The Rail Yard

There seemed to have been a sliver of hope when the last train pulled into the platform. But apart from a few drunk passengers and an old Marwadi merchant, nobody seemed to have got off from the train. The lights of the train went off and the ghost train moved out of the platform to be deposited in the yard that lay a few hundred meters away to the south. The RPF Havaldar finally called it a day and dozed off with his rifle on his helpdesk. The food stalls had long shut down and the autorickshaw drivers outside slept off, crouched on the seat meant for three-passengers-only( four if you paid extra). The slightest hope was extinguished as the rumble of the train became distant.

Manjula, 38, mother of three stood looking at the taillight of the train as it made its journey back to the yard. She felt disappointed, dejected, standing under the whirring fan of platform number 1. It had been a bad week. Every evening since May, young girls were appearing outside the station. Inexperienced but innocent, unwilling but attractive and most importantly under the protection of a madam named Rosie. Of all the girls, she hated Reshma the most. All of 18, she had taken the adda by storm. She was the new queen of the station and Manjula, although renowned in the circle was shaken. Nothing but laali ki dukaan saali Manjula spat each time her sisters mentioned Reshma and her strong marketing skills.

The older guys, the rich traders of Dalal street who disembarked at the station had until recently chosen Manjula because unlike others, Manjula was well known. She didn’t come cheap either so automatically, anything that was expensive would be good concluded the traders. They were used to commodifying everything around them. But she was indeed the expert and believed in exclusivity and human effort. She was a brand without a facebook page but commanded such loyalty for which, most brand managers would sell their B-school degrees. Her close friends did warn her though. Working beyond 35, just like it is in cricket, is not possible but she called herself Tendulkar of the Adda and continued. A reputation to maintain was fine, but in reality it was the three children for whom she had to continue working.

So, when she stood without having had her ‘bonnie’ at 130 am on the platform, she questioned her life choices. Forced into the dhanda since she was 15, Manjula had come a long way from a shanty in Kurla to a 1-room-kitchen-touching-highway flat in an old to be redeveloped building in Samta Nagar. The first few times meant sheer mental trauma. But it paid. And that was her answer, each time she questioned her decision. Until tonight. The month was almost over and reminder calls to pay the bills had already began. But money? was it the only thing bothering her tonight?

Was age catching up? Was it time for her to retire and look for employment elsewhere? Even the goddamn dance bars band hain!, she thought to herself. If she moved further north of Bombay, she could always get an employment in one of the unlicensed bars but then she risked arrest by the SSB. On the streets, it was simpler.

Have I lost it, to those girls, afterall?

Not far away from her, in a cabin under the staircase leading to the foot overbridge (FOB), looking nothing like a certain boy-wizard, sat Deptee(Deputy) Station Manager Ashok Sharma. Of medium build, hair neatly parted, dressed in white shirt and trousers, he sat behind his desk having his fourth cup of chai since his shift began at nine. On the flickering screen of the CCTV monitor number 5 (which streamed video from camera number, you guessed it, five) affixed over the stinking toilet on the northern end of the platform - stood a lady in a green saree. He had been staring at her since the past few hours. She seemed different than the rest but that was probably only him exaggerating. He wanted to get a better look. This pixelated view didn’t do her justice. He thought of going on an ‘inspection’ of the platform, but dismissed it, lest he scared her away from her current location. He stood up and went to the window to look at the platforms which appeared ghostly in their deserted and lifeless avatar.

Ashok was never the one to pick up girls, right from hi-iskool to graduate college, he was a shy man, engrossed in his copy of Quantitative Aptitude by Dr. R. S Agarwal for Competitive Examinations (S. Chand Publications). He had been a 27 year old virgin until he got married to Reena Kumari from Semaria, District: Bhojpur, State: Bihar. It had been ten years and yet he lived like a bachelor in the spacious Railway Quarters at Matunga allotted to him by the Indian Railways. He didn’t deem it fit for his kids to grow up in a city like Bombay. He felt homesick and hated the cutting chai made in adulterated milk but he had risen up the rank and being the Deptee earned him enough salutes to keep his morale sufficiently high.

