Friday, December 9, 2016

Chapter 3 - Naggar

She was sleeping. The train journey's endless meandering was proving to be too dull for her energy, and so she chose to do what she could think of - sleep with her head in her mother's lap.

Shailesh had been playing with her for an hour or so, and then after sleep, he tried going through the magazines he'd purchased from the Wheeler stall at the station of departure. Caste, terrorism, Ram Mandir - these were all he could see, and frankly, he was sick of all the verbiage the magazines contained. All the rhetoric had gotten them nowhere, he thought, as he kept the magazines in the seat pocket ahead, and chose instead to stare into the monotony of the passing scenery. You could see the weather change in the color of the crop, was his father would often remark. Simple man that he was, his superstitions were too much to handle for him. He remembered that time when his father had asked him not to touch the broom with his foot.

"Beta, it's a symbol of Lakshmi. Don't insult it," remarked his father, as his mother took it away to keep it as some elevated spot in the house.

Shailesh felt odd at this insistence of his father, but he had learnt by then that silence was his ally.

Frankly, Shailesh was still thankful to his father to bear his college expenses. He had sold of his land in parcels, and despite earning a pittance from that and the farming produce income he had, he never gave Shailesh an opportunity to complain. That, he thought, helped him see how far the world had gone ahead, while people in these villages were still worried about ill omens.

His father had not refrained from appealing to him to come for perhaps what he thought was the last time shraadha would be done. Considering his father’s advance age, he was not surprised at this thought - he was already touching eighty now. Shailesh had tried offering him a stipend from his money order for his medical bills. He had even tried getting him to move to Delhi, but to no avail. Thankfully, he was always in the pink of health, never complaining of any ailments. But time was clearly running out now. It was clear to Shailesh that the matter was not any more about it, but of when. The clock was ticking backwards now. Perhaps, sighed Shailesh, the time had come for them.

It had been a while, nearly a decade since he saw his home. The last time was that fateful time, when his mother had passed away. She had passed away unexpectedly - the previous day she was all happy and smiling. But she had seemed very distant all day long. It was another one of those breaks from the city he would take; only this time, he was forced to do things that he did not wish to. All the rituals around death - the Garuda Purana recital, the pind daana, the immersion of ashes - all of it was repugnant in nature. He remembered that conversation with his father that night.

“Pita, why are we doing all these wasteful meaningless rituals? Mother has died, simple as that.”

“Beta don’t talk like that. These rituals will help her atma’s journey forward. We are bound by our duty and dharma to do that for her.”

“What duty? This is all just hogwash. You are insulting her memory. There is no God, no soul, no heaven or hell.”

“Don’t say that son. It is incorrect to talk like that. This is our dharma.”

“If superstition is our dharma then I do not want to be a party to it.”

“Shailesh, I know you do not like what we are doing, but for your mother’s sake, or for my sake, please just stay back.”

He remembered how his father was pleading the next morning as he packed his bags. His father had kept a small picture of his mother, and was advising him to get it enlarged in the city and then light incense or at least keep the picture garlanded. He had refused to take the picture along - a body made of atoms and molecules is not worth these shenanigans, and is only insulting rationality and modern knowledge with superstition and ignorance.

The train came to a halt. The station had arrived. He motioned Neeti to wake up Kusum, and a sleepy Kusum stirred to life, thanks to her mother’s soft words. There was still some distance to go - at least a hundred kilometers to be precise. Forty years, and still nothing much had changed. They still had to get down at Naggar and take a tonga or wait for a bus to reach the village. Shailesh began wondering if he made a mistake by bringing the two along on a journey that made little sense to them. All of a sudden, there was an announcement on the train station.

“There is a curfew in Naggar. All trains are suspended; I repeat, all trains are suspended. Passengers are requested to wait at the station till further notice.”

Shailesh was taken aback. Curfew? In Naggar? How was it even possible? This was one of the sleepiest, laziest places ever - how could it come to this?

Neeti and Kusum looked completely confused like a score of other passengers who shared the station with them at that time. “Just wait,” spoke Shailesh, as he walked towards the waiting room. “Is there space?” he asked the guard outside, who was motionlessly chewing gutkha away into ignominy.

“How many people?”

“Two. Plus a little girl.”

“I have space for two people right now.”

Shailesh was a bit relieved. At least Neeti and Kusum can go in. He signaled them to come in, and paid some advance for the waiting room facility.

Walking into the waiting room, he just looked around and wondered how little things had changed here. The teak wood cabin’s paint coat looked long overdue, and the musty smell of moss from around the hill overpowered the air. It was autumn season, and that would mean dampness inside this wooden shed, he thought, and told Neeti to keep the windows open. With the two settled, he walked out to inquire about the status and wlked up to the station master’s office, conspicuous by his absence. A peon sat there aimlessly, and stared in an unpleasant manner, offended by the unnecessary intrusion. “What do you want?” he scoffed.

“Do you know anything about the curfew?” asked Shailesh, the journalist spirit of his flaring up.

“Why are you a journalist?” mocked the peon.

“As a matter of fact I am. From Delhi,” spoke Shailesh, displaying the ID he always carried in his wallet. “Tell me, why is there a curfew?”

“As far as I know there was police firing in the chowk today. Protestors got injured, and twenty two have died.”

Twenty two dead in police firing! Shailesh was shocked. “How come? What are they protesting about?”

“The usual - a separate state for these hill districts. Why do you bother babu? Go back to your Delhi, there are bigger matters at hand.”

Shailesh saw disinterest in the man, and decided to go back. Waiting was the only thing that he could do. He decided to go back to the waiting room, and apprised Neeti, who was overseeing a playful Kusum.

“So how long will we have to wait?” said a nervous Neeti. “Pita must be waiting for us.”

“I think we will have to wait the night. But we can know that only if we get a ground assessment. I will have to venture out Neeti; I will have to file a report on the situation from here.”

“Don’t go. We are surrounded by strangers here,” pleaded Neeti.

“Neeti, if there is one thing you do not have to worry about in Naggar, it is the strangers. No one will disturb you here, rest assured. I will be back soon,” motioned Shailesh, as Neeti saw him walk briskly, and soon he faded into the distance, as a blur walked out of the spot designated to be the exit of the station.

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