March 31, 2017

The Sikh on Platform No. 4


The winter here is harsh, as indeed it is over the whole of north western India. You dip your hands in water and find it is nearly freezing cold. There is a delicious feeling as you step out into the open, when the gentle, orange rays of the sun kiss you with a warmth that is so inviting. But none of this seems to trouble Satpal. As he bends over to wash himself at the tap, there is no sign of a grimace on his face. He cups his hand, splashes water vigorously on his face, then looks up at me with piercing eyes. His hair is tied up into a knot on his head, for he has left his turban near his bundle a little way off.

I stroll over to the end of the platform where the sikh joins me shortly. The Express from Pathankot pulls in with a big noise and grinds to a halt. Passengers begin to pour out but Satpal seems unconcerned. He brushes his hair and does up his turban. Then he begins to arrange his little bundle. Beside him is a girl, aged about ten. She looks up at me and smiles engagingly. She knows I have brought along something for her. The girl is such a pet, I can't help getting along a tiny gift of some sort whenever I drop into the station. Last week I got for her a pink frock with a yellow border, but Satpal won’t let her wear it. He says if Amrita wears good clothes no one is likely to give her alms...  His argument was a perfectly valid one, so I didn’t argue. Today it is a packet of cream biscuits for the girl. I know the girl likes biscuits. All children do.

Satpal and his girl are one of the oldest residents of this station. The man has been around for over fifty years. 'Business' is slack with the morning passenger, but whenever a passing train calls at the station during the day, Satpal and his girl cross tracks to reach the platform. Their equipment is meagre, and consists of only two dull looking aluminium bowls. These bowls are their life.

"I have been here ever since I was a boy," recalls the sikh. The station staff all know him, and others of his kind, but no one seems to care. Most of their earnings come from passengers peering through carriage windows finding an old man and his girl alongside looking up expectantly.

"I used to know Munroe Saab," Satpal once told me. "He was Station Master, and a thoroughly good man. He was often on his rounds and whenever he came upon me, he would fish out a naya paisa or two for me."

Satpal's girl has already begun to munch at the cream biscuits I got along for her. She takes a bite at one and looks out happily into the distance. Far away in the morning haze where the tracks mesh with each other, a signal dropped in a gantry. That would be another train in a short while from now. People arrive at this junction from all over the country in hoardes--from Delhi, from Howrah, from Madras. The station is a great center of commerce, of activity and movement. The little girl and her father live among these trains as do so many others of their class. For them movement rarely means anything more than crossing tracks to make their way to a more populous platform.
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