“Stop staring!” hissed Ma.
The girl had her eyes closed and her head was on his shoulder while he read his book. He held her hand on his thigh. I watched fascinated as his thumb massaged hers while he continued reading.
Dragging my eyes away, I whispered, “She’s not wearing anything underneath, is she?”
She made herself comfortable, squirming a little and then having found just the right position, sighed and kissed his ear lobe.
My father, who, till now, had been going through the newspaper and looking out of the window, suddenly got up.
“Want to stretch your legs?” he asked my brother who readily agreed. And then pulling me up, not giving me a chance to reply, he took us out of the compartment into the corridor.
“What cheapies!” exclaimed my brother.
“So you were watching,” I was surprised.
“Of course, I was. But not like you. With your mouth open!”
My father peered into the next compartment and invited a young Major, who was travelling with his wife and baby, to come out and stand in the corridor with us.
“We’ve two Germans with us,” I proudly informed him. He poked his head in, wished Ma and then, glancing at the Germans, hastily withdrew looking quite embarrassed. She must be all cuddled up with him, I smiled to myself.
We were on our way to Delhi. Leaving Ahmedabad behind, the train meandered through Rajasthan.
“We’re keeping good time,” my father said to the Guard who tipped his cap at him.
“Yes, sir. But when we come to Haryana Sir, kuch na kuch to hoga.”
Outside, the waves of heat swirled through the parched countryside. The buffaloes seemed the most comfortable, standing in muddy waters with just their heads above. They nonchalantly chewed cud and watched everything go by. Approaching the pond was a serpentine line of women ablaze in colour, carrying earthen pots. Oh to be in a tub of cold water or better still, under a strong shower and have the satisfaction of watching the red sand wash away.
Just this morning, the Germans had got on board with their enormous haversacks.
They were quite relieved to see that we spoke English. He was a doctor who had finished his Military Service and she was a student of architecture.
The ice broke within minutes of his ordering a thali for lunch. He suffered a nosebleed and my father got out at a station to get him some ice.
“That’s adventurous of you,” Ma had said watching him dip his chapatti into a red hot Rajasthani curry. We were eating our homemade sandwiches!
They had toured Rajasthan and after a break in Delhi were heading for Kullu.
They said what they had really liked about India was the gentleness of its people. “Always smiling,” said the doctor. “With so much poverty, still smiling.”
I’d never really seen foreigners that close.
On Janpath, bargaining for clothes or the better-dressed ones at the Intercontinental where Ma’s Delhi friends invited us for coffee. We never saw them in our Cantonments and some of the places where we lived were unknown even to Indians…..
The girl must have come from a good family to be a student of architecture.
But she wore this strange pyjama and a sheer cotton bandhini blouse. She was very thin but strong, as she managed to lift up her huge haversack all by herself. Her silver jewellery, her greasy hair all crunched up with what looked like a knitting needle made her so different from anyone I knew. She was a hippie and I liked her all the more for it.
She stroked his hair, kissed his earlobe, lit a cigarette for him, jumped up and pushed her haversack onto the berth above, revealing that she hadn’t anything on underneath and didn’t once look at us and wonder what we were thinking.
Watching them as discreetly as I could, I lost myself with the rolling of the train in a dream of carrying my own rucksack somewhere across the world with a man like this German. Her flat chest had given me some hope.
The train drew in at Rewari.
People got off. People got in. The guard blew his whistle. The train blew its whistle. But we were still in Rewari. There were no more passengers on the platform but it was teeming with young, loud, raucous, and aggressive boys.
“What’s happening?” We could hear the Guard being questioned. “Why aren’t we moving?”
“You are not moving because we are not allowing you to move,” replied a boy with particularly bad skin, who was walking about rather importantly. This was followed by a great deal of laughter.
A pack of them approached the train windows. The bogey door was hurriedly shut and then the passengers banged shut their individual compartment doors.
“Put down your glass windows,” rushed in the Guard. “But don’t put down the wire mesh windows. You must be able to see outside. These boys set a train on fire last week.”
A train on fire!
One of them saw my fear and came near me as I struggled with the window, in panic. Stroking my arm, he murmured something that I did not understand. But his look made me recoil.
My father lunged at him but he merely stepped back, out of reach and looked mockingly at us. Pulling the jammed window down my father snapped, “Don’t sit here.” I moved closer to Ma.
The Germans were bewildered. “Where are the police?”
Hearing a foreign voice one of them shouted out to the others, “Oho! Oho! Look here! We have a firangi here. Arre! A Goddamn firangi!” Then putting on what he thought was an American accent, “Want to give, baby? Arre, give, give!”
A call from his friends distracted the lout and he moved away.
“Why isn’t the train moving? What the hell is happening?”
