The Russians were easy to find. I heard their tipsy, vodka soaked laughter coming from a shady part of the compound. Four or five of them were sitting on adjacent porches of their apartments, their fleshy faces flushed red with heat and drink.
As I approached, silence broke out.
I smiled, hoping it would break the ice. It didn’t.
They stared at me, obviously perplexed and irritated that I had interrupted their lunch break. One of the women whispered something to her friend.
“Excuse me,” I began.
By now I had my tale-of-woe down pat. I told them my mother was ill and I needed some money. “I need to get to Allahabad, about 700 kilometers from here,”
“No. No money,” one of them said.
A couple others joined in the chorus. “No money. Go away.” A man with huge arms and angry eyes said it louder than the others. With real authority.
Having spent 8 years in boarding school I knew a lost cause when I met one. I turned back toward the gate.
But I was dying of thirst. With a drinking gesture I said, “Could I have some water?”
This second request really set them off. Amidst the general clamor of, “No water. Go!’, one of the men made a move towards me. He didn’t follow me but I didn’t have the courage to turn back and check until I was several meters down the path. When I did turn the Russians were still tense. They glared at me, but as I retreated the laughing resumed.
A mali who was sitting in the shade on his haunches watering a guava tree beckoned me over.
He held up the hose for me to drink. He didn’t say much and I didn’t offer anything. I have no doubt he had been watching the scene play out from a distance. I sensed it was one he himself was familiar with and took his kindness as an act of solidarity.
The thought of a 10 km ride back to Hardwar in the midday sun depressed me, especially as I was no richer for my effort. I was too spent to formulate my next move, but I knew I needed to be in town where there existed at least the potential of assistance.
I must have looked miserable pedaling along the highway because out of nowhere a man appeared. His well oiled, wavy hair glistened in the sun. He wore narrow legged pants and a plaid yellow shirt. I can’t remember how it happened but he successfully commandeered my bike, sat me on the rear carrier and began cycling toward Hardwar.
Despite the heat, we got a bit of breeze going which cooled my cheeks slightly. I vaguely remember the Stranger talking to me but can’t recollect about what. Before I knew it we were back at the Station. He dropped me at the cyclewala and even paid the outstanding balance. Then with a nod of his head he disappeared as unexpectedly as he’d appeared.
I retreated to the relative comfort of the 1st class Waiting Room. I dozed on a rattan lounge chair with extendable arms that doubled as leg rests, one of the distinctive artifacts of railway waiting halls in those days. But I was hungry. And more than a little anxious about how I was going to make the next leg of the journey.
A middle class family were the only others in the Waiting Room. The patriarch reclined on a rattan chair like mine, staring blankly at a ceiling fan that swayed as it whirred madly. From time to time he lifted his buttocks and farted. But other than that, he didn’t move.
I may have been oblivious to him but I had been watching him for some time. After one of his farts I cleared my throat and in my best Hindi launched into conversation. I learned they had come to Hardwar on yatra (pilgrimage) and were now heading back home. I asked him about his business (the nature of which I’ve completely forgotten) and may have said a nice thing or two about his young child.
As a conversationalist he was unenthusiastic.
“My mother is ill,” I offered, hoping to pique his interest.
He may have nodded, but if he did, it was ever so slightly.
“I need to get home. To Allahabad. But I have no money.”
“Why do you not have money?”
“I was robbed,” I found my mouth saying. I couldn’t believe it. But I was in the water now, so I had to keep going.
“This morning on the way from Dehra Dun, it was very crowded in the bogie and when I got here I realized someone had stolen my money.”
He looked at me skeptically.
“Could you provide me with Rs. 20, so I could get a ticket? My mother is very ill.”
“You must report to the Railway Police,” he said. “If you have been a victim of theft.”
As far as he was concerned the conversation was over. The spinning fan captured his attention once more. I felt foolish but let a decent interval pass before shuffling out of the Waiting Room.
Once again, 24 hours after the first occasion, I entered the office of an Indian Railways bureaucrat. I had mulled over what the farting businessman had said. He was absolutely correct in his observation that the Police needed to be notified in the event of a crime. But in this case there had been no crime committed so fronting up to the Police would not be the smartest tactic. On the other hand, I was clean out of options.
The Railway Police office was shabbier than the Station Master’s in Dehra Dun. The man behind the desk had a pot belly and sweat stained his khaki uniform. His closely shaved head sported a choti, the little tuft of hair that identified him as a high caste Hindu. Unlike the Station Master his face lit up when I stood in front of his desk.
“Kya baat hai, baba?” he asked. What is it, lad?
Though he addressed me in Hindi he clearly didn’t expect me to respond in kind.
“Meri ma bimaar hai, aur mere paas ticket ka kiraya nahi hai,” I said, laying down the by now firm foundation of my story.
“Arey! Hindi bolte!” His belly jiggled with delight. “Ay shabaash!”
Before I could continue with my dishonest story he shot a series of questions at me in an attempt to come to grips with the fact that a white kid could speak Hindi.
I told him about me. I was American. I studied in Mussoorie. I was born in India. Rajesh Khanna was a good actor, yes.
Whereas the Station Master had instantly linked my school being located in Mussoorie and my being in his office to funny business, this jolly man didn’t give a stuff. Indeed, he was hooting to a couple of underlings about what a spectacular thing I was.
Somehow in the midst of this excitement I managed to explain my dilemma: 700 kms. No money. Sickly mother.
Before I knew it he grabbed my wrist and dragged me behind him. He marched outside with me in tow. A couple of minutes later we were seated at an open air dhaba that sold tea and fast food to the throngs around the station.
He instructed the dhabawala to give me a plate of curry and a few chapatis. “This fellow is American but born in India! It’s true. And he speaks spasht Hindi! Just listen.” He could hardly contain himself.
Though my mouth was full (this was my first food in nearly 36 hours) I knew this was the price of dinner. A small crowd had appeared or, rather the endless crowd of passersby stopped for a moment to look at me. It was my cue.
I restated in Hindi what I had told the Police Inspector a few minutes earlier, that I was American, born in India, lived in Allahabad but studied in Mussoorie.
People marveled and exclaimed. The Inspector couldn’t have beamed wider had I been his son. He ordered my plate to be refilled. I ate up. He continued to hold court but eventually passersby grew bored and the rhythm of the bazaar returned to normal.
The Police Inspector led me back to his office. I was grateful for the meal but had no idea how I was going to make it home.
He pressed a buzzer on his desk which immediately produced a minion. The underling was sent forth to find others and after several minutes returned with two colleagues who carried rifles and bulleted shoulder straps. They noisily pushed a pair of prisoners into the office in front of them. With their legs and wrists in irons the prisoners shuffled and clanged like cheap robots.
The inspector didn’t move from his desk and in a loud voice told the newly arrived cops that they were to include me in their party. They were on official duty, transporting criminals from Hardwar to the state capital. “You take this boy with you to Lucknow but do not let anyone, and I mean anyone, speak with him.”
With that, the chubby Police Inspector himself walked me to a train and bade me bon voyage.
I was on my way at last. Still ticketless, but with a pair of personal armed guards.