Updated: Oct 16, 2021
The ladies compartment was unusually crowded for that time of the day. Especially for a Sunday. The mid-day sweat soaked the skin and an acrid smell filled the spaces between breathes. The train dragged along without reproach. From station to station, retching out crowds that never ceased to infest its innards. Carrying travellers without definite destinations. People with habits that became routines, routines that spilled over to Sundays.
I managed to corner a seat by the window. I preferred window seats to others. I could rest my head against the metal hardness of the train and the poisoned waft of city breeze would lull me to a sleep. I slept, oblivious to the human substitution around me. In the midst of women who babbled and squabbled.
The cacophony waned as the train chugged into the fringes of the city. Vendors took charge of the vacant spaces left behind by the clattering chunk of women.
Little boys and girls vending inexpensive things from their baskets. Ribbons, bindis, hairgrips and fancy beauty aids of inferior quality. Some carried a wooden crate full of small eats - snacks that the crowds munched on their way. They tapped me out of my sleep every five minutes, nagging me with their persistence to sell. They all looked the same, the unhealthy tan of their skin, the pallor of their face and an innocence usurped by poverty. I despised them for the reality they portrayed. I disliked them for the sense of helplessness their plight evoked in me.
Street children, or at best, slum children. Adults who lived in little bodies. Navigating through the hideous lanes of sustenance. Selling odds and ends to travellers.
“Didi, hand kerchief…” the thin voice accompanied by a tender touch stirred me out of my delicate slumber.
“Want kerchiefs?” he asked, encouraged by my fleeting glance over his cardboard box of ladies hankies.
I shook my head. “No. I don’t,” I said hurriedly in an attempt to shoo him away.
But he stood there waiting for me to reconsider my decision, as though he knew that I would eventually pick something out of the assortment of things he carried.
“No, I don’t want anything”, I said again.
But he refused to go. He smiled at me. It was a smile that was unlikely on a face wrought by destitution. It surprised me that privations could initiate smiles. But he continued to smile and it made me feel uneasy. It reflected an obscure hope. A bona fide appeal. It was a commentary on their lives that bore the toxicity of the sewage running along their shanty’s courtyards.
I wondered why he had picked on me for his sell. Did he know that I dropped my handkerchiefs too often?
He continued to stand in front of me, his head now tilted to the left, in anticipation. An obligatory stretch of my lips made him grin once again. He felt encouraged.
“Three for ten rupees, didi” he said holding out the handkerchiefs.
“Give me five for ten” I haggled. A bargain for no reason.
He shook his head.
“Then go away”, I said defiantly. The rudeness in my tone embarrassed me.
“Four for ten, didi”, he offered.
Like a persistent sales man he tried all his wheedling tactics on me.
“You won’t find this quality at this price anywhere, didi. It is made of fine cotton. It won’t shrink or fade.”
I was unmoved.
“Didi, I am yet to make my first sale for the day. Please buy some.” He was close to pleading.
I turned away to look out of the window. Time to alight. I was close to my station. I arose and proceeded towards the exit. He was in tow. He tapped on my arms lightly, but urgently.
“Not now; next time,” I said hurriedly and waited for the train to halt. I stepped down.
The train pulled out in a minute. I saw him at the exit; the little face fell in disappointment. There was no hint of a smile on his face. The vexed look on his tanned face left a lousy feeling in my heart.
“Next time, at any cost” I promised myself.
I was certain about seeing him in the same train the next Sunday. And I was resolute about not haggling. Three for ten Rupees.
Stations passed by and the crowds receded. Vendors went about their business, coaxing and pleading, their baskets full. Baskets made of little dreams. Dreams that induced small laughters in their lives. Like the taste of water filled in an empty can of orange soda. They sipped it and smiled at the vicarious pleasure the semblance of sweetness it provided. The disguised gratification of life’s tiny delights.
I waited to see the smile of the hand-kerchief boy appear at the entrance. But I never saw him again. I wondered if the city crowd had devoured him.
There were similar faces that made look-alikes of him. But they were never the same.
“Where is that little boy who used to sell kerchiefs in this train?” I asked a look-alike, describing whatever I could recall about his looks. I was convinced of the frivolity of my question, yet I pursued with my search for a nameless train vendor in an insane metropolis.
The look-alike ransacked his memory for what looked like an eternity.
“Are you talking about Rahim?” he asked finally. “The boy with a scar on his forehead?”
I was not sure if that was his name, but I nodded.
“He is dead, fell on the tracks last Sunday,” the look-alike said nonchalantly, as though falling on the tracks was commonplace. The easiest way of deliverance from their everyday trials.
I was appalled.
“Madam, we are all illegal vendors in the train. We pay the police to escape the law. That silly guy had not paid the police for weeks. Bad days in business, you know. The police chased him and he jumped out of a running train to escape.”
My mouth went dry and I felt nauseous. My station was nearing. Pulling out a ten-rupee note I whispered to the look-alike, “Hand kerchiefs. Give me three for ten rupees.”
It was a strange buy of self-vindication.
(This story was written in the year 2000. What makes it special to me is that it unexpectedly put me on the headlines by winning me a national short story contest in the UAE. I stumbled upon the newspaper report last week, exactly 21 years since it happened. Thought it might make a good read to you all.)