The express train was negotiating a curve before it applied the brakes gently at first and then firmly as the Kozhikode station was a few kilometres away. A train which had a few rivals as far as non stop running was concerned had another 800 kilometres to negotiate before it could reach Mumbai the next day evening.
Jalan the railway porter was looking for any passengers that night who would require to board their luggage on to the train which would reach in a minute or two as per the announcement made. If not to board luggage, good God let some passenger alighting need my services and kept himself properly positioned as the train slowly floated into his line of vision. These days work was less as people travelled light and the trolley bags didn’t help either. It was not a good day for Jalan today. He had fallen from his bicycle and had gone to the nearby clinic in the morning and had his bruised leg bandaged. In the evening, he was invited to the local bar by his friend and after a couple of drinks, there was a brawl initiated by 2 outsiders who was pressing the waiter to deliver the drinks to their table and then beat him up. They definitely were outsiders, the dialect used was not local. Maybe there were goons, from some place who had come to the city on an assignment. Jalan had left soon after they had left but their faces had made an imprint.
Vedika was expected to join the IT firm at Mumbai day after tomorrow. She had asked her careless brother to book the train ticket and he had said he had taken care of the booking till the last minute. So instead of 15th August, he had booked on 25th and just while she was packing in the morning for the afternoon train, he comes with a sorry face and plays the breaking news to her. Then both of them tried other options and finally managed to get a second class AC 2 tier seat for her. One way it was good, she got more time to plan and pack her things as this was a midnight train from Kozhikode.. Her brother’s carelessness had caused her mother to shell out more money, but there was no time to complain.
Dilip was selling cool drinks from the railway stall at Kozhikode. He along with Jayan used to lease a tray of soft drink bottles from the store and then pay for it later. They had been at these for the past few years before the pandemic struck. During the period of one year they were doing petty jobs for survival. Now the duo were back to their station duties. Today Dilip had to go to Mangalore on a small parcel assignment and come back by tomorrow morning. He thought of carrying on his trade in the train till Mangalore though he knew there would be few takers for his drinks among the passengers in all coaches which were air conditioned and all in deep slumber by the time the train rolled into the station.
As the train’s engine passed him, Jalan eyes riveted now on to the coaches was like the owl looking for crow. , his experienced eyes saw a young lady and a boy ambling over to the coaches now almost stationary. They had 2 small pieces of luggage, which he knew they could manage somehow. But out of habit, he went near and asked his if they wanted to avail his services. The young lady smiled at him and thanked him saying they would be able to manage. Jalan was back to look at other coaches to see if anyone was getting down. But he could not see much passengers sitting or standing, most of them were already in deep sleep, you could not blame them, it was already half past 12 in the early morning.
He ambled across to the second AC coach, where the young boy was standing outside and the lady now seated inside. He just came closer and as was his behavior he asked if everything was fine. Yes brother, everything is fine. It was strange though, there were not many passengers in the Second AC that day. She was almost alone, save for 3 or 4 passengers in berths 14, 15 and 16. At the same time, Dilip brushed past him as he was trying to get into one of the 3 tier coaches. Hey where are you going to sell your drinks. Everybody is asleep. I know he said, I need to go to mangalore for this small parcel delivery, so will travel in the sleeper coach. So thought of taking this train. I have the ticket with me. Why dont you travel in this coach. It is empty. What if the TTR catches me. Dont worry, there I see him, it is Nageshwara Rao, he wont mind, Nageshwara Rao was slowly pacing his steps towards the second class AC in which the lady had onboarded. Maybe he is coming to check just that. Jalan moved over to Rao and requested that Dilip travel in this coach even though he had a sleeper ticket. It is okay, you can get yourself seated near the service staff boy at the door. Even I will have someone to talk to. Dilip was all smiles as he got in the luxury coach and got seated in the berth nearest the door.
