A man who was afraid of trying
Arjun stepped on the dry platform, carrying a packed luggage in one arm and his hat in the other. The hat was meant for his head, but he didn’t believe he was old and accomplished enough to wear it. He believed that the hat was for people who had achieved something in their lives, and for he had nothing that he could boast about, he didn’t deserve it. But still it was his father who had handed it over to him, like a legacy or a burden that is passed down through generations. He had to respect his father’s orders, even if it meant disregarding his own intellect. Thinking so, he popped the hat back on his head. Besides, it freed one of his arms and provided some respite from the freezing climate.
Cold wind slapped across his face as he tried to counter them by turning in the opposite direction; the effort proved futile. His hands were shaking as he tried to rub them together to produce some heat to keep them warm, but the rubbing hurt so much that he couldn’t continue for long. Angry at god for creating a weather as evil as this, he looked up. Sun had taken cover behind a cloud, with only its corona visible. It created a halo so magnificent that he immediately forgave god, as someone who could create something as beautiful as this on earth could certainly throw in a couple of rough months.
The year was 1950 and the month January, the place was Neerganj; a small settlement just into the borders of Himachal Pradesh. This was where his sister had been living, as her husband was here, serving his post as the station master. From what he had heard, the place was a paradise, spread over pure green grass and rugged and loyal gravel. Small hills surrounded the town, threatening to blanket it every time it snowed too much. There were very little bricks and even less concrete. Everything was supposed to be unexploited and untouched. And soon he was to find out; he had heard no lies!
Suddenly he saw a man running towards him, shouting his name. This startled him; he began backtracking as the man came alarmingly close and didn’t seem like slowing down. But the man was a skilled runner, stopping just before his face, introducing himself as someone who had been sent over by his sister’s husband to help him with his luggage. “Did he say anything about scaring me too!” – He thought before handing his bag over and following him.
Soon the man led him into a room where his sister and her husband were sitting, waiting anxiously for him. His sister had been married off just a couple of years ago and this was their first meeting after that auspicious and grand affair. She jumped off his chair as soon as she saw him, leaping towards him, hugging him so tight he thought he was going to choke. When her grip loosened a bit, he got over her shackles and shook hands with her husband. His sister looked thin and her husband fat, it was the opposite two years back!
“You look so thin!” His sister’s husband, Ashok, gazed up and down at him several times.
“And you look so fat!” – He wanted to say, but out of respect restrained himself from it.
Arjun’s sister lived in a house situated on a nearby hill, overlooking the station her husband was in charge of. Although suspicious at first when he was told about it, he was surprised by how much of the station he could see from one of the strategically situated windows in the house; almost the whole of it! The extremely small size of the station helped the cause as well. This was perhaps the most undersized station he had ever been to and had the puniest platform he ever saw; a small fragile gate, a narrow ticket counter, a few twisted benches and a timeworn hanging clock could be used to summarize it. But still, what dazzled him was the number of people who got off here. “It’s mainly because of the fact that the next stoppage from here is half a day away!” – Ashok had told him looking over his coffee, the steam from the cup rubbing against his cheeks before assimilating into the surroundings. Arjun remembered it clearly because, when offered to have some of the same drink, he had declined with a straight face.
Arjun didn’t like coffee much and stayed away from it. He preferred to dislike its smell as well as its colour. Pale brown or black; it reflected the deepest desires of the men who enjoyed these things. He had seen people drinking coffee and praising it like it’s the only thing that could possibly bring some sanity and peace to the world; and he hated such men.
“This is the only thing that can bring some sanity to this world. Any difference can be solved over a nice and warm cup of coffee.” Ashok said as he slammed his now empty cup on a nearby table. Arjun Nodded. What else could he do? After all, he was just a sprat living at the mercy of his generous host. “God, I hate coffee!” – He mumbled when he knew ashok wasn’t looking.
But actually, he had never even tasted coffee, and he couldn’t remember it’s taste if he ever did. All he knew about coffee was that it was generally black, could be bitter and was served in cups. All this ‘I don’t drink coffee because it’s bad; drinking coffee is an addiction’ was just superficial! What all he wanted to prove to his friends and relatives was the point that he could control himself! If thrown into a critical position; his mind would conclude the decision, neither his heart nor his carnal desires! His ability to turn down a cup of coffee gave him the strength to look down at his associates who couldn’t, and pity them. A remote but hypocritical possibility was that, that he could develop a liking for coffee, if he ever managed to pour it down his throat.
