The empty train thundered its way onto the platform. He was riding on the steps of the engine cab, as he loved to do. He felt as if it was he bringing in the train for all the people waiting. A seven year old home-less ragamuffin like him bringing a train for all those big and important people. His chest swelled with pride. He grinned.
It had been raining, water dripping off the sloping roof on his head. It ran down his neck, down his back under his T-shirt. Involuntarily, he looked down at his feet, bare, grimy and tiny. Oh well… they served their purpose. If they could talk, they could tell thrilling tales of the places they had stood. It was alright if they were a little dirty. He looked at them and grinned.
It had been raining. The platform was terribly crowded. It seemed to pant in the humid heat, filled to bursting with a train-load of people. They were sprawled all over the platform. The din they created was enormous. When he brought in the train, he saw them scramble up and gather their luggage. He loved to see the look of happy relief on their faces. He was pleased at having given them the feeling. He felt like a king throwing largesse to his subjects. He grinned at the thought.
He jumped off the steps as soon as the train slowed down and ran alongside the engine until it came to a standstill. The engine driver and his helper smiled at him indulgently. The helper came down the steps and proceeded to the station-master’s office. The boy danced along behind him, trying with all his might to make his stride as long as that of the helper. The helper turned around to look at him at every few steps. Each time he did that, the boy grinned at him.
When the helper entered the station-master’s office, the boy intuitively knew it was a place barred to him. He shrugged and wandered off. He went around as if gathering his flock and willing them into the train. He wasn’t walking, his gait was made up of hops, skips and leaps. He seemed to be dancing. All the coaches were AC and the train was bound for Mumbai. He saw well-to-do people, some who were positively rich. He knew how to make out the difference with a single glance. His eyes were like instant tallying machines… error free. He looked at all the rich people and grinned… as if at a private joke.
He felt as if they were children under his protection; children who were self-indulgent and self-centred to the point of being innocently monstrous. He was indulgent with their petulance and irritability at minor inconveniences. He saw one lady shout horribly at her young son because he seemed to have forgotten something at home. One old gentleman dragged a huge suitcase behind him painfully while his young daughter a bag on her shoulder talked busily into a cell interspersing impatient instructions to her father to hurry up. The old gentleman pretended not to hear her. The little urchin looked at the old guy and grinned conspiratorially at him. The old guy grinned back.
He wondered at the invisible strings that manipulated these people. It was incomprehensible to him… this kind of control. He had never had any experience of it. His home was the engine of any train. When he got tired of one route, he hopped on to another. He bathed sometimes and ate when he found some food. When he felt too hungry, he took off his grimy T-shirt and used that as a broom to sweep out a coach. Then he went back and collected money from people. One coach gave him almost Rs 30/- for many did not pay. Then he had a slap-up meal. He thought about the aroma of hot puris and aloo sabzi and grinned, patting the money in his pocket.
He always went scavenging in the compartments once the train was empty. It was funny the way people left things behind. He always collected all the empty mineral water bottles and sold them to one of the kiosks at the station. He was paid two bucks for 10 bottles. Most times he found items of clothing left behind on the top berths. Sometimes he found warm clothes, once he found an expensive blanket. He knew where to find a market for his wares- in almost all cities. He grinned happily when he thought of the money he had got for the blanket. He’d lived like a king for a week buying a shiny pair of shoes and the clothes he was wearing now- all brand new. He found out that he loved shoes- conceptually. In reality, he hated the confining grip. He grinned when he remembered the happy glint in the eyes of an older urchin to whom he had given away the brand new shoes.
He wandered around on the platform looking at the people. He did not exist for them and that was alright for him. They were intent on their own hassles- which seemed many to him. They had somewhere to go. They had family who hugged them tight before letting them go. They had money and they had food. They had more possession than they could carry… and had to employ porters. Their clothes were expensive and they wore jewellery. Their skins were soft and squeaky clean. Their bodies were perfumed. Their hair was well-groomed. And their shoes… oh… they were so shiny…! He loved their shoes. He looked at his own feet and grinned.
The train announced its departure. He sprinted towards the engine and clambered aboard. The driver ruffled his hair. The helper asked him where he’d run off to. He stood on the top step of the engine looking down the length of the train to spot the guard’s green lantern. He had a job to do- taking all these people to Mumbai.
Author’s Note: Yesterday I’d gone to the railway station to see someone off. I saw an urchin riding in the engine cab. His body language spoke pure joy. I had to share him with you. 🙂