A moment can change one’s life in an instant. For me that defining moment came when I boarded the train at Raigarh station, just as it began to leave the platform. I began to run at the guard’s whistle, my feet flying on the concrete. I made it to the AC II tier compartment just as the train had gathered speed, adrenalin pumping hard, beads of perspiration on my forehead, a veritable Jesse Owen after his Olympic sprint. It was an enormous effort for me to pull my black strolley bag onto the footboard, and as I took in large gulps of air, helping hands ushered me inside.
As I walked towards my berth, my head discreetly bent, I saw a man, his head bowed, backpack on his shoulders, walking away. “Misogynist, he got up and left the moment he saw you coming,” murmured the man sitting on the side bunk. I slid towards my berth and shoved my bag under it when I heard a voice say, “That was dangerous, jumping onto a moving train. You might have been killed.”
My head jerked up immediately, like a marionette on a string. The man on the upper berth across my seat, whom I had not noticed so far, had made the pronouncement. He was elderly. His hair had turned almost white. But his face seemed smooth and unlined. Was he 60 or 80? I had no idea. He looked avuncular. Immediately I labelled him Grandpa.
“I got late,” I mumbled, wondering if this would turn out to be an interrogation.
“But I thought I saw you standing at the bookshop on the platform,” another voice intruded on the conversation. I looked up in surprise at a bearded man, sitting in the opposite berth, who reminded me in a strange way, of Fidel Castro. He was short and stocky and looked tough and a little ruthless. I nicknamed him`The Rebel.’“I was undecided about boarding the train,” I admitted,
“I could not make up my mind till the very end, when the train was about to leave.”
“Running away from home.”
I turned towards the man sitting by my side, who had spoken. He was young and handsome. Barely 30, I surmised.
“Yash,” he winked conspiratorially at me as he handed me his business card. “YashChibber, Assistant Manager, Airtel.”
I felt my cheeks burn slowly. He did not know how close to home his remark had been.
The arrival of the waiter made for a welcome break. “One vegetarian lunch,” I ordered, realising that I had had nothing since morning except black coffee and a toast. The man dumped an aluminum foil covered tray before me. Even the watery arhar dal, unappetising potato and peas curry, chapattis, and cold rice did not deter me from eating hungrily.
“Definitely running away from home,” chuckled Yash as he saw me wolfing down my lunch. My eyes widened in surprise. “Otherwise you would have received a send-off from your family father, mother, brother, sister, nephew or niece,” asserted Yash. “Along with containers of home-cooked food, rice pulao, puris, chicken, bhindi, and home-made mango pickle. You would not be eating this muck,” he added.
I lowered my head so that he would not see the colour drain away from my face. Home. When had I left home? Today? Yesterday? Or was it months ago? I had lost track of time. My presence within the four walls of my house did not matter. My heart had been far away.
“Running away from home to marry someone against your family’s wishes,” hazarded Yash, who revelled in his role as a self-appointed sleuth, “someone from a different religion, caste or region.”
He was surprisingly perceptive. Yes, there was someone. Someone who was different from anyone I had ever known. Charismatic, passionate, and fiery. An iconoclast, a revolutionary and an enigma. A passionate ideologue and a recluse. Someone before whom nothing mattered to me—no right or wrong, no family or friends, nothing. Someone for whom I was willing to walk to the end of the earth.
I remembered the first time I saw Aftab. It was at the University.He was giving a fiery speech, contesting for the post of Students Union President. His impassioned speech left me spellbound. He was a visionary. Someone who could ignite dreams, kindle passions and make his Utopia seem possible. Hearing his voice, I could feel goose bumps on my arms. But I knew that I was one among a thousand girls who were stirred by his words. For a moment I thought I saw his eyes rest on me. And then I saw him smile. Perhaps it was only my imagination, or perhaps it was wishful thinking. I was a part of the crowd. While he, as a potential President of the Student Union, stood apart.
A few days later, I met Aftab in a jam-packed bus. I was certain he would not recognise me. But he put a hand on my shoulder and as I shook under his touch he grinned. “Vote for me,” he urged.
He need not have asked. I would have died for him.
“I know you will,” he said knowingly. “I saw you in my rally.”
I was perplexed. How could he notice me in such a large crowd? Then I remembered that his eyes had rested on me fleetingly that day and he had smiled. I thought my heart would burst. Maybe my destiny was calling me. I threw caution to the winds and revelled in the fact that he had sought me out.
That accidental meeting had led to many more, and I reeled under the impact of his eyes on mine, the touch of his skin on mine, the male tangy freshness of his breath, the passion in his voice, his ardent possession and my willing surrender. Our lives began to blend inextricably and I knew I could never separate mine from his.
Iwas grateful for the sudden silence that fell in the compartment. I looked furtively at the man on the side berth. But for his first remark he had remained silent all through. Through the window I saw green fields, with some unknown crop, fluttering in the wind. A dog raced against the train for some time and then gave up. A shabby scarecrow, clad in an old tweed coat, striped pants and a straw hat, stood sentinel in the rice field. Five children, three boys and two girls, held hands and encircled the scarecrow. A brightly coloured kite soared across the sky. Someone was celebrating his happiness by this burst of activity. A village woman in a yellow saree was bringing food for the farmer who was struggling to plough the earth. A pair of oxen drooped in the heat.