The following few days passed without any major deviation from the usual. He woke up long after the sun had appeared, took an uncomfortable cold bath, slipped into thickest of his clothes and left the house. He would stroll on the platform, watching Ashok work in his office through a tiny window. Shuffling pebbles between his hands, he would count the number of passengers exiting a train. When the platform became boring, he would slither into the nearby forest, watching wild animals in their natural habitat; staring at them as they carried on with their usual activity. Sometimes he would find a comfortable rock and fall asleep on it, even for a second not thinking about the poisonous reptiles that roamed around him. Another thing that would find its safe place on his daily planner was hill climbing. He would trek a hill each day, reach the top after a few hours of toil and engrave his name on the soil there; hoping something airborne would notice it. But soon everything began to turn boring. The tress all looked the same, so did the hills. The platform was dead most of the time, and came to life only when a train stopped. The mornings were no longer exciting; the sleep was never so precious. He would stare at his watch, hoping his glare could speed up its hands. Long days ended in longed-for nights, but little did he know that the best was yet to come!
On the fifth day of his visit, during the final hours of an otherwise pleasant afternoon, god spread dense clouds over the horizon. With color as black as coal, they looked ready to burst any second, flooding earth with water and so, creating an apocalypse. Temperature dropped fast as the orange Sun tried to show its inconsequential presence through patches of clouds where they weren’t too thick. Cool and moist wind brushed past Arjun, creating a strange tickling sensation. Birds glided merrily in the sky and ants seemed to be preparing themselves for the rain that seemed unavoidable. He was sitting on a bench on the platform, as his sister had ordered him to not venture into the woods today; he didn’t protest. The weather was turning nasty anyway and he wanted to be anyone but the man who gets lost in a forest on a bad night.
“Hey, mister! You want some coffee?” A man roared from behind; prompting Arjun to look back.
The bench he had occupied was just beside a small and shabby coffee shop. Immediately, Arjun felt displeasure at his own ignorance. “How could I sit so close to coffee shop and not recognize the smell for so long.” – He thought. He immediately straightened his neck.
“I said do you want some coffee, it’s freshly brewed!” The man said again, this time even more assertively.
“No thanks. I am enough energetic already. I don’t need your stupid drink to charge me up!” He said, as he got up leave. “Will never see the sight of your mangled structure” – he mumbled under his breath, as if talking to the poorly managed café.
Roaming down the platform, cleverly avoiding garbage, he looked up. As soon as he did, he colliding with a girl coming from the opposite direction, who, too, wasn’t looking where she was going. The impact threw in air the cup that she was holding so dearly. The next thing he noticed was spilled coffee all over the place. He trembled to find his feet, certainly shocked by the sudden impact.
“I… am… sorry.” He stammered.
The girl was still looking down at the mess; her shiny, light brown hair falling down both sides of her face.
“It’s all right.” She said, looking up. “It was my mistake.”
Arjun froze the moment he saw the pretty face. Big artistic eyes, pinched at corners, sculptured nose, pointing outwards, petite lips and sultry glowing skin; she only made the belief ashok had in god stronger. “Is she the most beautiful woman who ever walked?” – Arjun thought before speaking.
“Just wait here, I’ll get you another cup!” Arjun screamed and ran back towards the same coffee shop he had vowed never to look at again.
“So, had a change of heart?” The owner grinned.
“Just give me a cup of coffee!” Arjun said, throwing a coin at him.
He carefully took the cup from the man and sped back like a burning goose searching for water. Full of excitement with a million thoughts flying inside his skull, he made sure no drop left the cup. At last he returned where he had run from, but the woman; she was gone! Dazed and disappointed, he sat down on a bag of potatoes lying nearby, staring at the drink he had spent his precious money on. “Can never understand why women behave the way they do!” – He thought before attempting to throw the cup on the tracks, blending it with the urine and stool of men and animals alike. But he stopped at the last moment. He didn’t know what prompted him, he suddenly raised the cup he was holding, took a nice, long sip from it and made sure it travelled down his throat undisturbed.
“Ah!” He exclaimed as he breathed out some fresh air. “It isn’t so bad!” He said before taking another, larger sip.
And so began this viscid relationship. It grew, from a single sip, to a couple of cups a day; from there it quickly escalated to double that amount in half that time. Soon enough, he couldn’t wake up without coffee and wouldn’t sleep without it. It dazzled his sister to her bones the change in his opinion about a drink which he used to hate so much not very long ago. Out of pure horror, she stopped serving him coffee and began throwing him out of the kitchen whenever he tried to prepare some on his own.
Soon, Arjun realized he was cornered; he couldn’t make coffee and didn’t have enough money to buy enough of it from the cafe. But he was in no mood to surrender unconditionally. Soon a plan hit him, and as ready as a bullet in a chamber, he decided to give it a shot.
