It wasn’t often that the Sudev family travelled together by train. Seated on the platform at Chennai Central station amidst the heap of baggage that constituted their luggage, Tulsi, Anil, Bibin and Manju eagerly anticipated the long journey ahead, and to meeting family and friends when they eventually reached Basavanagudi in Bangalore. For the past six months they had been looking forward to this day, and more particularly to attending the marriage of Tulsi’s niece Sonali to Anuvesh who had a tailoring business in the great Karnataka city. They had arrived early at the station in the Periyamet district of Chennai, and Bibin was already displaying symptoms of restlessness, which come with the boredom of awaiting a much-anticipated event.
Manju’s approach to any long wait, whether it be at a bus stop in Kalapurum, in a queue for a cinema ticket, or seated on a railway platform, was simple and consistent. Immediately on arrival, she had taken from her bag one of several books that would accompany her for the next week and had immersed herself in its pages. Bibin, less inclined to adopt such a studious approach, found it difficult to settle and with his mother’s anxious warning that he should not wander out of sight ringing in his ears, he explored the immediate environs of the platform seeking some diversion without knowing what this might be or from whence it might emerge.
No matter what time of day, Chennai Central station is busy. The bustle of passengers scouring the platforms seeking their correct position for departure, the vendors plying their trade with loud cries of “chai, chai, chai” or “coffee, coffee” and the red shirted porters bearing with apparent ease their heavy burdens atop their heads, made for a colourful spectacle, though none could hold Bibin’s interest for more than a few minutes.
Reluctantly returning to the family group, having discovered nothing of especial interest, Bibin slumped beside his sister and commenced occupying himself by irritating Manju through an interruption of her reading; an act that he correctly calculated would elicit a negative response.
“Isn’t it boring, just sitting here waiting?” he commented. “Nothing to do; how much longer will we have to wait?”
“I have another book in my bag if you want to borrow it,” replied Manju, forcing herself to hide her irritation and not looking up from her current page.
“Another book! How many books do you need for a journey Manju? You can’t read more than one at a time. Anyway, it’s too noisy and busy to read.”
Manju half turned so that she had her annoying elder brother at her back, giving a clear signal that she wanted to be left in peace. However, she immediately realised that this was a mistake, as poking his sister in the ribs, Bibin recommenced his verbal assault.
“Hey, don’t turn your back on me when I’m speaking to you. That’s not nice.”
Manju had to concede that this had perhaps been a bad-mannered move. With a sigh she accepted that her reading was albeit temporarily, to be suspended and she therefore noted her page with a bookmark and returned the book to her bag.
“I’m sorry,” Manju apologised, then pointing to the platform clock in an attempt to calm her restless brother, “It won’t be long now. Thirty minutes and they should start allowing us to board the train.”
Bibin heaved a loud sigh but acknowledging his sister’s attempt to make a truce, tried to engage her in more friendly conversation.
“So many people; this station is always too busy, don’t you think?” he asked.
“India has too many people everywhere,” observed his sister. “There is so little space left anywhere in the city, and nowhere it is quiet.”
A sensible peace having been brokered, the siblings continued their semi-philosophical discussion about the situation in their country, when they noticed a uniformed officer wearing the insignia and three chevrons indicating his rank as a head constable in the Indian Police Service, swaggering purposefully along the platform in their direction. As he drew nearer, the two younger members of the Sudev family felt a sense of relief, not through any semblance of guilt, but rather as a result of an innate respect for figures of authority, as they noticed that he was quickening his step to attend to a situation further along the platform and had no interest in them. Turning to watch his progress their attention was swiftly drawn to two other characters who were destined to become central actors in a drama that was about to enfold. The first, a young woman, dressed in western style with tightly fitting blue jeans, red trainers and a red t-shirt was being accosted by the second, an elderly and dishevelled, disabled man who leant awkwardly on a single wooden crutch as he held out his hand towards the woman in an act of supplication.
Neither of these two players in the drama appeared to have observed the policeman hastening along the platform, and certainly did not anticipate the force with which he brought down his lathi across the back of the disabled beggar. The power of the blow, taking the elderly man by surprise caused him to lurch forward and fall at the feet of the startled young woman who stepped backwards and uttered a loud yelp. A further blow from the officer’s lathi as the beggar attempted to regain his feet, sent him scurrying along the platform accompanied by a series of vicious oaths fired in his direction by his assailant.
Bibin and Manju looked at each other in horror at what they had just witnessed. Beggars they knew could be a nuisance and even at times a little intimidating, but neither of them believed that the actions of the officer were justified as a means of addressing this situation. Manju winced and muttered, quietly enough to ensure that whilst Bibin could hear, the offensive officer could not.
“What a bully. Beating him like that wasn’t necessary. He wasn’t threatening the woman and she looks as if she could easily have handled the situation herself.”
Bibin agreed and observing the policeman carefully added his own interpretation of the situation.
“Now look at him. See the way he is smiling at the woman. Can you see how he is showing off to her, making out that he rescued her from some evil that was about to take place. He only got involved because he wanted to impress her. Look at him trying to chat her up.”
Brother and sister continued to watch the officer whose behaviour confirmed Bibin’s assertion that he was making extraordinary efforts to ingratiate himself with the attractive young woman. As they watched they noted how he adopted an unctuous smile as he chatted in an apparently casual manner with the woman who seemed to be uncomfortable and unsure of how she should react. He behaves, thought Manju, like some brave knight from a story book who has just rescued a damsel in distress from a fire breathing dragon, rather than the bully that he really is. His behaviour, she decided, was beyond contempt as he used the authority invested in him through his uniform to play a role rather than to do his duty.
