This was it. The final train ride back home.
I studied in Delhi and my parents lived in Mumbai. Every year of college I would travel in the Rajdhani Express at least 6 times. It left from Hazrat Nizamuddin station at 5.30 in the evening and reached Mumbai Central at 8 in the morning- a nice, comfortable, (almost) overnight train journey.
I had gotten used to a routine on the train journey. Read a book, eat food, watch a movie, listen to some music and sleep. I would have loved to have someone to travel with, but try as I might, I couldn’t find anybody. Alternately, these solitary journeys of necessity allowed me to be alone.
And so here I was, bidding Delhi goodbye one last time. I still had ambivalent feelings towards the city. It was, at once, charming, horrifying, luscious, deplorable, kind hearted and Machiavellian. It was a city past it’s prime, a place where great things had once happened. In a way, it was a microcosm of India itself- a sleeping giant that was distracted by unimportant things like caste, religion and politics. The city charmed you, but could also chew you up and spit you out.
But I digress. I had finished my college, earned my degree, packed my stuff and was heading home. My future was decided as I was going to leave for US in 3 months for my graduate degree. I was content, but I still felt a strange sense of discomfort. I wondered if it was because for the first time in my life, my future was not uncertain; being humans, stability does not suit us well.
The train left Delhi 2 minutes before time. I settled on to my seat and started reading a book. Soon I had to stop as I was too restless. This was something that had bothered me over the past year- I had stopped enjoying reading books. I had become enamored by the world of long form, investigative journalism and it had been some time since I had finished reading a book.
Bored and slightly annoyed, I went to sleep at around 8.30 after having my dinner. I slept fitfully (as I always do on trains) and kept twisting and turning. Around 1 AM at night, I finally gave up on sleeping and just sat by the window and stared out. It was completely dark and pitch black, yet sometimes I thought I saw things. Hints of shapes and glimpses of light punctured the darkness. There was something bothering me, yet I couldn’t put my finger to it. It felt as if the night was building up to something, and I was curious as well as slightly apprehensive where it would lead.
Around 1.40 at night, the train stopped at a station called Ratlam. Ratlam is a very small city, probably just a big town but it has a huge railway station as all the trains stop there for refueling. I decided to get down to stretch my atrophied limbs. My coach was at the extreme end, and the platform was deserted. There was nigh a seller or shop in sight. And then it hit me.
Here I was, hundreds of miles away from Delhi or Mumbai, on a lonely platform in a strange town in the middle of the night. The place was devoid of life, like a black hole sucking everything but death inside it.
I could just stay here.
I would lose my luggage, but would eventually be able to get most of it back. My parents would be worried but I could call them and drum up a passable if slightly unconvincing explanation. I was not in a hurry to get anywhere, had no pressing matters to attend to, no rat race to lose. I could just stay here, in this quaint little town, with 400 rupees in my wallet.
I really wanted to do it. As clichéd as it might sound now, I genuinely believed it would be a journey of self discovery. I wanted to be lost, to be without purpose for a night. To not know what I was doing. I had always been rational and practical since I was young, and had rarely ever done anything impulsive. This was my chance. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized (rationalized?) I wouldn’t be able to do it. I kept trying to justify to myself that staying would serve no purpose. What would I do once the train left? Where would I go, where would I stay?
Unbeknownst to me, about 20 minutes had passed since my ruminations. As I stared at the desolate darkness, the train started to leave. I didn’t move.
For a couple of seconds that stretched infinitely long, I watched the train pick up its pace slowly. I was filled with a rush of adrenaline, happy at having finally decided to get lost. And then all the romanticism vanished and reality hit home hard.
I bolted towards the train door. My few seconds of indifference had allowed it enough time to pick up some pace. I was not sure I would be able to make it, but I ran nevertheless. The platform was about to end soon and I knew I would have to jump. I took some long strides and jumped.
I hit the floor hard as I just landed inside the door. The door handle had hit me on the side of my stomach and it had already become black and blue. As I lay there, feeling my body burn and start paining, I looked out of the door and saw a small boy wave at me. I saw him for barely a fraction of second, but his face was burned in my mind. Questions arose- where had I seen him, and why had I not seen him earlier on the platform? I was all alone on it and I could have sworn there was nobody within my line of sight, much less a child standing a few feet away from me. Who was he and where had he come from.
Bruised and confused, I hobbled back to my berth and decided that it would be best to just go to sleep. I lay down on the berth and the pain helped me fall asleep. As I was in the final throes of semi consciousness, asleep yet not having entered REM sleep, I remembered who the boy looked like.
He looked like me.