Short story written a few years ago and dug out today.. brickbats welcome!
The chill December fog engulfed the steam-train chugging slowly into the station, the engine’s headlights barely visible in the misty, dark night. Nayantara raised the rusted shutters and peered out of the window. The station was far too small to be Almora, and yet, the train soon skidded to a halt.
Nayantara pulled aside her quilt and stood up, stretching her stiff arms. It had been a lazy day, watching the lush green fields go breezily by, soon replaced by the majestic pines and deodars, their scent only next to the tangy smell of fresh earth, energizing every drop of blood with fresh zeal and boundless energy.
Then came the icy lakes, frozen enough to shimmer and sparkle like a blanket of glistening diamonds. Just thinking about them made Nayantara shudder involuntarily, and she pulled on a knitted sweater as she stepped into the silent corridor between the berths, a lone walker among listless many.
The station seemed deserted at first glance, but Nayantara soon spotted a warm little fire a few compartments down the still, sleepy train. She walked towards it briskly, her steps on the crunchy gravel resounding in the air. A huge metallic clunk made her whip around in alarm, but it was only the engine driver reconnecting the bogeys. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have seen that horror movie… nor the murder mystery….’ sighed Nayantara, muttering furiously under her breath.
She approached the fire, her pale hands getting warmer by the second. Her eyes soon left the crackling flames, and roved around curiously. Wait…was that a book? Nayantara slowly reached down and picked up the tattered little book lying near the fire. Carefully, she turned the faded cover over to read the short dedication written in a childish scrawl…This belings two me- Teddy Jr.
‘Nahi!!’ screamed a frantic voice from nowhere, ‘Don’t touch that!’ Nayantara tripped over a nearby boulder in fright, and came alarmingly close to the roaring flames. A strong hand gripped her, pulling her to the safety of the firmament. Nayantara raised her eyes, taking in a burly old man, dressed in a patched khaki-colored uniform, with a matching cap perched upon his receding hairline, touching his thick, square glasses, which hid expressive eyes that were looking down at her in deep concern. ‘Are you all right, bitiya?’ he asked, as he helped Nayantara to a rickety chair a little away from the fire. ‘Forgive this old Station Master, bitiya… I did not mean to scare you like I did…’
The Station Master strode into a quaint little room a few steps away, leaving Nayantara to catch her breath. He soon returned with two streaming matkas, smelling deliciously of hot tea. ‘Here bitiya, my mother always used to give me kadak masala chai in my youth, and see- I’m still as strong as an ox!’ he smiled, handing Nayantara a matka. He picked up the forgotten book, and sat cross-legged on the ground, taking care to dust it with his khaki cap.
He seemed absorbed in his own thoughts for a while, and Nayantara sipped the warm, soothing tea in relief. ‘What’s your name, bitiya?’ asked the old man, coming out of his reverie. ‘Nayantara’, she quipped. ‘Ah…you remind me of my friends in the sky, bitiya…’ he said, and Nayantara followed his gaze as he lifted his eyes unto the heavens. Tens and thousands of the Station Master’s ‘friends’ greeted her, each bedecked in shimmering attires of dazzling silver, those guiding street lights of eternity peering gently down at our finite world…
‘You might be wondering about my possessive nature, Nayantara bitiya… that book you held is my most precious belonging..’ said the Station Master. Nayantara looked into his misty eyes, ‘Would you like to tell me about it, dadaji?’ she whispered, not knowing how to comfort the gentle old man. He cleared his throat, and looked up to the stoical stars, as though deriving inspiration and courage to tell an untold tale. ‘It is an old story, bitiya…’ he began, still watching the velvety skies.
‘When I was around your age, perhaps older, India was still under angrezi shashan- British rule…I have lived in this very village all my life, bitiya, and I doubt whether it has been more rebellious than it was at that time. Jharnas, protests, revolts…these went on day and night, and day after day, dozens gave up their lives to our Motherland- orphaned by existence, obliterated by time…
‘Babuji worked in Collector Sahib’s house, and I almost invariably accompanied him there. It was on one such day that Memsahiba ordered me to take care of her new-born, whose ayah had begged off a month’s leave. The baby was a fair, chubby little one, quite a contrast to my thin, starving siblings back home, and he took to me directly. Days passed like falling raindrops on a young green leaf, and the ayah was back before I knew it. And it was then that I learnt my infant charge’s name: Teddy.