Jalan came out of the coach and that is when he saw the 2 goons getting into the same coach at the other end. He had seen them loitering nearby before the train had reached and now getting into the second ac coach was a little beyond his understanding. Maybe they were going to from where they came, good riddance. He passed by the coach. Nageswara Rao was already dozing on berth 52. That means, he didnt expect any more boarding from this station. He walked on, the young lady was getting ready to sleep at berth 48 and the 2 goons had got seated themselves on the window berth and eyeing her. Jalan could not let her go on the train unprotected and without wasting time traced his steps back and got into the same coach at the door where Dilip was seated.
What happened, Dileep inquired with a surprise, are you also coming. Yes and I may travel more than you in this train. He told about the incidents during the day and now and how he sensed some danger to the passengers from these men. They ambled across to Rao and put his sleep out of the train. He thanked Jalan for coming in the train as the guard had taken I’ll at Kozhikode. The replacement will be at the next halt. They somehow wanted to hold the fort till Mangalore. As per his list there were 3 men and a group of Europeans boarding the train to Madgoan. The next couple of hours was crucial. Rao was looking at the bottles of cool drinks in Dilip’s crate. Slowly he opened his black bag gifted to him by some jeweler from his cloth bag. There are some medicines here and a soft weapon, as he took out a strip. There are 4 bullets in these. What weapon and bullets, both onlookers asked. These are sleeping pills I keep with me, if we can dissolve them in these 2 bottles and persuade them to buy it from Dileep, at least we can make them sleepy and thus a bit ineffective. Can you open the 2 bottles lad. Dileep did what was told, ground the tablets into powder and put it in the soft drinks and effectively closed the cap on them. I hope they wont pick up a fight with you over the soft drink. They wouldn’t notice it said Jalan, as their system is loaded with alcohol and water to them will be soothing, gas or no gas.
Now off you go and use your best selling skills to buy these from you. Keep some empty bottles also in your crate and cook up a story as to how you desperately wanted to sell the remaining and get off the train, as there was only a couple of minutes for it to leave the station. We have another 7 minutes left actually since the train came 12 minutes early. Wait, keep one more filled bottle in case the girl asks for one and he put it in the corner slot. Open that too, take a gulp yourself from that in case they insist for that bottle, you can say it is defective by showing them the open cap. Jalan said, you must be among the cops Rao sir and not on the trains. Rao took the praise with a humble smile.
Vedhika turned nervous the moment she sighted the two men who came and seated themselves on the window seats. They appeared drunk and soon the smell of their drink wafted into the surroundings. They were whispering something to themselves and looking all the time at her. One of them asked if she wasn’t retiring to sleep. She, lending a deaf year, opened one of her bag and started searching for something which wasn’t there in the first place. Good Lord, I should not have booked on this train when so many seats were vacant, only He can come to the rescue. The search into the contents of the bag went on, and the one of the guys getting impatient asked her what she was searching and started to get up from the seat asking if she needed help. Suddenly a boy came from nowhere with a basket of soft drink bottles and stood in between them. He was very eager to sell his goods even in the dead of the night. Go away, they tried to shoo him off. One grabbed Dileep’s arm and dragged him away from the vantage position as he was blocking their vision. Still he went on pestering them to buy. Why don’t we buy one and send him off, and they got one from him. Vedhika didn’t want to send him away so soon, he was to her as all the gods in one body. She also wanted one from him and looked for the change in her purse. She had the change, but gave him a 200 denomination, hoping that he won’t have the change to give back and thus buy some time. Dileep gave her the bottle earmarked for her and started pestering the other guy to buy the remaining bottle, so he can alight from the train, as it will start off anytime. The first guy who wanted to see Dileep off from his radar now tried his convincing skills on his friend to get the remaining bottle, and when he didn’t relent, he bought one more, so that the drink seller would vanish. The second bottle was forced into the hands of the other guy by the first and then both started to take turns drinking from their bottles.
When Dileep was confronted by the 200 rupee currency, he was delighted to see that his role getting extended in the drama. He started searching for the change in his shirt pocket at his own pace as if he had all the time in the world. Gone was the impatient looking seller, anxious that the train would start, now he acted as if he was one of the passengers. Vedhika prayed that he did not have the change with him or else the whole scene would change in a minute. But she also didn’t want the guy to get stranded in the train. Maybe another minute or two for the train to leave, thought Dileep. He looked for the change in the back pockets and slowly took out the change, counted them, not once or twice but thrice to the desperate looks of the goons. You know what he told them with a smile, I have lost many a money while giving back the change. Sister can you count them and see if that is okay as he handed back the change. Vedhika counted swiftly and said it was fine but sad to see him leaving. The train had started to move slowly and Dileep hurried to the exit door.
