beside the tracks

The train pulled into a station and suddenly tea boys ran alongside yelling, “Chai! Chai!”, others broadcast loudly whatever foods they had to offer. I waited for the entering crowd to crush through the departing throng before stepping on to the platform. Unlike my compartment’s other middle-class travellers, I sought the thrill of wandering through the mobile stalls rather than ordering delights from the safety of the window. Picking and choosing samosas, stuffed parathas, deep-fried barges, banana fritters, lassis and countless sweetmeats…filled my belly.

A man walked over and asked if I wanted my fortune read. “There plenty time, train leaving ten minute,” he said when I protested about being left behind.

I sat before him on the cloth spread over the concrete floor. He peered in to my face and asked my date of birth. “Easy,” I said, “4am, first of January.”

“Ten rupee here please,” he tapped the cover of an ancient book. Turning its yellowed pages he found my year and the alignment of stars and having quietly studied my details, proclaimed, “Very interesting. You travel far. You discover much. You…” and the guard blew his whistle. I jumped up. Pelting like crazy, I leapt at the door and only just made it before the groaning metal beast increased its speed.

I spotted two boys leaping from a door clutching stolen goods. Streaking through the crowds, ignoring the anguished yells of anger issuing from the speeding train, they darted over several lines of tracks and were instantly lost in a clutter of shacks. Gripped by their audacity, I examined this shanty town huddling the busy railway. Within a makeshift hut a man leaned back as his face was carefully cleaned of shaving cream; the flash of the blade pierced my eyes. Squatting in another rickety shelter a woman was cooking lunch. The alley between those wobbly homes was filled with children at play inches from a drain filled with vile black liquid.

My protagonist is equally stunned as he watches a similar scene when his train leaves Delhi station. Throughout the novel he is haunted by India’s cruel poverty and he seeks a way to help.

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