Monday, November 19, 2007

The Waiting Room

“Waiting Room” said the dusty old sign on the railway platform. Kishor Dutta, his wife Suman, with the baby, and seven-year-old Ashu got of the train. They were coming to Mumbai for the first time.
“What does that sign say Daddy?” he asked.
“It’s the waiting room.”
“Why are we going there? What do people do in a waiting room?”
“People wait there. Don’t ask silly questions Ashu!” said his mother. She was annoyed with the baby who had been crying continuously for the past fifteen minutes.
“We have to wait for your uncle to come. He’ll take us to his house.” said Kishor. “It’s by the sea” he quickly added, to cheer up his son who was slightly upset at his mother’s scolding.
Ashu had never seen the sea before, except for in books. He really wanted to play in the sand. His uncle had often told him about the wonderful beaches in the city. He had butterflies in his stomach. He dreamt of running bare foot in the sand. He didn’t know what it would feel like but he knew it would be very nice. He would build a sand castle just like the one in his story book. Ashu couldn’t wait for his uncle to come and take him to dreamland.
“Do people always come if you wait for them in the waiting room?”
“I guess so.” replied Kishor.
Ashu was fascinated by the waiting room. He had heard so much about Mumbai that every little thing related to Mumbai had him mesmerised. He stared at the walls with peeling paint, the wooden benches, the tile missing in the floor, the dusty fan. He was completely transfixed. A coolie was bickering with a passenger outside. He didn’t understand the language very well but he found it interesting. He would tell his friends back home about every second he spent here.
“Wipe your hands and face Ashu. Then we can all eat the food I packed from home.” said Suman.
“Oh!” said Ashu, snapping out of his reverie.
“My hands are already clean. Why is the baby still crying Mummy?”
“I think she’s hungry too. I’ll go to the Ladies Room. You wait for us here with Daddy and finish your food.”
Suman left with the baby. Ashu sat there next to his father. He was just too excited to eat.
“Are you hungry son?” asked Kishor
“No Daddy. I don’t like the fish curry Mummy packed.”
“You’ll have to eat it anyway. I think she will take a while in the ladies room. Should I get you a candy from that shop there in the meantime?
“Yes Daddy. I would really like that. Could you get me the yellow one?” said Ashu looking at the shop through the window.
“All right then. You wait here for me. I don’t want you getting lost in the crowd there. Don’t go anywhere son. Mind the bags. I’ll be back in a moment.” saying that, Kishor left.
Ashu could see his father from the window. He contemplated for a moment going and asking his father to get the green candy instead. He dropped the idea when he saw his mother coming from the other end of the platform with the baby. She appeared to be telling Kishor not to ruin Ashu’s appetite by giving him a candy. At a distance Ashu heard the sound of a train entering the platform. Then there was a bloodcurdling scream.
Two trains arrived on the platform at the same time. On the same track. Within moments the platform was smouldering. The candy shop was blown to bits. The dented blue metal of the train dangled repulsively. There was smoke everywhere. People everywhere were either groaning in acute pain or lay terrifyingly silent.
It happened only a few metres away from the Waiting Room but, to Ashu the thundering sound that shook the walls around him seemed very distant. As if it was muffled. He couldn’t hear the screams that surrounded him. He couldn’t see the devastated platform. All he saw was his family. Amidst the debris, lay his mother, the baby and his father with a yellow candy in his hand. The baby didn’t cry any more. Ashu forgot everything he had been dreaming about only moments ago. The big city wasn’t so fascinating any more. He didn’t want to go to the seaside. There were no butterflies in his stomach. He didn’t even want a candy.
Ashu sank back on his seat. “This can’t be happening.” he thought. “I just imagined that! How could this happen?” he spent the first few moments in denial. Gradually, as the terrible sounds outside grew louder, Ashu accepted that the explosion was real.
“Maybe they aren’t hurt. Daddy and Mummy and the baby will come in anytime now. I’ll just wait for them here.” he thought. “People always come if you wait for them in the waiting room.” Ashu sat there for a long time. He didn’t know how long. Then he saw a familiar face. His uncle had finally arrived.
“There you are! Thank Heavens! I have been looking everywhere for you! Come, my child. You have been through enough today. Come with me.”
“No uncle. I have to wait for Mummy and Daddy and the baby. The asked me to wait for them here.”
“I’m afraid they won’t come. They have gone away. You have to come with me.”
“I don’t think you understand uncle. Daddy said that people always come if you wait for them in the Waiting Room.”

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