Rags and Riches – a short story

The sleepy village of Neyyarinkara was shaken out of its stupor as the bogies of the Kanyakumari Express came to a grinding halt. Very few trains stopped at the station. The station was the pride and joy of Kalidasan Rajendran its Station Master. He had put in thirty-five years of service in the Indian Railways. Rising from the lowest level possible in the organization, the posting as a station master was a dream come true for Kalidasan. He would have preferred one of the bigger, better equipped and important stations. With just one year of his service left, he got Neyyarinkara. He flagged the trains, issued the tickets and occasionally checked the tracks for damage. In this tiny railway station, he was lucky he was not expected to work as the porter too. Nagappan was the official porter at the station. He was also the unofficial station master – in Kalidasan’ s absence.
Life was comparatively easy for the two as very few trains came their way. All this changed, one bright sunny morning. The station master and his assistant were aghast when they saw a group of men, women and children all attired in bright coloured clothes, alighting on to the platform. The Kanyakumari Express was scheduled to halt for thirty seconds at Kalidasan’ s station. The station had only two railway tracks. There was a delay in clearance from the next station and Station-Master Kalidasan could not let the express through. He was forced to halt the train for more than its scheduled thirty seconds. This extended halt allowed the group to jump off the train.
“Get back in! Get back in!” shouted Kalidasan as he saw his spotlessly clean platform filling up with a ragtag group of gipsies. No one in the group listened to him. Some of the women were busy talking to each other while others yawned and stretched out their limbs. The men in the group began sorting huge bundles, which contained their belongings. The children in the group were busy racing each other down the length of the platform. The passengers in the other compartments, at least those who were awake, began craning their heads through the windows to see what all the noise was about.
The phone in the station master’s cabin began ringing. Kalidasan ran back to attend to it. Nagappan the porter stepped in for his boss. “Did you not hear what the station master just said?”
Kalidasan got the message that the line ahead was now clear. He came out and blew a whistle. This was a signal for passengers, that the train was about to leave.
“Get back on the train,” said Nagappan, “the train is about to leave.”
“We wanted to get down here?” said one of the women, showing a mouth full of betel-leaf stained teeth.
Nagappan could see the station master waving his green flag. The train driver blew his horn – a final warning for any passengers who had stepped out to get in and then released the brakes. The Kanyakumari Express started moving. One by one the compartments passed by. The passengers on it, those who were watching the commotion on the platform, had lost interest and were now looking ahead to their journey.
“Show me your tickets,” said Nagappan resigned to the fate that this group was nowhere to stay.
“Are you the boss here?” said one the women in the group.
“Saar is the Station-master,” said Nagappan, pointing at Kalidasan who was still waving the flag, “I am his assistant.”
He made it sound impressive and important.
“Are you married?” said one of the younger woman in the group, winking at him, licking her lips with her tongue.
Had Nagappan been fair-skinned, people would have said he blushed. He quickly turned away from her. Something told him that she was trouble. Facing the men in the group he repeated his request.
“Ticket please?”
“I have a ticket.” One of the men in the group volunteered.
Nagappan reached for the stub the man held out. It was a ticket, but Nagappan was not sure of what. There was a message printed on it in some strange language. There was number five and a rupee sign printed next to it. Nagappan turned it around and looked at it from all directions.
“What is this?” said Nagappan.
“Ticket,” said the man
“Ticket for what?”
“Bus ticket,” said the man.
Nagappan sighed.
“I want to see the ticket for the train journey.”
“Oh! The train tickets?” said the man.
“Yes! Show me the train ticket,” said Nagappan, “You got down from that train. You need to buy tickets to travel on a train.”
“No. We do not want to buy any train tickets. Thank you,” said the man refusing politely.
“I am not offering to sell you tickets!” said Nagappan, “You have to buy tickets before you get on the train.”
Kalidasan, the station master saw that his unofficial second in command was getting no-where in the discussions. He now stepped in.
“Do you know that travelling without a ticket on a train is an offence? You can be jailed for this!”
Kalidasan said it in a loud voice. He meant to cover the whole group in that tone.
“Do they still provide food three times a day in jail?” a man in the group asked his friend standing beside him.
“Yes, but they will make your work,” said another man in the group who had recently got out. “When I was there, I got to eat an egg once a week.”
“That is nice.” His friend replied.
“All of us cannot fit into one cell” someone in the group observed.
“They separate the men from the women,” said the recently released man.
“That must be boring,” said the young woman, the winker. She was still eyeing Nagappan and moving in.
“Saar, why do you not grow a moustache?” said the winker who had by now managed to get close to Nagappan without him noticing it, “You will look a lot better. Manlier!”
Nagappan jumped aside. He knew something had to be done about this lot before things got out of hand.
He went up to Kalidasan his boss and said, “Saar! We have to clear these people off the platform. The passengers for the Mumbai train will be arriving soon.”
