Shatavari Express. 9.20 at South Central station. The train was in time.
The train was already moving, by the time I hauled myself in. The road was choke-a-block with long lines of vehicles. The cab I had taken was moving like an animal trying to escape a trap. By the time it grunted and groaned into the station, the moaning whistle of the train had already been sounded. I had prompted the taxi driver to take me up beyond the parking lot and had rushed with the suitcase. Few more seconds and the train would have gathered momentum.
Things were just not going right as if in continuation of all that running and scurrying. The coach I had got into was not the right one and the ticket examiner ordered me out of the seat and the coach. Berth no 36 is alright, but not in this coach, please go to S-6. On to the next coach with the bag through the swaying vestibule. The bag slipped from my hands as I lifted it on to the upper berth and it fell on the man sitting underneeth. Fortunately he didn’t shout and confined his protest to a hard stare.
Collapsing on the seat, I closed my eyes and made a mental review of the morning. It was a journey planned at short notice. The intimation was received only the previous evening. An acquaintance in a travel agency had arranged the ticket. Packed the bag early in the morning. Have I taken all the documents? There is no point in going there without all necessary documents. I became restless thinking that all this hurry-burry may have been for nothing. I opened my eyes hoping all would go well.
The young man sitting opposite to me was smiling at me. Who is he? Have I met him earlier? Can’t recall. He was dressed in spotless white. A collar less kurta with long sleeves, worn out bottoms. Broad forehead and sparkling eyes. Closely cropped hair. Big ears as that of Buddha spotting silver rings. Dark complexioned muscular body of yogis. Thirty five years? There seemed to be some sort of magnetism in his eyes.
“Seem to be in a great hurry! Where are you going to?”
I told him my destination.
“O, that’s good. That’s where I’m going too,”he said with a smile.
If the train is in time, it will reach there by tomorrow evening. Well, it’s good to have a talking companion.
“What is your name? I enquired.
“Kumar. Kumar Sadhu is the full name. You can call me Sadhu.
“You a sanyasin?” I asked him because of the name Sadhu.
“Only in name.” His face brightened. “Cannot say whether I’ll become one in future. Possibilities are always there, no?”
He did not ask for and nor did I tell him my name.
“You had a tough time, it seems,” he smiled.
“Yes. It was sheer luck. The train had stated moving when I jumped in.”
“You were caught in a traffic snarl, no?” Sadhu had guessed correctly. “It’s strange. The roads are getting wider, but the traffic is slowing down.”
I noticed that his words were vey soft. He was speaking in a low voice, just loud enough for me to hear. His face reflected a deep tranquility.
“You’d have been in trouble had you missed this train, no?” Sadhu asked.
I nodded. Yes, certainly. In deed I’d have been in difficulties.
“At times we’ll have to make direct interventions. Always allowing things to take their course may create complications.” He continued after a pause. “For example, you should’ve taken more care to reach the station in time.”
“What could I have done? I started from home very early. I took a taxi instead of a bus, to save time.”
“It is true that you can’t prevent traffic jams,” Sadhu said as if reading my thoughts. “But you could’ve stopped this train from leaving till you reached here.”
“Stopping the train?” I was bewildered.
“Why not? You had made all preparations for this journey. Had reserved your ticket, got ready and out of the house well in time. Still you were caught in the traffic. And that was not of your creation. So what else can you do other than delaying the departure of the train?”
A passenger reaching the platform just as the signal has turned green; will try to board the train or block the train? What is this guy trying to say?
“No, you had to act before reaching the station.” He continued with an air of detachment. “There’s no point in waiting till you reach the station. Anyway it’d be too late.”
What action he’s referring to?
“Nothing much. Get into a busy telephone booth and make a local call. That’s all.”
“And whom do I call?”
“The police. That’s easier. If you call the railway, they will then have to contact the police. That is a roundabout way.”
I just could not understand what he meant.
“See, what is it that you want? The train should be detained for some time, isn’t it? The need is yours. But there are certain obstacles not of your creation. So get rid of them.”
“This is such a trifle these days, even kids would understand. Just say that a bomb has been planted in this train. How easy! By the time the police and their dogs complete the scanning, you could leisurely reach the station. But you have to be careful. A busy telephone booth, it is very important. No one should notice you. Another thing, you should not be hurrying when you reach the station. It should be as if you got the train quite accidentally. As a precaution, it would be better if you don’t go to the seat you had booked.”
This man who appeared to be of sober dispositions was discussing desperate and risky things. At the same time I found him nonchalantly looking out of the window. Not bothering at all about our conversation being overheard by others.
