gas tragedy. None survived, not even my little daughter.” Abhinav broke off. He turned his face to the other side.
“Probably to hide his tears?” Arpita thought and searched her mind for words to distract him.
The flickering image of a smile returned to Abhinav’s face. Abhinav was jolted inside but the smile pursued him everywhere — cloaking his heart that had been shattered to smithereens. After his home and family burnt, he led the life of a rover, living wherever he found a job. But deep inside, Abhinav knew he did not want to settle at one place or have a home. Too many days in any place and the comfort that came with it brought back all the terrible memories. Abhinav did not know now what he wanted. But this constant roving gave him a sense of respite from his grief and loss. It was cathartic.
Abhinav returned to the present and resumed his narration: “Deviji, my expertise is in textile crafting and somebody told me that there are good work opportunities in the Doon Valley and hence I have come here. However, right now I am a bit low on money as I was laid-off last month. Hence, I am thinking of spending the night at the station to save rooming charges.”
Just then, the whistle blew and the long dark winding Mussoorie Express was seen entering the platform. Arpita quickly got up, wiped her fingers on her handkerchief in an attempt to cleanse the grease of the North Indian paranthas from her hands. She had to look for her reserved seat on the railway charts stuck on the train doors. She quickly bade goodbye to Abhinav and went towards the train.
Saurav Ranjan Datta belongs to the city of Kolkata in India. Saurav Ranjan Datta is an internationally recognised content creator & researcher, a writer for several publications for the last 10 years, a poet, a traveller, and a book lover. Saurav has also worked for several reputed organisations in the corporate world in senior positions for the last 15 years.
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!