Saturday 25th July, 1997. 23:45 hrs.
Malingnad Railway Station
He stood hidden behind the pillar, watching the tea stall. The only stall in the small railway station, it provided passengers a hot beverage at that hour in the night. He was distracted by the sound of the cargo train that whizzed past without slowing down.
In the few seconds that his eyes had shifted away, the stall had opened. He felt his anxiety build up as he watched the man behind the counter getting everything ready.
Why is he here early? Will everything go according to plan tonight? I have to do this before the next one arrives.
He looked away and when he looked at the stall again, there was nobody there. Perfect!
Oblivious to being watched, Ali lit the gas stove. He was a little early tonight. The train would be arriving in the next few minutes and before that he had to have the tea ready.
He placed the large saucepan of watery milk on the flame. When it came to a boil, he quickly added the tea leaves. He put the flame on simmer. He opened the old sugar tin, a relic from his grandfather’s time. It was nearly empty, so he bent down and hunted for the sugar packet.
His gaze lingered on the wooden slats covering the base of the stall. They needed fixing. The stall was a simple one made of narrow slats of wood; but years of warping had created gaps.
Hearing a stifled cry, Ali looked through the gaps in the slats. His eyes widened in horror as he saw a man push someone onto the track just as the express train thundered by. From Ali’s crouched position, only the man’s back was in view. He was dressed entirely in black, including gloves. He gasped in fear as he watched the man turn and start to approach his stall.
If he knows that I have witnessed the murder, he’ll kill me too.
Ali froze in the squatting position, eyes fixed on the pair of shoes. In contrast to the clothes, they were hand tooled leather in a dark brown. Expensive.
Suddenly the man stopped, his body tense. Something seemed to have disturbed him. To Ali’s relief, he turned around and darted away.
Sunday 26th July, 00:10
The sleepy station had come to life. A couple of passengers who had been dozing on the platform benches were stirring, ready for the passenger train which was due in 5 minutes. Locals were walking in with their luggage in tow.
Ali managed to get to his feet but stood in a trance holding the packet of sugar in his hand. He jumped when a man rapped on the counter.
“Please give me one tea,” A man held out a 10 rupee note. Mechanically Ali took it, his thoughts in a whirl.
Working like a robot, he added some sugar to the boiling liquid, ladled the beverage into a glass and handed it over. The train had pulled in and halted. Alighting passengers made a beeline for Ali’s stall. Business was brisk and Ali worked on auto mode. He had no time to think as orders kept coming in. After the first train left, the next one arrived soon after. There was only one more and then he could go home.
He felt he was caught in a nightmare. A timid man by nature, ridden by anxiety attacks, this was something he wasn’t built to handle. His hands were shaking uncontrollably. He had witnessed a crime being committed!
Whom should I inform? Is that man still here, watching me?
The third train arrived but it was a short halt. A few passengers alighted to buy cigarettes and tea. After it left, the station was bereft of people. Ali cleared up hurriedly, anxious to get away. Glancing around nervously he deftly shut and locked the small kiosk. His anxiety had built up to a frenzy. He expected any moment for the man to appear from some dark corner and attack him.
He made a bee line for the station entrance, hesitating for a few seconds in front of the Station Master’s office; but it was empty. Anxiety had triggered his asthma. Gasping for breath, Ali made his way to the small parking lot. The entrance to the station was dimly lit and Ali increased his pace. He jumped in terror when someone tapped him on his shoulder.
“Calm down Ali, what’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Ahmed, the only porter who served the station was grinning as he chucked the fag end of his cigarette on the ground and stepped on it.
“Nnothing hhappened,” stammered Ali and hurried off.
“Okay, okay, calm down. Good night!” Curiosity rampant on his face, Ahmed watched Ali hurry off, then shrugging his shoulders, whistled to himself and disappeared into the darkness.
