Half past one.
The train raced on. Sandhya sat near her window and looked outside…the steady hum of the railway tracks, the distant glimmer of the countless stars and the hyenas’ call- everything seemed to merge into one mesmeric force, lulling her into a pleasant state of numbness, yet keeping her awake.
Rishi had fallen asleep. A pillow rested comfortably tucked under his head while his hands were wrapped protectively around a small leather case. Even in sleep, his features were contorted into an expression of extreme distrust.
Sandhya pulled her shawl closer to her face, half hiding it. She could make out the shadowy silhouettes of countless mud huts that had mushroomed over the years around those tracks, or the wheat fields that seemed to encompass the entire landscape. Everything had assumed an eerie and unearthly glow at this hour of the night. It seemed as if there was nothing that could convince her of human habitation in these distant parts of the country. Yet this thought seemed to afford her much peace… more than the thought of Delhi ever did. The night air had begun to work its charm, drowsiness lay heavily on her eyes- and she fell asleep.
“Shut the goddamned window, you!”
The shriek broke Sandhya’s reverie. Before she could comprehend anything, someone stepped on her toes, elbowed her out of the way and slammed the window shut. The lights in the compartment dimmed, flickered for a while and went out. The train screeched to a halt almost instantly. Rishi had woken up by now and hurriedly sat beside Sandhya, tucking his leather case between them.
The entire compartment broke out in excited whispers which continued till one of the passengers yelled, “Listen!”
Everyone fell silent at once. Sandhya strained her ears. For a while she heard nothing. Yes… there it was. Something must have happened out there. She could hear a shrill cry- more inhuman than anything she had ever heard. And then rose a mixture of frenzied voices…was that a gunshot?
Perhaps because it was pitch dark, and no one had to submit to public scrutiny, everyone felt courageous enough to air their views.
“Danga”, someone said. “It’s Bihar guys, hota hi rehta hai…”
“Nonsense. At this unearthly hour? An animal must have been hit by the train. It can be an elephant.” A gentleman proclaimed with much conviction.
“Yeah right- an elephant. And they are gunning it down to make sure it’s dead.” Sandhya heard herself remark quite audibly, perhaps much louder than she had intended to.
An uncomfortable silence ensued. Had there been enough light, Sandhya could have seen Rishi staring at her- or at least trying to-with considerable reproach and consternation. He clutched his case even more tightly. The passengers got over their discomfort and started talking again; however in much more hushed tones this time.
Almost as if people were gunning THEM down, Sandhya thought contemptuously.
“Nobody asked for your clever quips, you know”, Rishi sneered.
Sandhya did not answer him. She knew she would not be able to conceal the note of derision in her voice if she did, not even if her answer had been a clipped ‘sorry’. Instead she turned towards her window and pried it open a little.
To her surprise she saw hordes of people walking by, silently and stealthily- some carrying flashlights and others carried blazing torches. They were forming a human chain around the train, preventing the escape of passengers quite effectively. Almost without any warning, the train started moving very slowly. This sudden development had thrown everyone- both inside and outside- into frenzy. Amidst the panic and mayhem, the lights came back to life. Everyone had crouched back into their seats, looking pale and almost terrorized.
Suddenly they heard someone thump loudly on their door.
“Let me in! Please let me in… they will kill me!” A man wailed outside their compartment. “Please… let me in! Open the door! Save me…”
They could hear his strenuous breaths as he pleaded on. “Can you not hear me?! Have mercy… please save me… open this door.”
No one moved a muscle inside the carriage, yet all eyes were fixed on the shaking door. Sandhya’s blood had turned cold on hearing his voice- a voice which shook with the prospect of imminent death, a voice which stirred sympathy in even the hardest of all hearts- yet nobody dared to move forward to help him.
“Please…” He cried again, weeping copiously perhaps. Everyone could hear the mob closing down on him. Their wild cries and feverish laughter filled the entire compartment. Sandhya heard their taunting cries, “No one will save you! No one shall pity a worthless creature like you…” They hissed at him and laughed at his helpless state.
Sandhya could not sit still any longer. She lunged forward towards the door which barred the victim’s entry- when her husband caught her arm and forced her down.
“Sit!” he hissed.
“Help him Rishi! The brutes outside will kill him!” Even through her tortured despair she knew those cold grey eyes looking at her would never melt. The door continued shaking for sometime, as did his wails. They could hear the mob ascend on him, with their torches and chains. A last ringing scream broke the deathly calm. It hung like a shroud over them blocking out emotions and leaving everyone numb. Not even a look of shock surfaced on their immobile faces. The train picked up speed and moved on.
Sandhya crept into a dark corner and wept. She was the only one in the entire compartment who could vent her grief.
If only I could save him… if only Rishi had not stopped me…if only…
It has been over three years now. Rishi and the other passengers who had spent that fateful night in her compartment had successfully obliterated their memories.
Yet Sandhya continues to experience that night over and over again. She still hears his plaintive cries in her sleep. His wails still echo in her mind ‘Save me…’ conjuring up ghastly images and resulting in grim nightmares… of shadowy figures and blazing torches… of smoke and moans that thickened the atmosphere with gloom…of blood and despair… of imminent death…of elusive hope…of inhumanity…and at times she dreamt of a leather case…she saw herself flinging it out of the window, and letting the man in… she saw the bloodshot eyes of insane men challenging her endeavour… she dreamt of his soul too, which perhaps rose up like mist from his frightened chest… a soul not afraid of chains and sticks…