That winter night in the mid-seventies, the Janata Express was racing rhythmically on its tracks towards the coast of Andhra Pradesh. As its headlight pierced the darkness of the fertile plains, the driver honked the horn as though to awake the sleepy environs to the spectacle of the speeding train. On that, in the S-3, were the Ramaiahs with their nine year-old daughter Roopa.
Earlier, from Ramavaram, it was in the nick of time that Ramaiah took Janaki to Vellore for the doctors to extricate her from the jaws of death. Now, having been to Tirupati for thanksgiving, he was returning home with his wife and Roopa they took along for the sojourn. While her parents were fast asleep, Roopa sat still on a side berth, reminiscing her times at the hospital where Janaki took one month to recuperate under Dr. Yasoda’s care.
Soon the train stopped at a village station, as though to disrupt Roopa’s daydreams of modeling herself on the lady doctor at the Christian Medical College Hospital, and as she peeped out, the ill-lit platform seemed to suggest that the chances of her being Dr. Roopa could be but dim. Ramaiah too woke up to the commotion caused by the incoming passengers, and was surprised to see his daughter still awake, lost in her thoughts.
“My darling,” he said in jest, “what are you scheming?”
“Want to be a doctor,” she said as though in a trance.
“Didn’t the nurses say,” he said affectionately, bringing her escapades at the hospital back into her mental focus, “you’re a junior doctor?”, and pleased with her idea, he patted her to sleep, even as he recalled his anxieties associated with her birth.
Ramaiah was jolted from his reverie as someone in the compartment switched on the light, to prepare himself to alight at the coming station.
‘Surely she would shape up into a dusky beauty. Won’t she be bright as well?’ he thought, looking at Roopa in her deep sleep, and recalled her escapade when she was hardly three.
“You know how clever Roopa is?” said Janaki, at bedtime. “She wanted the timepiece to fiddle with and when I refused to give in, she cried no end. When she forgot what she was crying for, she cried to know why she cried at all! What a unique girl our Roopa is!”
As the train moved into a major junction, Ramaiah got down, looking for a coffee vendor. Unable to find even a tea vendor, he lit his Berkeley without a beverage. When the guard whistled the start, a half-naked urchin jostled past Ramaiah into the bogie to crouch in the vestibule. While the train was on the move, Ramaiah wondered whether the urchin had crouched to draw warmth from his heart to ward off the chillness, and pitying him, as he gave him some money the lad took as a matter of right.
‘Isn’t there something called gratitude?’ thought Ramaiah, feeling disregarded. ‘Is he so naive that he knows not civility? Or could he be an outcast, unfamiliar with the niceties of society?’ Ramaiah looked at him intently as though for a clue.
‘Is it possible that his exposure to the elements in his nakedness should’ve robbed his body of its sense of feeling?’ he thought, finding the wretched lad as cool as a cucumber. ‘Now, what he needs most is a piece of cloth to cover himself with. After all, money wouldn’t provide warmth by itself, would it?’
Ramaiah went to his trunk to fetch a vest for the urchin. Seeing him wear it without even looking at him, Ramaiah wondered whether the lad was indifferent to the world in general.
‘Could life get worse than that?’ Ramaiah wondered, as he tried to go back to sleep on his allotted berth. How was he to know that one day, despairing for love, Roopa would personify the wretched side of life itself.
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