Ali got astride his cycle and peddled like a maniac till he was home. The house stood shrouded in darkness with only a single bulb burning just above the front door. It was one among many, jampacked in a narrow street. Glancing quickly to the left and right, he let himself in.
Ali was back at the station. He stood staring down at the tracks. There was a man sitting up, blood spewing out of his mouth. He saw Ali looking at him and cried out, “Help, he tried to kill me. I’m dying, please!” His mangled hand was extended towards Ali, fingers getting closer.
Ali was about to get down when he heard a sound. Before he could turn around, he felt a hand push him, he was falling down, down—
“AAAAAAAH!” screamed Ali.
“Ali, wake up! You’re having a nightmare.” Ali woke up to find his sister bending over him, concern writ large on her face. “Did something happen at the station tonight? You were muttering something about murder.”
“It was just a bad dream, sorry I woke you up, please go back to sleep.” Ali waved her off.
He had lain on the narrow settee for some time, unable to sleep. At some point sleep had overtaken him only to end in a nightmare.
What am I going to do? Who’ll protect me and my family?
He had always been meek, too scared to do anything ambitious. After his parents died, he continued to live in the small two room house.
When his brother-in-law died unexpectedly of a heart attack, his sister and her twin sons had moved into the family home. He had gladly made space for them. They were the only family he had.
Ali was singularly unattractive. Tall and gaunt with a permanent stoop, his balding head and thick glasses made him appear older than his 50 years. He had never married simply because he was sure no woman would want him. His anxious nature coupled with his lack of social graces had left him ignored by society at large. What people failed to see was his innate goodness, his honesty and helping nature. He had lived a largely lonely life till fate had brought his sister and her children into his home and life.
They had brought so much love and laughter into his life for which he was deeply and eternally grateful to God. Taking them on had been an added responsibility which meant he was now working long hours, holding down two jobs. During the day he was taking care of a small electronics-cum-grocery shop and at night manning the tea stall, which earned him the extra money. Both the incomes together took care of their living expenses and the children’s school fees.
He could hear his sister moving around inside the house. Time to get up. He opened the door and stepped outside. Everything looked as usual. It was cold and foggy. He shivered and hugged himself. The disadvantage of living in a small hill station. He yawned widely, his body sagging with tiredness.
Ali sat down on the doorstep, knees drawn close together and rested his head on his hands. His mind refused to quiet down.
“Ali, chai is ready.” Nausheen’s voice broke into his thoughts.
Suddenly tears sprang into his eyes at the thought of someone harming Nausheen and his nephews because of what he had seen. He wiped them away quickly and washed his face at the small tap outside. The ice-cold water revived him and wiping his face on his lungi he went in.
Nausheen had placed a steaming cup of tea on the small stool next to the cot. He cupped it in his hands savoring the warmth and comfort that it offered him. He sipped on it slowly enjoying the sensation of the heat as the beverage slipped down his throat into his stomach.
Through the door of the small room, two little boys came bursting out, already caught up in an argument. All of 7 years, they were quite a handful. While Ali organized the boys, Nausheen got breakfast ready.
The two boys, subdued by their mother’s admonitions, quickly finished their breakfast. Ali placed their bags on the cycle handlebars. The boys sat one behind the other on the cycle rack at the back, Ali dropped them off to school.
The market place was already bustling by the time he reached the shop. Days started early and ended early as the sunlight was limited to about 9 hours every day. He brought his cycle to a halt at the shop whose sign proclaimed ‘Saif Ali & Sons – Electronics and Groceries’.
Mohammed, the owner of the shop, insisted on keeping the shop open till 9 pm; there was always someone appearing in urgent need of a grocery item. Invariably it was Ali who was left alone to tend to these late-night customers, as Mohammed would claim that he had to leave early to spend time with his family. His attitude towards Ali was one of disdain mixed with pity. Poor Ali, too shy to marry and now stuck with the responsibility of looking after his sister and her sons.
Ali had no choice, and so he managed. He barely got two hours at home before he had to leave for the station. A boy’s voice broke into his reverie.
