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An unfinished novel

Unfinished novel (1997-)

Introduction

Not often is it that one finds any real source of inspiration in today's world. Mostly it is a drive for money or just a penchant for hard work that drives a man to create. At times it is music, for some, women; for some, poetry; for some, nature; for some, criticism and so on and so forth but to pin down inspiration as any one of these would be doing grave injustice to man's fickle nature, for so quickly does the human being change his opinion that a rational and permanent definition for any one aspect of life will be a great folly.

Inspiration, if you were to ask me, is just a bygone concept of the Coleridge or the Holmes period, where a mere intake of a drug could produce a masterpiece or help solve a great mystery. In a lighter vein, a man or for that matter, a woman, sitting near a flowing river dreaming about anything is more likely to end up with a cold than anything else, leave alone a magnum opus.

Creative spontaneity that one hears of perhaps existed only in a bygone era where the artists were few , the educated far lesser and the geniuses perhaps, only a handful. Where did the erosion of spontaneity start ? Was it triggered due to the rampant display of human emotions in the tinsel screen or was it triggered by the routine, mechanical life of the modern world ? I refer, of course, to the literary world.

The character of an individual today is such that one can quite easily predict his mentor. So easily influenced is this modern being.

In today's world, to find an individual who could give clear indications to his ancestors, his family, his upbringing would be like finding a needle in a haystack. So layered is he by what he sees that he quickly adopts whatever he sees; be it mannerisms, clothes, culture or at times, even sex. Nothing wrong in any of this, of course, but it becomes increasingly difficult to portray a character, for almost all possible variations have been tapped by various authors and to portray a character to appeal to the readers' finer senses is a near impossible task.

Stereotypes n ever appeal for long and originality is already lost in over-exposure of far too many characters in both the print media and the visual media. So where do we, the authors, go for a new character ? How are we going to create a character like a Sherlock Holmes or a Frankenstein or a Tom Sawyer or even a Veronica ? Mr. Heller is lost in his own world of crazy, war hungry people, Mr. Narayan has shifted his attention to managing public sector companies, Mr Wodehouse is no more, Ms Christie has left far too many stereotypes behind her, the Robbinses and the Archers are busy with their own type of bloated heroes and heroines, no more Macleans, the world of Cartlands is too full of vain, beautiful creatures to accommodate any more people, and finally, and more importantly, who cares ?

It is not as if I am giving an excuse before even the real thing has started nor is it any fear of incurring the wrath of the reader that drives me to pour my woes on the modern reader. It is quite simply a genuine, anguished call for some writer to create characters like in the past. For I, too, am a reader. In fact, a reader first and then a writer and the dearth of any real characters in today's novels has driven me to writing so that I could take refuge in the characters that I create, to suit my own sycophantic, if such a word exists, nature.

Creativity and genius and beauty go hand-in-hand with each other for all these are necessary fuel for people like me and when there is a dearth of these aspects of human nature one is forced to find alternatives and the alternative for me was to create for my own self.

So it is that I took to writing and I hope for my own sake that I come up with something good in this novel, if not in the lines of a Hardy, at least, in the vein of, well.....what say you, let's get on with it, shall we?

Prologue

It was not as if the birds were tired of flying or the breeze had forgotten its way.

It was quite simply a matter of humidity and too much heat. The scorching heat could quite easily bake a bun, so relentlessly did the sun bear down on the dreary landscape. Still two miles to go and the pain of sharp pebbles and stinging thorns on naked feet was beginning to show on the weary face of the old man in rags.

The curious thing about certain people is a certain unselfish quality that drives them to perform unbelievable feats for others. This old man had neither a stake in what he was doing nor would he gain anything personally by it but his mind was made of such mettle that he wouldn't even think on the reason behind what he was doing. His whole life had been spent on doing just what he was told. Either his ignorance or his lowly upbringing prevented him from questioning his own actions - his job today was to inform a total stranger that he had been bestowed with a child, he neither knew the father nor the mother ! He had already walked a dozen miles and his tired body forced him to rest on the wayside.

Small beads of sweat had begun to appear on his forehead and only a faint breeze from a passing bullock-cart provided some relief to his heated body. The lined, weary face showed no emotion for he was not one to react nor did he know how to.

Emotions and feelings were alien to him as all his life he had dealt only with masters and landlords and they had all wielded the whip and not the gentle tongue; women were either landladies or cooks or maids and none of them had ever shown any liking for him nor had he felt the need for it.

Perhaps for the first time in his life he thought about a child. What did it feel to be a father?

He kicked himself for not having married that maid who had so fervently wanted to be his wife. He could have been a father today. A son or perhaps a daughter or perhaps more, a wife, warm food...he heaved a sigh at his own thoughts and lay down on the warm ground.

The silent landscape, the faint breeze, the cooling shade of the tree and the long walk lulled the old man to close his eyes and soon he fell asleep.

Some twenty-odd hours later he was found dead by a passing carriage-driver. The nearest doctor gave the reason for the death as being due to exhaustion and heat stroke. It was the same doctor who had delivered the child of the man to whom the old man had set out to meet. The message to the father was finally sent by a younger person, the carriage-driver who had found the dead old man on the wayside and fortunately for him he had to walk only the remaining two miles. The deadly dozen miles were not for him and he heaved a sigh at the thought. The old man in rags had not eaten that day and perhaps for the first time in his life, in his death, did he gain some sympathy from the cook. The rest just dismissed him as an old man who had to go and he was cremated silently by the hospital with not a soul to weep over him.

The sun set and the new-born child felt the first night of its life as it snuggled in the warm comfort of the mother's bosom. Stars twinkled on a clear, dark sky and slowly the faint sounds in the hospital gave way to comforting silence broken occasionally by a leaking tap and distant sounds of stray dogs barking.

The new-born neither knew these sounds nor cared for it, nor did he know about the old man in rags who had died because of him. He just slept blissfully the first night of his life.

Chapter 1

Colorful kites adorned the Orange-ish, evening sky and the air was filled with a slight whiff of coal-smoke from the nearby railway station. Shrill cries of the children from the nearby park rent the air. She spent most of her evenings looking at the children playing in the park. Almost wistfully her heart would reach out to them, to the innocent look in the little boy's eyes who was being beaten by his sister; to the gay abandon with which they lost themselves in playing silly games; to the wondrous look a s the young tots watched the older boys fly kites to ever so great heights. Lost, perhaps, was innocence forever for her as she ventured deeper into the serious future of her life.

She shook herself out of her reverie. Dusk, it would be soon, and she still had to make up her mind as to what to cook for dinner. Not that anybody could object to anything she cooked, she had made sure that everyone fell in line with her from the very first day she had entered the household.

That was then, now only she and her husband lived here. Her mother had told her quite often how wicked mother-in-laws and husbands could be if given a chance and so she had seen to it from the very first day that they were not given a chance. It was a change, of course, this married life, from the one she led at her own home. A more careful and cautious approach had to be adopted before doing anything, for fear of disturbing the fragile harmony of a married household. She looked wistfully at the children playing in the park.

Only yesterday it seemed that she, too, had played and ran around like them and today...The cool evening breeze sent a slight shiver down her spine and she hurried inside, closing the door behind her. Before long her husband would be home and may demand dinner the moment he entered or may just settle for a cup of tea. Either way she had to be prepared.

She could hear the neighbor calling for her child and soon the shrill cries of the children gradually faded into the expectant silence of a ready night. She poured some water into the kettle and put it on fire.

The man two doors away had returned home. She could tell by the sound of his motor. The shrill sound of a cycle bell announced the arrival of the milkman. She bought her milk in the morning and couldn't really understand the woman at the end of the street who insisted on buying milk in the evening. The milkman had to come specially for her in the evening as everyone else bought their milk in the morning. She smiled a little to herself at the poor milkman's plight.

