The Old Rag-Picker …

Why am I so passionate about  trains?  It is not just a child’s fascination for the locomotive, it goes far beyond that. Growing up near a suburban station in Western Mumbai (Bombay in those days), my life revolved around the railway line and its happenings. The station,  the hustle and bustle of the commuters and the railroad, is where I learnt about fragility of life and resilience of us human beings.

I grew up in Jogeshwari, a Western suburb of Mumbai. The nearest Gujarati medium high school was either in Andheri or Goregaon. You had to be smart and have good grades in your primary to get admission in the Andheri school. Neither I nor my older brother had the necessary grades, so we were admitted to the school in Goregaon- the “I B Patel Vidyalaya”. Now this school is situated at a peculiar place between Jogeshwari and Goregaon, not close enough to either of the stations. Those of you who have travelled by the Western Suburban trains in Mumbai, would know that the distance between Jogeshwari and Goregaon is the longest distance on the Western stretch till Borivali. The quickest way to get to school was to go to Goregaon by train and walk on the railway tracks to our school. Not the safest way, I agree and definitely not something that today’s parents would allow. But those days were different or so it seems. Neither did we as kids resent the walk nor did our parents see any danger in us walking on the railway tracks.  We submitted several petitions to the Railways to have a station between Jogeshwari and Goregaon, but those pleas fell  on deaf years and we still do not have station between the two.

Every morning, around 15-20 of us would take the suburban train from Jogeshwari to Goregaon and walk together to school from Goregaon. We used to walk on track one, the track on which the slow trains run,  seemingly engrossed laughing and talking about stuff that boys that age talk about. To an observer we would appear quite oblivious to the rest of the world, but we were always alert, always aware of the trains, the fast and the slow one and which ones go on which tracks. We had in us the innate sense of safety, almost like the 6th sense.

We were not the only ones on the track. Everyday, unfailingly at the same time, we would see an old rag-picker. With his gnarled hands and sliver grey hair, he seemed very very old to me. He was probably hard of hearing as well. But was quite sprightly. Sifting through  garbage and selecting stuff of recyclable value, jumping from one sleeper to another between the tracks. We met him everyday on those tracks, him going about his work and we to school. There were no exchange of words or gestures or smiles. We silently acknowledged our presence as we did his.

One early winter morning, at around 6:45 am we all started off to school as usual. With  a nip in the air and a little mist, it seemed like any other cold wintery morning, nothing unusual. We got off the train at Goregaon and began our trek on the track one to school. We crossed the old rag-picker, busy sifting through the garbage. Then all of a sudden, we heard a rumbling on the tracks, something was amiss. We turned back to see a train hurtling down on track 2.  We saw the old rag-picker move from track 1 to track 2, not expecting a fast train on the track at this hour of the day. He had not heard the train. We knew what would happen next. We yelled and screamed at the old rag-picker to get off the tracks. In vain… The next moment we heard the sound of metal meeting flesh. We froze. The train came to a screeching halt. We knew that it was too late to save the life of that the poor rag-picker. We looked at each other, scared to say what was on each ones mind, a lump forming in our throats.  And then slowly, very slowly we proceeded  to school, in silence, our hearts heavy. There was no time to grieve the death of unknown rag-picker, we had things to do, and life had to go on. I never spoke  of this accident to anyone. This was one secret my brother and I would keep.

The next morning we were back again, but knew in our hearts, that this morning and all mornings henceforth would never be the same.

“Zindagi aur maut uparwale ke haath hai jahanpanah. Usse na toh aap badal sakte hain na main. Hum sab toh rangmanch ki kathputhliyan hain jinki dor uparwale ki ungliyon main bandhi hain. Kab, kaun, kaise uthega yeh koi nahi bata sakta “

— Jagdish

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