‘Teddy soon began to demand my chaperon and I had no complaints. In my mind’s eye, Teddy was my prince, fit to be decked by stars, walked on soft petals, and be put to sleep on fluffy bits of cloud…
‘Time passed, and soon Teddy was ready for the posh school all the Sahib’s children attended. I began to assist the then Station Master with his work…our Station was very small at that time, bitiya: we didn’t even have a platform, and hardly any trains halted.
‘Teddy loved to watch the trains chug by, and would rush to the Station as soon as his school closed for the day. He would take his favorite place on the chair I used to put out for him everyday…the one you’re sitting on right now, Nayantara bitiya… and just like this, I used to sit cross-legged on the ground, and the sounds of Teddy’s tinkering laughter and the chair’s creaks as he bent to listen to my stories would resound in the quiet Station till the crickets, those bearers of darkness, signaled the night with their distinct hoots.
‘One wintry day, Teddy was in a particularly ecstatic mood… Collector Sahib had bought him a lovely book all the way from London, full of pretty pictures of dancing flowers, lively rainbows and twinkling stars. Teddy sat on his chair and grappled in my pocket with his stubby little fingers in quest of a writing instrument. My little Prince, having succeeded in finding my leaking fountain pen, stuck his tongue between his baby teeth, and carefully scrawled out his name on the book, just as his nursery teacher had taught him to. Teddy was delighted with himself, and jumped out of the chair in excitement, ready to begin his customary run across the length of the Station, the chill wind fluffing his delicate brown locks.
‘Just then, I heard the Station Master call out to me in his wheezy voice. I strode into his room to find him poring into an official looking letter… the important kind, bitiya, with a dozen red seals. It was from the Collector Sahib, Teddy’s father. The Railway Yard a few villages away were in the process of testing their new engine and trail of bogeys, and they would be coming our coming our way in the evening.
‘I suddenly felt something go click in my head, and my heart felt as heavy as lead. It was evening now. The train would be coming anytime now. Teddy!
‘Phoeeeee’ screamed the engine, getting closer by the second. I hurtled out of the bewildered Station Master’s room, ran as I has never run before. ‘Teddy, move away! Get away, Teddy, the train’s coming!!’ I bellowed, tripping over the chair in my haste. And when I got up… it was to hear my Teddy’s tiny voice screaming for the last time… he had been running close to the tracks with his new book when the train arrived at a reckless speed… reckless enough to take my Prince away with the wind into the dark, wailing night, where Ghouls of Death lurked behind the shadows, too scared to face the brightness of the stars above…’
The old Station Master’s hand shook as he pointed to the Canopy of the Heavens, brimming with age-old knowledge and wisdom, a silent witness to the knot of celestial and creatural destinies. ‘Look bitiya, it’s him!’ said the old man excitedly, as a shooting star whizzed past across the velvety night sky. ‘My Prince is still with me, Nayantara bitiya… I meet him every night, and just like before, he goes away when the sun dawns, not to school, but to unknown lands filled with rainbows and flowers…’ he laughed.
Nayantara joined in his laughter, and looked back at the sky, reveling in the old man’s apparent delight in the treats that awaited his little Prince…
The train’s whistle sounded just as Nayantara realized that the Station Master was not at her side any more. She turned around to see him walking towards her, a green flag in his hand. ‘Bitiya, the Driver has set right the problem… it is time for your train to continue on its journey…’ he said, a touch of melancholy creeping into his voice. Nayantara touched the old man’s hand comfortingly, ‘Can I write to you, dadaji? I want to keep in touch…’ The Station Master seemed pensive for a while, and then began to dig in his pocket for a scrap of paper, on which he hastily scribbled a few lines and handed it over to Nayantara. ‘Get in now, bitiya, and may the skies shower their blessings on you,’ he smiled, helping her in.
Nayantara boarded the train, and sunk into her seat. The train slowly picked up speed, and Nayantara stained out of the window to wave to the old Station Master, who stood benignly near his chair, his radiant smile lit by the dying fire at his feet.
The train turned around a corner, and she could see the old man no more. She unhinged the shutters, and they came down with a slam. Just then, Nayantara felt the piece of paper the old man had given her crushed in her hand, and hurriedly straightened it out. She reached up to put on the reading light, and held the parchment close to it…
O worthy one, listen to the Mistress of the Night
The Skies beckon, heed their Call
Echoes of the Past and Promises of the Future are but Stars brimming with Light
Shimmering, shining, they streak across the Mistress’ dusky shawl
Hark their Words, broaden your Sight
For our loved never truly leave us, just seek them when the Stars fall
Seek them when the Stars fall…