02 September 2010

The Chetpet Story

A rush of wind. Bustling crowd. Screeching rails.

That's all I remember of the first time I used the Suburban train in Chennai.

Over the next few weeks, my white-knuckled grip on the overhead railing loosened; my posture slackened; I finally took my eyes off the entrance of the compartment.

I looked around, and noticed The Chetpet Story for the first time...

After occupying a seat near the rear of the compartment, I observed the other passengers. There was a loner sitting next to the window, cut off from the world as he listened to his music player. Next to him sat a young couple, their bodies huddled together as they looked at each other. The fellow said something, and the girl laughed cheerfully, carrying a twinkle in her eyes.

Two youngsters watched them enviously as they sat on the opposite side. An elderly man near them read a book, having spent far too many years travelling to find anything worth observing around him. Two school going girls, with plaited hair and freshly washed pinafores sat next to their mother, talking animatedly amongst themselves.

Just then, a blind beggar, dressed in rags, walked towards the rear of the compartment, his small cane expertly guiding him past the squatters on the floor. He sang a old Tamil song with surprising melody, as he shook a metal can gingerly. Almost none of the passengers expect me stared at him for more than a second. A young man took out two one-rupee coins and dropped it into the can.

Without another word, the beggar turned around, as though following a routine, and walked back through the compartment.

Something about the scene I'd just observed struck me as being rather odd. Almost surreal. I was surprised by the reactions of the other passengers when the beggar came along. They watched him with almost no empathy left in their eyes. As though they were almost expecting him. As though they were all...enacting their parts in a play.
I forgot that thought for a while, as I got down at my station. But the following day, I could see it more clearly. Like a Broadway play, the compartment was a sprawling stage, filled with bit characters that assumed their roles with panache and conviction.

There was the Loner who sat next to the window, his eyes looking lost as they watched the stations whiz by. The Young Couple sat close together, still filled with the freshness of love that makes every moment seem magical. I had seen each of these characters the previous day. The faces were different, perhaps, but the roles were the same.

I waited, in my designated spot, for that pivotal moment in the scene. The scene of the Blind Beggar. And without missing a beat, the events unfolded. The slow steps as the wooden cane dropped on the floor, searching for a clear path. The hauntingly beautiful singing that seemed to communicate some sort of sorrow. And as though on cue, one of the characters took out two coins and dropped it in the metal can.

After getting down at my station, a thought gripped my mind. Why was it that everyone in the compartment treated the sight of a blind beggar with so much indifference? Was it because of pure cold heartedness?

No. I realised that, over the course of the week, even I had adopted the expression that filled their faces.

Many a times, we assume Life to be a series of events, a chain of actions that lead us from one place to another, always driven by a purpose or an objective. And when we adopt that into a routine, we begin to see things differently. Blindess, poverty, the pitiable condition of elderly people - these and many other issues that we could write essays about and give speeches on, lose their importance when strung together to form a routine. They no longer make us stop and wonder; we never hesitate twice on seeing such sights.

And just like that, we become characters in a play, enacting our parts without empathy or passion.

Board the Suburban train one day, and you'll get to see another showing of The Chetpet Story. There's no way you'll miss it. After all, it's playing seven days a week.

Note: The title refers to a train station in Chennai, as well as the American musical play - 'Westside Story'.


  1. Interesting thought Musthafa... You're right, a routine makes many things in life meaningless. Many-a-times, when we think we see cold-heartedness, it is actualy because for others it has become part of a routine...

  2. yes, thats how it goes. 1st few days are enticing and intriguing.. but as the days pass by we become part of the play and are viewed another character in the play :)

    a new place does change us from our former selves, not completely but a noticeable amnt

  3. such a deep thought and wonderfully portrayed !!!

  4. Good one. Way to go Mustafa. You certainly are a gifted writer. And also a very keen observer. I have seen this story unfold every time I travelled on the local train.

  5. you've got a ringside view of the great indian drama...a little more time and no twists in the script will ever surprise u

  6. My dear son,

    You have expressed reality of life in a nice way...... well done..... expect more from you ....Its sad no one could adopt a different expression towards the beggar! Let us not allow our routines to make things meaningless. Let every day becomes new for us, every scenes new and let us keep our mind open towards everything, let us get out of the boredom which are created by repeated things, then only life gets its meaning...... all the best.

  7. Amazing Thought...and the way you expressed them..Aamazing.!!!

  8. Hmmm. It takes someone like you to see a play even in a redundant train travel. Interesting!