Once bitten, twice shy
The Station Master waved the green flag. The wheels started moving as if on cue, slowly, gradually picking up speed, separating from the platform, like a child leaving her mother's clasp. Ranu managed to jump onto the last coach just in time before the platform ended, swiftly changing track.
Noticing her grey hair tied in a bun carelessly, stopped shoulders, the ticket checker standing near the half-open door, dressed in a black coat, quickly pulled her in along with her luggage, a battered old suitcase fastened with a coir rope, she was hugging close to her chest, in the absence of a handle. Not one of that lightweight modern luggage with wheels, one could effortlessly drag and haul into overhead bins, or slide under the train berth.
"Do you have a reservation Mashima?" he asked. "This coach is for passengers with reserved tickets. Are you Mrs. Rebati Chakravarty? Follow me and I'll show you your assigned berth" he politely offered. "Na Baba...I'm traveling ticketless. There was no time to go to the counter to purchase a ticket for this train. My destination is Varanasi. Could you please issue an unreserved ticket Panchanan", reading his name aloud from the name badge pinned onto his coat lapel? I'll stay near the door and make myself scarce whenever passengers pass by. I know, this is against the rules", Ranu pleaded, her eyes clouding with a tear.
Panchanan knew if he was caught, that would mean the end of his career as a Ticket Checker on the Poorva Express (12381) running from Howrah Jn. to Varanasi Jn. The guilt he bore of not allowing an unreserved passenger a decade ago, still lay heavily on his mind. He was not going to have another similar incident playing out. He was young then, full of beans, eager to impress his seniors, and overzealous in sticking to the book rules. The cardinal one is to deboard ticketless passengers without any exception. The second rule, unwritten, but instilled into him since a child was never to accept bribes from passengers or tweak the reservation chart to someone's advantage. His late father Gangadhar, a ticket checker had been his mentor and idol.
Mashima's plea brought back memories of that day when a young lady had boarded his train without a ticket. He had been firm and told her to get off the train at Mughalsarai, the next station, estimated to reach in another thirty minutes. The stoppage was long enough for the lady to locate an unreserved coach and find a paid seat for herself. Leaving her standing near the toilet area, he had entered the AC compartment to remind passengers of disembarking at Mughalsarai. As the train approached the famous bridge spanning over the Ganges, at a slower speed, he heard a commotion and cries of pity and sadness "Why...why...did she take this step to end her life?" Whose life? What? Questions ran concurrently in his mind, till someone pulled the emergency chain.
Panchanan remembers only her red dupatta hanging on the bridge railing. Two window-seated passengers had seen a young girl flying out, sailing over the bridge to meet her resting place on the Holy river bed. And Panchanan the young ticket checker felt wholly responsible for her end.
No...once was enough. He would smuggle Mashima into the closet where the used bed linen was tied in bundles and kept for changing at the next station. "Mashi...I'm making room for you to sit inside the closet. Tuck in your luggage and stay there till the train stops at Varanasi. Wait for all the passengers to get off. My duty gets over at Mughalsarai station, so you will be traveling alone for some time. The next ticket checker will have no reason to look into the closet. Just get off and walk out of the platform with confidence. If by chance you are asked to produce your ticket counterfoil, say it accidentally fell out into the toilet bowl. As far as possible, move slowly from the exit gate. There are rickshaws lined up outside the station. Wish you a safe journey". So saying, Panchanan got off the train at Mughalsarai station.
The old lady just got a new lease of life with Panchanan's kindness. She was contemplating jumping off the Mughalsarai bridge and ending her abusive life since she got widowed a year ago. At Varanasi, no one would know her to identify as the Zamindar's third wife, childless, thrown out of the house, with no one to support her. Maybe, she would start again. This time living a life of dignity, doing whatever job came her way.