It was a fast train and stopped only at few stations. All others except Sadhu were sleeping. I too dozed off leaning back on the seat.
The train was at a busy station when I woke up. Which is this station? Many passengers were getting down on to the platform. Few others were talking through their cell phones wandering in the limited perimeter of the coach. Vendors with tea, fruits and water were already in the compartment. An elderly man was being led on a wheel chair by a man and a woman to the next compartment.
And the din was dominated by the sounds of trains arriving and leaving on other tracks.
Sadhu was not tot be seen. May be he has stepped out on to the platform. I too thought of going out, but then a boy with a load of books came in and displayed them on the opposite seat. Old novels, women’s magazines, and cartoons illustrated stories for children…I leafed through them and so remained in the coach without going out.
It was an old copy of Gandhi’s “My Experiment with Truth’ that I bought from him. I got it quite cheap. It’d be good if the boys read it, I thought. The train was moving by the time I was through the first page.
I closed the book after reading the first few pages of the preface. I had a mild head ache. Sadhu was right there on the opposite seat, sitting cross legged and lost in the sights outside. I had almost forgotten him, engrossed in the book.
“My Experiments with Truth”. “You want to take a look?” I asked, extending it to him.
“I saw it.” He did not take the book from me. “May be, you bought it for your children?”
I nodded. But it is certainly a book that can be read by the grown ups too. Many may have only heard of it and not read it. Like me.
“If it is out of concern for the children’s future, I’d say that such books do not serve much purpose.” Sadhu continued with a smile. “Not only that, reading such moralistic stories would only harm than benefit them.”
“Why do you say so?” I argued. Gandhi’s books are bound to do good to the children. Have never heard a contrary opinion.
Sadhu was silent for few seconds. Then he said, “Please look at the blurb on the back cover. What does it say?”
I turned the book around and started reading.
“Truth and non violence have been there since long. They are as old as the mountains. That’s what it says, no?”
“Yes. And is it not correct?” I asked. But there was no response from Sadhu.
After a prolonged silence, he started speaking as if in continuation.
“Well, good ideas to be presented to children! But to what kind of a world are you sending your children? Do you expect them to live there with mutual respect and in peaceful coexistence? If so, moral lessons and right paths are all okay. However, what is going to happen in reality?”
I had absolutely no inkling of what Sadhu was hinting at.
“Do you really think those are the times they will be living in? They live in a world of intense competition. Chances are that it will increase manifolds in future. Defeat of the other is one’s endeavor in that world. In fact, are you not just flinging your children into the den of violent animals? Only the fall of one will create space for another to have a foothold. Is it based on truth and justice that this world is moving ahead? Do you think that our society is following those ideals? Or has it ever done so? In which case, you tell me of what use are such books and moral teachings?”
“Then what kind of books do you suggest?” I was peeved at him. There are some people who always come out against anything and everything. Sadhu seemed to be one.
“You are disturbed by what I said?’ he smiled. “You please continue with your reading. I’ve read it some time ago. These were only few general observations.”
But I did not read any more and instead was happy looking out of the window. Some of my co passengers unpacked the food packets they had brought. I was not carrying any; but then got a packet from the caterers.
I noticed that Sadhu was not having any lunch. Before I started eating I enquired with Sadhu:
“Not having any lunch?”
“No, I don’t usually eat anything from outside.” He took out a plantain from his shoulder bag and took a sip of water from his water bottle.
“Enough and more. Hunger is a state of mind, no?” He asked to my amusement.
The train sped past deserted landscapes. Cacti had taken over farmlands left fallow. That uni-dimensional scene persisted for quite some distance. Not a human being was to be seen. The train passed through several small bridges. The rivers and streams below the bridges were all dry. May be because of Sadhu’s lecture, I did not feel like reading My Experiments with Truth, sitting right in front of him. His words had in deed made an impact, on me, even though little. Viewed from one perspective, there was some substance in what he said. The humans were all rushing and running without any specific destinations. No time for anyone to look at or think about anyone else. What utility value is there for morals and wise lessons in the midst of all this? But what else can be done, will be the counter argument. There ought to be books which would be of help to people in a future driven by competition and mad rush. Which is that book? Where will that be available?
Translated from Malayalam : P.N Venugopal
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E. Santhosh Kumar is one of the leading contemporary Malayalam writers. He has won numerous awards, including that of Kerala Sahitya Academy. Andhakaranazhi, published in 2012 and recipient of 2012 Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Novel, is considered as one of his best.