Station Master Kalidasan said, “You are right. We will deal with them later.”
The two walked back to attend to the more important task at hand.
One of the few trains that stopped at the station was the Mumbai express. Twice a week, it ran from Kanyakumari and went all the way up to Mumbai. The next station after Neyyarinkara on the route was Trivandrum, which was the capital city for the state. The train came practically empty to Neyyarinkara. This was not the case at the next station. A large number of the passenger would board from Trivandrum. It was comparatively easy to book tickets and board in Neyyarinkara. This was the only reason people came to this tiny railway station. The halt was for two minutes. In that brief period, the passengers had to find their compartments. This required running along the length of the train with the ticket in hand. The next step was to get in with all the luggage by pushing and shoving through a sea of other passengers. Once in every member of the family was to be accounted for. Now luggage and family in tow, the walk down a narrow passage to find your seat started. All this while it was important to pray to God that no one else was occupying your seats! Thankfully, the Mumbai express only came to Neyyarinkara twice a week.
The train was scheduled to arrive at eleven thirty a.m. The train passengers started arriving by ten a.m. Mumbai was the commercial capital of the country. The city of opportunity and dreams – Mumbai attracted people like sweets attracted flies.
The Mumbai Express had air-conditioned, sleeper and general compartments. The difference between them besides the facilities was in the ticket price. This difference could also be seen in their passengers. The AC compartment passengers wore costly clothes and dragged along designer luggage bags. The passengers of the sleeper classes came dressed more sensibly with their luggage packed in an assortment of bags, polythene covers and carry all’s. The general rule in India is that for every person travelling, five of his relative’s tag along to the railway station.
The Mumbai Express was on time. Within the first minute itself, most of the passengers had clambered aboard and found their seats. Kalidasan flagged off the train. He prided himself on his record of keeping trains on time. The teary-eyed relatives who had come to see off their loved ones departed. By eleven forty-five a.m., the main portion of the platform was again deserted.
The group of gipsies had gathered in a circle towards the end of the platform. The women were sitting and the men standing around them. The children were running around the group, chasing each other. The men looked at the facilities in the station. It had a strong and sturdy roof. There were water taps – which functioned and there was a lot of open space nearby. They discussed between themselves and quickly reached a decision. This was their new home.
“Saar! What do we do with these people?” said Nagappan.
“Not now, Naga! First, let us have a cup of tea. Has Nannu opened his shop? Ask him to send in two cups of tea,” said Kalidasan, “and also some sweet buns.”
Nannu owned the only refreshment shop on the station. The other commercial enterprise on the platform was a newspaper stand. Nannu ’s son Kuttapan was the owner of this establishment. Father and son were not on talking terms.
“Two cups of tea and two sweet buns”, said Nagappan to Nannu, “bring it to the station master’s cabin.”
As Nagappan walked back to the station masters cabin he saw the members of the group take out sheets and spreading them out on the platform.
“You cannot spread your things here.” Said Nagappan.
“This place is empty. We just need a little space,” said one of the men.
“No! you cannot live on a railway platform. This is government property,” said Nagappan.
“Where will we go Saar!” an old woman in the group said. Her face was full of wrinkles and she had gaps in her teeth.
“How do I know?” said Nagappan, “Go anywhere you want but you cannot stay on this platform.”
The members of the group began to grumble and discuss amongst themselves. After a few minutes, they began picking up their things and started walking away from the platform. Nagappan was happy. He had made them move out. Eager to tell the station master about it he rushed back.
“I made them leave!” he said almost shouting the words out. Stationmaster Kalidasan was sipping his tea and spilt some of it on his clean white trousers as he received this news.
“Let me see,” said the station master and went towards the door of his cabin and peeked out.
The news proved to be correct. The platform was again empty.
“Good work Naga! Now drink your tea before it gets cold.”
They drank tea occasionally dipping the sweet buns in it. They did this while reading the morning newspapers. This was their daily morning routine. The next train was a goods train that passed at twelve. Then there were no trains on the route for the rest of the day.
The weekend passed peacefully. Three trains of which two were goods passed each day through Neyyarinkara. The Kanyakumari Express came in at six a.m. The first goods train, India 10 passed at twelve and the second, India 33 passed at seven-thirty p.m. Kalidasan and Nagappan would reach the station half an hour before the scheduled time. Fifteen minutes after the last train for the day had passed and once they had received the message that it had reached the next station, they would leave locking the station doors.
Every day Nagappan came to the station on his bicycle. On his way, he would pass by the house of Kalidasan. The station master would be waiting for him at the gates with his lunch box in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other. Nagappan would remove his tiffin box which was attached to the back seat and hand it to the station master. Kalidasan would take both the tiffin boxes, put them in a cloth bag, place the folded newspaper in the bag and climb on the seat behind Nagappan. Then Nagappan would cycle his boss to the office.
