Our household lost all its warmth and grace after the sudden demise of Grandma. I’d been her pick. While being only three years back then, it shook me to my core. A year later or so, one day I was called from the ground and Ma* put her on my lap, I kissed her tiny fingers and felt the similar warmth. Ma told me, “She’s your sister, you gotta take care of her.” At that tender age, I took it so seriously that whenever she got sick, I missed school. Ma insisted me to go to school, but to me, it had become my primary duty to look after Minu. Though it was altogether a different issue that I never liked school and studies. Hence, it was after Minu joined the school that I ended up being regular.
Baba* was talking over the phone. He was saying that I had been speechless for two months. He had taken me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed it as PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). Baba kept telling that I stayed awake at nights. I didn’t know what was going on with me. Some memories kept coming, but I was unable to relate to those. Where was Ma, I didn’t see her for long? Mornings were so refreshing with her sweet songs. She didn’t even put her saris in the lawn for drying. A gloomy environment persisted in the house all through the day.
We were poles apart, Minu loved school, books and studies. While packing her bag at night, she often packed mine too. She was never late to school, rather she had the habit of waking up early and even calling me up for school. Her dedication bore fruit, for she excelled in studies. My love for her became boundless along with respect when she topped in every class till 5th grade. I was in 7th then, till fifth, with my poor grades I somehow managed to be promoted to the next grade. But after that, I was detained twice, once in 6th and then in 7th.
Ma and Baba tried to push me too but to no avail. In any case, I never felt their adoration for me was short of what it was for Minu.
Yesterday, Savitri Pishi* went back to her home. I didn’t understand why she had stayed for so long with us. Though she loved Ma and Baba; yet whenever Ma insisted her to stay for some more days, she never agreed saying she had an ailing mother in law at home.
The night before Pishi left, I heard her telling Baba it’s not good for his health to skip dinner. I had often seen Baba sulking all day. He must be worried for Minu, after all, Kota was quite a distant place.
Little Minu was like fresh air to me. Ma often said lovingly that Grandma’s love for me had reincarnated as Minu. Once again, our home was the best place in the world packed with all the love and affection between the four of us. Minu’s sweet voice and her brilliance in every field made her the apple of every eye. Soon enough, everyone in our settlement started addressing me as Minu’s brother, but I took it sportingly. I never had any complex or concern for that. To Minu, I was her beloved Dadabhai*, her champion. Quite often, my ears waited to hear her luscious voice calling me, “Dadabhai”.
I was thinking of calling Minu, but then I felt she must have been occupied with studies. Besides, I was unable to get up from the bed for a couple of days. It was getting hard for Baba to lift me every time. I was being brought a wheelchair, it was Dipen Kaka’s. His father was a paraplegic who died last year.
When Minu had malaria, she was ten years old and had been hospitalized for a week. Along with Ma, I too stayed in the hospital for those seven days. Ma had to come back for daily chores in the morning, but I stayed there. My family tried hard to convince me to go home and rest at least for once. But until Minu was discharged, I didn’t leave her side, not for a second. I was afraid, if I leave I might lose her like grandma.
I had heard Baba telling Dipen Kaka for selling the shop. He was not in a position to remortgage it, he had further added. I had tried to tell him that he should ask Ma once. I knew how dear it was to both Baba and Ma. It was named after my grandma Bhagwati Devi, “Bhagwati Store”. Ma often said that the shop was Laxmi to us. It didn’t make us affluent but never happened for a single day that no customers turned up. All the more, I had heard him talking about selling a part of our house to pay off the debts.
At the age of 18, I left studies after failing in Madhyamik* and started working in Bhagwati store with Baba. Minu was in 8th grade then. Her teachers had treasured her and had expected her to bring honour to our school and town. Yet, the expectations burdened Baba with the thought that if she outdid from where would he bring the money for her higher studies. Howsoever hard you worry, certain things are bound to happen. In our case that was a pleasant thing though. In 10th grade and 11th grade both, Minu scored the highest marks in the district. It was an incredible day for us. The entire colony gathered in front of our house. Even our headmaster came to congratulate her in person. The school rewarded her, and on top of that, the local councillor gave her special honour in a function as well.
Our Maths teacher had come to console Baba that evening. I saw him breaking into tears as he discussed Minu. Baba was telling Sir something about me. I heard him propose to Baba to take me to a good psychiatrist in Kolkata. I couldn’t understand what’s that for, everyone knew how much I loved Minu, and once she came back from Kota, I’d be the same again.
Minu aspired to become a doctor. Her teachers suggested Baba enrol her in some good Entrance coaching for NEET. It was unlikely from a family like ours. But Baba made up his mind to go for that. That night we had a long discourse on that, and Ma finally consented on this.
Baba had taken out some papers from the drawer this morning. Those were the documents from our house. But why did he give those papers to Dipen Kaka? I was trying to call Ma, only she could curb Baba from doing that. She had once related to us that this house was built on the blood and sweat of Grandpa and Baba. I didn’t know what befell him, why did he react like that? Minu would pay off the money to save the store once she would complete her MBBS.
