“Hello, Raj! Do you have my phone?” “What do you think I am talking into?” That was certainly the first response that came to my mind, and perhaps that’s what I had said in response to her remarkably innocent question. Or maybe I thought of saying that, and just said, “Yes, I have, of course.” Either of the two. That’s one of the two things I do not clearly remember about this incident, the second being how exactly she made it through the crushing crowd unhurt although she had told me later at some point.
Some fifteen minutes later, she was walking towards me on Platform No. 1, where I was sitting on a bench in front of the inquiry window, which is where I had asked her to come and find me. But she did not walk all the way up to me. Seeing her, I stood up from the bench and she stopped walking. Without warning, her face crumpled like a paper on fire into a picture of hurt and relief, as though she had held up firm way too long against impossible odds by sheer force of will, and could not bear to hold up any longer. Tears gushed down her cheeks. She stood there, some seven feet apart, looking at me with her badly creased clothes and broken sandals speaking volumes of her struggle through the sea of people, the suffocating weight of which I had felt firsthand just a short while ago.
Although I could very well understand what she had been through, the look on her face was beginning to make me nervous because the prospect of being hugged on a busy platform by a girl crying rivers looked sufficiently Bollywoodish to be positively embarrassing, especially when I barely knew her and could only have responded with as much outward display of emotion as a tree being hug-protected against felling by an activist. I firmed up and cast a sheepish glance around. Yeah, too many people.
But she did no such thing, thankfully. She just took a few steps to cut a few feet out of the seven feet that lay between us. I handed over the phone, she nodded, and said, looking at her feet, “Aur meri chappal bhi toot gayi!” “Hmm. Yeah.” “Mujhe kuch nahin pata, mujhe Kanpur jaana hai, mujhe le ke chalo!” She demanded. “Oh…umm…yeah, alright, I will. Give me your ticket.” “Why?!” “What? You just gave me your phone, which–” “Okay, okay,” she reached for her ticket. “No, come with me,” I said, and started walking. She followed. We went to the same TTE office. But the young TTE was nowhere to be found. We waited for almost fifteen minutes, but he didn’t return.
“What are we doing here?” She asked. “I am trying to make the ticket work.” “What do you mean?” “Nothing, nothing, let’s go. I think it would work.” We could explain our situation to the inspecting TTE in the train, and chances were he would understand the situation, especially with my ticked stamped and signed by a colleague of his, bearing witness to the truth of my claim that the ticket she held just needed a formal seal and signature to be as good a travel ticket as any for travel in a general coach. Besides, it was very unlikely that a TTE was going to hassle a girl in a general coach full of people among which he could very likely find at least a few genuinely ticketless travellers. So it was wiser to board a train for Kanpur rather than wait for an uncertain return of the friendly, helpful TTE, for there was no way of knowing when and if the TTE was going to return to that workstation.
We boarded the general coach of a relatively less crowded train bound for Kanpur. We moved down the crowded passageway with luggage and people sitting. We spotted a little space by the window for her to squeeze in. I asked her to go sit there. “I’ll find a place for myself. Don’t worry,” I said. And she went and sat there. I walked further down and found a comfortable place to stand in the passageway on the other side of the partition. I was now standing in the passageway while she was sitting on the other side of the partition by the window. So she was not visible to me from where I stood. The passageway filled in with more people and more luggage before the train started moving. And a group of three boys were now standing in the passageway facing the compartment in which she was sitting, and they were constantly looking in the direction of the window seat, and talking among themselves in whispers into each other’s ears, and looking again with small laughs and giggles every now and then.
They didn’t seem to have much luggage, perhaps a small backpack each, and were very casually dressed. From the look and behaviour, they looked every bit like the guys one would do well to keep one’s guard up against. Their secretive exchange could be about anything at all, but it could just as well be about the only girl around. It didn’t matter in the coach, for they could not pull off anything endangering her comfort or wellbeing from where they stood.
But she would eventually be left alone on the platform in Kanpur when we parted ways, I was thinking. It would be around three or so in the morning. They knew she was travelling alone, and that could embolden them to follow her out of the railway station. Not good.
…to be continued
Originally published as part of my monthly column Street Lawyer in the November 2021 Issue of Lawyers Update (Vol XXVII, Part 11).