The kettle was beginning to smoke and she readied the vessel with rice to put on the stove next. She liked to listen to the sounds in the evening; the crunching of the feet; men talking as they hurried back home; the odd sounds of slippers of one or two office going women; the jingling of the cycle bells; the high-pitched voice of the boy next door as he shouted his lessons at the top of his voice; the frequent prompting of the mother to concentrate on his homework; the clanging of the vessels in her own kitchen....Soon, of course, all these sounds will change to another pattern but she would enjoy that as well.

The six 'o clock local had arrived at the station and soon her husband would be home if he had taken this train. Maybe, if it had not been for her over-conservative family, she too would have been going to work. Maybe she should ask her husband, she thought to herself, if he would find a job for her. Maybe today, she thought to herself, after dinner. She concentrated on her cooking and there was a temporary lull as her mind shut out everything else.

****

It was quiet as ever at the station.

The hawkers waited for the next train.

The odd crow, with its odder way of looking at things, contemplated on the nuisance of the tinned roof before flying away.

The few passengers wondered at this sudden change in their life as they waited for a train instead of walking or hanging on to the sides of a bullock cart.

The canteen-man looked at the vacant space in front of him which would, soon, be occupied by the train.

The station master went and checked the position of t he train. The telephone rang and that engaged him for the next few minutes.

A refreshing smell of fresh cooked bondas came from the refreshment stall. The evenings were the best time and many preferred it to the vadas which sold like hot cakes in the noon when the laborers arrived at the station and since their duty started after noon their timings coincided with the vadas. The owner of the canteen, though he disliked laborers with their unclean ways, wished everyday for the well-being of the mills.

There was no signal yet from the torch-man and there was no sight of the train. The hawkers just sat there like dumb mannequins, not beautiful to look at though, and waited. There were a few passengers waiting for the away going train.

The counter-personnel took time off to relax with a cup of coffee and life came to a standstill at the station.

***
It irritated the station master that activity started among the hawkers only on the arrival of the train. He had led a life of bustling activity at the main railway station and this change of pace had somehow disoriented his routine. He had become more irritable and was apt to forget the timings at many instances. He had to be more careful as the trains were far few here compared to the main station and it would be a disgrace to his record if he made even a small mistake, might even affect his career, he thought to himself. Minutes passed and still there was no life at the station. He thought of introducing a loud speaker system at the station. At least it may change t he monotony of the all-pervading silence of this station. The clock showed two minutes to six and he let his eye rove over the flickering lights in the panel. Still two minutes to go. He sat at his table and put the flag on the table.

The canteen man leaned on the counter and looked at the woman as she went towards the ticket counter to get her ticket. It was not often that he could observe a woman with such ease. She didn't seem to mind his eyes or perhaps, didn't feel it.

He looked around guiltily to see if there was anyone looking. This was a conservative place, not that he was not, and he could ill afford to lose out on even one of his customers due to carelessness. Nobody was looking. He turned to find her walking towards the canteen. He slowly straightened his back and decided that she would have coffee or just water.

He liked to guess what his customers wanted and most of the times he was right. She passed him by without even noticing his presence and sat at the nearby chair and he leaned on the counter once again. A distant hoot announced the arrival of the train and already he had shut out the woman in the chair.

If he had turned he would have found her looking at him.

****
The breeze had strengthened, as it always did at this time and the hawkers readied themselves with their baskets. The train entered the station and suddenly it was all activity. This was what the station master liked; the calls of the hawkers; the chatter of people, the patter of feet; the passengers walking out of the station. The canteen man looked around for the woman. She was gone. His eyes cautiously searched for her in the nearest compartment. There she was sitting at the window, her eyes lowered. He busied himself with his customers and soon there was that same emptiness in the platform as the train left the platform.

****
It was the same everyday, he thought to himself, as he walked back home.

The same routine of fighting one's way out of the train, handing over the tickets at the gate, the walk on the muddy path that led out to the road and then the level-crossing and the dim street lights on the road back home.

He didn't know whether it was romantic or boring or what. He had read such a setting in one of the novels recently and it was described as romantic but he didn't know whether this was the same kind of setting or not and was too loathe to ask anybody as to what romantic meant.

It'd be some five minutes walk to his home and everyday he envied the man in the street, who took a rickshaw back home. Must be living on corrupt money, he thought to himself. He would never take bribe and satisfied himself with the thought. His hands ached with the small bag that he carried to the office. How he wished he had that leather bag like his boss's. Must have cost a fortune, that kind of a bag but it suited his boss' style. He liked to watch his boss walking with his bag in his hand and the gatekeeper opening the gate and saluting him. It made him feel proud to be working under such a man although he never mentioned this to anybody. It was his own form of respect and he never dwelt on whether it was how everybody else thought at the office or not. He turned and entered into his street.

The lights were on; the boy next door was shouting his studies at the top of his voice; the earth was wet outside the gate as he opened it and knocked at the door.


He heard his wife's feet as it made that swishy sound and presently the door was opened. She stepped aside and he entered, closing the door behind him. He didn't know that if he had smiled at her the night would have been different.

She went back to the kitchen and he put the bag beside the table and went into the bedroom to change into his lungi and shirt. She waited for the order to come and come it did, it was tea first.


She poured the tea onto a glass and left it at the table to continue with her cooking. She could hear him as he changed and came to the table. Now he would sit on the chair and pick up the glass and then he would pick up the newspaper.

The faint rustle of paper announced the end of the ritual. He would drink his tea in silence and she would cook in silence.


The next hour will pass in monosyllables, she told herself, if at all any conversation took place and then he would switch on the radio to listen to the seven 'o clock news. She heard the sound of glass against the table as he finished his tea.

The boy still read on, vessels clanged against each other as her neighbor prepared her own dinner. She had to make friends with her, so far she had not met many of her neighbors. She pitied the poor woman as she took out her frustration on the poor boy over his studies. Things would change, of course, once the husband came. Then she would be all-loving and caring to the boy.

She wondered daily at this change in the woman and didn't know whether she hated her for it or not. She couldn't understand why people had to be hypocritical about certain things. She would never be like that with her own child, she thought to herself and a faint smile touched her lips at the thought. She wished for a boy and wondered when would be the right time for it.

She was intelligent and had prepared herself well, mentally for it, before getting married. She had looked at the star signs and the only thing that was left was to consult an astrologer over signs and nakshatras.


Winter would be the right time for a baby, she thought to herself as the last of the dishes were cooked and she washed her hands and switched off the stove.

The cooking was over. Now she could go and sit beside her husband to hear the news with him. He put the paper back on the table and switched on the news. She went and sat beside him and waited for the headlines. The headlines announced the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a mad devotee. More details would follow in the next news.

The couple sat in shocked silence.

Chapter 2

There was a general air of shock throughout the country. Rumors spread like wild fire and the whole country was plunged into darkness as the prime minister put it. She was moved by the sad tone of the prime minister and instantly dismissed all the rumors that she had heard about there being animosity between the prime minister and the Mahatma.

Stupid people, she thought to herself, who went around airing such rumors and perhaps this was one of the reason that the Mahatma was killed. Hate spread around by such rumors which could quite easily influence the naive and ignorant masses. The English were so educated and intelligent, she thought to herself, unlike the Indians.

Her husband did not believe the news at first and only after much argument could she convince him that it was broadcast on the national radio and as such could not be a rumor. 

There was sudden activity on the streets outside as people could be heard shouting something. Obscenities, she thought to herself. She shuddered a little, if this was the respect that the Mahatma got for his life, it had been a worthless life. 


There was activity throughout the night outside and slowly the husband and wife realized the tension in the air. They switched off the lights and turned down the volume of the radio and waited for the next news. All other programs were cancelled and the radio was silent except for the static sound.

