This story is not a work of fiction; I actually went through this scary yet awe-inspiring experience. I wrote the original text back in 2007 the very same night.
This story is dedicated to real life heroes who take initiatives everyday to change other’s lives. May God give strength to my brothers & sisters who lost their family members in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The platform with no number
Rare are times when something or someone inspires you beyond belief. Such awe-inspiring moments are unique and profound; they will always exist as a close, sacred memory in our powerful minds. I had the opportunity to experience such a rare inspiring yet scary moment during my first trip to Mumbai.
Mumbai, the maximum city; the city of echoing dreams. Mumbai can be this one city which can give you an experience beyond imagination especially for the first timers. It was the end of 2007, the extraordinary month of December; I was required to visit the national office of my student-run organization.
Being a computer engineer in India was a hyped up deal back then, I was in the first year of my college enjoying the profound freedom of being in one. I was also voluntarily involved with one of the biggest student-run organizations in the world, well that’s what the senior members of the organization claimed it to be (I still don’t know whether it’s true or not). Nevertheless, I was asked to report to the Mumbai national office with some local projects reports.
Ah! Project Reports…Sounds all jazzy for a 1st year student to work on ya!
By the evening of 17th December I was almost done with submissions and detailed auditing of all my reports, Mumbai had really treated me well. I was not cheated by the cab driver, I was not pushed out from a local train yet, I survived my first clubbing scene at Pollys, I had no ill-fate encounters with Shiv-Sena; everything was simply perfect & inspiring, just as I had always imagined it to be. Mumbai, not the city but the supreme sense of living, it became my dream too.
After a great tour of Mumbai and experiencing the extraordinary Mumbaikar life, it was time to bid farewell to this maximum city and end another splendid chapter in life. Life in Baroda was simply boring compared to a Mumbaikar life but nevertheless it was quite pointless of me to even think on those lines. I was stuck in Baroda for at least another 4 years.
December is a crazy month when it comes to travel and it sounds even crazier when I talk about booking train tickets in an AC berth. I was in the middle of a similar situation, even though I was very finical about traveling in buses and sleeper class trains; this time these were the only valid options I had. I choose to travel via the classic Indian sleeper class which started from Bandra Terminus and would take almost 6 hours to reach Baroda. It was around 7:00PM when I took a cab from my office in Vikhroli to Bandra terminus, I was expecting heavy traffic (as suggested by Mumbaikars) but that was not the case, I was at Bandra Terminus at sharp 7:45PM which was surprisingly very early. My train was scheduled to depart at 10:40PM which meant I had at least 3 hours to kill; that called for an urgency of innovation to do something with very limited resources (The art of Killing Time).
I was told that the train I was travelling with only runs once a week and generally departs from either platform 3 or the last platform which was still to be given a number. This platform was generally a host to the typical Indian Malgaddis and a playground for cricket fans living at the station. I was at this unique platform by 8:01 and started looking around in search of hot or interesting girls on the platform. Well, I was expecting too much it was almost deserted leave alone women; it had this eerie feeling and was smelling ammonia. I found a comfortable seating area on a cement slab almost at the center of the platform next to a tea stall, I just had this weird feeling, I would be safe there.
Cell phone battery was about to die; now I was in a serious scarcity of resources for killing time. Accepting things had started becoming a part of my corporate-ish student life. I started looking around and observing my external physical reality, I saw a bunch of slum kids with an age group of 10-16 playing some out of the world card game which was impossible to understand from such a distance. I was really touched by the ‘sound of them being so happy’, I knew they were poor, I was sure they had barely eaten anything for lunch, most of them were half naked but still they were masters of the profound skill of being happy.
My eyes quickly noticed something awkward. There was an old compartment of a freight train across the rail lines, exactly in front of the tea stall. The right side of the compartment had something scribbled on it, it said ‘ABANDONED’ in bright white color. Suddenly, I noticed that a person may be in his mid forties, dressed in a typical corporate outfit; was zipping up his pants in sheer excitement while coming out of the compartment. This rather really amused me, he looked really educated and well off. Why would someone do that? Ah!
The next thing I saw was simply shocking. Two minutes after he left, a small teenage girl, may be 16, came out of the same abandoned compartment, she was kinda talking to herself as if she was under the influence of something really powerful. For the next few seconds I could not believe what I had just seen and even if believed it, I was unable to comprehend the reality. It was obvious after a while that she was responsible for the sheer excitement of that corporate bastard. As my thoughts were going blizzard, my eyes were still focused on her. She crossed the rail lines and joined the group of boy’s playing cards.
I had hardly gotten over the blizzard reality and now a boy amongst the group grabbed my attention with his victorious shout of him winning the game, slashing his hand across the girl’s breast and acclaiming his award. I knew the girl was in pain, I could see it on her face. The girl was his reward? Really could that be a reality? He had his hands on her breast till the other boys forced him to fallback. Soon there was an argument regarding the girl’s possession, the kid who had won the game was a junior and was not entitled to such riches. The boys started asking her for sex with such degraded words that I had never heard before. The discussion ended when the girl shouted that she had just had sex and was in no mood to do so again. While she was shouting, we had an eye contact for a second and I could not dare to give her a second look.