“Anna, one light bulb please.” Ali tended to the young boy and the day wore on. It was a busy day, after tending to customers all morning, Ali finally sat down at the back of the shop to have his lunch.
I wonder when they’ll find the body?
Hardly anybody went near the tracks during the day. Apart from the cleaning staff which consisted of two old men who were employed to clean the platforms, the station was usually empty. Things livened up only after 10 pm.
The cleaners who were meant to clean the place and ensure the tracks were clean, often disregarded their job. Unless an inspection was announced, they spent the day sleeping on the benches huddled up in their blankets. They swept the platform only just before the first passenger train arrived at 10.30 pm an hour or so before Ali went there.
Head bent; Ali was entering the accounts into the ledger.
“Ali, a packet of biscuits please.” Ali looked up to see Meena, the woman from the stationery shop next door. She seemed more excited than usual, dark eyes glinting. Now that she had his attention she continued,
“By the way, guess what?”
Ali raised one eyebrow and she burst out, “A man committed suicide at the station! It was discovered by our very own Ahmed.”
During the day, he had convinced himself that what he had seen had been a figment of his over-active imagination. After all, it was known that sleep deprived people often had delusions. That must be it, he had been telling himself all day long as customers came and went. I imagined it.
Meena’s announcement brought with it harsh reality. It couldn’t be denied any longer. If he said something now, everyone would wonder why he hadn’t raised an alarm at the station as soon as it had happened. All that Ali could utter now was a startled squeak.
“Apparently Ahmed was needing to use the toilet, but one of the two old men was inside so he went to relieve himself on the tracks. He saw the gruesome sight and raised an alarm. Looks like the man jumped just in front of an express train. According to Ahmed, the body is mutilated beyond recognition.”
Mistaking Ali’s terror for shock, Meena continued, eyes wide, “Imagine Ali, you could have witnessed it if you had been there at that time.”
Ali nodded and anxious to have her leave, he held out the packet of biscuits to her. Disappointed at Ali’s lack of interest in discussing such exciting news, Meena paid and left.
Ali finished up the accounts for the day and put the ledger away. He was scared to leave. Before the incident, he had never really noticed how dimly lit and lonely the market place was with all the shutters downed, and the owners cozily nestled in their homes. Now the gloom seemed menacing.
He stepped out, looked around nervously and quickly locked up the shop. He stiffened at the sound of stealthy footsteps approaching him. Slowly he turned around.
He was blinded by a bright light that shone into his eyes. He felt naked and exposed, expecting any minute for someone or something to hit him.
“Ali bhai, any chance of 10 rupees?” It was Mahesh, the town drunk who lived off other people’s generosity.
“No.” Ali said angrily, sudden rage camouflaging the fear that had paralyzed him just a few seconds ago. His nerves were in shreds and he wanted to scream at the man for shaking him up so badly. The man shrugged and disappeared into the night just as suddenly as he had appeared.
Ali cycled at super speed till he was home. Silence greeted him as he entered the house. He had no appetite and put away the rotis and curry untouched. He was exhausted but sleep evaded him.
Time to leave for the station. He dreaded the thought of going there again but he had no choice. He cycled into the station parking lot, and was relieved to see that he had company. Ahmed was leaning on the wall sending rings of smoke into the cold night air.
“There you are, I was waiting for you, I’m in urgent need of a strong cup of tea.” Ahmed stamped the cigarette out, face grim. “I still haven’t gotten over the sight I saw this evening.”
Feeling Ali shudder, he said with sudden insight, grabbing Ali’s arm.
“Ali did you see it happen? Is that why you were so jittery early this morning?”
Pulling his arm out of Ahmed’s grasp, Ali shook his head violently, “I didn’t see anything.”
“Ah I should have known, nothing exciting like that would happen to a timid man like you.” Ahmed laughed loudly.
