The words uttered by the wrinkled old man sailed across the entrance of the compartment, staving off the oncoming gush of wind that was blowing in as the train furiously glided through a narrow bend in the tracks.
I was lost in thought, having surrendered to the stifling heat which nevertheless demanded beads of sweat as humiliating evidence of its influence. The old man pointed, and I followed the direction of his finger.
Next to the entrance at the other end of the compartment was a small boy. Given the opportunity of a bath and a visit to the tailor, the kid would have looked charming. Presently looking like any other street urchin, dressed in a dirty, yellowish white banyan that exposed his pencil thin arms, his face was pockmarked with dirt stains that did nothing to diminish the self-assured, arrogant look that he wore. With silky black hair that flopped onto his forehead, he seemed happy as he leaned against the compartment wall.
I nodded to the old man, and smiled to pre-empt any further conversation, for I had far too much on my mind that morning. A wise little boy was none of my concern.
I pushed my way through the bustling crowd, hoping to reach the overhead bridge in time. There was a growing risk that I would be late for my first day at work. Fortunately I managed to reach the office just in time. Eight hours later, I wondered why I had bothered being so punctual. The entire day was spent waiting for the manager, who conveniently came at closing time and asked our batch of six newcomers to return the next day.
“So this was what I skipped the canteen lunch for!” Rahul, my colleague, grumbled as we walked out of our floor. I smiled, but said nothing. As we passed by the cafeteria, one of the seniors waved for us to come in.
“Don’t look so morose, young man,” he said jovially to Rahul. “We might not be punctual here but at least we feed our employees well! There,” he pointed towards a table. “There’s your lunch parcels. You can have them here or else take them home.”
Rahul dashed towards the table while I tried to retreat. “What’s the matter, young man? Not eating?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “No sir. Trying to lose weight.”
He chuckled. “You’re mad, boy. I’ve worked here for twelve years, and have been wanting to quit for the past eleven. The only thing that keeps me here is the food,” he joked, pointing again to the lunch parcels. “Take it home. Eat it at night. It’s the best plate of fried rice you’ll ever eat. Trust me.”
It was my first day at work, and the last thing I wanted was to disobey a senior. I duly picked up the parcel, and headed to the railway station.
I lived in Potheri, which was about forty kilometres from Chennai, and an hour by suburban train. The long distance was one of the main reasons I had been hesitant to take up the job. But my parents insisted. After all, I’d spent over four months unemployed after graduating from college.
If only they knew why.
The train was too crowded and I had to settle for a spot next to the entrance of the compartment, holding onto the steel pole in the middle of the opening for support as commuters exerted pressure from behind.
Soon, when the train had settled into a routine of roaring against the wind, slowing to a halt, and then lazily picking up steam again, I observed something amusing. In the adjacent compartment, grinning and laughing as he leapt out onto the platform, was the same boy I’d seen in the morning. From my perilous position on the footboard, I watched as he and his two friends played their little game. Whenever the train came to a halt at a station, they would leap onto the platform, running to a stop as they cried out joyously. There they would banter for a while, purposely standing next to the compartment without acknowledging the need to board it.
Once the train began moving again, they would deliberate about climbing back on. The most adventurous of the three—the small boy I’d seen earlier—was the last to run. I watched with slight trepidation as his bare feet rustled along the platform, gaining speed in anticipation of the jump that would follow.
Sometimes it felt as though he’d waited too long; as though his legs could no longer keep up with the roaring train. Just as my lips would twitch with concern, his limbs would exert greater force and burst forward, trusting that his arms would grab onto the door handle and pull his body inside.
Within the span of a dozen stations, I developed a liking for the boy. He was adventurous, cheerful and extremely daring. Most importantly, he made me forget the sadness I was harboring.
However, things took a bad turn when the train reached Tambaram Station. The boy leapt out of the train as usual, but almost immediately ran into a khaki-uniformed police officer, wielding a big stick. The kind police officers use to beat street kids who attempt dangerous entertaining stunts.
I watched as the police officer grabbed the scrawny boy by his arm and shook him violently. Just as he was about to lift his stick, I got down from the train and rushed towards them.
“Rahul! Rahul!” I said, calling out the first name that came to my mind. The police officer turned around; upon seeing me run towards him his expression changed.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“That’s my younger brother, sir,” I said earnestly, pointing towards the wide-eyed boy. “He’s a naughty fellow, but I try not to shout at him. He is,” I dropped my voice to a mock whisper, “a little slow in the head.”
