“What’s your name?” She asked on the overbridge. “Raj, HemRaj,” I said, chuckling at the silly ‘Bond, James Bond’ pattern of it although my reason had always been to offer a short and easy nickname before reporting what it was short for, which was a longish, unusual first name that could sound like anything from Khemraj to Meghraj to Yamaraj — all equally unacceptable, the last the most (no offence to the buffalo-riding ender of worldly sojourns, the final escort).
The Bond pattern, initially unintended, had stuck because it drew a sudden burst of laughter, mostly because it sounded so awfully unfunny that even if one’s sense of humour was not tickled, one’s lameness-alarm would certainly go crazy, eliciting an amused grin, if not a burst of baffled laughter. Not bad for an informal start. So I expected the reaction in that broad range.
She looked at me, smiled and nodded twice. “Raj. Okay. Nice.” Like from a bunch of oranges, she had picked one. “I’ll have that one. Thanks.” That was new. Built-in immunity against lame wannabe jokes, I thought. But it could just as well be that she had no idea who James Bond was. I never specifically confirmed it, but since she was perfectly capable of being unusually and peculiarly clueless, as I would later learn, it was well within the stretch of possibilities.
It was a halfway bridge, so we had to get to the platform at the end of the bridge and take another bridge to get to the Paharganj side. As we started climbing down the stairs, we saw an overcrowded platform with the train on our right side and many jostling to get on it. The train did not seem to have the space for those many people. There were two very popular festivals around the corner, one of which, I recall, was chhath.
We could see the overhead bridge we needed to use right in front of us, and the crowd, though large, was not entirely unnavigable although it could definitely be a challenging squeeze-through. But that’s like every other day on every other platform in India.
We stepped on the platform and had only taken a few steps towards the overhead bridge when another train snaked in on our left, and a huge rush of people to board that train filled into the already crowded platform, which now had trains bound for Bihar on both the sides with Chhath and another festival only a few days ahead. The crowd on the platform swelled as though a python had hungrily gobbled a pair of bison in quick succession. The rush pushed us back, and we were in the middle of this rocking sea of people, trying to keep the floor beneath our feet.
“What are you doing?” I asked her, trying to turn, but the density of the crowd allowed only a slight turn of the head. So I couldn’t see her but heard her speak, screaming over the bustle. “Keep it. I’ll take it from you later.” She was right behind me and had her cellphone in hand. Since she couldn’t reach her own pocket or the bag, which was anyway on her back, she jammed her phone into my pocket from behind. That was an intelligent move because she could not have held on to it, battling that kind of aggressive crowd. Turning around being impossible, the only thing I could do was push forward towards the target stairs.
The crowd swelled further and the pushes and shoves got harder. At one point, short of breath, I tried to breathe in hard but failed to draw in enough air. I realized that the air was available in adequate supply, but I was pressed so hard from both sides that my diaphragm had no space to expand to let enough air into my lungs. That was alarming. I placed both of my palms on the back of the man pressing into me from the front and pushed him away as hard as I could, drew a long breath, and started wading through the crowd, arms swinging. I was swimming in a vigrously undulating ocean of people sweating and panting with heat and exhaustion. My feet touched the floor only a few times; mostly, I was walking a few inches above the ground, on ankles, calves and feet of others, like everybody else
Somehow, I made it to the stairs somehow, and fortunately, there were not as many people there. Now, I could turn around. I hoped she was behind me, or would emerge from the crowd soon after. Neither. I waited some more, and then climbed a few more stairs for a better view, and waited. She didn’t come, and I couldn’t even spot her amid the battling crowd. I climbed up the overhead bridge, and the sight from there was scary. It was just a lot of heads. There was nothing I could do except wait, which I did for half an hour or so before walking to the Paharganj side because she could have already found her way out, and that’s where she was most likely to be.
The queues for cancellation and general tickets were depressingly long. I carefully checked both, and everywhere around. There was no trace of her. It was already dark; I still did not have a ticket to board the train; the girl, whose phone I had in my pocket, was missing; and, to make matters worse, the phone had started ringing with unsaved numbers flashing on the screen one after the other.
…to be continued
Originally published as part of my monthly column Street Lawyer in the September 2021 Issue of Lawyers Update (Vol XXVII, Part 9).