Ashok gazed in wonder at the train as it clunked its way into the station. He’d heard reports of the rail gari in his village and seen it from time to time far up the mountain.
Now and then ex-villagers would return to his isolated village Kawargaon, their native place. It was neatly tucked into the beginning slopes of the ghats in magnificent isolation. These returnees loved to share stories of an outside world and strut around village streets like royalty while urchins fell in line behind gawking and chattering excitedly.
On a clear day one could see the moving carriages of the rail gari far in the distance as they darted between tunnels coming and going from the Deccan Plateau. The sun shone on carriage windows momentarily as the sun was sinking. The devout in the village would face their departing sun god in the west murmuring, “Ram, Ram-Ram!” But Ashok’s eyes were always glued to the mountain above each evening and the shining windows.
Most villagers worked for the owners of vast land holdings surrounding Kawargaon village as far as the eye could see. When the monsoon was favourable there was work for all in preparation and harvesting of crops, at which time the whole family worked for their survival. Education was an intermittent thing for Ashok!
But when the monsoon failed most of the men left Kawargaon to ride the rail gari into Mumbai where they lived on the streets and did coolie work for a pittance. Occasionally they’d send money back to their families but in many cases they’d lose their money in gambling dens at night hoping against hope Laxmi would favour them with a win so they could return to their village as heroes.
The drought had been in effect for two years now. Ashok’s mother Shanta returned from the merchant’s village stall one evening without rice and soon Shanta and Ashok’s father Dinker were in whispered conversation. It appeared the money lender refused to give them any more credit.
The money lender had offered Shanta “work,” and that was being discussed now. Dinker’s temper flared, and he began beating Shanta unmercifully until, barely able to crawl, Shanta crept to the Money Lender and accepted her future lot. In spite of her hard life Shanta was still a village beauty and the Money Lender had been considering his offer for some time. He watched her approach with mounting pleasure and silently ushered her into the protection of his home while his wife watched in silent reproach.
Dinker went into his mud hut and packed a few clothes into a cloth which when the four corners were tied together became his luggage. He glared at Ashok and strode down the long dusty road around dried paddy fields, pausing long enough to shout curses at Ashok who followed at a safe distance behind.
They walked silently for what seemed like hours until, at last, a village with stone houses and shops came into view. Ashok’s mouth hung open in surprise as they walked through neat tar sealed streets with clusters of bicycles, auto rickshaws, bullock carts and cars fighting for space as they moved to and from mountain roads above honking and shouting as they went. Sacred cows walked from street stall to stall sampling fruit and vegetables. Ashok’s mouth watered as he watched the cart wallah’s salaam cows as they helped themselves. He wondered if they’d be equally kind to him, but when he put out his hand in anticipation he was quickly slapped and ordered away.
By way of comparison with Dinker and Ashok the people of this village looked clean and prosperous and the street cart wallahs looked well fed and alert for business.
But the real eye opener for Ashok was his first encounter with the rail gari he’d only seen from a great distance before. It had arms which reached above to grip wires in the sky. Ashok looked toward the mountain, and then the opposite direction and it seemed there was no end to those wires in sight.
The rail gari was huge and a milling crowd on the station stretched to the end of a raised platform where enterprising urchins rushed around shouting, “garam chai, tanda pani,” splashing their wares as they ran. Ashok realized he was thirsty as he watched the milling crowd mingling, talking, eating and drinking. It seemed they’d no trouble finding rupees to satisfy their every need. He wanted what they had and turned to see what Dinker would do next. But Dinker was gone.
It was then a whistle blew and within seconds the crowded station emptied into the carriages of the rail gari leaving only enterprising urchins behind to await the next scheduled stop. Ashok found a place where there were few people entering, but they pushed him out and he rushed to enter one of the crowded carriages where no one seemed to mind. Hungry and thirsty he may have been but there was excitement in the air and for the first time in his life he felt grown up and ready for an unknown future.
As the rail gari lurched along its tracks Ashok didn’t think about where they were going, or what he would do when they arrived. He was not even concerned about Dinker’s disappearance.
After some time he became aware a tall man with a turban was watching him. Ashok smiled nervously and the man came and stood by his side. From their conversation the tall man understood Ashok was a village boy who’d no idea of what was ahead and no plans for a future. In soothing tones he opened the boy’s mind to a future where he too would handle all the money he had witnessed others using and Ashok’s initial suspicions evaporated as he spoke. He pictured himself returning to Kawargaon with money and respect. The village urchins would follow him then.
At each station on the way the carriage became more densely crowded until there was no more standing room, Ashok watched in wonder as men clambered onto the roof and others hung onto the bars on the outside of windows. He glanced at the man with a turban who sensing Ashok’s apprehension put his hand on Ashok’s shoulder reassuringly. It was the first time Ashok had experienced a human touch that wasn’t a blow to the body and he began to relax.
They passed station after station, and at each one, those wishing to board the rail gari became increasingly belligerent and fights were common. But they eventually reached the end of their journey. When roof and windows cleared as people leaped onto the platform Ashok gasped in surprise. Red shirt coolies seemed to be everywhere snatching people’s baggage and fighting with each other for the privilege of carrying away luggage on their heads for a quickly negotiated fee. The man with the turban steered Ashok through this unfamiliar scene and they were just approaching a street entrance when Dinker appeared in front of them.
“What are you doing with that boy?” Dinker was standing threateningly in front of the man with a turban.
“Who are you?” The man with the turban calmly replied.
“I’m Dinker, his father!” Dinker spat red betel juice onto the floor in front of the man with the turban.
The man with the turban calmly took Dinker aside and reached down into his doti. He produced a wad of rupee bills and offered it to Dinker. Dinker’s eyes opened wide, he’d never seen so much money in his life! He pocketed the rupees, glanced at Ashok guiltily and then melted into the crowd.
The man returned and steered Ashok into an auto rickshaw and very soon they were inside a high walled compound. Ashok looked around him in alarm! Scattered around him in various shelters were dozens of mutilated boys and girls. Those not on shifts out on the streets of Mumbai begging were resting or eating. They looked at Ashok with the eyes of those who’d nothing to hope for, but at least they had food and a place to rest safely he thought.
The man with a turban motioned to two rough fellows guarding the gates. One ran over, grabbed Ashok and pushed him into the dark bungalow.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2013 All rights reserved”
Note: Hindi sounds from which I’ve attempted to express words in English spelling is better expressed in that script and may be spelt in English differently by others but hopefully this will give you some indication of the sounds that make up those words.
Rail gari – train
The village Kawargaon – crow village
Native place – place of birth
Ghats – mountains
Laxmi – the goddess of wealth
Garam chai – hot tea
Tanda pani – cold water
Doti – A lower garment worn by men