The whole country, perhaps, did not sleep that night, she thought to herself, little knowing that the woman next door had already slept even after hearing the news. It was only later that she came to know that the news had already been broadcast twice and she had heard it in the second broadcast.


The voice went on to describe the various steps before the killing. It happened at the Mahatma's prayer meeting. An unlucky incident, to put it mildly, she thought to herself, as she listened for more details. Tragic and broken was the prime minister as he addressed the nation at the stroke of midnight. The speech went on in that sad note.

Depressed and sad the couple switched off the radio at the end of the address and went to sleep. Not a word transpired between them.


She woke up to the bustling activity outside her house and quickly gathering her saree around her looked out of the window to see people gathered around.

It took her mind a second to grasp the reason behind it as her mind went back to the previous night. If it had not been for the crowd the whole episode of the night would have quite easily slipped her mind.

Turning,  she shook her husband and woke him and went into her daily routine. Today will be the right day to meet and get to know her neighbors and what with everybody likely to be busy discussing about the assassination she would have a gala time observing and listening to their views. She shook a little in anticipation at the excitement that waited for her. Such opportunities did not come everyday and she will make the best out it, she thought to herself.


Somebody suggested a public gathering to offer prayers to the Mahatma and it was quickly okayed and they set up a small pandal in the nearby park. Most of the crowd was lost in its thoughts to really pay any attention to what was being said.

The old men said their accounts of their own perceptions of the departed soul.

Some shed silent tears and when the time came for some real prayers the restlessness in her grew.

She began to look around and spotted her neighbor sitting with her boy, her eyes closed. Perhaps her neighbor was not as bad as all that, she thought. She followed suit and closed her own eyes as well.

It was nearly evening when the whole meeting was completed.

The formalities completed, the pradhan announced that they would keep a strict monitor on the political proceedings and inform them if something drastic happened. That created a slight flurry among the men folks.

Something was in the air, otherwise why should the pradhan hint trouble, they whispered amongst themselves. The gathering broke and soon the area was empty except for the tent and a few chairs.


The couple returned home and closed the door behind them. Maybe tomorrow, she thought to herself, she would acquaint herself with the rest in the neighborhood. Disappointed she was, at the way things had developed at the meeting.

She had hoped to show some of her own prowess and her opinions on the tragic incident. She went into the kitchen to make some tea.

Unclean vessels, plates, cups and spoons were lying around and she sighed at the work that lay ahead. The next hour went in cleaning the kitchen and the household. She still had clothes to wash. She called out to her husband as a sudden thought struck her. He hadn't gone to the office and she wondered why. He replied that there may be trouble around and anyway the offices would be closed for the day.


Soon news filtered in that riots and violence had broke out in many areas in and around the country. More was to come in the shape of communal violence. Quite a few of them were tired of hearing this new term 'communal violence'. It was a new term and many did not know the meaning of it, many could not comprehend it, and worst of it all, it was the most dreaded thing that could have spread around the country, in the words of a local leader.

Hours drifted helplessly by as the couple waited unwittingly for some undefinable order from some undefinable quarter. It was evening by the time the couple realized it and she went back to her kitchen.

The sounds had changed today, she thought to herself, there were no children in the park, no hoot of any trains, she wondered if the milkman would come tomorrow or not. She went and asked her husband to wait for the milkman and instructed him to buy some milk if the milkman was not going to come the next day.

The evening went by eventlessly except for the stray reports from some passing friend of her neighbor about another incident of violence. The night was on and her tired limbs forced her to take some rest and soon there was peace in the house as the lights were switched off and the couple went to sleep.


***

The neighbor had noticed the strange look in her neighbor's eyes as she stood up to leave for home.

She considered talking to her but she had already turned to her husband and they walked back to their house. She led her young boy back and told him to get back to his lessons. She didn't know what to do with him. He was naughty, she decided, and told herself to be strict to his ways.


The neighborhood was a dull place compared to her father's home which had been near the market-place and had always been bustling with men and women. Though she had reconciled herself to this life she still did not like the quietude of the place, especially in the afternoons. She would make friends with the couple next door and maybe spend her afternoons talking to the woman.

It would be a nuisance today for her as the school was closed for her little boy and she would have to keep a constant eye on him.

Her husband would be busy with the work that he brought in from office and wouldn't much bother about what went on in the house.

She missed the atmosphere back home where people came and went, some stopping to talk to her, Englishmen mostly, and others just keeping to their own selves. Her father was a lawyer and his work brought him all these people and because of the new law and order and so many reforms he was kept busy by the many law-abiding people in the neighborhood. neighbor wasn't looking out of the gate as she usually did at this time of the evening.


***


Life in this small township, ten odd miles from Madras city and two thousand odd miles from New Delhi, was quite slow compared to other parts of Madras which was still under the spell of newly acquired freedom. Fresh social reforms were thought of and dismissed overnight, some produced new leaders, some had negative aspects to them and others simply did not get recognized.

Trouble, many expected from Pakistan, especially now that the one man who could avert it was no more but it did not happen quite that soon.

Civic and social amenities were on the top of everybody's minds in this township. All it had was a hospital some two miles away, a leather factory about a furlong from the couple's house, a mockery of a school some half-a-mile from the couple's house, and a chemist's shop near it.

Water was scarce as only wells were prevalent and rains were the only source of water.


Roads were made of rocks extracted and broken into pieces from the nearby hills and were not fit for motors, only bullock carts and cycles and rickshaws could ply on them.

The trains were a boon to this township and the only link with the main city. Britishers were missing from many places, both social as well as political, and many Indians missed the white skins. It was now sweat and grind all the way for them, they thought to themselves.


The celebrations and joy had left a craving for more and though many who had been through the struggle felt a strange sense of void that it was all over too soon, there was a sense of satisfaction too, mingled with it.

States and territories were formed, capitals announced and soon the geography of the whole country changed to a new order.

Territorial fights were soon curbed but it lived underneath a veneer of patriotism.

The governor-general was from the south of India and that was another reason to rejoice for the people in the south of the country. It was a much needed reassurance and restored much needed faith in the center for the people from this part of the country.


Representations became a dreaded practice in politics from then on with many parts of the country easily satisfied if one of them were in the centre. Gradually, over the years, this was to matter in the shaping of the psyche of the Indian. Much as peace was prevalent throughout the country, many were suspicious of it. There was too much of it, they thought to themselves.

The small township slept to a peaceful and quiet night. Not much happened except for a robbery in the other end of the town and a stray knifing incident in the heart of the city. Curfew was still on in Madras and more news and instructions were awaited from the center.

Dogs barked at odd intervals, bats were very few and more keen on hanging upside down than fly around for food. Stars twinkled as ever and the breeze was lazy.

Time slipped away as most were in their dreams and slowly a faint hint of light appeared in the horizon. The breeze was cooler and sharper.

Dew was beginning to fall and very soon the slight and heavenly light that marks the beginning of a new day would spread across the sky to lighten the sky.

The earth was still dark. Trees stood guard and swayed occasionally to the sea-breeze. It would be some half-an-hour or so before the temple doors opened and the priest began his prayers. The devils would wait till then and leave for hell. Till then neither good nor evil, neither man nor woman, neither living nor dead existed in the total darkness that engulfed the town.


Chapter 3

There was some activity in the neighborhood and she as ever, went out to take a look at what was afoot. Somebody was moving into the corner house. Quite a few from the neighborhood had come out to watch the proceedings. It was a novelty for them, anybody moving into this town. There were still quite a few plots vacant in the area and construction was on in quite a few. Soon, perhaps, this place will be full of people, she thought to herself.

She still had to get to know her neighbor and looking around she saw her watching the laborers carrying the goods into the house. She called out to her. Her neighbor turned with a smile and soon they were engaged in an animated conversation resulting in an invitation from her neighbor to have some coffee at her place which she accepted. They got to know from the milkman, the next morning, that the new entrant into the neighborhood was a bachelor and his livelihood was not known.

