“Bhaiya Ji, careful, you seem to be ready to jump.”
Deepak, as if caught red handed, jerked backwards, looked back, holding the door rails of Poorva Express headed for Kolkata from Delhi. At 2 am, the three-tier compartment was wrapped in silent darkness except for a dim tube light near the lavatory and a wailing infant whose mother struggled to feed her in the narrow berth. The midnight moon in full bloom kept a close eye on Deepak and his intentions when a young voice jolted him out of his trance.
“Bhai, go, sell your magazines if there is anyone awake. Secure your meal for tomorrow.” Deepak's bloodshot eyes stared at the young boy. Under the dim tube light and the raucous, metallic shriek, Deepak reviewed the tall, dark-skinned boy, barely twenty with neatly parted hair wearing a sky-blue shirt, deep blue jeans and Hawai chappals. The dusty, black bag hung over his shoulder complained of its load silently. The current issue of India Today and Dainik Bhaskar peeped from the broken zip cover. A half- eaten patty lay humbly in a crumpled plastic wrap in his hand.
“Bhaiya ji, why do you get angry? You were leaning out and the train is speeding away. If your head hits a pole or your grip betrays you, the skull will crash into million pieces. Life is for cashing and not crashing,” said the boy in an accent, a cocktail of human care, jest and philosophy.
Deepak gave him a look, irritated at the words unsuitable for someone of his age.
“No philosophy Bhaiya ji, just humanity.”
“But dost, life is not led by philosophy. When reality strikes, the first thing to escape out of the window is this very philosophy and then you realise it is better to crash and end it,” said Deepak with indignation.
“Bhaiya ji, you seem to be more learned than me but in my 21 years of life, I have been living a reality and I know that it’s all about a choice…to cash or crash.” The voice answered, with a maturity of someone who has lived the seasons of life.
Deepak felt strange. At 2:15 am, somewhere between Allahabad and Mughalsarai junction, the train seemed to gallop like a horse. His mission had got interrupted by an unwelcomed intruder whose looks belied the words he spoke. Strangely, Deepak felt the rush to continue the conversation. His mission lay disturbed and distracted.
“You talk well. What is your name? From where?"
“UP, Bhaiya ji. My parents named me Keemat and other than them nobody realises my keemat. Hahaha. But very soon they will.” Keemat looked at the dark shadows outside and looked back at Deepak staring at him. “Though, I was born on this train. This railgaddi knows me more than I know myself.”
“Really? That would have been some experience for your parents. Hmmm…. you know, I love trains too. Hanging on to the window railings of these trains, as far as I can remember, each journey has given me a story, some outside the window and some inside. My suitcase is replete with stories, all conceived during a train journey.”
Deepak sat on a big plastic bundle kept near the greasy washbasin. “You know Keemat, if a writer was to have a never-ending supply of stories for a lifetime, he should become a train passenger. These bedding holders, the steel tiffin cases, pooris and aloo bhujias with mango pickles, the iron trunks, the worn-out suitcases, the paan stained window railings and the unwanted middle berth, all carry a silent story, I have heard them many a times and I continue to.
“Really Bhaiya ji? You are writer it seems. Is your book published? Do I already have it in my bag?”
“Writer? Hmmm. Yes, I guess, I am one but that is not what people want or think I should be. By the way, you seem to be an educated boy, you know about writing and publishing…”
“Bhaiya ji, I graduated from LBS college in Mughalsarai this year.”
“Impressive. How come…”
As if already knowing the question, Keemat answered “My Babuji worked in the pantry car of this train. After his death this year, Maa wanted me to stay back at Mughalsarai and take care of the shop and support the family. I have two younger sisters. But I had some other plans.”
“To sell Chacha Chaudhary on train?” Deepak ridiculed.
“What Bhaiya ji? Don’t judge this book by its cover. I sell these magazines only after I have read them all. I know why Rahul Gandhi hugged our PM on the day of no confidence motion, about Imran Khan’s election victory, 4 million illegal immigrants of Assam, Priyanka Chopra marrying Nick Jonas, and how Cape Town in South Africa came close to turn into a dry city.”
“Whoa, Whoa, Whoa. Genius. Not bad dost.”
“Bhaiya ji, my Babuji spent his life working on this train. I was offered a job of a helper here, but I refused. On this very train five years back, Babuji and myself met PK Singh, IAS, Dumrao, and we saw our first dream of writing UPSC, right here where I am talking to you.”
Taking out a thick magazine of Pratiyogita Darpan, half-yearly series, with Narendra Modi on the cover page, Keemat remarked with an air of self-assurance, “Ask me...” for few seconds their eyes met, “anything.” Deepak had never witnessed such confidence coming from someone so unsuitable for it ever in his life, such conviction which he yearned for in his life.
He smiled, pulled his phone out of his khadi kurta and started fidgeting, clicking on read messages. The phone showed the time, 2:45 am. Barring few passengers who got up to attend to nature’s call, Deepak and Keemat were the only dreamers who stayed awake. The strong ammonia smell around the lavatory disappeared when the train passed the mustard fields and filled the air with fragrance.
