The train was due only the next morning and he was stuck in this godforsaken place miles from civilization. The lone chaiwala had also closed shop and gone on his way. Perfect. Not even a cup of chai could he expect from now on. Oh why oh why had his mother sent him on this wild goose chase?
He glanced up at the menacing looking sky. It would start raining any moment now. He had better go quickly and stake claim to one of the unbroken chairs in the waiting room before some tramp or even worse, one of the many strays roaming around laid claim to it. They were so territorial, these dogs. The previous evening he was chased down the street by one when he got back late to the room above the tea shop where he was to spend a miserable night being bitten by bed bugs.
He peered into the waiting room before stepping in. Thankfully it was empty of humans and dogs. Good. He walked in and gingerly sat down on a bench he chose as more stable than the rest, but which still wobbled a bit. He let out his breath when it held his weight, and relaxed enough to make himself as comfortable as possible.
Outside it had begun to rain, the rumbles of thunder getting closer. He couldn’t help thinking if he went by Bollywood standards this was the right time and setting for his ex-sweetheart to make an entrance, for that shocked look of recognition, hesitant smiles. They would then spend the intervening time recalling the past in flashbacks including songs sung in exotic locations, only to have the rich and handsome husband rush in with concern at first light even as the train chugged into the platform. End of movie.
The thought brought a wry smile to his face and he started speculating on which of his exes he preferred to join him. There was loud clap of thunder just then. The light bulb flickered and went out. Shit. This was bad. How was he to see his ex if she were to walk in? He smiled in the darkness at his own absurd thoughts.
Suddenly his smile froze and his eyes widened. He stared, his hair was standing on end. In the flash of lightning he had seen someone standing at the door to the waiting room. He almost jumped out of his seat when he saw the face much closer, peering at him, when the lightning flashed next. At this point, his brain, mixing up priorities, took time off to inform him that it was not merely ex-lovers who made an appearance at lonely railways stations. Ghosts did too, if you went by Bollywood wisdom. But didn’t such apparitions have to be beautiful women with long hair and dressed in a white sari?
The frail looking wizened man in his dirty khakis was as far removed from the norm as could be. Of course, there was no earthly reason why anyone should go into shock on seeing a harmless old man like him except that he recognized the man as the one whose whereabouts his mother had sent him to find out, and who according to the villagers had been dead for over a decade. He had even seen the man’s garlanded photo at his daughter’s home where he had been directed while making enquiries
His mother was unquestionably the queen among chatter-boxes. She was always talking, of this and that, of the past, the present, future, her ailments, those of her family members and neighbors, what she saw on the television, out on the street, in short everything under the sun. She simply went on and on, there was just no stopping her. The result was that he hardly ever listened. He had become an expert at tuning her out and doing his own thing. Yet he remembered that in recent times the talk had always been about some letter that she ought to have received years back, and which someone in the village was holding for her.
How had she known of the letter and why after all these years had she asked him to go looking for a dead man? After all she had left the village with her parents when she was barely ten. He cursed himself for not asking her any of those questions. He wished he had paid more attention to whatever else she had said. Since she was getting so insistent, he had decided on a whim to make that journey for her, especially since he felt he needed a couple of days off from work. He had only taken away the basic essentials from her chatter : Look for so and so. Get that letter.
In the next flash of lightning, he saw it. Both the so-and so and the letter, revealed together in the blinding light. At least he thought the letter might be inside, for the old man was holding out an envelope. He made no move to take it from him. He felt paralyzed with fear. All the Bollywood films he had laughed at were now sneering at him mercilessly. He felt rather than saw the man deposit the envelope on the empty space beside him on the bench . The very next moment the man was gone.
He felt an insane desire to laugh, but controlled himself. This had not actually happened, had it? It was just a dream and he was going to wake up any minute in his bed at home, cozy under his blanket, a/c on full blast and and the fan at fullest speed. He could almost feel the chill on his neck where the blanket had slipped off.
He woke up with a start and stared at the peeling paint on the unfamiliar walls. It was dawn and he was laid out flat on the bench. When had he fallen asleep? He had not been bitten by a single bug all night. Through the gaping hole in broken window pane he noticed that the rain had stopped. A cold wind made its way through, chilling his face and neck.
Of course, it had been a dream. He had known it all along, even in his dream. It was all because of the stories, the collection every village has, and which the villagers had filled his ears with last night. It is from them, and the daughter that he had gathered the man used to work for his mother’s family. What a dream it had been! And what a fool he was to have just taken off in this manner at his mother’s insistence. She was getting senile, I should not be taken in by her stories, he thought unkindly.
Well, she was not all to blame. It had been his eagerness too, though he wanted to laugh at his own foolishness now. From his mother’s words he had understood that there was some last will and legal documents involved and some property that rightfully belonged to his father which would now become his own, if only they could lay their hands on that all important missing letter. Good God, he had been listening to her chatter after all even though he believed he thought himself deaf to it. Anyway, what a colossal ass he was to have thought even for a moment it could be true. He was no better than the Bollywood scriptwriters, he thought ruefully.
It was now light outside. Time to get out and look if he could manage some chai and also find out when the train would be along. He slipped on the jacket he had used to cover himself and something slipped off the bench, falling to the grimy floor. His spine tingled and a chill settled on him when he saw it was an envelope with frayed edges, wet in places where the rain had fallen on it.
©Shail Mohan 2015