A mystery man, he told them with a strange look in his eyes. They looked at each other at this. Potential for some excitement, she thought and her neighbor agreed.


It was some ten days since the assassination of the Mahatma and though the tension had not relaxed from the town there was a general air of peace in the area.

Offices were still closed and uniformed men on the streets near places of public importance were a common sight.

Religious activity was near to nil and worship was temporarily suspended by the pradhan. She was still curious to know the details of the assassination and she and her newly found friend had a heated discussion over it.

Her neighbor, surprisingly, had more brains than she had given her credit for. She was of the opinion that there should have been more security for the Mahatma and only a silly security lapse could have resulted in such a great tragedy. She was forced to agree to this view.

They were sad that they were talking in this manner about a great man but soon dispelled it as they ventured into the topic of the mysterious neighbor. He hadn't come out of the house and they toyed with the idea of going and helping him settle his house. But this might invite comment from the neighborhood so they abstained from it.

Then her neighbor was struck with a brilliant idea. She would ask her husband to go and help out the new entrant and in the process get to know about him and her friend would do the same. They agreed and went to their respective homes and soon both the husbands were seen walking towards the corner house.

The friends waited at the gate as they saw their men open the gate of the corner house and enter the house.

Minutes passed and soon the men were on their way back.

The friends looked at each other. Not much could have transpired in such a short time and disappointed at the way things had turned out, they waited for the news. The men shook their heads and said that the man was resting and as such they could not stay for long.


***


The station master was a bit surprised as the man got down from the train with his luggage.

He had information from the main station that the train carried huge luggage and he had to stop it for longer than usual to unload it.

The man walked up to him and asked if there was a porter around to unload the luggage. The station master smiled at him and showed him the luggage that was already being unloaded from the luggage compartment at the end of the platform.

Now he could gloat on his and the railways' efficiency but the man neither acknowledged it nor did he smile back.

Grim faced he walked towards his luggage with a surprised station master at his heels. Soon the luggage lay scattered on the platform and the train moved out.

Porters were arranged and the man showed him an address and asked for directions to reach there.

The station master knew the place and showed him the way and advised him to take a bullock-cart as the porters would not be able to carry the luggage all the way. The man thanked him and ordered the porters to carry the luggage to the bullock-cart waiting outside the station and soon the station was empty. An official, the station master thought to himself and went into his room.


***

The two friends got friendlier by the day and soon they were seen everywhere together.

The neighborhood smiled at them. They were two of a kind, the neighborhood thought to itself.

Days passed, the case of the assassination was still filling the newspapers.

Life gradually returned to normal but somehow the neighborhood had grown to love the docile and comfortable feeling of togetherness that the aftermath of the assassination had brought about in them. They craved more of it and soon decided that they would spend all the holidays and the weekends with some get-together or so.

In the meantime, another family had moved in.

A middle-aged couple and their two children, one, a boy in his teens, and a girl, younger to her brother but also in her teens. The couple was handsome and seemed to have come from the city. It took them some time to get acquainted to the life of this small town.

***


She had not yet made up her mind whether to ask her friend as to why she beat up her child so often or not. Her friend may be offended by it. Their friendship was but a few days old and liberties may not be appreciated so soon. They were still to find out anything about the mystery man.

 How romantic it would be if there was to be a romance in the neighborhood, they wished to themselves. But there didn't seem to be any girl in the neighborhood and the likelihood of them falling for this man seemed remote. They looked at each other with a knowing look to their eyes as the devilish idea threatened to impose itself upon their better senses. But soon they dismissed it with the thought that even if they got interested in the man he might not even look at them and anyway there were too many remote if's attached to it. They sighed more at the thought.

The man seemed handsome from afar, much like Lord Mountbatten, her neighbor summarized, quite sillily, and she wondered, a little jealously, as to how her neighbor knew Mountbatten.


The rains were expected and soon it came.

The skies were a continuous grey for the next few days and the much planned get-togethers had to be cancelled due to a slushy park and a slushier path. Cold spread and soon it was sniff-sniff all the way among children. The school was closed as water had flooded into the halls and the gate was flooded with water. The kids were joyous and soon the neighborhood was filled with laughter and shouts.

Steaming cups of tea and coffee were becoming a common sight at the gates of many houses. The Brits had left behind this habit of theirs and it found favor amongst the people at such times.

Leaves glistened and the chirping of the birds grew; flowers broke out in full bloom as the rains filled the wells. Soon they could bend and touch the water in the wells. Summer it would be soon but before that they would enjoy the rains and curse the mosquitoes to their heart's content.


***

The man closed his eyes and prayed for sleep to come. The journey had taken the fight out of him and fight he had to, every inch of his life from now on. He must have closed his eyes but for a few moments when a knock on the door woke him. Strange, he thought to himself, as he went and opened the door.

Two men were standing at the doorway looking at him with that same expression that was seen in many neo-Indians. A complete lack of knowledge as to what to do on certain occasions and this occasion was one of them. The sudden sense of freedom had rocked them and the thought that the Brits were no longer breathing down their necks, though comforting, had in some way rocked their bearings.

They stood there looking at him and he ventured to initiate the conversation and invited them into the house. He liked the look of them and slowly they revealed that they lived in the houses next to the road and had come to give him a helping hand. He thanked them and declined their help and heaved a silent sigh of relief as he saw he could get back to sleep sooner than he had thought.

They left him soon and he closed the door and bolted it and went back to sleep.

The men, as they walked back home, wondered at the man and his life for they could quite easily make out that he was not one of them. He must be about twenty-five years old, they decided, and his shabby appearance did not give them much idea about his status. Though he spoke their language something about him seemed alien to them. They did not mention this to their wives as they joined them at the gate.


The rains had played havoc in the nearby fields. The lake had filled up and had flooded the nearby fields leaving the farmers worried about the extent of the damage to the crops.

The sun broke out at last and soon the grey skies cleared.

The tiredness in his body left him and soon he was on his feet raring to go. He went to the station and met the station-master and made friends with him. They had coffee at the stall and the stall-keeper also chummied up to the man.

He cooked up a story and told it to the station-master and the station-master swallowed it hook-line and sinker.

It was a stinker of a story about him being from the National Council for Laborers and that he was conducting a survey on the movement and thoughts of the laborers.

Although the first part of the story was true, he was from the National Council of Laborers but the reasons that followed were not. He stuffed them with ideals of patriotism and nationality and though he found it difficult to explain away the fact that he was sent on such a mission so soon after the assassination of the Mahatma, he didn't have to try too hard as the station-master and the canteen man had convinced themselves quite easily. Thus he got access to the number of people moving in and out of the town and possibly their whereabouts, though how this would help him he did not know but it was a first step in some direction.


He couldn't think of an excuse to explain the reason behind his enquiring about the movements of non-laborers but to his surprise he found that the two were totally convinced about his integrity and would give any information he wanted. The cover for his being in this town established he returned home.

The station-master remarked that such good and efficient social workers were the order of the day for the country and the canteen-man 'ah-hummed' and nodded sagely.


The walk back home found him face to face with two women, one quite good looking and the other a bit on the ordinary side.

Married, he could tell quite easily. They were in the middle of an animated conversation and stopped abruptly in front of him. But before he could talk to them they scurried past him in silence.

He continued on his way and the two friends giggled to themselves at their secretive venture as they entered the railway station and ordered for some coffee. It was dusk now and nobody would not ice them.

The six o' clock was still some ten minutes away and they studied the canteen-man covertly as he poured out the coffee on to a glass and placed it on the counter. But before they could ask him anything he turned and went into the kitchen.

As usual he did not expect that any woman would want to talk to him and went back to the kitchen to look at the status of the bondas.


The station-master was busy looking at the status of the six o' clock and the new friends sipped at their coffee and waited for t he canteen-man to come back.