I seriously got nerves. Where were the cops? What happened to the Indian culture? Where was I? Was I in some kind of misconception about this world or was I still dreaming a bad dream?
I wanted to do something about it. But what? With an unexpected sudden adrenalin rise, I stood up and shouted…”What the hell is going on here? Leave her along. Go from here!” I doubt anyone understood that but nevertheless they all scattered, the girl walked towards the tea stall and started drinking something, I guess it was tea. A boy was still after her tail, very cheekily came close, spreads his hands across her shoulder and requests her something in her ears (which I imagine was nothing else but sex). All I could hear was them talking about something twenty. Wait a minute…was that the price she was quoting?
I saw the boy tossing over a five rupee coin to the girl and promising her something for later (perhaps the second installment?). She turned around with an angry smile and ordered him to pay-up by tonight. This was purely beyond belief. The girl had a cost price; that too Rupees Twenty. They both came up to some sort of agreement; the girl was busy drinking the tea while the boy had acquired the permission to move his hand over her neck and breasts until the tea stall owner shouted at them. The girl crossed the rail lines and disappeared towards the main station and the boy started walking after her.
After witnessing one of the most shocking and horrifying event in my life, with high levels of adrenalin and ’gathered’ courage I walked towards the tea stall seeking some insight as to what the hell was really going on around here. What the tea-stall guy said almost made me cry, he said, “…this was her job…when she came from Surat…she was really good at it…now she is no fun…” He advised me to stay away from this mess. Mess? Bull shit!
I started walking towards the main platform dragging my heavy bag along; I was looking for a Police Chowki. I think more than police, I was looking for a hope. “To earn hundred rupees a day, she needs to have sex with at least five customers? Fudge! ”, such thoughts had taken over my conscious and sub-conscious mind. The reply from police was not different, he too advised me to stay from this mess; he said he would send a patrolling personnel on that platform, he suggested me to not file a FIR as it could mean ‘great’ troubles for my career.
In some way I felt, God was testing me today. I learned that my train was an hour late and would depart at around 11:45PM. I tried to distract myself with every possible resource I could find. Even though I wanted to focus on something else, my eyes kept looking for that girl at every corner of the station. The thought of her having forced, unwanted and dirty sex kept my mind occupied “In some corner of the station, 20 rupees, earning money for a night meal Ah!”
It was 11:10 and my search was of no use, I returned back to my deserted platform; with an exception of the tea-stall owner and few dogs I could not spot a single living soul. Suddenly, the same voice touched my ears; she was running towards the tea-stall, calling off and scaring the stray dogs on the platform. We both had our second eye contact and again I had no courage to look up at her again. I figured there was no way that I could look at her, leave along the thought of having a chat…”having a chat? Where did that come from?” I was a step away from re-defining my culture and strength, a step away from discovering something called “Fortitude”.
Something happened. I called her by a random name and invited her to sit next to me. She bluntly replied back by saying that it was not her name (I knew that for a fact) and ignored my invitation. I just knew what would work; I flashed a 50 rupee currency note and asked her to join me again. She eagerly accepted my invitation. The very next second she was sitting right next to me with her hands on my knees.
I held her hand and requested her to keep it way. I took her by surprise by saying that I would be paying her 50 rupees, if she promises to not do ‘stuff’ that boy tonight. She quietly took the money at first and then returned it back. She said, she had never begged in her life and that was the reason she chose to live such a life. I started blabbering about ‘negatives’ of such a life (very naïve of me), of course she knew much more than I could think of. I told her that she could keep the money, as I was ‘satisfied’ sitting next to her. She took the money and said, “Thanks”. Another shocker for the night, this thank you was not in Hindi but English. I was really eager to know the source of her knowledge.
A Mumbai winter chill ran through my spine as she told me her story, she had studied in an English medium school in Surat till class 6th. Her family was killed in the 2002 riots of Gujarat and she was forced to elope with her family friends to Mumbai where she was left alone to live a life of misery. She had tried working as a maid but it never worked, she was living at this station since 2004.
After a minute of awkward silence, I gave her whatever cash I had with me (around 200rs) and asked her to return back to her village/city. She said nothing, she won’t take the money, I had tears in my eyes; her eyes were wet too.
She quietly stood up, accepted the money and started walking away. I could not move my eyes, I felt a brain freeze.
I shouted, “What’s your name?” in English (without expecting a reply) but she kept walking away as if I never existed in the first place.
Few minutes later I was sitting in the train, searching for one last look. I had achieved a level of satisfaction, the pure feeling of trying my best; wondering if 250 rupees would really change her life…
The train stared moving…
Towards the end of the platform, I saw someone standing with a brown cardboard, it was her and she was holding a custom made plank card which read “Aarti” in bold letters.
“Aarti”, I whispered.
It’s almost 4AM, I couldn’t stop writing. Let’s see if I can find some tea at the next station. Surat.