We were told that some of the boys were lying across the tracks. Their college was on strike and they wanted to travel ticket less to the next station. Some of them whooped and jumped onto the roof. Others screamed expletives and thumped the sides of the train. And we were all locked up, waiting for the train to move.
I avoided looking out of the window so that I would not make eye contact.
Ma said that would only encourage them to misbehave further.
“You!” he pointed to the German girl. “This is not for you” pointing to his crotch.
He was clever enough to keep his distance and yet could be seen clearly.
“You look like my younger brother. No hips, no breasts.” She turned her back to him. Not understanding a word but understanding it all. “And you!” he pointed to me, “I’ll come back for you in a few years.”
My father sat impassive with his fists on his knees.
The enormity of his rage was there in his clenched jaw and expressionless eyes. By now they were all rolling with laughter and a few others were standing outside, looking at us and urinating in full view. The first boy moved on. We could not see him but could only hear him. “This is for you my love. My beautiful Bobby. My Dimple Kapadia.”
A terrible roar brought us all to our feet.
The Major in the next compartment was getting his rifle out of his bedroll. “I’ll kill you, you bastard! I’ll kill each one of you bastards! Talking to my wife like that!”
“Arre chutiya! Robh jamana fauj mein, idhar nahin!”
The Guard who had been trapped in our bogey and my father, who had rushed into the next compartment, tried to calm him down.
“We’ll use the rifle later,” my father told the Major.
To the Guard he yelled, “Start the damn train. So what if they are lying on the tracks. Run them over.”
“But Sir, each time we start, they pull the chain!”
The boys outside saw the argument inside and thumped the train.
They pulled at the doors and windows trying to get in. The Guard blew the whistle. The train let out long hoots and with a violent jerk, which sent us sprawling, it started.
They began pelting us with stones.
Ma pushed both of us down but one came crashing through the window and hit her. Shards of glass flew through the cramped space of the compartment. We shrieked. The boys were so excited with the mayhem they had caused that they rushed towards the train holding on to the bars of the windows and trying to get a foothold on the doors.
The train gathered momentum.
It gathered speed. Outside the boys kept thrashing at the windows.
I watched my father and the Major open the windows and with the rifle butt and their shoe heels grind their fingers till they gave up and fell away.
They yelled at their mates who had managed to get in, to pull the chain.
Other passengers tried preventing the boys from doing so. There was pandemonium.
“Use your gun,” said my father with unimaginable coldness. “Use it!” This was a man I had never seen before.
This is what he must be like when he went to war.
The Major took aim. With his ruddy complexion and brown beard he was a burly cheerful giant when we had met him in the corridor.
It had been easy to picture him laughing with a steel glass of lassi in his hand, seated on a tractor. Maybe his brother had inherited the land….
He crinkled his eyes and fired. Everyone fell away.
There seemed to be a space around him and his weapon was simply an extension of him.
Everybody’s eyes seemed to be on those solid hands that were moulded to the rifle.
Those outside let go, preferring to fall off from a speeding train rather than getting shot.
The Major fired again.
The hooligans inside quickly and quietly sat down, hoping to disappear amongst the passengers. But the irate passengers were not going to be bullied any more. They were all rounded up and bundled into the toilets, which were then locked from the outside.
It was over.
The horror of the past few hours was suddenly and immediately over. All it needed was a gun.
The hooligans suddenly turned meek….
“Sorry Sirji! Sorry Sirji!” they begged from inside.
But when they were handed over to the Railway Police, at the next station, they turned insolent and threatening again.
Making obscene gestures at us, they swaggered off,
“We’ll be back after a cup of hot tea with our chachas!” The policemen pushed them along, looking sheepish.
From then onwards until we reached Delhi, someone or the other kept coming into our compartment to thank and congratulate my father and the Major for handling the situation so well. Others just came to stare.
A middle aged man, resplendent in his white kurta pyjama, silver and pearl rings on his pinkie fingers, suddenly appeared. In a voice that was as greasy as the cold pakoras sold on the station, he said, “Myself, Shukla. Harish Chandra Shukla.”
With an elaborate Namaskar and more than a lingering glance at the girl’s bandhini blouse he made himself comfortable on our berth and appointed himself our social secretary.
“You!” pointing to a man who was still deciding whether he should come forward.
“Say what you want and move on. Others are waiting, bhai.”
To another passenger he declared, “Colonel Sahib has had tension day, now let him rest.”
With everyone back in their seats he turned to my father
“You military people must take over, sir. This country is going to the dogs. Just because these boys are supporters of the local MLA they create havoc every other day. They want to travel ticket less to the next station. Nobody can touch them. Nobody! Arre! Three police officers have been transferred in the past year. Sabki pant utaar di.”
Then he turned his attention to the two foreigners.
“Where are these people from?”
Upon learning that they were Germans he exclaimed,
“Germany! What a country! Your Hitler was such a great man. May God bless us with one!”