This piece was first written on 21st March 2010
The train was waiting at the platform from as early 1620hrs. We’d actually made it on time to Kalka after a slow descent from Shimla on the toy train, considering the Himalayan Queen left the mountain town 25 later minutes than scheduled.
It was soon to be a 6-hour ride in the second sitting compartment to New Delhi. My mum and I settled ourselves into our seats next to the window. Actually, I was to rest my butt along the aisle because we were to have someone in the middle. A quick look at the passenger list next to the train door before we’d boarded gave us an idea of who was going to be our t ravel companion: a man named Premchand. I did not not take note of his age, which was likely printed in the very next column. All the name gave us was an indication of what the seating arrangement was to be like, and fodder for my often fertile imagination.
I got busy trying to figure out which one of the men climbing into the compartment might be Premchand. I pictured him to be someone mature. Then again, he could have easily been a young man with a moustache in a neatly pressed shirt and pants. But the number of elderly men that kept coming in began to chip away at this image.
Could it be this old man, with snow-white hair with glasses perched on his relatively sharp nose? Or the friend of the family sitting behind us, whom we’d seen loitering around on the platform earlier? I just hoped it would not be the man standing near the door whose mobile phone conversation was no longer secret.
At 1650hrs, the train started pulling itself out of the station as lazily as the sun was being swallowed up by the horizon. But where was Premchand, I turned and asked my mum? Could he have missed the train by a whisker (maybe he was dragging heavy bags)? What if someone else hops on and tries to claim his seat? Should I save it for him? But how do you do something like this when you don’t even know who it is you’re helping? My mum pointed out that he might be boarding at a later station. Fair enough (I don’t know why this thought had not crossed my mind in the first place).
A stop or two later, a man in a white shirt calmly squeezed past a group that was trying to get off the train. He had glasses on, and a moustache. Planting himself comfortably next to me, he gave himself all but two seconds before turning to me to ask for my seat number (I was in his seat). Before I could finish explaining my trespass, he understood that the lady next to the window and I were travelling together. ‘No problem,’ he said, before whipping out his mobile phone to inform someone at the other end that he had gotten into the train. At this point, I turned to my mum, and as discreetly as possible, pointed my right index finger in his direction: ‘Premchand!’