This took place when we were newly married. My father-in-law had a job which involved transfers every few years and we made an attempt to go and visit my in-laws whenever we could avail leave from our respective jobs. That particular summer they were posted at a place quite far from where we lived. While we took a flight on our way out, we decided to take the train on the way back. It was not a short trip by any standards. It involved a 72 hour journey across the country, but we were young and enthusiastic, there were no children in our household at that point, and we set out on the train journey as if on some adventure.
We boarded the train that morning after a hearty breakfast. After a lot of debating we had opted to spend the extra money and book ourselves into an air-conditioned coach rather than a non air-conditioned one. Many a moment we were glad we had decided to do so as it was peak summer and the heat would have been suffocating during the three day journey. As we settled ourselves into the coach, which was to be our home for the next 72 hours, we looked around curiously at our co-travellers.
There were four berths in that cubicle, which had a thick curtain at the entrance, giving it the impression of a small room when pulled across. One was already occupied by a middle-aged man when we entered the train. He smiled pleasantly at us and made every attempt to co-operate as we arranged our luggage under the berths. As we sat exchanging basic pleasantries like names and destinations, we also remarked about the fourth empty berth.
Suddenly there was a flurry of activity and a group of about five people entered our little cubicle. There were two women and a man, probably in their mid thirties, and another couple in their twenties. Each carried a piece of luggage of some size. My eyes widened when I realized that they were about to settle those luggage in our cubicle. My husband and I looked at each other silently, wondering how these five people were going to fit themselves into this berth meant for one. After they had settled the luggage, they smiled at us and all but one left the compartment. After sometime, one of the women returned with an elderly man in tow. In his eighties, the gentleman still had a twinkle in his eye. He was settled into the single empty berth and then the lady turned to us and explained that their entire family of about a dozen people were travelling to Mumbai to attend a wedding. While they were all in the adjoining non air-conditioned coach, they had opted to splurge the extra money required to procure a berth in an air-conditioned coach for the oldest member of their family. When the train gave a jerk, signalling the beginning of the journey, she requested us to keep an eye on him and let them know if anything was required. She soon left to join the rest of the family in the adjoining coach through the connecting passage.The octogenarian was a gregarious individual and we had soon struck up a conversation with him. By early evening I noted that every couple of hours, a family member came by to give him something to eat and drink, or if nothing else, then to sit and talk with him. By next day it became apparent that his youngest son-in-law was the most frequent visitor. Not only did he come by often but his visits stretched longer with every visit. I soon realized that he wasn’t coming over to check on his father-in-law out of concern, but mainly due to the fact that the coach we were in was an air-conditioned one. He would come into the coach, inquire with his father-in-law if all was well and then promptly climb up to the upper berth and snatch a nap. Other than pick a fight over the issue, there was little we could do to stop him, and as it was such a long journey , we were hesitant to kick up a fuss. By the evening of the second day, the old gentleman had got comfortable with us and chatted about his origins and life. We exchanged many a story and in the course of these he told us with a twinkle in his eye that his youngest son-in-law was a bit of a scoundrel and there was nothing he could do about it because of his daughter.
That bit was proved to us the next morning when we stopped at a junction. It was a ten minute halt and most people alighted to stretch their legs and pick some snacks and meals. When the train stopped at the station, the old man was napping and his afore-mentioned son-in-law was sitting next to him, reading a newspaper. On seeing the station roll by, he quietly but deftly picked out a hundred rupee note peeping out of his father-in-law’s shirt pocket and slipped out to the station. When he turned and saw the rest of us watching him, he put a finger to his lips and smiled. It all happened so quickly that I thought I had imagined it. I glanced at my husband and could see that even he had witnessed what had happened. On his way out he asked us to tell his father-in-law that he would be back later in the day. The elderly man woke after the train left the station. After a while we could see him patting his shirt pocket, probably trying to locate the money which he had kept there. My husband casually asked him what he was looking for? Agitatedly, he replied that he had kept a hundred rupees in his pocket for personal expenses and now couldn’t locate it. It was a difficult moment for us. We were in a quandary. We could see the agitation on the face of the elderly man in front of us. Yet we could not just tell him that it was his own son-in-law who had snitched that money. My husband and I looked at each other and silently reached a consensus not to disclose the fate of that money. The next time someone from his family came over, he asked them to help him search for the missing money. It was an unpleasant situation to be in, but we had no option but to remain silent.
When we finally reached our destination, the old man was so happy to be in our company for the three days it had taken us to travel the distance, that he invited us to join in the wedding celebration a couple of days after. My husband and I had got fond of this sprightly old man and agreed to do so readily. We did attend the wedding reception. And that was it. Neither party kept in touch. The old man became part of a regular train journey. But even now after two decades, whenever I think of train journeys I have taken, this one never fails to cross my mind. And what stands out is the sly expression of the son-in-law in that moment when he was pulling out the hundred rupee note.