There is a first time to everything in life – it is life’s act of bringing its ward to speed in unique ways. First day in college, first outing with a girl, first day on work, first salary, first customer-order bagged…marked by clumsiness, tentativeness, wrong turns, embarrassment, lucky breaks, and with mixed outcomes. The endeavor of playing the White Knight, though thoroughly praise-worthy, is particularly testing even for the sure-footed and easily perilous for the uninitiated like biking in a war-zone. This longish three-part post narrates an experience of the latter kind. Here it goes:
The episode is vividly etched in my memory. I was 25 or something, in a job that pitch-forked me from the cocoon of IIT class-rooms into a larger world of people and things, and tutored me willy-nilly in the ways and vagaries of life.
It was a week-end and I was returning by train after working out the week at a customer site in Bhopal, a placid town in Madhya Pradesh. It was a day train; we had a night to spend onboard, reaching Dadar by noon on the following day. I found my place in one of those 4-seater cubicles in a first class compartment, stowed away my single piece of luggage under the seat, dusted the seat and settled down. And, I looked around.
The one other occupant in my cubicle was an elderly gentleman, well-groomed, perhaps over sixty and from the North, from the looks. He was a little heavy for his average height, sparse hair on the dome, inside an off-white jibba at least a couple of sizes larger over a matching kurta. His movements were labored betraying arthritic joints. He had a ruddy face with sacs of skin sagging below the chin and the cheeks that made it appear large and square and set perpetually on the verge of a very amiable smile. Facing him, I muttered a few perfectly inane words on this and that which, in response, drew a benign look of incomprehension.
For journeys such as this, I usually carried a slow-paced novel in my shoulder-bag that could fill my time between interruptions and diversions. Soon after the train pulled out of the station, I got back to the dog-eared book where the protagonist was, over several paragraphs, trying to cross over a busy street to join his wife who made it before him.
For want of a name, Co will be my co-traveler. Co’s attendant was a fine specimen of the breed of men slated to inherit the earth eventually. Hovering in the passage-way outside our cubicle, he blew in whenever a gentle cough-like sound went out, like Morse code, in his direction from Co. He appeared to be in early thirties. Built appropriately leaner and shorter than his master, he spoke in a low mumble meant only for his master’s ears. But he knew his job and went about it with the facility of long practice.
Hours went by and the night fell. The protagonist in the book now was trying to sort out whether he loved or hated his wife’s pet cat, when the train pulled into a big railway junction, a designated meal-stop, I stepped out and had a quick dinner – a standard railway issue devised to hush the tummy growls more than to tickle the taste-buds. By the time I made haste to my seat, Co had finished his home-packed dinner and the attendant was clearing the paper plates. My repeated attempts to engage Co in some after-dinner small talk quickly sputtered to a stop. Co instructed his attendant to prepare the bed; he tucked himself chin-to-toe under a bed-sheet and pulled his shutters down for the night. His job done, the attendant melted away.
I changed over to pajamas, lied head down on an air-pillow. I went back to the book to read a few more pages under a dim light before dropping off to sleep, with the protagonist’s feelings towards the cat unresolved yet. Relieved but tired from stressful work and lack of adequate sleep during the week, I slept like a log. When I woke up in the morning, the sun was already up and running about its business. It was a morning meant to loll in the bed, hemmed in with soft pillows, sipping hot coffee, turning the pages of the morning edition of Times Of India. Here, the seat in front was already cleared of bedding and accessories, and Co, already up, prayer-beads counted, groomed and set for the day. Was there a mild admonishment in Co’s eyes? I couldn’t say.
My till-date sketch of Co and his attendant may have already hinted to you my line of sight. At this point, let me get it out in the open, bare a corner my soul for you to get the a drift of why I did whatever I did in the next hour, never mind the unintended flow of events that followed: Has it ever happened to you that you looked at a stranger and felt like putting your arm around his shoulders and comforting him from afflictions not known? That’s how I was drawn towards Co and his attendant right from the first moment I set my sight on them. They looked like an unsuspecting cow and its calf coursing thru a town where meat merchants had their eyes peeled out, I imagined. Leaping ahead, who would take charge of them in Bombay (now, Mumbai) was a thought that arose in my mind.
I must also confess neither these thoughts nor the protagonist’s ambiguous feelings about the pet cat in the book intruded my sleep. Now, back to the events of the morning unfolding.
The restful sleep had brought me a cheerful outlook at the world at large, which presently had Co occupying the center-stage. Next in order was a generously sunny smile beamed in the direction of Co. Whereupon, I collected my toilet kit and change-clothes and lazily dragged myself to the toilet to shave, wash and make myself presentable. Wodehouse would have observed, if he were a witness, there was a spring in my steps, a song on my lips and a thought in the head that ‘God is in his place, all is well with the world’ as I headed for the morning ablutions. Little did I know the world would not stay as happily described after I concluded my appointment in the toilet, all in under 15 minutes.
(To be contd.)