Keemat flipped few pages of the magazine and kept it back in the bag. “I gave the prelims this May,” disclosed Keemat.
“You did? Good.” Deepak looked back at Keemat. “I gave too. Mine is the last attempt and I am sure of not getting through,” Deepak voice hadn’t felt so lifeless.
“Fourth attempt…hmmm…but why so sure?”
“Big question Keemat. My small answer is, I don’t know why but I am sure. My father is a constable at Danapur police station. You know how it is in Bihar? When a child is born, he is most probably named Deepak, considering he is the light that will dispel the darkness. The only alphabets the child is ever taught in any language, Maithili, Bhojpuri, English or Hindi is U-P-S-C. IAS is the 100% solution, like LIC …Jeevan ke saath bhi, Jeevan ke baad bhi, hahaha. Each Bihari family slogs to secure this one dream which will ensure happiness for the next seven generations.
I had come to Delhi, just like you, after graduation from Patna University. I was barely 21 and while my bag was stuffed with pirikiya, thekua ,nimki, money from a broken FD and General Studies guide, my heart felt burdened. Their expectations felt like bricks on my heart under which my stories got buried. With each failed attempt, my babuji’s health deteriorated and I felt smaller. His confidence and pride kept sinking, his dream of a lal batti dimmed. I have failed him, failed myself. I have become so small that I can get lost within myself, never to be found again.”
“So, you are going back home now?”
“Home? Ummm…. Y---e---sss. Going. Finally. No other way.” Deepak tried to conceal what his eyes easily revealed. Nine years of life at Nirankari Colony room with five other UPSC aspirants from Bihar had been a nightmare. Scarcity of money and hope is a fatal combination. The former hits the stomach, the latter nails the heart. With Deepak both resources fell short after his first unsuccessful attempt. He scrimmaged to survive.
“Hmmm. Bhaiya ji, shall I tell you something” Keemat paused, glanced over the lines on his palm and added, “The roads never end.”
“Keemat. No philosophy again. My road has ended. You have no idea how ….”
Before he could finish that Keemat remarked earnestly, “I have to get down at Mughalsarai in 10 minutes. When this train returns tomorrow, I would board it again…until I reach my destination. Bhaiya ji, I don’t know much, but I want to tell you before I depart that the roads never end. It is another thing that you do not want to look at the one opening in front of you , that you are not able to gather courage to take that first step, that you are so attached to your previous road that you do not find any other road worth it, but the fact is that life may be filled with problems, but LIFE is not a problem. To see life itself as a problem to be finished through suicide, is to err disastrously.”
“Keemat…how did you…?” Deepak stammered, embarrassed seeing his thoughts and intentions laying bare. The train started to decrease its speed and minutes later, it pulled at Mughalsarai station to the waking cacophonous chorus of squabbling birds and chaiwallhas from all corners.
Keemat zipped his bag, splashed water on his face, combed his hair with a small, white pocket comb and got ready to step down.
“It was good talking to you Keemat. I wish you a good life.” Deepak tried to conclude.
“Bhaiya ji, your road is lying in your suitcase. Go and open it. The first steps are the hardest but necessary. The roads never end.” Saying this Keemat stepped down and disappeared in the crowd.
Deepak stood at the gate for few minutes. Once the train started for Buxar, he returned to his seat knowing very well that Mughalsarai station had changed the course of his life.
“Sir, your tea,” the pantry guy greeted Deepak with a sleepy smile.
Sipping from his cup, something struck Deepak and he called for the pantry guy who was serving tea to passengers in the next compartment.
“Do you know Keemat? His father used to work with you?”
“Oh! Keemat, yes Sir.”
“He was born on this train?”
“Hahaha! Yes, Sir. He was born here. An orphan, who used to clean floors of the train. Our senior colleague Darbar ji saved him once when he was trying to jump off the train. He would have been barely 10 or 12. Since then Darbar ji became his foster father. I still remember the day the incident happened. Keemat had sobbed through the night at Darbar ji’s lap clutching few pennies in his hand and crying out ‘yeh keemat hai meri'.” That is when Darbar ji named him Keemat and said, 'You will make your own road and create your own value. It is in your hand. Look at your palms and see the lines drawn here. The roads never end, remember'. Sahebji, he could never make Keemat part of his family but for Keemat, Darbar ji became his god and this train his home. We all took care of him after Darbar ji passed away. He was the senior most amongst us. The boy is sheer magic sahebji. From a broom to books…his confidence is unmatched. And his famous dialogue which we all know, ‘The roads never end’, guess he knows it better than anyone of us.”
Deepak couldn’t believe what his ears were listening to. Destiny unfolds in strange ways and Deepak was stumped at the way it had revealed itself few hours before.
“Why did he get down at Mugalsarai?”
“Oh…Mugalsarai. Darbar ji lived here. He secretly goes and keeps his weekly earnings at Darbar ji’s home for his family to be taken care of. Sahebji, you know, one day, he will make Poorva Express proud of him.”