It was five-thirty in the morning as the two railway employees arrived at the railway station. The black sky in the east was giving way to a reddish hue. The street lights were still on as they reached the station gates. Kalidasan jumped off the back of the cycle while Nagappan locked his cycle in the cycle stand.
“What is that?” said Kalidasan.
“What is what?”
“That,” said Kalidasan point in the darkness.
Nagappan looked in the direction. A couple of huts had come upon the open ground near the station.
“That was not there yesterday,” said Nagappan.
The two went up to check. As they neared they realized it was the same group that had landed at the station a few days back.
“Those people have come back. They are setting up a full-fledged colony here,” said Nagappan.
“What do you want?” a man’s voice called out from one of the huts.
“Why are you people still here?” said Kalidasan.
“This is not your railway station. This is open land. You cannot ask us to leave.” Said another voice in a tone of defiance. A few men came out. There was silence for a few minutes.
“Saar! I think they are right,” said Nagappan, “This land does not belong to the Railways. We cannot tell them to leave.”
Kalidasan nodded his head. The two walked back to the station. The Kanyakumari Express was due in ten minutes. Nagappan unlocked the station gates and they started their day’s work.
Days passed and the huts remained where they were. During the day the men would go through Neyyarinkara doing odd jobs to make some money. The women and children stayed behind. The group would fetch water from the taps on the platform. At first, Nagappan thought of driving them away but then allowed them on humanitarian grounds. Months passed away.
Every year the rains came in June and that year was no different. The rain God worked overtime and opened up his bounty on the village in the first week itself. It poured continuously. The fields turned into ponds and the rivulets into rivers. The Neyyar, the river which flowed through the village, overflowed and broke its banks.
One Tuesday morning Kalidasan was busy preparing his reports when the phone started ringing. It was the senior Station Master from Trivandrum. The airport at Trivandrum was flooded and flights had been cancelled. A senior government official who was scheduled to travel to Mumbai by air and his family members were stuck in Neyyarinkara. The family would be travelling on the Mumbai Express. Kalidasan was tasked to make arrangements for them. He was asked to ensure that the family was not inconvenienced in any way.
Kalidasan put the report aside and ran out of his cabin. He called up Nagappan. As Nagappan came running the Station Master noticed the gipsies, huddled in a corner of the platform.
“What are they doing here?” said Kalidasan.
“It is the rain, Saar! Last night’s downpour has washed away their huts. They are waiting for the rain to stop.”
“What a time for them to them to come and occupy the platform!” said Kalidasan. He quickly summarized the message he had received. He added some instructions.
“Ask Nannu to keep a pot of tea ready. Also ask him to keep some good quality biscuits, snacks and bottles of water separately. Have him take out the cutlery and also wash it properly. It should be spotless. Naga, I want you to personally check everything. Ask Kuttapan the newspaper stand owner to keep some of the latest film magazines in my cabin. Borrow a sofa from the nearest furniture store. Tell them we would return it by twelve!”
The two went off in different directions. Nagappan went to get the cutlery, biscuits and the magazines. While Kalidasan went on to clear up the mess in his cabin. He arranged the tables, swept the floor and even wiped the windows! By the time the arrangements were in place, it was nine fifty a.m. and time for the regular passengers to arrive.
The V.I.P ’s arrived in a fleet of cars with a police escort. The local police station had been alerted and the entire force was there blaring sirens clearing the way. As the cars came to a halt outside the station Kalidasan and Nagappan were present there to receive them. The official was accompanied by his wife and two children. Kalidasan in his enthusiasm offered the dignitary his hand to shake.
The official did not shake the hand instead he told Kalidasan, “Get the luggage.”
“Yes Sir!” said Kalidasan.
Nagappan stepped in to save his boss the indignity and went to collect the luggage. The family had a large number of suitcases and bags. The police constables in the escort party helped with the remaining pieces of the baggage.
Meanwhile, Kalidasan took them to his cabin and offered them the tea and biscuits.
“It is so stuffy in here!” said the official’s wife.
She was dressed in a silk sari and wore a sleeveless blouse. She was carrying a costly handbag. The smell from her perfume filled up the station masters cabin. Kalidasan had never seen a woman in a sleeveless blouse before, nor for that matter had he ever seen someone carry a handbag in the village. He tried hard not to stare.
“Madam! Please take some magazines,” said Kalidasan.
“How many people are there in this office?” said the official as he looked around the tiny room now more cramped with a sofa placed on one side.
“There are only two people here Sir! I am the station master Kalidasan Rajendran. We have a licensed porter at this station, Nagappan.
The official nodded his head. The toilet in his office was bigger than this cabin.
“What time does the train arrive?” said
“Sir! it comes in at eleven-thirty a.m.,” said Kalidasan. He had hardly completed his sentence when the phone rang. The train was on its way to Neyyarinkara.