For the next five or ten minutes the five of us sat in companionable silence. “I hope someone is meeting you in Delhi,” Grandpa’s voice intruded into my thoughts. I nodded my head. I knew Aftab would be there when I reached Delhi.
“Why?” It was the Rebel who asked.
“It’s 14th August today,” said Uncle. “There is Red Alert in and around Delhi. You must avoid going to public places.There is danger of a bomb blast.”
I shivered at the thought.
“Have you been to Delhi before?” he asked me, almost as an afterthought.
“Yes,” I mumbled, and then seeing the questioning look on his face, I added, “I once came to Delhi as an NCC Cadet for the Republic Day Parade.”
“You?” exclaimed Yash incredulously, boldly appraising my diminutive frame, “Someone as beautiful as you was an NCC Cadet?”
“She is planning her own Independence Day,” remarked the taciturn gentleman on the side berth, “or maybe she is trading her independence for the shackles of marriage!”
“15 August 1947. India attained its Independence that year; I was a young man then,” ruminated Grandpa, “and I was a freedom fighter. I took part in the Quit India Movement.”
I saw his eyes shine with pride. I closed my eyes and sep images of the freedom struggle floated in my mind. Images of Gandhiji, of helmeted British policemen raining blows on hapless Satyagrahis, including Grandpa. Images I had seen in the history textbooks and while watching the Films Division documentaries in the cinema halls. What would be Grandpa’s age? I wondered. Not a day less than 85, I was certain. Had he been to prison? If yes, then for how long? Was he disillusioned by the world today? Had he been a little like Aftab in his youth?
“I was a follower of Jai Prakash Narain,” murmured the Rebel, his voice tinged with regret. “I took part in his Total Revolution Movement in 1974. We wasted two years of our lives for the movement.” His eyes had a faraway look in them. I was surprised by his revelation. I would not have guessed that he had been an idealist, although today he was clearly disillusioned. But appearances were obviously deceptive.
“I was a Naxalsympathiser,” quipped the man on the side berth. Suddenly all eyes were riveted towards him. He was clearly enjoying this unexpected attention. He saw the look of scepticism in my gaze. Lifting his leg, he pushed his right trouser up to his knee. “I have a wooden leg,” he murmured. “I lost it in a police firing.”
I could not take my eyes off it.
“Naxalsympathiser, police firing, wooden leg, Independence day, Red alert.”
The words began popping up in my mind at frequent intervals. Suddenly my insides began to churn. I felt the bile rise in my mouth and panicked. Edging my way past the men who were lounging nearby, I rushed towards the two bathrooms, but they were closed. I then headed towards the washbasin and, retching loudly, threw up into it. As the rancid smell of vomited food began to suffuse the corridor, the men hanging by the door moved towards their seats. I opened my purse and searched through its contents.
The bathroom door opened just then. And he was there, the man who had left the compartment when I boarded the train, but minus his backpack.
“Quick,” said Aftab, as he opened the door of the train. The sudden blast of air took me by surprise. I clutched the door handle and stood quivering, unable to take the final plunge towards the fields. We were whizzing past the countryside and I looked with terror as the train passed a lamp post and then moved towards the bridge.
“Quick,” he said once again, and when he saw me paralysed with fear, he snatched my purse and pushed me out, before pressing the detonator and jumping after me. I rolled onto the mud and continued to roll for some time before I came to a stop.
The blast occurred just as the train entered the bridge. It’s intensitywas enormous. The old bridge bent and there was a tearing sound as the steel girders snapped, before it was breached. A bogie hung precariously on the edge of the bridge before plunging straight into the river. My black strolley bag had exploded. A minute later there was another blast. This time I knew it was Aftab’s backpack.
I heard the sounds of the screams resonating in the air, followed by the splintering of glass. The compartments were enveloped in a cloud of black smoke as angry orange flames licked the train. I imagined the faces of the passengers paralyzed with fear, the sheer panic on the faces of men, women and children as realisation dawned upon them that bombs had been blasted on the train. I imagined the smell of scorching flesh and the blood, gore and mayhem that followed, with men and women dying, and children burnt to cinders. I knew that the RDX and aluminum nitratethat had been used in the bombs would have wrenched arms and legs from the torsos, shredded human flesh, killed some and maimed many. Those who survived the blast would have been sucked into the vortex of the swirling waters below.
It was terrifying. But even more terrifying was the look ofsatisfaction on Aftab’s face as he said, “Mission accomplished.” I trembled on seeing his face. “Stop shivering,” he commanded.
“They must all be dead,” I whispered. “Grandpa, Yash, everyone. There must be families waiting for them at home, who would never see them again because of me.”
“Pray that they are dead, and that there are no eyewitnesses left; otherwise they will be able to identify you,” retorted Aftab brusquely.
I thought of Grandpa, who had advised me to be careful, as Delhi was on Red Alert. If only he knew the truth, I thought hysterically. People saw me as a vulnerable, petite and beautiful young woman. No one would have guessed my mission and understood my reluctance to board the train.
But I had chosen a life with Aftab. For me, these were initiation rites. But I still could not contain the look of horror on my face as I saw bogies after bogies plunging into the river. Long after the bombs had exploded I could still hear the cries of terror. I put my hands on my ears to blot out the sound. Aftab put his arms around me and said, “Hush, forget it. It’s over.”
But I knew he was wrong. It was not over. For me, I knew, this was just the beginning.