With the sluggishness that is usually associated with inevitability, the seconds’ hand of the clock completed yet another sweep of the clock face. For the thirty-two thousand and four hundredth time that day, since twelve that night.
It struck nine.
Whistles started sounding; even as the signals of a train could be heard. In the ensuing cacophony, the guard van could be seen entering the platform. An ensemble of carriages followed; culminating in the engine. “An iron steam spewing monster” were probably among the first descriptions that had been made of a train in the 1820s. Less the steam, more a sleek monster today.
The waiting crowd on the platform seemed to throb as one organism. There was some structure which came together almost too suddenly, dissolved just as suddenly; as the porters, vendors and passengers started moving towards the open doors of the train. The rush of humanity started its entry into the train. Ranging from the labourers who literally earn their daily minimum wage on a daily basis to the middle class, all off on vacation. Businessmen, workers, children, youth: the entire gamut of people that you could hope to see. And would never see otherwise in one place and at one time.
It was one of the trans-country varieties. Sleeper, chair and A/C cars were filled in quick succession. Keener observers might point out it as more of a simultaneous tumult to enter the train. The cooks and waiters could be seen readying it for the twenty-five hour seventeen minute journey that lay ahead of it. It was the train’s eighty-fifth journey of the year.
An adventure was what it was for the children who boarded it. They followed their parents with the kind of curiosity peculiar to them alone: the inquisitiveness that they have when it comes to a new place that they will be in for a short while. Interspersed were the youth: cynical as ever with the omniscient single carry-all bag; and that world weary air that accompanies them wherever they go on a global basis.
Even as the luggage cans could be seen with the handlers struggling over those last pieces that always refuse to get in; the signals could be heard preliminary to the last few minutes before the train leaves the station. The impersonal railway announcer could, as always, miraculously be heard over the din; informing everyone in the vicinity that the train was scheduled to leave in the next few minutes. Lunacy ensued as everyone tried to pick up the last-minute items that you always must have only then – ranging from newspapers and magazines to water and shaving kits. In short everything anyone could ever require for such a journey.
People had generally settled in and were bidding farewell to anyone and everyone who had come to see them off. Waves, handshakes, hugs and goodbyes could be seen all over the station as the final green signal was given. Urchins ran beside the train despite strident warnings issued by the guard not to do so; others jumped in.
The train was off!
A solitary figure could be seen running towards the fast-receding train with the carry-all bumping alongside her. Her hair, clipped at the back, came loose as she put on that final burst of speed to get into the train. Even as she neared within ten feet of the platform’s end, the guard van could be seen leaving it. The pace did not slacken as she strove to get there. Sneaker-clad feet pounded the stone-paved ground in a last-ditch effort to get onto the metal carrier.
Sadly, the guard van could be seen to be just over thirteen feet and seven inches away as she reached the last vestiges of the platform. Not even an Olympic medal winning jump could have got her onto it then. She slowly came to a stop and watched the train disappear into the distance.
She’d missed it.
Life can be very unfair. Which does not necessarily mean bad luck.
The young man settled into his seat. A quick checklist ran though his mind as he checked the items off. Water and snacks next to him, suitcase chained under the seat; and finally, his in-train entertainment in his hand. The veritable racket made by the next entrants to his nook of train was but a preview of what he was to hear for the next few hours.
It certainly was not going to seem like a few hours.
Life is not fair. But in this case, it did mean bad luck.
He could have had fellow students; he could have had the aged escort him to his destination. He could have had peace and quiet for the next twenty-four hours.
But it was not to be.
The interrupters of “Eden” were seemingly unaware of the transgressions they were making into basic laws of human decency. Well, the next set of entrants, the mother and father, seemed only too aware. The perpetrators were, after all, their three children in accompaniment.
Pretty soon the entire compartment was ready to throw them off the train. Progenitors included.
Even as the train started speeding towards its destination five hundred miles away; even as passengers started settling into their berths; even as initial introductions were being made between the fellow travelers; a jarring noise was heard.