Minutes passed and soon the distant hoot of the local brought the station-master out with his flag.

The canteen-man took his place at the counter. The two woman looked at each other and in unison their eyes turned to the canteen-man. As they moved towards the counter, the station-master handed him a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to take down the number of people who got down at the station.

The two woman looked at each other; the canteen-man 'ah-hummed' and nodded sagely.

The six o' clock arrived, they noted the look that passed between the station-master and the canteen-man, they noted the speeding eyes of the latter as he counted the number of people getting down. They finished their coffee and spotting their husbands quickly joined them. The husbands got a pleasant surprise and the four walked out of the station, talking animatedly.



Chapter 4

Much as the authorities had advised against it, the pradhan insisted on closing the rituals and prayers at the temple for some time. The priest of the temple was annoyed with the pradhan for his callous officiousness.

The school was opened after the sun had dried out the water near the gate and someone suggested that a small canal be dug out which would lead to the lake so that rain water did not clog the gates during the next rains.

The pradhan did not heed it; if he had he would have been known for many y ears in the town as a pioneer in the planning of the town.

Slowly, the geography of the town began to change and unplanned and unauthorized erections spoiled the landscape and posed great hindrance in the future years for any effective planning.

Houses were constructed wherever there was habitation and since the lake was nearby everyone thought that the town would have no dearth of water supply as the wells could not possibly dry out being so near a natural lake. Soon the town was full of people, every possible amenity was available to it and land cost was incredibly cheap here. The government announced the forming of unions and states and would come out with the new constitution soon. Many heaved a sigh of relief at this as the issue of Pondicherry was beginning to hint trouble for the area.


Meanwhile, the two friends had become closer to each other. She had asked her friend as to why she beat up her child like she did and her friend promised her that she would stop beating the boy.

Things had changed in the neighborhood and with it her routine. She no longer stood at the gate watching the children play at the park. Most of her time was spent with her friend. She had long since left the idea of going to work, now that she had found such a good friend in her neighbor. They went to the market together; they went to the temple together; everything they did they were together in it. It was the talk of the town, their friendship, and nobody wanted to disturb it.

Not much had transpired since the stranger had settled in the neighborhood and though their meeting near the railway-crossing had been their only rendezvous with the man they somehow felt this was not an ordinary man and they should get to know him better. Her friend often suggested going and meeting him at his house and inviting him over for dinner.

There was an air of mystery about the man.

Nothing was yet known of him as he kept to himself and opportunity had to be sought to talk to him and opportunities do not come so easily in a small town.

Soon there was excitement in the neighborhood.

The milkman brought the news that a theater-house or a 'talkie' was going to come to the area. Her neighbor's son desperately wanted to go and see a 'movie', as the milkman called it, though what it meant nobody knew. The two friends saw the opportunity they had for so long sought.


Evenings were too busy and the nights too dark and the only time of day when the two friends could meet was in the early morning. They settled for a walk towards where the 'talkie' was being constructed. They saw a huge structure under construction and one of the men working there said that the 'talkie' would be completed soon and the first movie would be on by the end of the month. They walked back excited.

That day things began to take a curious shape.


The house opposite was completed and a couple moved in after performing puja and offering obeisance to many gods. They were young and obviously excited at owning a house.

The woman knocked at her door and asked for milk and the routine in the neighborhood. She explained to her that she bought milk in the morning, the temple was some furlongs away, the pradhan of the area was mad, the route from the left to the railway station was shorter than the one to the right and there was a new theater-house coming up in the area.


The woman was glad that she had got more information than she had sought for and asked her if she would tell her if she ever went to see 'a movie'. She okayed and the woman went back. A pretty and vivacious little thing, she thought to herself and was a little jealous at the thought.

Meanwhile the couple with the two kids had decided to go on a holiday since the school was almost a mockery with the building almost in ruins after the recent rains and the school-master had been asked to help in the administration work of the state affairs till the constitution was formed and money beckoned him to the city and he heeded it.

***


She was standing there near the gate waiting for her friend when on came a rickshaw and stopped near her gate. A man looked out at her and asked her if anyone had recently moved into the locality recently. It was all too sudden.

Men didn't talk this way to her. She didn't like the look of him and immediately called out to her friend. Her neighbor came and stood beside her, looked at the man and then at her with a questioning look in her eyes.

The man was obviously confident that he was going to get an answer and so looked on at the women. Then it happened. The man from the corner house walked out onto the road and was going to turn left towards the railway station when he noticed the man talking to the two women. Immediately he stopped and walked towards them, grim faced.


The two women, again looked at each other as their mystery man tapped the enquirer on the shoulder. The enquirer turned and seeing the mystery man turned with a hunted look to the women. Their mystery man turned to them and asked them if there was any trouble afoot. How the two women wished that they could reply in the affirmative. Instead she just recounted what had transpired and their mystery man turned towards the enquirer and giving a piercing look asked him as to who he was looking for.

They got into an animated conversation, the enquirer doing the talking and their mystery man listened on with a grim expression that grew grimmer by the minute. The two women looked at each other as they sensed that their man was in control and the enquirer was finding it hard to talk to this man.

The enquirer was directed towards the direction of the lake and their man finally turned to them and led them further from the gate into the shade of her house. It was hot now and she suggested that they come into her house. They went in and at last they got the opportunity that they had for so long sought.


What they heard from their man was even more exciting than they had imagined. He was a government man !

They didn't understand what that meant and he explained at lengths that his job involved going after spies and public enemies.

The man didn't seem to mind the adulation that he received from the two women and soon he was drowned in questions about his life and service which he answered patiently.

They talked to him to their heart's content and it was nearly evening when they parted their ways. Their man said he had to go to the railway station and asked them if they wanted to come along to which they negated as their husbands would soon be home.


He left them and the two women hugged each other as they found a prospective friend in their mystery man. He was not so grim after all, they decided.

***

Not such a bad woman after all, she thought to herself.

She was very excited that she was living alone with her husband.

In all the twenty-two years of her life she had never ventured out of her house alone and now the thought of managing the house all by herself just like her mother did was an exciting thought. She dreamt everyday of how she would decorate her new house and now that they had actually moved in she could hardly contain her excitement.


The gate was not as convenient to her, as the bolt was a good two feet above her and she had to stand on tip-toe to reach it. She will have to find a way to tackle this small problem.

The night had been tiresome as both she and her husband were tired after all the activity and travel of the past few days.

Not such a bad neighborhood after all, she thought to herself.


Like anyone having lived throughout her life in another place the prospect of moving into another area had been a bit scary initially but she soon dispelled it as she thought of ways to prop herself and make herself comfortable right from the beginning. She didn't know what her husband thought of the neighborhood though he should be able to adjust to it easily as men, in her opinion, were far more superior to women.

The prospect of milk dawned on her only with the dawn of the day. She had to make coffee and make it fast as her husband would be up soon. She braced herself and walked to the opposite house.

The thought of asking a total stranger for some milk was frightening, she hoped with her heart that these people wouldn't be rude to her. With her heart threatening to pop out of her mouth any moment, she knocked at the door.

The door opened and the eyes of the woman looking at her rested her heart in the right place. There was a questioning look in the woman's face and she responded to it and told her the reason for her being here and held out the small vessel in her hand.


Luckily for her the woman immediately understood and asked her to step in, saving her from whatever embarrassment she might have inflicted upon herself.

Not such a bad woman after all, she thought to herself, as she hurried back home.


***

His mind was held back by some thought in the recent conversation between himself and the two women. Though he knew that women were getting bolder and more open by the day, thanks to the brief Batten era, he didn't know that he could talk to these women far more easily than he could talk to the men, though, of course, any woman would have told him that he was simply looking at things differently.

