On one of those sultry evenings, Lolappan, a middle class merchant from Kerala, stood agape, staring at the colorfully lit Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus at south Mumbai. The place had been all over the news a few months back for the infamous terrorist attack it endured. Ever since, he wanted to be the first amongst his friends to have visited, clicked a selfie and updated the profile picture on his Facebook account.
'Praise the lord! What marvelous construction', he thought to himself as he looked around expecting other stunned spectators. There were none; only hurrying men and women whose eyes spoke volumes about the undefinable urgencies in their lives. A skinny teenage boy holding a bulky camera emerged from the crowd in anticipation, offering his photography skills, which Lolappan dismissed effortlessly by proudly exhibiting his i-Phone and making some indiscernible mocking remark.
After amusing himself with some selfies and subsequent facebook likes, he capered his way towards the metro station. His broad jaw, spotting an aging stubble, dropped further as he witnessed the bustling ocean of travelers that flocked the lavish Gothic interiors of the station. While awaiting his turn in a confusingly long queue for the ticket, Lolappan caught the sight of few young girls in the adjoining queue, taking quick glances at him and giggling amongst themselves. Though perplexed at first, he quickly managed to grin back; a row of shining bucked teeth parading out from within his dark thick protruding lips.
'Mumbai meri jaan!' exclaimed Lolappan under his breath with a mirth. With a puffed up hairy chest, left exposed by the unbottoned seam of his shirt, he produced his cheap aviator sunglass and adorned his broad face.
'And my wife thinks that I am not handsome... hmph! That old devil is only jealous', he thought to himself as he waded grandiosely through the thick viscous crowd at the station.
Everywhere he moved, people took notice of him. Basking in all the attention, Lolappan sauntered towards the row of platforms. Along the meandering platforms, dingy metal boxes swollen with people crawled in and out like snakes. People whose faces were equally dingy poured out from the halting boxes like water bursting through the seams of an old pipe. Digital time boards relentlessly announced their invariable destinies, triggering waves of anxious people who hurried and tugged at each other mercilessly, squealing and screeching for an inch of space in those overflowing boxes that smelled of dried sweat and cheap cologne and chai and vada pavs.
With some difficulty Lolappan managed to find his platform and rooted himself in a corner with a cup of chai in his hand. Beside him stood a short stooping middle aged women with swollen under eye bags and a drooping mouth.
‘Kanda... valli... train come here?' Lolappan inquired animatedly, bending very close to her.
The lady who appeared to be lost in her own thoughts, snapped back to reality at the sound with a jerk. She turned to face a grinning Lolappan who was almost breathing down her face. She stepped back, overcome by stupor, her eyebrows furrowed and a shade of contempt growing in her dispassionate eyes. Without uttering a word, she turned away in disgust and busied herself in adjusting her tattered hand bag. The unexpected action dazed Lolappan who quickly looked around to ensure that no one witnessed this scratch on his dignity.
'Why is she behaving so weirdly? Now... Did I ask something wrong?’ reflected Lolappan twitching his face in contempt. He moved away and took refuse in his chai cup.
It was at that very moment that a loud cry arose from somewhere far along the platform and pierced through the obvious hum of the station. Lolappan stopped his chai cup mid-way to his lips and looked anxiously in the direction. A sea of people stood with stiff bodies and hoisted necks staring restlessly in the direction of the cry. Then, in an instant, the chaos emerged. Like the crust of a gigantic wave breaking from a cusped corner people began running forth from far along the platform. It was not long before the entire platform was in mayhem. An intense consternation engulfed Lolappan. He stood frozen, his mouth wide open, body pale and eyes popping out. In a reflex, he turned to check on the stooping lady and found her limping ahead with all her might. Lolappan watched in shock as the lady was elbowed down by an impenitent brawny man in hurry. Squandered on the floor, her desperate pleads for help drowned without a ripple in the chaos.
An appalling thought struck him abruptly at that very moment and he shuddered violently at its possibility.
‘Holy Mary mother of god! It must be another terrorist attack...' and before he completed the thought, he was in a frenzied run towards an empty train ahead of him crying ' Lord have mercy!'
He slowed down as he passed the whining lady who was presently trying to collect herself up. Their eyes met for an instant and in those fatigued eyes, he thought he saw a gloom of despair. Before a strand of empathy could tie him down, he plucked his eyes away from hers and ran for his life mumbling his prayers.
‘They will start shooting now... Oh sweet Jesus... forgive my sins....deliver me from hell... I am going to die...' Lolappan wailed, gasping for air as he ran frantically. He couldn't muster any courage to look back even for a moment.
As soon as he entered the empty car, he looked around and found a safe corner. He sprawled on the grimy metal floor and rolled himself under a seat. Two rats, shocked by the sudden intrusion into their otherwise peaceful life, squealed their way out from underneath his body. The corner stank of dried urine and unwashed vomit but Lolappan did not care a damn. He lay shivering, with closed eyes and tight breath, reciting a rosary with the utmost devotion he could summon.
A good five minutes passed and Lolappan was at the peak of his “Hail Mary's” when he heard the feet thumps on the metal floor near the entrance.
‘They are here... They are looking for people to kill...Christ have mercy on me...' he squeezed his eyes tighter and held his breath.
The footsteps approached him, stopped for a moment before they came to rest near a seat opposite to him. Lolappan looked in the direction of the feet through the corner of his eyes. A young, well dressed gentleman was peering down quizzically at him.
‘What are you doing there Sir?’ he asked curiously.
‘I...hide here...terrorist shooting people outside,” Lolappan replied animatedly and with a pause, 'Terrorists no shoot you?'
'Terrorist? What are you talking about Sir? There are no terrorist outside. Please come out.’
‘People shout loud...and run... so I also run...’ Lolappan said in a helpless tone.
The gentleman thought for a moment after which a sly smile emerged on his face.
‘My dear Sir... there was no terrorist and all... the Virar fast local train had just changed platforms’.