On the very next day, he discreetly found his way into Ashok’s closet. Shuffling through the pale shirts and awfully colorless trousers, he found out exactly what he desired. His eyes lit up as he carefully removed the hanger off the rod and slipped into the piece of garment that hung on it. Looking at himself in the mirror, he adjusted his appearance, combed his hair nice and applied some shaving cream on a face that had never touched any razor ever. When satisfied, he grinned and left.
He stepped outside on the platform and waited for a train to arrive. He crossed his arm to hide the ‘Indian Railways’ logo that was stamped on the coat that he had, well, borrowed from Ashok! He knew that a train was to come, Durand Express, straight from Lucknow; full of people travelling without tickets, and that was his whole plan!
The train came at last, signaling its arrival from far away. The fifth boogey stopped right in front of him and through the half opened window of the compartment, Arjun could see his potential victims. He got up, ran his hand through his hair once and inhaled in a large puff of air he knew his lungs could just handle, without bursting. As he was stepping slowly towards the train, his mind filled itself with scenarios where it could all go wrong. Nervously, he swallowed some saliva, remembered god for a second and flung the door open, making his grand presence in the boogey.
The scene inside the compartment was gloomy, with people literally sitting over each other due to shortage of space. Luggage was scattered around and air felt intensely stale. He began searching for his target; a mother with a child in one corner and a couple of middle aged men in another, a coughing old man in the middle and a sick looking, extremely thin child lying on the birth. He didn’t like the lot much and decided to make further inroad into the cramped boogey. Scanning the surrounding like a vicious eagle searching for her prey, his perspicacious eyes noticed a man he knew he could con; a young lad, sitting anxiously, constantly looking over his shoulders.
The man’s hands began shaking as he saw Arjun glide towards him, but little did he knew that Arjun was more scared that the man himself.
“Can I see you ticket mister.” Arjun said firmly. His heart was beating like a diesel guzzling generator; he was afraid if somebody on the outside could hear it and deduce that he wasn’t someone who he was pretending to be.
“I... don’t have it… sir. I was…. I didn’t… I thought that…” The man struggled to find words.
“…that you could slip away and nobody would notice!” Arjun filled in for him. He gained some confidence as he could tell that the man had capitulated before him.
“I am sorry sir. I can…”
“What do you want? 6 months in jail, 100 rupees fine or both.” Arjun cut him short.
The mere mention of jail nearly led tears in the man’s eyes. Suddenly, Arjun felt pity for him but stood ingrained, knowing that he was in desperate need for money. A few moments of uncomfortable silence passed as both men searched for words. Finally it was the victim who spoke.
“Sir, what can I do to save myself from this miserable condition? Just tell, anything; and I’ll do it!” He said, as respectfully as he could.
“Well, you can buy your ticket now.” Arjun extended his hand, palm up. “Where are you from and where are you headed to?” He asked, toning down the aggression a bit.
“Sir, I travel from Lucknow to the holy land of Badrinath. I have to submit my father’s ashes there, as it was my old man’s last wish.” He replied, taking out his wallet.
“5 bucks it will be then.” Arjun said.
“5 bucks !” The man exclaimed.
“Yes, why? Is something wrong?” Arjun asked with a fresh firmness in his voice.
“Oh no, nothing! Here take it, sir.” The man knew he couldn’t do anything, on one end of the balance was jail and on the other was a green shred of paper that he was holding. He thought that he had made the right decision, that 5 rupees wasn’t the amount worth going to jail for. Thinking so, he passed on the note to Arjun who, immediately, began turning away.
“Sir!” The man said. “Where is my ticket?”
“You just bought it, didn’t you?” Arjun winked at him.
As Arjun was about to leave the coach, a voice roared from behind. “What kind of a ticket checker…” Arjun twisted his back to glace at the owner of the voice; an old man, in a tightly ironed pitch black suit. With his style and quality of clothes, this man deserved no less than a private jet even to travel to the shop just across the street to buy himself a couple of underwear.
The old man pressed his hand against the coat to iron out the creases. Adjusting his tie while getting up, he continued. “…wears slippers to work?”
“The same one who doesn’t get paid enough to buy himself a decent pair of shoes!” Arjun said before climbing off the coach.
As he walked towards the café with the note firmly clutched in his hand, he looked down at his feet. Feeling stupid over the negligence, he pledged to be more careful next time. But, he was still very impressed by the way he had handled the old man in the end. “I did great! No one could suspect anything.” – He rightly thought. With a bag full of mixed feeling inside his stomach, he congratulated and promised himself as much coffee as he could buy with the money that he had.
That was Over 60 years ago and now Arjun is a man on the verge of death. He lost his wife to disease and his son to job some time back. For the last 5 years, he has been living alone, without them; but not even for a second, did he let the frightening thought cross his mind, about the day when he would have to live without his favorite drink; a cozy, lucid, and a delicious cup of coffee.