Ghatkopar Station, Mumbai:
Like any other day, I was waiting for the 07:12 CST local. As usual, it arrived at 07:19. I somehow managed to get a place next to the window seat, as the train was quite empty. The emptiness of the train reminded me that it was a holiday on account of Holi. It also added to my regret of having to go to work, instead of celebrating this festival of colours with my family.
Next to me was Patelbhai. He used to run his late father’s store of kerosene stoves. Since the last couple of years, we have been travelling together on the same train, every day.
After a brief talk with him, I fetched Mumbai Samachar and started reading it. I was engrossed in an article, about the comforts relished by the canine cops, of President Bush, who was visiting India. Suddenly, I felt someone touch my knee. A girl, a beggar. We were all used to their kinds and ways in Mumbai’s local trains and had mastered the art of seeing them, yet not seeing them – we kept them in our blind spot. They came in all forms; those who would sing with a harmonium or play the flute or simply make music with a pair of stones. Then there were broom-wielding ones, who would sweep the floor, the blind ones, and the amputated ones.
This one was around 7-8 years old; her frail body was clothed in a tattered frock. Her dirty brown matted locks of hair were hanging over her pale sunken face, with a running nose. She evoked sympathy and frustration.
I sneered at the hype of India becoming a superpower, as I have this urchin asking for her daily bread, while I read about Bush’s dogs (err. I heard they are not referred to by that name) savour the comforts of a five-star hotel room.
For years, I had nurtured this principle of not offering alms, as I felt this would never tackle the problem at the grass-root level. In fact, it would only augment it. So, religiously following this principle of mine, I shooed her away. But she was resolute. She bent down to touch my feet. She repeatedly pointed her fingers to her cracked mouth and gaunt tummy. I was astounded and pondered over the extent of training that she must have received from her mother, to extract money from the commuters.
Her mother was standing in the passage, with an infant sleeping in a sling dangled around her neck. I tried to ignore her by reading the newspaper but she didn’t budge. By this time, Patelbhai was miffed. It took a yelling from him to get rid of her. I once again got immersed in the article.
We got down at Sandhurst Road station. This station was often pronounced locally as sandaas (feces) road. I went to JJ Hospital, where I have been working as a mortuary attendant for the last 15 years.
Having reached my room, I got ready for another day full of corpses and autopsies.
“Jay Shree Krishna Kanojiya, Holi Mubarak”, greeted my colleague, Walvi, as I entered. I greeted him back and settled down in my chair.
As I went to light dhoop, which although started as a necessity, had now turned into a ritual, I asked, “How many?”
“Two; one is the case of burns, the other is fall from a height”, he replied in a monotonous tone.
Walvi continued, “It seems, Sir, will be late today, it’s Holi no; once he comes we will sort one each, rapidly.”
His talk was interrupted by the ringing of the phone.
“Hello, Mortuary. Yes…yes…ok…send it…. okay”, he answered.
“There is one more coming, a railway accident. Today we are having a Holi bonanza.” he laughed as he sipped his cherished masala tea.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sakhare arrived, and we started preparing for the post-mortems. A police constable came and handed me the papers of the third body, which he had brought from the casualty. I went out to receive the body and tie the identification badge. It was just another body; body no. K/1073/06, on just another day for me; or so I thought.
I saw that same woman, the one I had seen on the train, with her infant, sitting on the floor in one corner, to the side of the rusted iron gate. My mind was grappled with all sorts of speculations. I hastily uncovered the face of the corpse. The head was brutally crushed which had made the skull open out. Her tattered frock helped me identify her; she was that same beggar girl.
I immediately called her sobbing mother and asked her how this happened. She revealed that actually, the girl was her niece, who had lost her parents at an early age. She also happened to be deaf and mute, since birth. Today at Masjid station, she saw a pet bottle on the tracks, which had some leftover drink in it. This girl who was food-deprived for many days was so attracted by the bottle, that she immediately jumped on the tracks. A fast train did the job before her aunt could do anything.
Tears started rolling down my cheeks as I heard all this. Never before in the past 15 years, had I shed tears for an unknown corpse. I somehow felt indirectly responsible for her death. Maybe she could have been saved if I had offered her something, I supposed.
I handed the woman a 100 rupee note and said, “Take care of this child.” I went inside and requested Walvi to do her autopsy.
That day when I went back home, my kids were waiting with fervour to colour me up. I considered how lucky they are and thanked God.
Since then, my train travel has never been the same again. Every day, I carry packs of biscuits with me and give it to those disadvantaged children of Mumbai, who are coerced to beg for their right. But I don’t give it to them for free. I make them sing and dance. Since then, for them, I have become ‘Biscuitwaale Uncle’.
*Feature image is for representational purposes only.