He turned around and glanced at the wall clock, two hours to go, he thought to himself. Two hours later the first local would chug out from the yard and the machinery of the station would rouse from its slumber and get to work, barely resting until it was the time for the last train. He glanced at the monitor and there she was. Lost in deep thought, still standing right there. “Two hours” he muttered to himself before he took a deep breath and ventured out into the still night. The RPF sentry had dozed off on the helpdesk sponsored by Suvidha. Good. He walked briskly towards the end of the platform.

Who is this man? Not another havaldar please!” thought Manjula as she saw a man in white approach. He seemed to be some official-authority type man. She wasn’t new to dealing with them, these type of men who signed notices that said ‘By-Order’. They were easy to handle. Bigger egos than her customers. She knew the tricks well but tonight she wasn’t in the mood to negotiate for his permission to stay on the platform.

The green of saree was a brighter shade from the one that the camera had shown him. She is different, yes of course. She was looking at him hesitantly almost begging him to go away. “But I don’t mean any harm, I just wanted to take a good look at you, that’s all” But he couldn’t say it out loud. He walked up to her, hands clenched into tight fists, cleverly hidden in his pockets he couldn’t resist but ask “How much?”. He knew the hard disk in his office was recording this entire encounter so he tried to appear angry. Before she could answer with her fingers, as was the convention, he barked “mooh se bolo, haath se nahi!”

Taken aback by this question and his manner, Manjula blurted out “400”. She would’ve added another zero if this was evening but this man in white was her only hope. Puzzled by his unfazed look, she wondered if she had quoted the right amount.

“Yard ke peeche” he said curtly and turned on his heels. A myriad questions and possibilities ran through his head. Passing the Railway Recruitment Board (RRB) exam had been his greatest achievement in life, why he would risk his entire career (job security and pension and perks and quarters) he didn’t know. By the time he reached his cabin, he had made up his mind. He knew the easier route to the yard, like her, he wouldn’t need to walk across the tracks. Instead if he walked all the way to the south and took the FOB to PF 4, a paved road, restricted for passengers led right to the yard. His absence wouldn't be questioned and he could always say he was on a surprise inspection of the yard.

She got down from Platform and walked through the middle of the tracks. She was following the route of the last train. Where exactly, he hadn't specified but it was okay, she would find her way. A temporary shed built for the workmen in orange, behind the yard is where the man in white was seated. He beckoned her and didn’t speak at all. He handed four crisp 100 rupee notes to her and without a word, started unbuttoning his shirt. With his heart beating twice as fast, Ashok unzipped his pants and waited. For the next few minutes, his heart only beat faster. There were no sounds, akin to an adult film made before the Talkies era began. He was being cautious but each moment seemed worth the risk he had taken. The lady in green was good, no wait, excellent. She was a master, he couldn’t imagine how being impulsive could turn out to be this great. But it had to end and it did. And Ashok found himself, lying under a foggy night sky. The darkest hour of the morning had begun and within a few minutes, the motorman of the first train would wake up. He cleared up and thrust some more notes into her hand. He didn’t have to bid her goodbye, she was gone long before. His expressionless face belied all the excitement and pleasure that he had just experienced.

Manjula hurried back to the station exit, clutching the extra few notes. It was dark and she didn’t know how much it was. She woke up her regular autowallah and reached home only to discover that the man in white had added a generous zero to her remuneration. At the same time, Ashok sauntered into the yard to be greeted by the energetic young motorman of the first train. Acting pompous, as he was expected to, in an official manner he had cultivated in his long years of service, he climbed into the motorman’s cabin and informed him that he was inspecting the yard and expected to be dropped back to the station. The motorman nodded and felt privileged to give the Deptee a ride back and honked longer than required as he put the first local in motion and woke up the entire station.


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