I had my maiden lecture session in one of the units of the Corporation in Karimabad, which though located in the State of Uttar Pradesh, fell within the ambit of the NCR. The bustling district on the periphery represented the industrial segment of the National Capital Region. But for these smooth machines rolling on the shiny metallic strips, accessing my destination would have been difficult which was otherwise considered “remote” by urban standards. My comfort level increased further when I realized that I was not a lone traveler to the location. I met Deepa, my colleague from another Department, in the train quite accidentally. An engineer by qualification, she had a more lengthy technical assignment on hand. Exchanging notes, she concluded that one day at the unit would be sufficient for the job. We both decided to take the late afternoon train back home that very day.
Exactly two hours later, the train chugged into Karimabad station. De-boarding, I suffered the first jolt. There was no proper platform. The train appeared to have stopped in the middle of nowhere somewhat resembling an untended field. In the distance, groves of ancient trees could be seen huddled together giving the hint of denser vegetation not afar. The rail tracks seemed to vanish into this wood. The forlorn station building, cropping like an outgrowth a little away from the grass beds lining the tracks, looked dilapidated and not much in use. I remembered reading in the papers that DMRC, in a bid to economize on the budget, had agreed to use the discarded stations (en-route) of the Northern Railways in the initial phase of expansion, which they later promised to renovate in line with international parameters. Deepa, a happy-go-lucky sort of a person, was impervious to the deserted surround. She had visited the place earlier. “What matters most is that the trains come dot on time here”, she said cheerfully. I could not help but agree.
In spite of our carefully chalked out plans, we were late. It was early evening when exhausted we reached the station. Needless to say, the afternoon train which we were supposed to take had departed by then. The sky looked a bit gloomy with dark clouds hovering in the horizon. A prelude to a rainy night! We could still reach home might be a little later than expected. But contrary to Deepa’s earlier forecast, the evening train was running late.” It will be wiser to spend the night at the station as the crowd in the evening train is not always genteel”, she quoted a few incidents of boisterous factory workers trying forced entry into the ladies’ compartment after a drink or two. There was no point in going back to the unit as it would be closed by the time we reached. The unit workers were all daily commuters and did not have much knowledge of the locality. There were no respectable hotels too in the vicinity for overnight stay especially those fit for ladies. In short, there was no other option but to follow my colleague’s experienced advice.
But one look at the retiring room, I took a u-turn. It was dank, smelly and ill-lit. A dim 10 watt bulb threw depressing shadows onto a red and black tiled floor. The walls, a typical yellow coloured, looked damp with fluffy plasters peeling off at places. But the double bed in the middle of the huge space looked unusually comfy with clean sheets and matching pillows. Otherwise, it was just a room straight out of some yester year novel wherein the victims met shady strangers before getting murdered.
I was about to tell Deepa so but she had already unpacked and did not seem to mind the unhygienic environ at all. A veteran in touring God forsaken areas, where our Company boasted of outlets sans transit accommodation, she had developed a much required stoicism which I completely lacked being an infrequent visitor. There was something about the atmosphere in and around the room that disturbed me. In the half light I could even see something crawling in the corner. I pointed it out to Deepa. She laughed. But I insisted on leaving immediately pretending a lapse of memory. I had just recalled that my sister was going to leave station tomorrow early morning and it was important for me to pass on certain urgent instructions to her before she left. I tried to mobile her but unfortunately the network connections did not seem to work. SMSing would not help because these were detailed missives. Half truth! The sister episode was bogus while the disabled mobile was true.
Deepa was reluctant. She was supposed to leave for Ludhiana the next morning on extended assignment. She had already found out a suitable connecting train with easily available seats that stopped at this station. Going back home would be an unnecessary detour. However, given the circumstances, it was not desirable that either of us pursued our respective programmes without the other. Disgruntled, my friend agreed to take the next return train home. It would reach us by ten-ish in the night but still safer than spending the night here, thought I.
But Deepa was taking so much time to re-pack her possessions. It was her resistance to leave or something else I could not figure out. Reclining on the bed, the only piece of furniture in the room, a wave of tiredness swept over me. I closed my eyes. A child appeared before me. A child not more than four or five years old with a crop of soft, curly hair, an anemic face with round, astonished eyes, his thin body covered in a rust coloured blazer and a pair of bottle green trousers, hands in pocket, he scanned the room with a lost look. I suddenly recollected a news paper article read a few years back. “A dead body of a boy found under mysterious condition in a retiring room”! From where did he come, how and why nobody knew. He was discovered lying still on the bed eyes closed by the station sweeper quite late in the evening, by then rigor mortis had obviously set in. What was the name of the station? K-a-r-i-m-a-b-a-d! I opened my eyes with a start.
The room was pitch dark. I must have fallen asleep. Where was Deepa? Why did she not wake me up? The train……has the train left? Most probably Deepa must have thought it better not to wake me up. She wanted to spend the night in the station itself. It suited her pre-planned itinerary so well. But the stillness in the room was daunting. I softly called out, “Deepa! Deepa!” No response. I stretched my arms to feel her by my side on the bed. Something silky and curly tangled around my fingers. A soft head of a child came to touch. He lay by my side. Horrified, I tried to jump out of bed. But a pair of bony hands had already reached out. And then ten tiny fingers crawled over and gripped me in their iron clutch.
I woke up with a strange heaviness in my chest. It was my room. 3.45 am. Oh it was just a nightmare! But I failed to feel relieved. The molesting little fingers had left their indelible imprint all over my skin!!!!