The policeman appeared sympathetic, and pushed the boy towards me. “I’ll let you go this time,” he said gruffly. “But don’t repeat it again!”
I grabbed hold of the boy’s hand and ran as the train began moving. We climbed on and sat near the entrance, our backs leaning against the compartment wall. About a minute passed by before the boy looked up solemnly, robbed of his cheerfulness, and said, “Thank you for helping me.”
I smiled and nodded my head. “What’s your name?” I asked loudly, to counter the rumbling of the train as it whizzed past fields of vegetation.
“Hello Ram, my name is Deepak Chandran. How old are you?”
He looked up with interest, and produced six fingers. Five on one hand, and the smallest finger on the other. Symbolic, I thought, observing his small frame. I could very well have picked him up and tossed him a few metres away. Then again, I had put on excess weight. I needed to hit a gym soon, I reminded myself.
“What is that?” he asked curiously, pointing to the parcel placed next to me. “Oh, that’s a parcel of fried rice. They forced me to take it home, even though I didn’t want to…”
My voice trailed away as I realised how insensitive I was. Ram’s rib-hugging belly should have made me understand. To make amends I gingerly picked up the parcel and placed it next to him.
“Here, why don’t you take it,” I said encouragingly. “You look like you could use some,” I joked.
He looked up and smiled widely. “What anna,” he said, looking pleased. “First you save me from that policeman. Then you give me big dinner. Thank you very much sir!”
His innocence charmed me. “Its fine, I wasn’t going to eat it anyways. Tell me how it tastes. It’s supposed to be the best plate of fried rice in Chennai. And you don’t have to call me sir.”
Over the course of the next two weeks, I immersed myself at work, making sure to appease my slightly grumpy manager. The exhausting days were compensated by the train journey home shared with Ram. It became a daily ritual. I would spot Ram near the ticket counter, and promptly call out to him. He would swing around and run towards me, his bare feet thumping on the concrete platform. In return for obtaining a train ticket for me so that I did not have to bother with the long queue, he received a parcel of the finest fried rice in Chennai. I sometimes wished I could watch him wolf down the contents of the tin parcel, if only to satisfy my conscience. I was pleased that I could bring a certain amount of joy to this little fellow, but the truth was exactly the opposite. It took me a while to realise it.
Ram Aravind taught me the best way to travel in a train, sitting in the entrance of the compartment, with our feet dangling outside. At first I was horrified by the prospect of losing my limbs, but as my six-year old companion pointed out, the railway authorities had built the track and train to avoid such possibilities.
One evening, as his skinny legs swung to and fro in the wind, I was feeling less cheerful than normal. Normally I would be engaged in a conversation with Ram, asking him about his life, and sharing mine. But this time around, I merely leaned against the compartment door, with ear phones plugged in, supplying soul wrenching music to fuel my melancholy.
A thin, small finger poked me on my shoulder. Ram was staring at me curiously.
“Why you so sad?”
I shrugged my shoulders, wondering if a six-year old could understand the heartbreak caused by failed love. “Nothing,” I said, looking around the compartment. It was partially dark thanks to a faulty tube light, and there were only a handful of passengers. I decided to take the risk, and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.
“Ah,” he cried, watching me light one.
I immediately felt ashamed. “Don’t!” I warned him. “Never ever try one of these, okay? It’s bad for you. And you’ll never be able to quit. God knows I’ve tried,” I muttered.
He said something in Tamil. I scowled. Shaking his head, he tried to translate it to English. “How—how long it last. This nice feeling?” he asked, signalling the cigarette.
“Two minutes. Sometimes even less,” I admitted.
He shook his head as the train approached the station. “For two minutes you are killing your body? And why you sad?”
I stared at his earnest eyes, and decided to tell him. “I broke up—” he frowned so I rephrased the word, “A girl left me. We loved each other. But now she is gone.”
He pondered over what I had said as the train came to a halt. The next station would be ours.
“You like her very much?” he asked inquisitively.
I nodded my head.
He paused, and then looked up to ask matter-of-factly. “How long it last?”
I tried counting the years we had been together. “I think about four years since we started—”
He waved his hand dismissively. “How long,” he asked, poking my chest while wearing a straight expression, “this sadness last?”
