The Joyride


The Howrah Rajdhani, scheduled to leave New Delhi Railway Station at 1700 HRS, was running late. It was an hour late, and he couldn’t wait for the journey to begin. He was seven years old, and it was the first time he was travelling on a train. His father wanted him to have a taste of the Indian Railways network, much like he did when he was a boy, and lived in the Capital city of Delhi. It was almost 1800, and the journey was about to begin.

It had been a dream for him, to visit the place where his father had grown up. He had heard a lot about the trains, and the way they chugged through the wonderful Indian landscape. He was excited. They were in coach AS-3, right in the beginning of the coach. The first three berths were theirs, and he felt like the head of the whole Coach, which would be his home for the next few hours.

He was with his parents, his father and his mother. He adored his parents, and they loved him. It was a wonderful happy family of theirs.

“Do they still have the Railway Soup here?” he asked his father.

“I hope so. It is a wonderful thing, the Railway Soup, I must tell you. I wonder how they make it here, and how it tastes so wonderful.”

“We used to wait for train rides, only so we could get our hands on the Railway food. I don’t know what it is, but I loved the food on the train” said his mother.

“Do they have the Schezwan Chicken, Ma?”

Before he could get an answer out of her, she climbed on board. She was smaller than him, much smaller. He wondered why she wasn’t travelling with her parents, why she was with her sister instead. She looked at him, caught his eyes, and smiled at him. He politely smiled back, and then went back to staring at the Mynahs on the tracks.

“Do you want to sleep on the bunk, or the lower berth?” asked her sister.

“Can I sleep on the bunk? I have never done that before.”

“Yeah, you can, but then you won’t be able to see outside in the night, and might miss out all the wonderful places we are going to pass through.”

“Excuse me, but wouldn’t it be all dark outside at night, and difficult to see anything at that time?” he said, on an impulse, as he was listening intently on the conversation between the two sisters.

“I’m sleeping on the bunk, and you can stay with the dark window all night long didi!” she quipped, and smiled again at him. “Thanks!” she said

He smiled back, and went back to staring at the Mynahs.

“I’m sorry for the way my son poked his nose in your personal matters, I hope you don’t mind,” said his father to her sister.

“No Sir, it’s not a problem. It’s her first time on one of these things as well, she’s quite excited about the whole ride as well,” her sister said, with a smile just like hers.

“You’re going to Kolkata?” asked his father

“Yes. We’re going there to meet our grandmother,” her sister said.

“Her name’s Thamma, but I like to call her Thumbs-up,” she said, with that wide smile. He couldn’t help but smile along with her.

The train started to pull out of the station, and the journey was on. He was very excited at the prospect of spending almost a whole day in this cube-shaped room, with those two smiling strangers. They seemed happy.

Within an hour of the journey, they served the soup. It was good, but he liked the breadsticks more. He decided to go on the bunk, and have the soup while reading the latest Batman comics he had bought specially for the journey. He climbed up, at the topmost bunk, and saw that she was on the opposite one. The breadsticks were in front of her, but her soup was gone.

“Don’t you like the breadsticks?” he asked her

“Not really. They’re too hard. I like the biscuits better. Do you want to have them with your soup?”

“Are you sure you don’t want them?” his father had taught him to be a gentleman

“Yes, I hate them! Do you want some biscuits too?”

“No, I don’t like salted biscuits all that much, but I’ll take the breadsticks. Thanks”

“You’re welcome. Are you reading Batman?”

He never thought girls could like Batman, but it seemed like this little girl did like that character. Strange.

“Yeah, he’s my favourite. I love the Bat mobile, I’m going to buy that model when I grow up”

“Can I read the comic with you?”

“Sure, but how are you going to come over here?”

“Easy, I’ll just jump over from my bunk to yours” she told him, and started looking for a place to hold to, and push herself off.

“Wait, don’t do that! You’re gonna fall, you’ll hurt yourself!” She was an adventurous thing, downright dangerous sometimes.

“So what, I’m going to go all the way down, and then come back up again?”

“Yes, do that. Otherwise, no Batman!” he threatened.

She started climbing down, but not before she turned to give him a little scowl. He liked the smile better, even though the scowl made him want to laugh. He didn’t laugh though, his father had taught him not to laugh at people.

She came up really fast. She was good at climbing things, it seemed. He wondered if she used to climb trees.

