I always wished to be on that tiny train, which took me nowhere. I knew such a tiny train existed. I went looking for it, sometimes deep, within the alleys of my mind and sometimes in the archived photographs of my childhood sojourns. I found the tiny train, permanently parked there. I reminded it the deal, we had once made between us; the tiny train had to come to my rescue someday. But I didn’t know that the deal would materialize so soon.
The marriage was dying. I fought with her on petty issues; argued over her choices; once she left, the house was grief stricken. The house had grown unfriendly. I found it awkward, to return from work and succumb to the stench of emptiness. I spent most of the time, seated in the verandah. Loneliness had made me wish for the tiny train again and again; the train kept chugging in & out of my now bitter, idle mind.
I decided to move out; not just from the home but, the job, the city, the limited relationships and many other burdening contentions. I didn’t wish to let anyone know about the place I was headed to; the home I would be staying in; the job I might take up; the new relationships I hope get tangled in. All I wished for, was to find my own space. I was always a restless soul, finally running away with my private troupe of assets. The laptop, the passport, the books, the camera, the mobile phone, and the ticket. The tiny train that I wished for the wild imaginations in my mild was right there, for real; whistling its way out, carrying me in its womb. It left behind a trail of grey smoke which filled my lungs; the smell of blazing coal made my throat turn a little hoarse. No one came to see me off. I had become a nomad and the tiny train was taking me far away; where else, but to the quaint hills.
During the journey, my eyes feasted on the picturesque surrounds and unknowingly I passed out. Maybe missed out on many other goodies. The tiny train came to a jerky halt. I alighted with my belongings carefully held together in a backpack, ready to begin a new life in the hills. I negotiated my way into the first storey of a quaint wooden cottage. My house owner stayed downstairs with his family of four; his wife and his twins – a daughter and a son. This cottage was located at the tad end of a lazy road. Being at a higher altitude, very few people bothered to lurk around. But the place was a favorite with trekking enthusiasts and mountaineers.
It was almost a month, I had moved to the hills and tried figuring out a way to earn some money. A discussion with my house owner, brought me closer to an unusual offer. He asked me to accompany him to a seventy year old war veteran’s home. The old man stayed in a one storeyed bungalow, built with his savings of a lifetime. He was a widower. Ten years back, his wife had succumbed to cancer. The old man seemed content with his life in solitude. Childless, disciplined and standing tall, he looked fit with minor signs of unease. On being introduced, he shook my hand and settled down to begin a conversation. This conversation led to the so called job offer, he later proposed.
The old man played a keen audience to my stuttering description of educational background, professional experience and personal issues. After I finished, he enquired about my purpose to be in the hills and the time I wished to spend being a nomad. I had a reply to the former but, I couldn’t satisfactorily respond to the later. He glanced at me briefly, smirked and drawing his chair closer to mine, he asked, “Could you help me pen down my memoir?”
A memoir, an account of his personal life and experiences from the battlefield! Before I could make up my mind, he quickly dictated the rough framework he had in his mind. I was supposed to spend six hours every day; making notes and also help him carry out his usual chores of gardening, stepping out for long walks, shopping groceries, etc. He chose to segregate these six hours into three hours of morning and three hours of evening. I was assured to be paid a manageable sum of money in cash, to take care of my expenses. My house owner was honest and helpful enough to not demand a cut.
It was my first day at the old man’s quaint residency. He being a war veteran, I had to make sure I was punctual. But he wasn’t ready to get impressed so soon. The moment I arrived, he asked me to accompany him to the kitchen and help him prepare six cups of tea and store it in a flask. He didn’t want to disturb the course of the narration, while I was in the due course of recording it with multiple notes. After we were done with our first cup of tea, we settled in his veranda. It overlooked the narrow gauge line, on which ran the tiny train. The same tiny train, which had transported me up there, in the hills, just a month back. I decided to make it my inspiration; no matter how irregular its frequency was supposed to be. At the veranda, the old man and I sat across a wooden table. Before he could start with the narration, I pulled out my laptop and placed it on the table. The sight of the laptop seemed to anger the old man suddenly. In his opinion, he had asked me to pen down a memoir and not type it down. He had expected me to come loaded with a thick, ruled notebook or a bunch of papers and an ink pen! Ball pen was to be strictly avoided. I tried to explain to him that I was comfortable and quite a pro with my laptop skills. He was ready to hear none of it. He simply rose, glanced at me once and instructed with a stern voice to return a day later, with a thick, ruled notebook or a bunch of papers, an ink pen, a dripper and a bottle of ink; black ink in particular. My next mission was to find my way to a stationary shop.
The hills had its own share of stationary shops but, on most occasions they ran short on supply. Therefore I decided to board the tiny train, which took me downhill. I stepped out to find a slightly bigger market, which had a large stock of things. So I shopped for all the necessary items that were to serve as a backup plan to pen down the war veteran’s memoir and also mark my debut, as a writer, a so called biographer to be precise! I took the last train back to the hills and after reaching home, slipped into a quick slumber.
The next morning, I was luckily awake at the first buzz of the alarm. I tucked in all the necessities in a sling bag and rushed to the old man’s home. I found it locked and was a little upset too. I looked at my watch to check, if I was late. No I wasn’t. After an hour or so, I saw the old man step out of a tourist car and walk his way to the door. Seeing me, he apologized. Sheepishly I asked him as to where had he been at such early hours. He simply replied, “I went for my morning walk and lost my way back home.”
