It was a hot sultry afternoon. The sleepy suburb of Santacruz (in the then Bombay) seemed to yawn and stretch and then go off to sleep again. Having got off the bus from the Kalina university campus after my classes for Master of Arts in English, of course, I made my way to the farthest train platform where I had to catch the train to Andheri, only two stations away to the north of Santacruz.
I never took the Borivali local* train from platform one, preferring instead to sit on the bench of platform three, awaiting my particular train that was always, punctually, ten to fifteen minutes late. I had nothing in particular to read that day, so I whiled my time watching the goings-on in my surroundings. I distinctly remember a dog ambling around the platform looking for a place that would be cozy enough for his afternoon snooze. A few people straggled onto ‘my’ platform and scattered themselves across the length of the platform. Suddenly the loudspeaker came alive: brrack…ccrraaacck…a crackly voice then announced something that sounded garbled to me.
There was an instantaneous electric response to the lady announcer’s words. The slumbering public snapped to attention. They started pouring onto ‘my’ platform from all possible routes. The athletic ones jumped off platform one and crossed the tracks to make it to platform three. Some others walked down the sloping end of platform one and then crossed the tracks to reach platform three. Still others took the bridge. Almost everyone had converged onto the platform when I noticed HIM – a frail, old man on the other side of the tracks. I saw that he had tried to jump off the platform but it had been too steep for him so he had made his way down the sloping end and was now heading towards ‘our’ by now fairly crowded platform.
The train’s horn sounded as it began to pull in at the other end of platform 3 and I craned my neck to look for ‘my’ old man. He was still climbing up the slope of platform three. His frailty became more pronounced and as the train drew to a halt, he had not even made it past the motorman’s cabin. I silently egged him on, willing him to move closer to the desired door where many hands would willingly pull him in. But the fight seemed to have gone out of him. The motorman’s tinkle sounded. I thought he would rush into the ladies’ coach which was conveniently next to him. But he would have none of it! He still foolishly attempted a few steps forward when the train, with a characteristic jerk, began pulling out of the station.
The man did not seem fazed. He made no gesture of anger or frustration. He turned and wended his way back to his original platform – old, bent and frail – to resume his wait for the next train there.
My heart ached that day and all my study of English Romantic* theory seemed mere “blah”. Did Wordsworth feel something similar when he walked away from the singing Highland lass? My train arrived soon after and I got on, carrying with me a memory that would not fade with time and here am I writing about it, 22 years later!
*Local trains are those that ply between Virar, a far flung suburb of Mumbai and Churchgate, a railway station of the British era. The particular train services referred to here are Borivali-Churchgate and CST-Andheri.
*The Romantic Age is a period of English (read: British) literature with certain key features that set it apart.