When all seemed clear for the 2 men to start gaining lost territory, to the surprise of all three, in walked another god in human form for vedhika. Mr. Rao pulling his black coat on his shoulders as a rucksack walked in with his cloth bag and reservation list. Looking at the men, he turned over to Vedhika and asked for her ticket. To put it straight, asking for their tickets was never in Mr. Rao’s plan. My prayers are being answered, as she went looking for her ticket in the bag. Oh it was the ticket she was searching so far, remarked one on the window seat. Hope she gets it before we reach our destination and went into a laughter spell. Mr. Rao took a seat on the berth as he was in no hurry in contrast to the train which was trying its best to reach its next halt early. Do you remember where you kept it. Maybe try the other bag, or maybe your purse soothingly were these words from Rao. All the patience just like her father. I am sure it was in this bag, where I kept when my brother gave me the print. I can show my ID as she showed her license. Yes, yes, old fella why do you insist on a ticket, her ID is enough for you to check your list. Who is the TT here, you or me in a rough voice, a livid Rao retorted, but had to keep his temper in check. He definitely knew he was no match for the guys, if he ignited a fight now. Hope Jalan was hearing all this a few seats away in the dim lights. I want to see your Ticket young lady. Do you have it on your phone. No, but I think I can ask my brother to send me a copy of it on the phone. He had a copy downloaded on the laptop. Laptop or Desktop I do not care I just want a copy of your ticket on this berth top, why he seemed so offended Vinitha never knew. But as long as he was there, the jackals sitting on the windows won’t make a move.
Rao was enjoying it. Just like in a cricket match, the play was being enacted at his pace. The creativity 30 minutes back was played well so far in reality. okay make a call to your brother, I can wait. Vedhika started calling her brother praying that he picked it up. She went trying for 5 minutes multiple times and gave up. Her brother would have been fast asleep. He is not picking up, I wonder whether he really booked a ticket in the first place and gave you the print out. No sir, he gave me, I kept it in this bag, I am sure. In that case, take out all your belongings from this bag and put it out one by one and search for it. I will come back to you. Then he got up, went to the 2 fellow passengers who were enjoying the show dangling their legs on the seat like monkeys. Now can I ask for your tickets, fully knowing that they had none on them, at least for this coach. One of them pulled up 2 unreserved express tickets to Mangalore and showed them to Rao with a smile showing one broken tooth. He sure must be on the receiving end thought Rao. Rao looked at the tickets, was amused to see they were taken one month back. He took some time to read it maybe a few times, verified them for their correctness, smiled and gave it back to them for their future trips. He went across to Vedhika smiling that he had covered another 5 minutes. She had gone through the things fully and yet was not able to recover the ticket print out.
Vedhika requested him to allow her to travel since her ID was there for him to verify. I cannot allow you still, as he took her ID and went through her address and all and wasted time. But why sir, she asked timidly. She didn’t want to offend the TT, as he was like a rock in midst of a flooded river to which she could cling to, till further help arrived. He handed back the ticket and said, you will have to get down at the next station which is Mangalore another couple of hours away, as you are not a bonafide passenger. Now what does that mean, remarked the window cooled man. Old fella, if her name is on your list, what is the problem, in anger , he got up wanting to strike the nuisance of a TT who was foiling their plan. But that is exactly the point, you see guys and it was Rao’s turn to laugh. He took a minute to recover himself from the long laugh and said, you see the point. What point Sir ji, what are your driving at, what point, the window men were getting impatient now. Her name is not on my list. What, all three remarked in once voice. That is the point you see. Either you will have to pay the full ticket money to your destination or you will have to get down at the next station. It is for you to decide. Where is she headed to, asked the goons in one voice. What difference does it make to you, she is travelling to Mangalore for now unless she pays for the ticket. Come on Sir Ji you are allowing us to travel with these tickets, and you are making a big commotion with her on not possessing a ticket copy. That is the point what I want to make, you have at least the tickets, she doesn’t even have a COPY and we went into another spell of laughter. Watching the plight of the girl, all this while, the guys had emptied their bottles, Rao observed this as he went towards the window seats and raised his hand.