A week back, I bought the ticket with Baba. The person at the counter was Baba’s schoolmate. He filled out the form and we got three consecutive berths, a lower, a middle and an upper. It was my first train journey, even the first one to a distant place from Burdwan. Though the thought of staying away from Minu saddened me, I was excited as well for my first ride.
Very soon the day arrived. It was Saturday, July 20th. We boarded the train to Kota in the afternoon. Ma had prepared enough food since the morning, so we had nothing to buy. And anyway, Ma had made our favourite Luchi* and Alurdom*, and I could gorge at least ten at a time. The train left Burdwan at its usual time. Baba was looking worried while he bade farewell. Ma and Baba were unable to sleep the night before, they’re calculating so many things. I knew Baba had mortgaged the shop. They had a lot of hope from Minu. They were also concerned about keeping the cash safe. I, too, didn’t sleep a wink that night. All concerned me was sending Minu to such a distant place, her safety and security. What if she fell ill, who’d take care of her? I was thinking of asking them once, if I could stay with Minu, then who would attend to Baba and Ma. Moreover, there was nobody to help him in the store.
The afternoon to evening shift was quite unique in train. It looked as if dusk had fallen. I bought some half-ripened guavas for Minu that evening, I didn’t remember the station’s name. Those were Minu’s favourite. We three were sitting on the lower berth the whole day, chattering a bit. Minu was sitting beside the window, it was her favourite place. Ma was apprehensive about her handbag all the time, she was clutching it. Ma served us the dinner around 8:30. We were a little reluctant to call it a day, but Ma was too tired. Maybe we all were tired with the heavy thoughts of staying away from Minu. We were hungry too as we gobbled up the delicious meal. Thereafter, I pulled down the glass window before retiring to my berth. Minu and Ma also settled to their respective berths shortly. I had heard people saying sleeping while travelling on a train was like an oxymoron but I was fast asleep.
An abrupt clamour woke me up in the middle of the night. The moment my eyes went towards the passage, I was terrified by the sight. The lady on the side berth was crying for help. One of the miscreants had put a knife on her husband’s neck. They had asked her to take out all the money and other valuables she had. The other passengers were frozen with fear. They’d been looting everything, cash, jewellery and whatnot. I didn’t know how many of them were there. I jumped down, but one of them grabbed her handbag before I could rush to Ma. She’d been struggling to get it back. Presuming my intentions, two of them clenched me. As I tried to free myself, a third person put a gun on my head. The irony was that they had all sorts of weapons and the security personnel were nowhere to be seen. Minu was screaming but to no purpose. It was dark outside and the train was going at top speed. I signalled Ma to leave the bag, she didn’t. I knew it was hard for Ma to give up, the bag had all the money needed for Minu’s admission. In the meantime, Minu had joined Ma and was trying to pull the bag. Soon a heavily built person who seemed to be their leader came from the consecutive compartment. He took the bag from the man with ease and walked towards the door. At the same time, Ma took hold of the handle and tried to pull it out. A scuffle ensued between them next to the opposite doors. Over again, I was trying to unleash my hands from their clutch while Minu was trying to pull Ma towards her. Thereafter everything had happened in the blink of an eye. To snatch away the bag from Ma, they pushed her, and she was thrown out of the door. Minu had tried to clench her hand when the other man pushed her too. Everything was a daze for me. The train darkened in front of me. I had passed out.
I didn’t know how long I was unconscious. When I recovered my sense, I was trying to look for Minu and Ma, but they weren’t there. I could hear people yelling and sobbing. Some people were around me, and some were behind me. They were trying to say something to me. I didn’t remember what it was. There were some cops asking me my whereabouts. I could feel that the train had stopped somewhere. It was not any station though. Some of them took me out of the train. I saw something on the tracks. They asked me to recognize. A red dupatta*, pink slippers, part of a torn blue sari, tattered body parts, blood all over them….No I couldn’t recognize them. I shouted at them, why did they want me to miss the train, I was trying to run away from there. There was someone holding my hand, I was trying hard to free it.
One evening many people had gathered in front of our house. A coffin arrived carried by some men. I could hear that Baba was crying his heart out. The people were discussing, two bodies had accommodated in a single coffin. Whose bodies were they? I was trying to ask them something, but they couldn’t hear me. The only voice that rang in my ears was Minu’s, she called me from somewhere, Ma asked me to look after her, I tried to move. I couldn’t.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The premise is based on the train accident that occurred in August this year. But apart from that the back story and characters are all imaginary and bear no resemblance with the actual one.
Vocabulary: Some regional terms are used in the story.
Pishi: Aunt (Dad’s sister)
Dadabhai: Elder Brother
Alurdom: A dish made with potato and spices
Madhyamik: 10th standard examination
Dupatta: A length of cloth usually worn with Salwar Kameez by women
(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)