“Do you have a treehouse at home?” he asked her when she had come on the bunk.

“No, but I’d like to have one. Thumbs-up says it’s dangerous, but I don’t understand why.”

“I have one at home, me and Dad built it ourselves. It was fun, I love that place. Would you come over there sometime?”

“Yeah, sure! I’d love to come over and see the treehouse.”

“Cool. Let’s read the comics now. It’s the Special Edition, just came out! Bought it especially for the journey.”

They started reading the comics, and stayed lost in it till it was time for dinner. The ticket checker had come and gone, but they hadn’t even looked up. They were lost in Batman’s world.

Dinner was served, and the smell seemed especially delicious as they were both so hungry. They climbed down to have the railway feast. Everything was really good, and he felt nice to be able to share it with someone.

At 2300, the first stop came. Kanpur Station, and they could see the platform through the windows that had remained jet black for so long. The silent hustle bustle was fun to watch. The vendors selling tea and coffee, even though it was late at night and nobody would drink tea or coffee. But the people in Kanpur did drink tea and coffee late at night. They were surprised to learn that.

“I think you’d better go to sleep, otherwise you’ll fall asleep the moment you reach Jhilmildi’s house.” His mother said.

He agreed, he was sleepy too, even though he wanted to talk to her. But then he noticed that she had gone to sleep against the window, so he left her there. He climbed up the bunk and saw her sister picking her up while she slept, and put her on the bunk. She was tucked in, and slept peacefully.

He lied awake on the bunk for quite some time, felt the jerk of the train pulling out of Kanpur about five minutes later. He was up, swaying to the rhythmic motion of the train. It was funny how he hadn’t noticed the rhythm before, when he was reading Batman with her. After a while, he finally drifted off to sleep.

He woke up the next morning to see that she was already up. Sitting next to a window, and munching on the salted biscuits.

“Good morning!” he said to her cheerfully. She looked up with a sleepy face, and munched a bit more on the biscuits. Finally, she smiled again and said good morning.

“I want to brush my teeth Dad,” he said

“Ok, let’s go. Wear your shoes first; you don’t want to walk out of here barefoot.”

“Where are we?”

“We crossed Dhanbad. We’re running on time again, I asked the TT in the morning.”

“Bring the paste, bring the paste...” he shouted as the door to the AC compartment was opened and the noise rushed in from outside.

He went outside to brush his teeth. The wash basin was right next to the door, and he could see everything clearly. It was not the same murky view as from inside the AC compartment, even though the noise was very loud.

“What’s the time?” he asked

“9:15, we’re almost about to reach, another forty minutes or so. You’re excited about meeting Jhilmildi?”

He wanted to say yes, but couldn’t as his mouth was filled with the paste foam. So he went on brushing his teeth.

Just as he returned, he saw that she had saved the breadsticks for him. He sat down next to her and started eating them with the soup.

A maalgaadi passed them, carrying big capsules instead of people. She thought it must be medicines for the Hulk, when he got angry. He told her they carried oil, but she couldn’t understand why the Hulk had to take Oil Capsules when he got angry.

They didn’t talk too much that day, they were both very sleepy. The rocking train didn’t suit their sleeping ways too much, and neither of them had much energy in them to talk in the morning. He still liked her though, and was thinking of the previous evening.

At 0955, the train entered Howrah Station. It seemed louder and more crowded than any other station they had seen. Even before the train had completely stopped, they could see the coolies get on the train.

He wore his shoes, she wore her sandals. Then he remembered that he had forgotten the Batman comic book on the bunk. He had to get it; he had still not finished it. He took his shoes off, and climbed the bunk again. He could see her sister fussing with the sandal strap, and talking to her in a low voice. He wondered what she was telling her, and why she was looking so sad again. He wanted her to smile.

He got down, and held the Batman comic book out for her. She looked at him, but didn’t want to take it.

“How are you going to read it if you give it to me?”

“You read it, and then bring it with you when you come to my treehouse. I can take it from you there.”

“Ok, thanks,” she said, and she smiled again.

“Come on son, you don’t want to be the last one left on the train now, do you?” asked his mother.

“You want a piggy back ride till the taxi stand?” her sister was asking her

They got off the train, and got lost in the billowing crowds of Howrah Station. He clutched her breadsticks in his hands, while she held on to the Batman comic book while they walked towards the station exit.