Silently Ali opened up the shop and busied himself with making the tea, feeling safer with a friend around. Ahmed had two cups of tea and didn’t bother Ali with any more idle banter. When the train arrived, he got busy with passengers and Ali continued to serve tea for the next two hours.
Monday 27th July, 18:30 hrs. Two days since The Incident.
Ali stacked the last packet of biscuits into the shelf and stretched himself. He was hungry. His appetite had returned.
The weekend had been nerve racking; outwardly he had put on a show of normalcy for his sister, but he had been on tenterhooks the whole time expecting something to go wrong. Contrary to his fears, the weekend had been uneventful. He convinced himself that the murderer must have been an outsider. Surely if he had suspected that Ali had been a witness, he would have taken some action. Everyone in town knew where he lived, after all.
Earlier Ali had been quite happy manning the shop on his own. Not any longer. He wished he had company, someone he could confide in, someone who would advise him on what to do. The only comforting thought was that Mohammed would be back in two days. He was looking forward to it.
He felt quite okay during the day but when darkness fell, he started to feel jittery.
His body jerked involuntarily when a sudden sharp sound erupted from the back of the shop. When he turned to look, he noticed that a small tin of talcum powder had fallen off from a shelf. Shaking his head at his own foolishness and a little relieved he went over, picked it up and put it back on the shelf. He stood gazing at the well stacked shelves, mind wandering.
Lost in thought, his eyes roamed over the landscape outside the shop. He had yet to turn the lights on, and watched as the street lights turned on one by one, slowly illuminating the shop.
There in the darkness was a silhouette, watching Ali as he looked out.
Ali’s stomach contracted, and he turned around, fingers trembling as he reached for the light switch. Footsteps got closer, and he kept his eyes shut in fear, folding in on himself.
“All well Ali?”
It was Mohammed, confusion in his voice. Ali cracked open an eye and looked over his shoulder to see his employer looking at him, mildly amused.
“Finished my work in the city earlier than expected and got back this morning,” he continued as way of explanation, as Ali stood gaping at him.
Before Ali could reply a woman’s voice broke in.
“Hey Mohammed, did you know that a man committed suicide on the very night that both of us were at the station?” It was Meena.
Ali noticed Mohammed’s hands clench but his voice was calm, smile genial: “What suicide? I left town a few hours earlier by the evening train.”
“Really? That person I saw bore a strong resemblance to you. I thought I saw the face quite clearly…Eh, so it wasn’t you. Anyway, did you hear about the suicide?”
“Yes, this morning when I got back home. Did you want something?” he asked her pointedly. Frowning he watched as she shrugged and walked away. Meena and her husband were the town gossips, only too used to their presence being unwelcome.
“Mohammed sir, I have taken stock of everything and placed orders for supplies. Can I leave a little early today? I need a break,” Ali said in a rush. Mohammed seemed distracted and nodded, waving him off.
Ali left before he could change his mind.
Back home, Ali was preparing to get into bed when he felt the faint rustle of keys. He had forgotten to leave the shop keys behind; Mohammed would want them back.
He hurried out and cycled to Mohammed’s house. Lights were still on, so Ali rang the bell. Mohammed’s son opened the door, smiling in recognition. “Wait here Ali chacha, I’ll go call abbu.”
Ali walked in to the hallway, taking off his slippers. Then he stopped dead.
Lying in the hallway were the pair of shoes that had haunted Ali’s dreams.
Brown tooled leather, black laces, expensive looking shoes. A pair of shoes so unique, that he had seen them worn only by the one person he had never expected to see in his life again. He was still frozen with his gaze on the shoes when Mohammed arrived.
In shocked silence their eyes met.
“You wanted something Ali?”
“T-the shop k-keys,” Ali held out the keys, willing his hands to stop shaking.
Mohammed studied Ali’s shaking hands, the sweat forming on his face. Like a fly caught in a deadly web, Ali watched Mohammed’s expression change; a thin smile appeared on his lips and extending his hand slowly, he said;
“Come in Ali, I think we need to talk.”
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