I smiled wryly. “I don’t know, Ram. For a long time I think. Many, many years. Because once you love someone, it hurts a lot to lose that person. To lose that feeling.”
The train came to halt again, and the two of us stepped out on the platform. I handed the parcel to Ram, and he waved goodbye. I watched him walk down the platform, till he spotted a larger, muscular looking street kid next to the station exit. He quickly wheeled around, and hid behind a ticket counter.
I smiled. The boy lived in his own tough jungle.
He tried to pretend he couldn’t hear me, but aborted the idea mid-way. “Nothing,” he said quietly.
I scrutinized his body. There were bruise marks on his arms and legs, and a slight discoloration on his cheek. It wasn’t nothing.
“Ram,” I said sternly, “What actually happened?”
He bit his lip, hoping the rhythmic rumble of the train would hypnotize me into silence. His injured body swayed as he sat cross-legged on the compartment floor. When he couldn’t bear my angry stare any longer, he looked up defiantly.
“I slipped and fell, okay?” he spat out rudely. “Fell and got hurt. But it is nothing. Pain last only five minutes.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the last comment. I put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. “Hey, you need to be careful, okay? You can’t keep running to catch trains. It is dangerous. You might get hurt very badly next time.”
He shrugged his shoulders but said nothing. I chuckled, unable to believe how much I actually cared about his safety.
Over the course of the next five months, we became thick friends, enjoying our familiar routine. I lost weight, but though the parcels kept exchanging hands, Ram still stayed skinny. Since he’d promised me he had stopped running around so much, I began to wonder why he wasn’t gaining weight.
Then one night, after we’d parted at the station, I thought I’d dropped my ID card at the platform, and so made my way back. It was almost eleven, and the platform was deserted, except for two kids. One was Ram. The other was the muscular, larger boy I’d seen once before. I watched as Ram solemnly walked up to the larger fellow, and without the slightest hesitation, handed over the parcel of rice. I gasped, for it all made sense. He must have been conforming to this ritual ever since we met. I felt a deep sense of anger build within me, but I put it aside for the moment. I would see Ram the next day, and confront him about what he’d done.
However, anger and annoyance slipped away in the night, and by the time I was back at the platform the next day, they’d been replaced by worry and concern instead. I realized that Ram must have been bullied into giving up the parcel. As street kids they probably scavenged for stale leftovers, and for the bigger boy, the plate of rice must seem heaven-sent.
Adopting a fatherly manner, I waited as Ram came running towards me. But before I could broach the topic, he surprised me. “Hi, today is our last day, you and me together. I am leaving for Madurai!”
The news took me aback. But then he explained. His father, a poor laborer who had spent most of his life toiling to make ends meet for his family, had decided to return to his village in Madurai. Which meant this would be my last train journey with my six-year old companion.
However, Ram had a bigger surprise in store. After returning to Potheri station, he forced me to accompany him to his dwelling.
“Why?” I asked.
He quickly explained as we neared his street. “For past five months,” he said calmly, “one boy, Vishnu, he is beating me and forcing me to give him my plate of rice.”
So it was true.
“But that is okay,” he said, to my considerable surprise. “Because, Anna, all this time I had nice plan. You remember your love problem? How long it last? Very, very long, yes? So I thought. Normally I and Vishnu get very bad, tasteless food to eat. But this rice is excellent! I ate it once, so I know. And after eating it just once, I couldn’t eat my normal food for two days. I hated it!”
He stopped, looking at me conspiratorially. “So I thought Anna. Why not give him that rice? That bad, bad boy. He beat me, but that pain last only one hour. I have better plan. I give him excellent dinner for five full months. So imagine how sad he will be tonight onwards?”
Ram Aravind puffed his chest with pride and said, “Anna, I understood. Good things are not so good. Because if good things go, then it makes normal things even worse. Poor fellows like me should not have good fried rice for one day. It will make us feel bad rest of the week. Sometimes, it’s better to be normal for all the time—like me, eating bad, tasteless food—than to have very good time for some time—like Vishnu. Oh, imagine how much he will suffer now. He cannot forget the taste of that excellent plate of rice!”
As I walked back home, with moist eyes and a tingling spine, I remembered the words of the wrinkled old man.
Yes, Ram Aravind was a very wise boy indeed.