The train starting jerking to a halt.
Passengers looked wildly around, at each other, at adjoining cubicles, and finally out the windows. The doorways were soon witness to passengers craning out of them in attempting to cover every possible direction at once. And all together.
A matter of minutes later, attendants and officials alike were seen in each compartment. The announcement was the same in each compartment and was done in both English and Hindi:
“We have confirmed information that bombs have been planted on the train. The passengers are requested to remain in their seats while we check the undercarriage of the train. This will be followed by a check of the passengers’ baggage. Please note the train will be sealed with porters standing at each exit. Anyone caught trying to leave the train under these circumstances will be looked upon with the greatest suspicion possible. Appropriate action will also be taken. Thank you. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
There were thirty-three seconds of silence as the message sunk in.
Then came the panic.
And the pandemonium.
Two and a half hours later, the officials were able to announce that the undercarriage of the train, as such, was free of incendiary devices. It was obvious from their noses, and in some cases their faces, that the checking had no effect on the passengers ceasing body functions for this duration. There now remained the wayfarers and their luggage.
Meanwhile food and water had been served, thanks to the pantry car. Even though people were still worried, the great Indian tradition of waiting and living with The Wait had kicked in.
Passengers were resigned to the expected delay of what was probably going to be eight or nine hours.
Four hours later, seven of the passenger-laden carriages had been pronounced clean of anything remotely connected to complete destruction or genocide. It had also left some forty-two extremely disgruntled passengers. They had been relieved of some very questionable reading material they had carried. As we all know by now, life is not fair. Hence, the material had been confiscated. Good luck for some, bad luck for others.
Seven down, eight to go.
Three carriages later, the search had come to the carriage willing for an explosion to happen if it would just mean relief from three very noisy kids. Barely had the search begun, than the officials too started hoping for one too.
A young man wended his way to the bathroom amidst all this. No particular significance was attached to this until his baggage was brought under the officials’ scrutiny. Some suspicious wires were found sticking out of his suitcase. Added to which was the extreme affinity the sniffer dogs had formed for them.
The suitcase was very carefully taken out of the train to an abandoned yard nearby. Where it had blown up.
The erstwhile arsonist had, by this time, been arrested; cuffed innumerable times and hustled to the nearest chowky. Where he had been summarily thrown into jail.
Half an hour later, the train was underway. The carriage with the three terrors was no less noisy, though. If anything, they seemed rejuvenated once the threat had been dispelled. Not that the threat had really made too much difference to them in the first place. But then as we have been repeating constantly, life is not fair. Even if there was some good luck in the air. Hopefully.
As the train crossed the border into another state, a young long-suffering father sighed. And stood up.
Essence of meat was useful. More so when combined with a spare bomb.
He stretched. Hands, legs, neck.
As was expected, once a potential suspect was found, the search had ended. Circumstantial evidence was a powerful prosecutor.
Oh well, you win some, you lose some; as we all say. And he was going to win big.
The young woman was as unconscious as she had been since the train had re-started. Sleeping medicine does that to you.
The three children…
He glanced at them.
It would be a relief from them…
He reached for the chain.
The other passengers did not even look up at the young man checking the chains on the suitcase.
They never had a chance to.
The train was passing over the bridge that had recently been the center of local controversy when terrorist threats had been received regarding its permanency. The essence being that if some political prisoners were not released, it was going to have a very short life.
With innumerable such threats being received everyday, it was a simple enough matter to hush it all up; and claim it to be yet another crackpots’ fabrication.
It was an idyllic Indian cinematic scene; something cinematographers strive for on those long journey shots we see in the movies. And it was perfectly natural. No lighting, no setting up. Ideal. The sun setting…the river a golden hue; winding curvedly below the bridge. The train silhouetted against a starkly outlined landscape. And the darkness approaching from above. Just enough trees and a breeze to make one awe at the beauty that could be.
Beautiful was not the word for it.
It all went up in a flash of light.
After all, life…is manifestly unfair. Which may or may not have anything to do with luck. As we all know.