He entered the station and went straight to the canteen. The canteen-man as ever had that 'looking at nothing in particular' look as he gazed out into the distance.

The sound of the faint cough startled him and he was a bit surprised at the sight of the 'government man'.

He quickly gathered his wits and bent down to pick the small notebook the station-master had handed him for use.


The government-man was surprised at the promptness and putting the notebook on the counter, ordered for a coffee.

With the back of the canteen-man towards him he felt safe enough as he opened the notebook and gave a quick look at the written matter. There were only three female names on the whole !


He commented on this to the canteen-man and the canteen-man, on cue, 'ah-hummed' and nodded sagely. Neither knew how to tackle this situation and the government-man finished the coffee and nodded to the canteen-man.

The canteen-man didn't understand it and, as usual, his better sense told him to 'ah-hum' sagely and he did.


He walked to the station-master's room and as ever the station-master had hung his boots till the telephone ring which would announce the arrival of the next train.

He knocked on the partially-open door and the station-master jumped out of his sleep.

Embarrassment in such situations had long since ceased; such situations were far too frequent to unsettle him any more.


He instantly recognized the man and asked him to sit down. This was by some means an improvement to the dull life of the station. His wife had left him and that was the foremost thing in his mind nowadays.

Not that he cared much for it, he didn't have a family to whom he would need to explain and tradition did not bind him to explain to the wife's family the reasons behind the parting and the main thing was he didn't love his wife. But most importantly, his neighborhood wasn't sufficiently caring enough to bother about the activities of the next man.


His wife had never been a sociable type and the thought of anybody else knowing about her leaving him was quite distant but it did not bother him much, although to anyone else it might have been the end of the world.

The major part of his married life had been spent in the various railway stations and though initially he had longed to get back home to his wife as soon as possible this feeling got buried in the cacophony of porter calls and trains and telephone rings.

And with the introduction of the refreshment stalls in many major stations the prospect of having anything he wished at calling distance soon replaced the need for a wife to perform this task and the magic of married life slowly began to fade for him.


His wife was getting irritable at him; he was getting irritable with the rebellious hawkers, who insisted on getting in his way unwittingly and the new posting at this small, distant station had taken its toll on their married life and his wife simply packed up after a heated exchange of words and walked out on him. And after a few brief seconds of shock he turned and put on his cap and went to the station, his eyes searching for her all the way. She wasn't to be seen. If she had to go to her parents' house she would need to go by the train. Maybe she had gone elsewhere or maybe she had taken the bullock-cart though no bullock-cart would go as far a distance as that.

The first train was still a good half-hour away and he took a last look at the door of his house before entering his cabin. His house was just by the railway-tracks. He felt a slight sense of disappointment as he had expected his wife to be at the door looking back at him.

Nobody stood there. She didn't come to the station and he didn't bother to look around for her. The thought didn't even enter his mind. Maybe she wasn't going back to her parents' home after all, he thought to himself and somehow this thought comforted him as he dozed off.

His eyes opened to the knock on the door and though he couldn't see clearly through the glare, he felt a slight fright at the sight of the man framed in the doorway. Slowly, as his eyes adjusted to the light behind the door he saw a smiling government-man.

Quickly gathering his wits and putting on his cap he beckoned the man to the chair and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes at the same time pondering over the possible reasons behind the man's presence here.


Then he remembered the notebook and the laborers' association thing and quickly pulled out a drawer and found the notebook lying upside down. He handed the notebook to the government-man and waited for him to speak.

The government-man glanced through the pages and the conversation drifted into mundane issues. They thrashed the issue of the growing unrest in the mill and the various possibilities in the constitution. They contemplated on whether the Indian constitution would be like the British or the American or the French's. Both fell silent as the thought of Mahatma Gandhi struck them almost in unison.

Time passed and soon the telephone rang and the station-master resumed his official air and picking the flag from the table bid the government-man adieu as the government-man stepped out of the cabin.

The station-master followed him out and advised him to hurry as the train would be near soon for by the time he reached the gate the train would be passing slowly and he would have to wait for the train to pass by.

The government-man smiled at this and walked away.


The station-master was right. He was too slow and he had to wait for the train to pass him and the gate opened after a few seconds. The station-master had to be watched closely, he told himself.


Chapter 5

Elsewhere, in a small, little village by the sea-side, trouble brewed like an old grandma's tale.

The sea, too, was changing colour and shape.

Some said it was the season that made the waves rise so dangerously; some said it was the moon and then there were others who attributed it to gravity, though what this meant not more than a handful knew but enjoy the sea they did and the cool, evening breeze.


The color of the sea fascinated many for most had come from far, flung inland areas where such a mass of water could only have been dreamt of. Because of the sea and because of the cool climate of the place many from near the cities and towns moved to this village.

Into this cool and friendly village entered evil that was to affect the next few years in the nearby area.


The train was late as usual.

It was more a custom for passengers waiting for this train to come late to the platform, for so confident were they about the train's timings. It halted for a few minutes at this station. Milkmen traveled by it to nearby towns and supplied milk in bulk.


One compartment was booked, exclusively, for milk to Madras. Quite a few disembarked by this train and after unloading all the milk cans, the train was waved away by the station-master.

As he turned to enter into his cabin there was a pattering sound behind him and turning he discovered the lone woman who had disembarked from the train with the suitcase.

Surprised he had been, he recalled, at the sight of a woman alone when he had first seen her but perhaps the newly acquired independence had something to do with this show of independence. It was still too early though, he thought to himself, for this kind of a development in real terms but dismissing the developing thoughts, he quickly turned his attention to the woman.

She, as he had expected, wanted to know the way to the nearby hotel or lodge. He regarded her for a few seconds, contemplating on whether to invite her into his cabin or not. He didn't want to spread doubt among the railway staff as to his intentions, he had to be careful with his image in this woebegone but beautiful village. Such postings did not come easily and he did not want to lose it either. He noticed her tired form and invited her in.

***

Everything about the woman was striking. Her face, her gait, her beautiful clothes, her bearing, her way of speaking, her eyes and of course, her staying alone in the lodge. Quite a few were shocked, mostly women and old dames. The men watched her warily from the distance.

The children of the village grew to adore her ways. She was quite beautiful and she looked different enough from the other woman to attract the children but most importantly, they adored her because she was dreaded by their mothers and grandmothers and they looked up to her in awe for this. Within a week, she had got the respect of the children.

The lodge-keeper ate out of her hands though he often wondered, secretively, as to what she did for living. She paid her first week rent on time and that was enough for him. Her evenings were spent with the children and they usually strolled in the bayside. She mostly kept to herself except with the children whom she seemed to favor.

The women slowly began to respect her and within a month she had become quite popular in the village though no one dared to question her reason for being in the village.

Soon, she was initiated into the village affairs by the women, who found her more intelligent and well-read than even the Zamindar's son. She, for her own sake, put on the mask of competence and strength whenever she ventured out of her lodge room. Only the lodge-keeper seemed to notice a slight sadness in her face but again like the rest of the dumb-folks of the village abstained from commenting on it. They had all began to love this woman and no one dared to do anything that might shoo her from this village. There was nothing in the village anyway to hold her back except for the children and the bay.

***

She sat alone in her room and tried to gauge the magnitude of her decision to live alone. She looked back at the house which would be housing her husband and a few unclean furniture, today, and wondered if she had taken the right step to leave all that. Her married life had never been pleasant.

Whatever she could remember of it was sleepless nights and frequent sounds of trains and whistles and late nights and frequent fights with her husband.

What a life it had been and decided, as she felt a faint sense of relief, that she had taken the right decision. Now she had to think on the means to making a good livelihood.

She had just taken the train and got down at the first place that looked pleasant and comely to her and the view of the sea from the train had been more than enough to decide for her her future place of habitation.