“Sir! it would be reaching here in five minutes.”
Kalidasan expected the official to get up and start walking towards the platform. Instead, he took up a magazine from the heap and began leafing through its pages. His wife had already started reading a movie magazine, while the children were helping themselves to the snacks on the table. Kalidasan bit his lips nervously. The train would be there in a minute.
“Sir I will have the luggage placed at the spot where the air-conditioned coaches would be stopping.” He said and rushed out of the cabin.
He ran out and instructed Nagappan to carry the luggage towards the spot where the compartments stopped. The police constables and even the inspector helped him. By the time they had set all the pieces of luggage down the train pulled in. Kalidasan looked back but the V.I.P family was nowhere in sight. He ran back to his cabin. The regular passengers had started running and scrambling in their efforts to get in.
“Sir! the train has arrived. Your luggage is in place,” said Kalidasan.
He could not ask this senior official to start walking towards the train. The official showed a total lack of concern. Minutes passed. It was time to flag off the train. Kalidasan started to sweat.
“Sir! I hope your stay here was comfortable!”
The official snorted. He got up and gestured at his wife who was absorbed in the magazine in her hand. Reluctantly she got up. She calmly collected the magazines and started walking towards the door.
“Come on children!” she said.
The children took a couple of packets of the snacks and the bottles of water and followed her. As the passengers on the train and those on the platform looked on, the official and his family members walked at a leisurely gait towards their compartment. Nagappan had by then placed all the luggage inside and was waiting for them along with the policemen. The police inspector saluted and the family got on the train. By the time Kalidasan had flagged off the Mumbai express, it was ten minutes late. It was the first time that a train had got delayed at his station.
“What is the total expense we incurred on this visit?” said Kalidasan.
“Five movie magazines, three children’s comics. Three packets of snacks were consumed. Five packets of snacks were taken. One packet of biscuits was opened and half consumed. One teacup was dropped on the floor and has cracked. Three bottles of bottled drinking water were also taken. I will get the exact rates from Nannu and Kuttapan. My guess is, it will come to about five hundred rupees.”
Kalidasan shook his head in dismay, “I am not sure how I will show this expenditure.”
Half an hour later the phone rang again. As Kalidasan listen he felt dizzy. He collapsed at his chair.
“What happened Sir!” said Nagappan as he saw the look on the station managers face.
“The official’s wife’s handbag is missing,” said Kalidasan, “Oh God! What will I do now?”
He had hardly finished the sentence when the police jeeps were back. Inspector Gopalan and his men rushed down and came into the cabin.
“The official’s wife clearly remembers that she had the bag with her when she left the cabin, so you do not need to worry, Kalidasan,” said the Inspector.
Kalidasan heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Then it must be somewhere on the platform.”
They all rushed out and began searching.
There was nothing on the platform. Then Inspector Gopalan saw the group of gipsies huddled in a corner.
“Were they here when the family arrived?” said Inspector Gopalan.
“Yes, they have been here since this morning. They live in huts across the station. Yesterday night’s rain washed away their huts.”
Gopalan signalled to his men and they swooped down on the group. Within minutes a police van came and the whole group was taken to the police station to be questioned.
“Saar! Do you think those people would have taken the handbag? I was there near the luggage the whole time. They never came anywhere close to us. The policemen were also there with me.”
“I do not know Naga. I have no idea what happened.”
Later that night as the two were preparing to leave the phone began ringing. It was Inspector Gopalan. The bag was recovered. It was found between some bedsheets on the train. It had slipped from the official’s wife’s hand and she had panicked thinking it was lost. Gopalan said that he was letting the gipsies go. There was no need now to keep them in jail.
Kalidasan and Nagappan did not say anything as they went home that night.
The next morning as Kalidasan opened the ticket counter he saw a man from the gipsies group standing.
“Saar! Give me eight full and five half tickets for Kanyakumari.”
The man handed over the money for the tickets.
As Nagappan came in he saw the group walking towards the train. The woman the one who had winked at him looked at him and said, “Saar, do not grow a moustache. You do not have the strength to carry it!”
As the train halted the men loaded their belongings. One by one they all got in. No-one turned to look at the place they were leaving. They knew they were not coming back.
“Saar, I got you some tea,” said Nagappan as he placed two cups on the table.
The two sat in the small cabin sipping tea. After some minutes of silence, Nagappan said, “Saar! Do you think what happened was right? The gipsies did not steal anything and yet they were forced to leave this place. The official and his wife took away magazines and snacks worth hundreds and we end up paying for that from our pockets! It just does not make any sense.”
Kalidasan sighed.
“Naga, that is life. You still have a lot to learn. Now please can you open all the windows in this cabin. That perfume from yesterday’s visit is still floating around in this room. I want some clean air to come in.”