Whilst Bibin and Manju continued to adopt their condemnatory position, they noticed that the young woman had quite suddenly turned away from the policeman, her attention distracted by something or someone further along the platform. Following the direction of her gaze, they saw a tall young man calling a name and dodging between the crowds as he hurried towards her. On hearing the call and locating the oncoming man, the woman waved excitedly in his direction and ran to greet him. Within a few seconds they were clutching each other in an affectionate embrace, the newcomer lifting her off her feet and swinging her around as he held her close to him.
Bibin smiled as he observed that the police officer had begun to depart the scene, shaking his head and muttering inaudibly. He nudged Manju and laughed, as he suggested that perhaps some kind of justice had been served. His sister agreed as they watched the young couple now hand in hand, smiling and engaged in animated conversation.
Bibin turned to observe the departing policeman who was walking towards a bench located at the back of the platform. Here were seated two elderly ladies well laden with canvas bags. As the policeman reached them, he whipped the edge of the bench hard with his lathi making a clatter that resonated across the platform. Barking a command, the detail of which was lost in the general hubbub of the station but the meaning of which was clear enough to both Bibin and his sister. They watched as the elderly ladies meekly vacated the seat in order that the officer could claim it as his own.
“I said that man was a bully,” stated Manju. “Now we have it confirmed. What a horrible man.”
As she said this the officer settled back on the bench, propping his lathi beside him and casting his eyes around, possibly thought Manju, looking for further opportunities for confrontation. But as she watched the bullying policeman, he leaned back, pulled his cap forward over his eyes and appeared to be intent on getting some sleep. Most policemen she knew, did not behave in this appalling manner but this man was one to avoid. Best let sleeping dogs lie.
Bibin looked up to the platform clock. Ten minutes until boarding.
“Yes, he certainly is a bully,” he confirmed. “But I think we could teach him a lesson, don’t you?”
Manju had heard this tone from Bibin before, and whilst she agreed that it would be good to bring the officer down a little, she was apprehensive that her brother’s impetuosity could lead to trouble. Bibin sensed her anxiety but having hatched a scheme he was not to be easily thwarted.
“Listen Manju, all I need you to do is keep Appa and Amma busy for two minutes. Just make sure that they are not looking in the direction of the policeman. That’s all I am asking. I promise you will not get into trouble.”
Manju was about to make a good case for why she thought Bibin should forget the incident, when he rose to his feet and with a nod of the head moved off in the direction of the snoozing officer. Realising that whatever plan Bibin had in mind would be jeopardised unless she played her part, she took her book out of her bag, opened it and declared to her parents that she wished to read something to them.
“Listen,” she demanded, “I read this passage earlier. It describes how beautiful the Kashmir Valley is in the spring Let me read it to you.” And keeping an eye on the actions of her brother she commenced to read aloud and to hold her parents’ attention.
Bibin approached the bench upon which his intended victim slouched, with stealth and more than a little apprehension. When eventually he stood before the officer and had assured himself that he was indeed oblivious to his presence, he looked around to confirm that his next move could be made with minimal risk. Only when confident that his scheme would succeed did Bibin act. Without hesitation he grasped the lathi from its position leaning against the bench and swiftly dashed a few yards along the platform, to where a large wheeled bin full of rubbish awaiting collection was standing. Quickly lifting the lid, he dropped the lathi in to the receptacle and buried it beneath an empty sack and other detritus before once more closing it.
Manju who had been watching Bibin’s mission whilst also trying to hold her parents’ attention, could feel her heart racing and was relieved when Bibin re-joined the family group without having disturbed his sleeping victim. He nodded to her as he arrived and she smiled back at him, indicating her approval and confirming her complicity in the deed.
It was only ten minutes later as the Sudev family climbed aboard the train that Manju and Bibin finally felt that they were safe from being discovered as culprits in a crime against the officer. A felony of which they were certainly guilty but for the committing of which, neither of them had any regrets. Bibin, thought Manju, had acted to punish a bully and that her participation in this event was therefore fully justified.
Staring through the carriage window as the train’s first lurch indicated that they would soon be departing from Chennai, they watched as the policeman stirred himself, having been disturbed by the noise from the engine. Sitting upright and repositioning his cap firmly in place he took an overview of the platform, its inhabitants and all that was happening around him. Scanning the scene before him he was taken aback, when there less than ten metres in front of him, he regarded again that same beggar who he had dealt with earlier. Enraged by the audacity demonstrated by this man who had returned to beg despite his earlier punishment, the policeman reached down for his lathi, intent on teaching this reprobate a much more severe lesson.
As the train pulled away from the platform, Anil turned to his children curious to know what had made them suddenly laugh so uproariously. Manju and Bibin didn’t dare explain how they had watched the policeman desperately searching first under the bench and then frantically behind and beneath various other obstacles located along the platform. As he did so, two members of the railway cleaning staff commenced to push the wheeled rubbish bin towards the station exit. Neither child could openly express the joy they had felt in seeing the young woman and her boyfriend returning along the platform, where on once again encountering the beggar they stopped and handed him, what the children assumed to be a few coins.
Turning to her parents and knowing that her father demanded an answer to his question about their laughter, Manju reported,
“Bibin and I are just excited about going to the wedding in Bangalore. We have been waiting on the platform for so long, we were laughing with relief that we are now on the train.” This, she believed was not a lie, though neither was it exactly the whole truth. She liked to think that had he known the full story, her father would have agreed that justice had been served upon a bully, but she knew better than to test her theory at this precise moment.
Issue 90 (Mar-Apr 2020)