Her first thought on alighting from the train was a place of shelter. She had a little money that would see her through for at least three or four months and a few jewellery. She had seen the railway lodges and hoped that there would be one here. The chances were more that there would be one as the British had built themselves hotels and lodges in places that were near the hills and the sea.

She noticed the station-master and much as the uniform reminded her of her husband she went to him and asked him if there was a lodge or a hotel in the village. She had wanted to ask this well before the train departed but could only find him when he waved and whistled the train away. He seemed a nice enough man and invited her to his cabin.


The next few days left her busy with the ways and habits of the village and the villagers. She also made friends with many and found that, with a little effort, she could manage the whole village in her fingertips.

There was nothing to interest her particularly but the air and the atmosphere was pleasant enough and there was no husband here to fight.

The children grew to like her very much and she, in turn, reciprocated the feeling. The village zamindar initially was skeptical about her continuous being he re but ultimately she managed to win him over with her intelligence and her quick-wittedness.

Sharp tongued she had always been and this quality had landed her in trouble many a times and she decided to be more cautious in her approach, here, in the village.


***

The walk back home was, as ever, boring for him.

He had begun to notice the tedious life of the suburbs and longed to get back to the lights and activity of a city. His thoughts, as he walked the lane back home, went to the two woman he had begun to like of late. Maybe if their friendship grew, life here might not be so boring. He briefly dwelt on his work and whether he had left anything undone or noticeable.


After a bit of a recap, he decided he had not. He wondered how the others were getting along but quickly dismissed the thought as he had often instructed others never to think about their colleagues as it would lead to slackening their thoughts and their decision-making abilities and he had to obey his own counsel.

The job required quick-wittedness and speed of thought which he possessed in great degrees and he dwelt on finding someone here to help him in his activities.

His mind again went to the two women and decided he would, at least, try in recruiting one of them. One of them, definitely, was quick-witted and the way they talked they were quite adventurous. He decided to go ahead with it.


As he crossed the tracks, he was surreptitiously surveyed from the train by a woman sitting at the window seat. She quickly got down at the platform and gathering her saree around her, left the platform in a hurry towards the level-crossing.

The rapid movements and the grace with which she moved, captured the attention of the canteen-man and the station-master.


They exchanged glances and the station-master motioned with his hands to note down the woman in the notebook. The canteen-man 'ah-hummed' silently and nodded sagely.

The train moved and the canteen-man missed the woman he had once seen walking towards him and sitting at the chair nearby.


She was making her way for the last time by this route and would be settling down at the bayside village.

The station-master went back to his cabin and rested his tired body on the chair. His mind went back to that graceful sight of the woman running away from the platform. He sighed a bit at the recollection and wondered if she would stay in these parts or was she just a visitor. He wished with his heart that he could see her now and...


Meanwhile, the train had reached its destination and the passengers alighted.

Some lived nearby and others had to catch another train and still others had nowhere to go and rested in the platform itself till the morn, when they would catch another local and leave for work.

The platform was their home and place of their work and it was also their life.

She got down and without looking left or right went straight to the train, about to leave for the bayside village.

The trains had changed like magic the lives of these people and this routine of alighting and boarding had a joy of its own for them.

She, as luck would have it for her, found a near empty carriage with just a man at the far end of the compartment and a fisherman with a wicker basket near the other door, and took a window seat and occupied it.

She leaned back and closed her eyes.


However enjoyable the trains were it was a tiring business and soon she dozed off.

The train rocked and rattled its way through the many different terrains that this part of the country had. Fields buzzed by, the occasional rocky parts rattled the insides of the passengers and soon the distant sea was visible and the air changed for its freshness.


The breeze touched and played with her hair and her saree and her eyes flew open.

She looked around to see the man watching her and quickly straightened her saree and he looked away. She liked the look of him but her fuzzied mind was too full of sleep to notice it and she went back to sleep.


She was woken up by a gentle hand on her shoulder and her eyes, as they flew open, encountered a dark pair of eyes looking down on her. She jumped in fright but was quickly reassured by the man as he moved away and said a station was approaching and if she had to alight at the coming station she had better get herself ready.

She looked out of the window to see the name plate on the station. It was her destination. She stood up, straightened her saree and picking up her suitcase got down from the train.

The man watched her with no expression as she made her way out.

He cursed the Britishers for liberating so many women of the educated community, which dared them to venture out alone. His heart reached out to the sudden lost look in her eyes as she stood there in the platform, looking around. He stood up. He had to go after this woman. He would never be able to quieten his conscience if he left her alone and went on his way.

He picked the small bag that he had and alighted.


The fisherman looked after him and heaved a sigh as the whole compartment was empty and he could smoke leisurely. He had dared not move for fear of disturbing this man and the woman. Many had shouted and beaten him up in trains because he coughed or smoked or made sounds. Once he was beaten up because he slept near the door. Another time he had been kicked out of the train because he had traveled without a ticket. Now he hardly ever made a sound while travelling in trains.

He rested back as the train moved and smoked his beedi leisurely.


Chapter 6

Though the pebbled and hard road that led away from the station hampered her from moving faster, she had her man about a couple of yards ahead of her. Quickening her pace she caught up with him. He turned, surprised at the sight of a woman. He noted the heaving of the chest and waited for her to speak. She asked him if he had come from New Delhi and though surprised, he answered in the affirmative.

She placed her hand on her chest and took a deep breath before saying that he was wanted in New Delhi and she had come from the National Council of Laborers. He stood stock still.

This was something that he had not expected. It meant that his freedom would be curbed and he would not be able to move around as he could. This message could only mean one thing. He was no longer the trusted man of National Council of Laborers as he used to be. He looked at the woman who stood staring at him.

He asked her if she had any place to go. She negated and said she had just reached Madras and was headed for the seaside town, when she saw him from the train. She had only his photograph and had been told to find him as he had left no address with the National Council of Laborers. She said there was another worker of National Council of Laborers at the seaside town and she had to meet her.

He hid his surprise at this bit of news as he was not aware of anyone from the National Council of Laborers around these parts.


This further convinced him that he was not what he had took himself to be, ie. the top man of the National Council of Laborers. He invited her to his home which she gracefully accepted.

****

The two friends got a nasty shock as they stood and watched their mystery man walking with a woman. They looked at each other and slowly they realized that they had shown more than normal interest in the man. They watched as their man walked towards his home talking now and then to the woman without a glance in their direction.

Something shook their hearts at the sight as the man and woman entered the house. She said that she didn't feel like talking and her neighbor agreed and with bent heads and sad hearts they returned to their respective homes.

****
The first thing that she remarked was on the quietude of the place as they entered into his street. He hadn't noticed it before and agreed with her. She let her mind rove on this man. A strong body, he had, she noticed and carried it fairly well. He seemed to be lost in thoughts and his reputation at the National Council had put her on guard.

A brilliant mind, they had told her, and since his rise in the National Council had been meteoric it had gone to his head and was inclined to taking decisions by himself and didn't think much of his superiors whom he had quite often, openly in public, called lunkheads.

A brave man, the lowers had called him and he was well-known in the higher circles of the political world. She had braced herself to a long and tedious search for him and was highly satisfied that the search was so luckily over. She had hardly believed her eyes when she had seen him from the train. She was heading for the seaside town to meet her colleague. After that she had planned to search for this man.


The National Council had instructed her not to approach the authorities as they would object to the Council's presence in the area.

The labor situation in the country was quite brittle and any small movement could disturb the laborers and which, in turn, may cause another labor unrest. Her initial plan was to stay with her friend and then they would start the search. His voice brought her back to the present.

She nodded in the affirmative as to whether she had informed New Delhi that she had reached Madras safely. This was one rule of the Council that could not be broken. They had reached the gate and he opened it and ushered her in.


****

What a mess, she thought to herself. It was quite some time now that she was alone and the quiet life that she led now began to get on her nerves.

