The Stranger

The Stranger

Trichur Railway Station

Trichur Railway Station Name Board

The Trichur Railway Station has this specialty: It will give you a deserted look even when it is completely full. Sitting on platform number two of the Trichur railway station, filled with unknown faces, waiting for the arrival of my belated Millenium Express, all alone, at 9 O clock in the night, was not a very good experience.

The prospect of going home for a vacation will appear too good under any circumstances, even when it is hurdled by a boring 36 hour journey through the Telanganas. But the return journey will always be more than compensatory for that as it is 36 boring hours in the heat awaiting the pressure cooker of the medical college. Being alone will add to the misery, and usually I will have to really pull out some encouraging factor to undertake the journey. The thoughts of the incoming 36 hours haunted me more than the waiting at the railway station. So I thought to do something that I always loved doing: have some food.

My mother is one of those above averagers when it came to cooking. Her food won’t make you go “Wow!” when you taste it, but she definitely knew what she was doing. In all my return journeys, she will send me a baggage of food which will include four meals packed separately: enough to last through a journey of 36 hours. I fished through the baggage and pulled out a packet marked with “Tonight’s Dinner”.  I took the packet out and scanned the surroundings for water to wash my hands. I spotted a middle aged moderately dressed man standing just behind me looking at my face. As you all know, railway station is a place where you can meet all kinds of people and you may not be able to make out who is who from their looks. I happily ignored him. Spotting a water tap at some distance, I wanted to go and wash my hands. But leaving the luggage behind did not seem like an excellent idea with that unidentified man behind me. So I blew into my hands with my mouth, imagining that all the bacteria flew away (what an idea sirji!) and opened the pack. It was rice premixed with curry so that I can save the trouble of bringing another packet of curry. It was packed well in a use and throw Aluminium foil wrapper. I smelled it and made sure that it was edible. Just as I was about to dip my hands in it, I heard a voice in my back.

“I am hungry, son. Can you give that food to me?”

A startled I looked behind and spotted that same stranger, with a hungry look on his face.  I was not sure whether he was talking to me or not. So I looked around to see whether anyone else was interested. I was the only one with a packet of food and he was clearly referring to me.

“I am feeling really hungry. That’s why I am asking for food”

It took me less than a second to hand him over the packet I was holding.

He took the packet, and settled down next to me and started eating. From the manner with which he was eating, I was sure that he had not had any food since morning. I pulled out a packet of everlasting curry (A curry that will never get spoiled. My mother’s secret recipe. No, I won’t reveal it here. There is a reason why it is called a “secret recipe”) and a couple of chapattis and started having them.  I still had not mustered enough courage to talk to him. But he opened the conversation for me. It was not something that I was expecting:

“Do you have some curry or something? This tastes…….. sort of plane”

Either my mother had not put enough curry in it or he did not like my mother’s cooking. Either way, I was disappointed. I offered him some pickle. His face had this unsatisfactory look. So I gave him a portion of the great everlasting curry. It took him only a moment to finish his meal with it. I asked him, just to be nice:

“Do you need another packet?”

“No need, I had had enough. That packet was large enough for a 50 year old. I don’t usually ask for anything. But I was really hungry, that’s why. It is God who brought you here”

Well, truly speaking, it was Indian Railway who brought me there. Their train does not stop at my place. So I had to travel 90 minutes backwards to catch the train at a place where it would stop. But I did not want Indian railway take credit for satisfying the hunger of this man, so I let God take it. We walked together to the water tap to wash our hands. That was when he started opening his bundle of stories.

“I am a bachelor. I am not married. I have nobody to take care of me. I am all alone. I have no place to stay. I am homeless. I have no job. I don’t work.  I am a Brahmin.  I was travelling throughout the day, from temple to temple. My foot is fully damaged because of that. See”

I suspected whether his motive was to generate some sympathy in me. Him repeating everything twice was anyway not helping the cause at all. That’s when I noticed it. He smelled of alcohol.

You don’t have money to have food, but you have enough money to drink? I wanted to ask that in his face. I never knew homeless people could read minds. He spoke back:

“I drink because I am all depressed, you know, there is nobody to take care of me”

What kind of logic was that? Perhaps alcohol was the only thing in his life that would have given him something to live for. But I suddenly felt some interest in him:

“So what were you doing till now”

“I used to help in the catering department of temples. I could not do that anymore once I became sick.”

Hmm, he should be a better cook than my mother. He continued:

“My father was a big landowner. Have you watched the movie Thoovana thumbikal? That was filmed on our land. But with the advent of revised land laws by the government of Kerala, my father lost a lot of land. Whatever was remaining, he could not claim back because of court orders. Since his only source of income was the land, he struggled to take the family forward. He committed suicide when I was still in my young ages. I have a sister who is also a bachelor.”

I was having a hard time making out whether he was lying or not. He would have noted my interest, as he continued on.

“I don’t like asking anybody anything. I don’t like to beg. I am a Brahmin. I want to go to Nilambur Palace, where they provide Brahmins food and a place to sleep. I want to go there and live there for some time. But I don’t have money to travel till there. I did not ask anybody to help. Even on Vishu, I did not take Kaineettam from anybody. I could have easily gotten that if I asked at any temples nearby.”

Kaineettam was a ceremony at the festival of Vishu where people give money to each other.  It was supposed to bring prosperity to the person who received it. I had gotten a total of 700 rupees in this Vishu as my Kaineettam. That money was in my wallet. Suddenly, I felt like it was pricking me from there.

I took a moment to reflect on the foolishness of nature. My father was ready to give me enough money to take care of my needs (which were mostly limited, from college standards) .Yet I had people to give me Kaineettam on my Vishu. This homeless soul would probably die of hunger some days from now. But still he clinked onto the meaningless pride his cast slapped on him. Now it was my turn to surprise him. In fact, I surprised myself when I did that.

I took out my wallet and pulled out a hundred rupee note which I thought would be sufficient to take him to anywhere in Nilambur. I pushed that to his pocket, saying

“This is for your travel charges”

I took out another pack marked with “Tomorrow’s Breakfast” from by bag and handed that over to him, saying

“This is for your tomorrow’s breakfast”

I walked away leaving a bewildered stranger behind. Millenium Express slowly cooed its way into platform number two. I entered S5, sat in seat number one and took three deep breaths.

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Only when I talked to my parents about this that I realized what I have done could have been a very big mistake. He could have used that money to drink alcohol. We could have lied to me about all his life, so as to generate sympathy and get some money from me. According to my parents if I would have stayed with him some more time, I will end up giving all my money to him. He could have been a burglar and could have grabbed my wallet and ran away. I agreed with all the arguments, because statistically speaking, the chance that one of them becoming true was more than him telling me the truth.

I thought about it for some time. Every day, we come across a large number of incidents that underline the fact that soft people like me (Wow, thanks for the compliment) do get cheated by people that present themselves like this. Their number is so large that people that genuinely need help don’t get it. I was really vulnerable on this specific issue. The God that according to him brought me there, was according to me saving me from a problem.

He could have taken that money and went to have alcohol. He could have used that in drugs or anything worse that you can think of. But that hundred rupee note saved me from several days of regret, agony, sadness and conscience attack. There is also this rare possibility that he did eventually reach Nilambur Palace with my money and is now leading a happy life there. That mere bleak possibility is enough for me to sleep peacefully for some days.

I switched off the light and crawled on to seat number one, S5, Millenium Express, cradled to the sweet rhythm of the moving train.

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