The sun blinked like a Christmas light behind the naked trees.
I sat on the floor of the carriage. The reeking latrine to one side and Prem Chand on the other.
The Ahmedabad Mail swayed through the Rajasthan desert in the direction of Ajmer. Reservations had been impossible. The only option was to travel fifteen hours in General.
Prem Chand had spotted me sharing a slice of a bench and beckoned me. He sat in luxury by the door on top of a heavy wool blanket. I hurried over to him but didn’t say anything. He lit an ochre bidi. I rested my head on my knees. It was not yet 6 in the morning. Fourteen hours more to go.
Prem Chand put out his bidi and addressed me an oblique fashion. “That’s a costly jacket.” His eyes were admiring.
“About Rs 200,” I said.
We swayed on in silence. The sun was climbing fast, racing to keep up with the train.
“Give it to me,” Prem Chand demanded.
His face registered deep hurt with my negative reply.
“I need it as a remembrance of you,” he countered.
“I have only this one. If I had a second or third one I would definitely give it to you.”
He seemed appeased. But out of the corner of my eye I could see him stare at me. His wry smile said, “I don’t believe you.”
I squirmed. Get the upper hand, I thought. I started questioning him.
He was travelling to Kishangarh. He was 26 years old. He told me he was married. I congratulated him. “How many children?”
“Two. Both daughters.” He was obviously conflicted. “Daughters are a great difficulty in India.”
As if even the topic was distasteful, and before I could ask why, he was telling me that he had almost gone to Japan.
“My brother had a cycle rickshaw in Jaipur. One day he met a Japanese lady and she said, ‘Come to Japan with me.’ So my brother came to me and said, ‘Come, I’ll take you to Japan.’ I told him, ‘No,’ but gave him Rs 700. One day the police came and arrested him and sent his wife back to Japan. Just like that it was over.”
“Why did they arrest him?”
“Bas. Aise hi.”
Aise is a versatile Hindi word meaning literally, like this. In his brother’s case it implied, just because.
“The police need no reasons.”
“But what had he done?”
Prem Chand ignored me and continued talking. He obviously took it for granted that no one questioned the police just as no one doubted daughters were a calamity. In India certain things just are. Aise hi hai.
“I had a rickshaw also.”
“Cycle?” I asked.
The hurt look crept back into his face.
‘Nahi baba. Auto. Auto. Auto,” he snapped.
I was embarrassed. I had wounded him twice in less than half an hour. His ability to recover, however, proved as good as his capacity to take offense. He waited for my next question.
“What do you do these days?”
Grabbing a black lantern he held it up and read aloud. His fingers traced the sloppy handwriting. “Prem Chand. Points Man 1. Phulera Junction.”
“What’s a Points Man?” My question seemed logical. But Prem Chand evaded me.
“I work night duty. 12 hours. 6 to 6.”
“But what’s your work?” I asked again.
“Points Man,” he smiled.
“Do you shunt engines?” I was now desperate to know.
“Yes. I help to shunt. And this and that.”
He fished another bidi from his pocket. I let the subject drop.
My knees ached from squatting. No seats had been vacated as far as I could see. The benches were so crowded the addition or subtraction of one person was undetectable. I returned my attention to Prem Chand
“How much do you make?”
“Three hundred and thirty a month. It isn’t enough for us.”
“You must have made more driving a rickshaw.”
“Oh yes,” he said. “I made plenty of money. Plenty.”
Why join the railroad for less money if you were making more as a rickshaw driver, I wanted to know.
Yet again, he looked pained. Speaking slowly as if I were an erring child Prem Chand laid it out for me.
“There is no izzat (honour) in a rickshaw. With this job I have honour. Everyone used to yell, ‘Taxi, taxi’ before. It was shameful. Now, as Points Man even the Station Master greets me in the morning. Everyone knows me. Just come to Phulera Junction and ask for Prem Chand. They all know me. Now I have honour.”
The train was slowing and Prem Chand jumped up, wrapped the blanket we had been sharing around his shoulders and lit a bidi.
“You do you thing,” he admonished me. “Give me one rupee for chaipani.”
Glad to redeem myself in his eyes I pulled out the loose change from my pocket, 80 paise.
“Here, this is all I have.” I slipped it into his hand.
He flashed his wry unbelieving smile and melted into the crowd mobbing the train.