The evenings were no longer enjoyable as they were a couple of days back and the children did not amuse her as much as they used to. She was beginning to miss her husband and the fights. She also missed the sounds of the trains. She had gone to the station once or twice to meet the station-master but somehow the visits only resulted in bringing back memories of her house in Madras.


The villagers were beginning to show more interest in her than she had anticipated and she was frequently bothered with some problem or other.

One woman came and wanted her help. Her husband beat her after coming home drunk. She had to brace herself to go and talk to the drunkard. She shook inside as the man turned and faced her. But he just turned out to be a weak drunkard and she managed to cow him down. This made her even more popular among the village-folks and she began to dislike this life.


The village pradhan was a nasty man, who did not hold her in the same light as the others and she expected trouble from him sooner or later.

She had to keep her finance, too, under check. Though life here was comparatively cheap she had to look for some means of making a livelihood. Then she thought of moving out of the lodge and living in one of the small huts. She asked the woman whom she had helped if she knew of any vacant hut.

The woman was overjoyed at the opportunity to return her help and said even if there was not one she would ask the village pradhan to build a new hut for her. She didn't say anything to that but thought to herself it would be very unlikely that the pradhan will give in to the woman.


The two friends could hardly control their anguish as they sat at her home. She had her own thoughts and her friend, too, was lost in her own thoughts. They sat silent for quite a long time. Then a thought struck her and she turned to her friend. Their eyes met and she stood up. Her friend followed suit and soon they were on their way towards the corner house.

They opened the gate and it made a creaking sound. As they neared the gate they could hear animated conversation going on inside. The male voice less frequent than the female's.

She grabbed her friend's hand and pressed it hard. Her friend reassured her with a look and knocked on the door. The voices continued and stopped at the second knock.


Presently the door opened and there stood their man with a grim look to his face. It slightened a bit at the sight of them but it had not the same friendliness in it as witnessed earlier. She made to apologize when her friend spoke out.

She smiled at the man confidently and asked if he knew when the 'talkie' was to be completed. He frowned upon hearing the question but quelling his impatience said he did not. He was about to end the conversation when he remembered that he had thought of inviting these two women to work for him. He quickly changed into his customary easy way and invited them in. She made to refuse but her friend was already half-way in. She quietly followed suit.


They were led through a small room into a larger room and there in the hazy light they saw the woman twiddling her fingers in her saree.

She looked up at them and was startled at the sight of the two. The room had a musty smell and she asked if the window could be opened. He nodded and opened the window and more light streamed in. He sat them on the mattress and propped himself on another with a pillow to steady his head and introduced them to his new friend.


He addressed them and from his mannerisms it was evident that this was not the first time he had addressed a meeting. She felt important and somehow felt this man held more promise than they could have thought of. He talked on for an hour, interrupting himself only to drink water from the nearby pot.

It was an interesting lecture on the need of the country for voluntary workers who could help in smoothing the administration of the civic affairs and what with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi the need was even more. They acquiesced with him and he slowly led them to the prospect of joining the Council.

The two friends looked at each other and though she was overjoyed at the prospect of serving her newly independent country, she was skeptical as to how it would be received by her husband. Her friend, though, immediately nodded her head and it seemed as if she had forgotten her presence. She had to butt in and say that she needed some time to think over it and her friend looked at her with surprise at her sudden lack of confidence. They took their leave at around four o' clock and walked back home, leaving a surprisedly animated conversation behind.

Her friend remarked on her decision to think over the offer and she had to explain that she would first ask her husband and then get down to it. She said this was the best opportunity to not only serve the country but also get to know their mystery man better and be friends with him and perhaps in the course earn some money out of it and since the 'talkie' was going to be ready any time now any extra money would be welcome. She had to agree to this. She fell silent at this and began to think seriously on how to ask her husband about it.

The laborers at the 'talkie' left the site and headed for the station to catch the six 'o clock local. A few locals asked them when the 'talkie' would be completed. One of the laborers painfully explained in detail to each one of them. They nodded and smiled at each other over the excitement caused by the 'talkie'. It was now nearly a month or so since the gory assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and conversation in homes usually meandered sadly to the incident.

Public affairs was almost at a standstill. Schools were yet to re-open and nobody knew how long it would take nor did they know whom to ask about it. Some had sent communiques to the corporation office in Madras; others advised the pradhan to take his own decision.

Things were not normal, when seen from this perspective, thought a press reporter who had come from The Hindu. Quite a few pestered him about the details of the assassination; he did not know whether it would be proper to come forth on the subject so soon and so refrained from doing so.

Not that he knew much about it apart from the few press reports, he had read at his editor's desk. Some said the BBC had a moving camera and was to shoot the puja. Many wondered if the BBC had recorded the moments of the assassination or not. For many, not hearing about the latest about the Mahatma seemed like an arm or a limb lost.

For decades they had been used to hear about his proclamations, his advices, his steadfast stands against the Brits and moreover, it only seemed yesterday that the Mahatma had pronounced that he would leave India and settle in Pakistan for good.

Many wondered if this had not been the real reason behind the mad devotee's action. His name was stated to be Nathuram Godse and details were furnished everyday about him in the front pages.

Work was almost stopped at all the offices and workers were either busy hearing the news or reading the newspapers or involved in an animated conversation.


The laborers reached the station and headed for the canteen.

It would be time for some fresh bondas and some coffee. The canteen-man gave them a distasteful look but turned away to get the bondas and coffee. He hated their language and their dress but since the Mahatma had stated very specifically that all men were equal and ought to be treated equally he had forced himself to like them regardless of everything. Soon the other lot from the mills would be here. But then he remembered that the mills would be closed as a mark of respect for the departed leader. He wondered why the laborers were here.

Work would not be on at the 'talkie' site for the same reason. He wondered if it was a sin to make business now when the Mahatma was no more. He wondered if it was a sin that he had not gone to Delhi to offer his prayers to the departed soul. After all, the Mahatma was the spirit of the nation and he had always wanted to touch his feet and pray for his blessings. What kind of a madman had this Godse been ?

The man, too, had gone to touch the Mahatma's feet, if reports were to be believed, and offer his prayers, then why had he, so madly, shot at the Mahatma ? Why did not the Police think of searching everybody before allowing them near the Mahatma ? They would have found the revolver and the Mahatma would have been alive today. The thought brought tears to his eyes and he wiped his eyes before turning towards the laborers with plates of hot Bondas. He placed the plate on the counter and turned to pour coffee out of the by now hot vessel. Smoke came out of the cups like a genie, as he poured out the coffee into the cups and placed them on the counter.


It was still some twenty minutes to go and if the laborers had been late by even a few minutes, he would have handed them even hotter bondas and coffee. He liked to see their eyes smart at the hot beverage and the hotter bondas. Invariably, all would leave at least half a cup of coffee behind and though he never touched those cups or recycled any half-consumed stuff, he just derived some gory satisfaction from seeing the sight of smarting eyes. But this thought, too, did not give him any consolation as his conscience prodded him about him doing business at such a time.

Trains were getting unpredictable, as most trains were being used to carry pilgrims to New Delhi and many times during the month, passengers had stayed back in the platform and spent quite a few days and nights. He had made roaring business and luckily for him not even one wondered about him doing business at such a time. Maybe they had all been hungry and thirsty at the time, he thought to himself. 


The station-master had got more irritable at the incessant questions from the passengers about the trains. He hurried to make some fresh coffee and bondas for the station-master. In his present moods it would be quite foolish to irritate the station-master further. He had heard from one of the 'safai karamcharis' that his wife had left him and added to it the tension at the station due to the trains and the passengers heckling at him, he certainly did not want the station-master to get angry at him. And because of these thoughts, his mind failed to prompt him on the presence of the laborers and the government-man's queries to him. If it had been normal times his presence of mind would have prompted him to ask the laborers about the Council.


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