Jalan was straining his neck all the time and hearing the conversation and getting ready to pitch in with his story provided Mr. Rao could let him come on to the stage. Now that he saw, he knew he had to put up a show that would last as much as it could. He limped supporting himself on the side berths and entered the arena. Rao looked at him, arent you Javed ( putting an alias to his name) from Calicut, what happened to your leg. A nasty piece of luggage fell on my leg while helping a passenger to board. I couldn’t even limp like this much less walk. I have walked through 3 coaches. The pain is unbearable, do any one of you have a pain killer or paracetamol or a drink. Here have some water, Vedika gave him the water bottle, and yes I have a pain killer strip with me. She took it out promptly and gave it to Rao who looked at the strip, took a whole minute to read the contents. Do you have an allergy he asked Jalan. Allergy to what, Sir? What do you mean allergy to what. I didn’t get you sir. Please give me the pill and save me from the pain. Okay tell me are you allergic to pain killers before. I don’t remember having taking any one recently. Then you should be careful. Stop beating about the bush old fella. You are a mighty hurdle for any action said one of the guys who got up menacingly towards Rao. Rao promptly handed the pill to Jalan. Sit here Rao beckoned him to sit and have the medicine. Now it was 2 protectors on both sides for Vedika. The contest was well played out. Can you give me a minute, I will make a call to Mangalore to get a doctor to attend to you, maybe a wheel chair if they have one, as he walked away with his phone in his hand. One of the men who had got up was feeling sleepy and tried to pick up a quarrel with Jalan when in came Dileep. Now what happened to you, did you not get down in time,asked Jalan of him. You mind your business. Dilip chided Jalan. Yes I am minding my business, last week you took money from me and you have been hiding all this week from me. Now you unexpectedly come in front of me. Where is my money young fella, Jalan let his arms fall on Dilip’s shoulders and shook him. I will give it to you by next week. Give it to me now or else you will disappear again. I was wondering all along why you were not to be seen selling on the platform, now I know. You are spending time on trains hiding from me. Come on come on guy, came Mr. Rao crowding into the discussion. This is not the place to start a fight. This is my space, if you want to, do it outside,am I right? Rao asked the window goons to support him on this statement looking at each of them trying to understand if the sleeping pills were doing the job. They were feeling sleepy, the eyelids were drooping. If it all a fight erupts, then Jalan could take care of the proceedings, he thought.
Jalan asked for some clothes from vedika, caught hold of one who was not interested in running after Dileep, tied his hands backwards with the help of Rao. The other one got tired after running to catch the nimble and mischievous Dileep finally slumpled down in one of the berths to sleep and in a matter of minutes, his hands also were tied. I think you people should get some sleep, he told Vedika and Dileep. Myself and Jalan would see to it that these persons won’t get up till they are pulled up by the railway police. I have made all the necessary arrangements. We can definitely put a couple of charges on them.
I do not intend to start a fight, but he must agree to a date as to when he can give my money back. The bickering went on an on, and there seemed to be no end to it. The guys who had the effects of the pill knocking them to sleep could take it no longer. There ensued a fight in which Jalan put up his knock out punches on display and they couldn’t take it any longer from him. They then turned their attention to Dileep who also went into a wild sparring bout with one and then went running as if in a catch me if you can through the coach, taking care that he did not disturb the sleeping passengers at the far end of the coach. Jalan tied the two back to back with his porters cloth and sat beside them. Rao and Vedika was enjoying the events turning out well in their favor. Don’t worry daughter, he assured Vedika , this was just a play to protect you from them. Another hour, they will be in the safe custody of railway police and don’t worry about your ticket. You are very much on my list.