At the Railway Station
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It was around midnight, and while most of Delhi lay asleep, Paharganj—a half-mile stretch of narrow street full of hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, hole-in-the-wall travel companies—was just yawning its way to waking up again. Backpackers from all over the world were arriving in ones and twos, in dozens, and in large groups. Yellow-hooded auto rickshaws were dropping off starry-eyed, jet-lagged tourists in front of hotels they didn’t want to stay in, fleecing them, charging ten times more than the normal fare on their first night in the megacity—the capital of India. Raj also had a backpack. He had grown up in Delhi, but tonight he wasn’t sure if he wanted to live there anymore.
He kept walking through Paharganj which lay perpendicular to the train station. Its shape was like a giant tree—the trunk being the main thoroughfare, and the branches representing its winding lanes and alleys that meandered in different directions on both sides. It provided shelter to many. To some travelers it was just a place to store their luggage in one of the many cheap hotels that lay hidden in a dark pathway so narrow that a pedestrian had to turn sideways to let another person walk by. For some others, it was their workplace, their home, their world.
Raj sat down on a charpoy. It belonged to a chaiwallah who had already wound up his tea stall for the day. Raj asked him if he could get tea. The vendor thought for a moment and fired up his stove, mashed ginger on a piece of stone, took out the milk he had put away for the night, and started boiling a pot of chai all over again.
Soon after having chai he headed towards the railway station. He still didn’t know where to go so he walked on to the platform to sit around for a while and to decide which train to get on. He sat down on one of the benches and started watching the TV that was mounted on a pillar. It was showing a popular movie and there were about a dozen people watching, while lying on the floor, sitting up, and standing. A few minutes into the film, the screen went black and a crackly voice came on to say, “Please watch out for thieves, pickpockets, and people without tickets. Please be careful of your belongings, and small children. Indian railways would like to warn you that in spite of extra security bad people sneak inside the platform and onto the trains. Be careful, and travel safely.”
Raj was worried about being seen by his brothers, aunt or uncle or anyone who knew them and the last thing he wanted to happen was to see his landlord. He owed him a couple months’ rent and desperately wanted to avoid any confrontation with him in his last hour in Delhi. He looked shabby, hadn’t shaved for several days, and was carrying too much luggage to pretend that he was going on a business trip.
The announcement had made people suspicious of other travelers. They started paying attention to everyone’s mannerisms, body language, how they looked and what they were doing. Raj, with his ragged appearance, was attracting a lot of glances. He became nervous and thought about leaving the station. As he walked towards the gate he noticed four police officers, running their hands over every person’s body and making them go through the wooden metal detector; they had not been there a few minutes ago when he’d entered.
The ticket-examiner, who had been lazily sitting on a chair near the exit gate until a few minutes ago, seemed more attentive now. Within a short time Raj’s perception of the scene inside the train station had changed.
There were three kinds of people on the platform: people who had just gotten off a train, people who had come to receive their relatives or friends, and people who were getting on a train.
Thinking about how vigilant the police officers were and how tight the security was, he immediately turned away from the gate. All of a sudden his mind brought up all the bad things that could happen. There were police officers patrolling the platform with watchful eyes, looking for suspicious people and activities. He looked at himself, and thought that he could easily be mistaken for a pickpocket, a thief, or someone who had bad intentions.
Not wanting to stay in one place and make himself conspicuous, he started walking briskly, switching platforms, avoiding cops, and other railway staff. Once in a while he stopped to untie and tie his shoelaces; it gave him an opportunity to look around to see if he was being watched, or if someone was following him. It seemed to him as if everyone was keeping an eye on him, all the cameras inside the station were pointing at him. Emotionally drained, and paranoid, he started seeing his relatives among the travelers. Anyone who looked to be sixty year old, wore black-rimmed glasses, and was half-bald, appeared to be his uncle. An older lady dressed in a cotton sari, holding a wooden stick and resembling his aunt would make his heart come to his mouth. Every middle-aged man who was overweight and had a bushy moustache seemed to be his brother.
Extremely tired, he tried to keep awake and alert, but couldn’t help being fearful. His landlord seemed to be hiding behind every tea stall, lurching in every book shop, inside the restroom, under the staircase, and on the bridge between platforms.
When Raj stopped to get something out of his luggage, the coolies, wearing red shirts with oval-shaped yellow metal badges on their chests to display their official status as porters, paused from staggering under the weight of heavy suitcases to take a look at him. When he came close to people waiting for their trains, sitting on the floor or on their metal trunks, they looked at him in a funny way.
He didn’t have a ticket to board any train, but the only thing that felt safe to him was getting on one. He looked at the train in front of him—it was going to Chandigarh. He didn’t know anyone there. But did it matter? He didn’t know anyone in Delhi either.
He got on the train and plunked himself down on a seat. The train shuffled off and Raj rested his head on the cool metal bar of the window and looked at Delhi as it slipped by—pole by pole, pillar by pillar.
Deepak Singh is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and a writer. He lives in South Bend, Indiana. Follow him here @deepakwriter