Heading home

It was a cold January night at Thrissur station, with a grey tinge to the sky after the sun had set, leaving behind the still night air. The mood was unusually subdued for what is one of the busiest railway junctions in Kerala. The trains were late that day, as they usually are, and that fact coupled with the cooler than usual weather seemed to slow the station down somehow.

I was waiting near the station entrance, impatiently watching the information board on the platform for updates regarding the train that would take me back home to Bangalore.

“Late by 35 minutes, the inconvenience caused to passengers is regretted.”

Of course, it was late. The icing on the cake for what was shaping up to be a terrible day. A day of arguments, mess ups, unscheduled client calls during my vacation and of course traffic all along the way from my little home town to the railway station. I grumbled to myself and wondered how I would pass the next hour or so I had before my train would hopefully arrive.

I began my usual hobby of people watching. There were the usual suspects, of course. A large, sprawling family with way too many kids, all loud and confused but somehow heading in the direction to where their coach would stand. A group of college boys busy styling their hair and attempting to look what I assume they consider cool, stopping only to eye any girl walking by. There were porters in their dull red shirts lazing around, waiting for the trains to start arriving so that they can earn their living. The dull diesel drone off a locomotive standing a few platforms away permeated the chill air.

Across the tracks on the other platform, I could see exhausted men and women in well-pressed clothes probably heading home from work, looking miserable and busy talking about politics, prices, unions and their bosses no doubt. I’ll be joining them soon. Assuming the damn train arrived of course. The only ones who seemed relaxed were a large eclectic group at the far end of the platform, all dressed in the customary black traditional religious attire and barefoot, they took up a large part of the platform and seemed immune to the mood of the day and were being annoyingly animated. Then again, they were going in the unreserved coach and would probably not get any sleep for the night, so it’s better to be animated I suppose.

It was while watching them that I felt a figure shuffle past me and onto the platform. He was dressed in a simple shirt and pant, passing off as one of the blue collar workers that dotted the platform. I didn’t pay much attention to him or the soft tapping sound of his white cane as he walked past, as I was distracted by a blaring announcement on the PA system.

“A freight train will be passing through shortly, please stay away from the edge of platform 1 for your safety. Always stand behind the yellow line.”

I just listlessly looked at him without taking anything in, watching him walk steadily along, realising only too late that he wasn’t stopping even though he was so close to the edge. He walked straight off the platform and tumbled onto the tracks below.

This event seemed to bring the station to life for a moment, as people rushed to aid the poor man. Three men jumped onto the track and began to hoist him onto the platform while a railway policeman who had rushed to the scene helped him to his feet and made sure he was okay. The three good samaritans had barely any time to clamber back onto the platform before the announced freight train came thundering past. It was a pretty close call, in hindsight.

Once the policeman seemed satisfied with the man’s condition he escorted him to the empty seat next to mine and told him off for not being more careful. The man explained he was on his way to Kollam to see his mother who was waiting for him there. With an angry twitch of his majestic moustache, the policeman walked away muttering something about safety.

The station went back to its mellow state once the commotion of the man’s accident and the passing train was over, people went back to quietly cursing their respective trains for being late, while shopkeepers on the platform tried to sell them things in the additional time they were stuck on the platform.

The man quietly rocked back and forth, while I awkwardly sat next to him. I wasn’t sure he realised I was there, but I could see that he had hurt his shoulder when he fell on the rail and I was a little guilty about the fact that I didn’t react in time and save him from his injury. So, feeling it was the decent thing to do, I asked him if he was okay.

He didn’t seem startled at all when he heard me speak and began happily telling me that he was done with his work in Thrissur and was finally going home to his mother who would be waiting for him in Kollam station. He would be home after months and while he could have gone by bus the next day, he wanted to meet his mother as soon as possible. He completely ignored my multiple attempts at enquiring if he was okay, in favour of telling me about how happy he was he was going home.

His enthusiasm was infectious and soon even I was smiling as I tried to get any response out of the man, other than that he was going home to meet his mother of course. I gave up after a while and just sat with the man in happy silence for a surprisingly long time. He just rocked back and forth, swinging his legs and looking around happily with blind eyes. He seemed to bring a little life into the otherwise dull station.

After almost an hour, I realised that the announcements for my train had begun and I was on the wrong platform. I grabbed my bag and, without a second glance back at the man, ran across the bridge that connected the various platforms and rushed to where my couch would be. As I stood, waiting for the train, I looked back to where I had been sitting and saw the policeman back with the man, seemingly trying to talk to him. After a few exasperated gestures which the man couldn’t see and a final word with him, the policeman walked away, clearly baffled by how the man expected to get to Kollam by train on his own.

My train arrived, and in the rush to get in and find my seat, the man and the scene he caused was momentarily forgotten. After I got my seat and ensured my bag was secured, I sat down to check my emails and settle in for the night. My mood quickly clouded, another escalation, the client making unachievable demands as usual and more work than I could hope to complete in the week. I slipped back into the folds of the hundreds of working-class people on the train, gloomy and miserable with my lot in life, ending my Christmas vacations and going back to my daily grind.

As the train silently pulled out of the station, I took one final look out the window and saw a lone figure on a bench on the platform, unable to look back at me or see the trains he expected to be travelling on, but rocking back and forth happily nonetheless. The lone spot of joy as the station slipped back into quiet gloom.

He was going home to see his mother.

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