‘I am late, I am late. Excuse me, please give me way, I’m late,’ I murmured while running for my life. ‘I am really late,’ I kept murmuring as I kept pushing against people, trying to find space to board the Howrah Mail. I boarded my coach, on time even as the engine gave a sharp hoot indicating departure. I noticed the time on my watch 22:00 pm sharp. The summer vacations were coming to an end and I was returning to Mumbai. I occupied my seat and I plugged in my headphones to drown out the noise and pretended to sleep in the upper berth.
I woke up the next morning when the train reached Mughalsarai. My co-passenger was reading a newspaper while I was reading ‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol. When the train reached Manikpur, a book seller boarded the coach and I was overjoyed. It was a pleasure to browse through his collection. I tried my hand at attempting small-talk. ‘Manohar,’ he announced his name. Finishing his evening tea, Manohar flung the paper cup out of the window with an extra force and stood up with his bag. No sooner had he stepped on to the aisle, the Howrah Mail came to a screeching halt. ‘Chain pulling,’ screamed someone from the rear as the engine made three sharp but short horns. ‘Typical Howrah Mail,’ Manohar exclaimed. By now, he was totally familiar with the peculiarity of this train, known for its extraordinary delays.
The train was empty, except for a few seats which were occupied by a few families and senior citizens. With steady steps, Manohar walked across to the other compartment. The other hawkers in this train always complained of loss while Manohar’s business of selling books was always a hit. In the night, the other passengers were laying their beds and preparing to sleep as we were reaching Itarsi. I was walking around the coach when a lady called out to Manohar, ‘Excuse me, I need to visit the toilet. If it is not much of a bother, could you please take care of him for some time? I should be back soon.’ Manohar smiled and assured the lady of his support. I was surprised and decided to sit on an empty seat.
Recognising the unknown face, the child started crying. His eyes glittered and the stern expression told everyone nearby that he was not in the mood to cajole the baby or accept apologies. He gripped the child’s hair firmly in his fist and dragged it. ‘No, leave the child alone,’ I screamed uselessly, while others looked on, shocked at his behaviour. He slapped a lady and gagged her. He turned to the child and slapped the baby, making the baby cry again. ‘You have to pay for your actions, child. When I said don’t cry, that meant don’t cry.’ He growled smiling. ‘It is just a baby and must be hungry,’ said the other passenger. ‘Shut up,’ he screamed, cutting short the other passenger’s lament even as he shoved the baby’s head against the frames of the coach. The other passenger stared stunned, his arms frozen mid-air and ready to grab anyone, his mouth open to abuse someone else.
‘Get ready to clean up blood,’ he warned everyone. ‘Enough,’ I screamed. He flashed a knife and in a fit of rage, plunged it into my biceps, causing me to stumble. I fell to the ground screaming in pain and I was unable to register that the knife was still in my bicep. Yet, I rose and chased him, with the knife still in my arm. Manohar, meanwhile, had escaped to the end of the coach and looked around. He heard me coming and turned around. There was no time to think. I pulled the knife from my arm and stabbed him on his chest when he turned around. He fell to the ground, moaning. I bent as I saw him gasping while cradling his bleeding arm. He died when the train reached Khandwa, an hour past midnight. At Bhusaval, the RPF boarded the train and detained me. ‘Why did you stab Manohar?’ He asked, even as he threw glasses of water on my face, hoping that I would respond to his question. I sat there silently, staring at the fan unable to register a response.
15 years had passed since then. I was returning from work and was patiently awaiting my local train.
‘The train arriving on platform number 4 is Howrah Mail via Gaya,’ the announcement shocked me. Numbness hung over me like a thick fog. As the local train entered the platform, the numbness wore off and shame overtook me. I still felt numb when I recalled how Manohar passed away. I got the custody of my daughter. My daughter was 17 and still loved cellphone and Pokemon cartoons. ‘I want to watch Pokemon with you tonight,’ I said, hesitantly. She laughed and thought I was making fun of her until I sat down on the sofa and watched two episodes of Pokemon with her. I found the concept ridiculous at first and she felt odd watching the show with me. She then suggested that we watch other shows to unwind and it was a natural progression to watching more realistic shows such as House of Cards and Game of Thrones.
We liked the shows and I enjoyed the time I spent with my daughter. Game of Thrones got us talking like never before. I remembered it very well when she sent me WhatsApp messages about the jokes that were circulated on Game of Thrones. Some of them genuinely funny and I was thankful for the little crevices of hope that life offered. When she was busy at school, I was alone at home watching Aparichit on TV. I was midway through the film when she rang the doorbell and I opened it. Watching the protagonist making a character in the film struggle with the sins he had committed in the past reminded me of that night in the Howrah Mail.
It was painful to watch live action fighting or death scenes nowadays since I felt always numb since I experienced it first-hand that night. Yet, when she asked about why I was shivering, I froze. ’15 years ago, I was travelling to Pune from my hometown. When the train was nearing Itarsi, a bookseller tried to kill an infant. In a fit of rage, driven by this deep sense of desire to protect the baby, I killed the bookseller,’ I said. The confession produced mixed feelings within me and I sought forgiveness though I knew I should not be forgiven. Yet, I couldn’t hold back my tears. My daughter placed her right hand on my shoulders and said, ‘Well, I can only say “thank you” for protecting the infant’s life, more than yours. Today, I have found my true hero.’ Her reassuring words calmed me down as I continued to cry in happiness.
Indeed, all of us live with our past and allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am.
P.S.: This was my submission to Times of India's "Write India" initiative, a short story competition. Backed by a team of published authors, the process requires the participants to work on a certain prompt given by an author every month. The prompt for this story (in red font above) was given by Anita Nair in May 2016.