His reply sent a chill down my spine. I couldn’t figure out what he had just said but, I maintained my calm. Maybe, his age was at work. We sat down at the veranda to begin with the first course of his narration and my first bout of a writing assignment. He took a long breath and started speaking. He maintained a gentle pace, which helped me a great deal to write smoothly. Even though I couldn’t guarantee a good quality of my handwriting, I made sure, I wrote with the required hygiene, to be able to type back the same on my laptop. By the time, he finished his narration, it was mid noon. I was planning to catch up with a quick nap. He requested, I give him company for lunch. The food was usually delivered by a nearby restaurant; strictly vegetarian and absolutely low on oil, spice & gravy. For me, this was bland by all standards. Post lunch and an afternoon siesta, we reunited for the narration. I waited for the old man to speak out but, he chose to sit quiet. He kept gazing at the narrow gauge railway line. There was no sign of the tiny train approaching. He turned to me and remarked, “I am sorry, I just can’t remember what I am supposed to speak next and what would you be writing next.”
In a single course of the day, the old man had surprised me twice, repeatedly drilling in a doubt that he might have a forgetful nature. The next day, after I arrived at his home, I found him seated, looking very upset. As a new tradition of asking, I enquired if I could help him with something. He replied, “I am sorry but, I can’t find the bathroom. Can you please help me locate it? I need to take a leak.”
As I helped him to the bathroom, I realized he had already wet his pants. The place I found him seated, was wet and stinking with his urine. He might have urinated many times and somehow seemed to have forgotten about it.
The days passed, the afternoons paled, the evenings grew thick with darkness and the nights prolonged. The winters were arriving in the hills. The weather forecast department had predicted heavy snowfall in the valley. But the old man had me worried. We had roughly been through twelve sessions of his narration for the memoir but, he continued growing forgetful with each passing moment.
It had started snowing. The people in the hills had started stocking their essentials and locking themselves inside. I had started spending more time with the old man and less time in my own home. I spoke to my owner about the worsening health condition of the old man. He advised me to show him to a doctor. Then one evening, after he had narrated about his fond memories of military training, the old man suddenly rose. I asked him as to why he stopped and why he was in a hurry. He replied, “I am getting late for my morning walk.”
I wondered, if he was truly fine. It was 7 pm in the evening and he was talking about a morning walk! The next day, I managed to trick the old man, make him wait a little in his home and had my house owner get a doctor to pay a visit. The old man was visibly angered but, I persisted that he better listen to what the doctor had to say. The doctor spoke to the old man for a long while. He pulled out his prescription pad and listed a series of tests that were to be carried out. I enquired if there was something to really get worried about. The doctor replied, “Yes, certainly.”
He wasn’t ready for any tests. My repeated requests seemed to have no good effect. The situation was strange. In a course of three months, an unusual bond had developed between us. His health condition had started deteriorating. He had started seeking my support for almost all activities that he once seemed to be pro at. This incident was followed by the most difficult night of my life.
I was fast asleep at the old man’s house, when the door creaked open. Since the winters were in, a loud gush of wind barged in. I woke up with a shocking view of the old man, stepping out almost naked in the storm and disappearing in the darkness. The storm had grown fierce and it took me two hours to track him down. He was badly injured, his skin bruised and his breath complicated. I somehow managed to get him back home, called my house owner the next morning and once again the doctor was back, examining him. We were advised to take the old man to a renowned hospital for a CT scan.
The CT scan revealed a truth, we were not comfortable with. When the reports came in, I couldn’t believe what the doctors had to say. Our old man was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. We were also informed that his deteriorating condition was not a sudden occurrence but, he might have had multiple episodes of forgetfulness in the past. The doctors advised us to be careful and keep the old man under constant observation.
Months passed and I had completed an entire year in the hills. I had moved in to stay with the old man, who had by now forgotten everything. He was unaffected by my absence or presence. To him, I had unknowingly become his support system. A single moment without me in his attendance would wreck havoc. I tried keeping a nurse but, he couldn’t trust her. He refused medicines; he threw away the food; he kept moving restlessly within the home; he stared endlessly at his deceased wife’s photograph; he went through emotional breakdowns. I was simply witnessing his downfall.
I was seeing the war veteran lose a battle to a life, he might have not chosen. I was seeing myself having chosen a life, which was nowhere close to his battle. The memoir of his that I had started writing for was lying incomplete. I tried my best to remind him of my purpose to be around him. But he would simply hug me, lie down and sob.
The winters were gone; the sudden influx of tourists in the hills reminded me of summer vacations. The frequency of the tiny train had increased; ferrying tourists up and down the hills. By now, the old man was completely bedridden. The only language, which existed between us were a series of signs and symbols. I had vacated my rented accommodation and shifted into the war veteran’s home. I was managing his savings, which he had once detailed me about. I was managing his pensions. I had hired a housemaid to ease some of my responsibilities of helping the old man, and to maintain hygiene. Since the old man was long bedridden bedbugs were a constant bother, sucking the blood out of his system and slowly eating in to his life of forgetfulness.
One morning, I decided to rearrange some of my scattered stuff, which comprised the thick, ruled notebook, the ink pen, the ink bottle, the dripper and the bunch of unused papers. Some of the unused papers had dog-eared. Some of them had turned yellow or had spots on them. As I busied myself with the chores, the maid came running in to inform that the old man had suddenly started making an unusual noise. I rushed to see what could be wrong. The old man saw me, clutched my hand and the breath escaped. He was no more. I stood there stunned, feeling empty, feeling orphaned again. He had become a father figure, he had become my responsibility and by the time he had breathed his last, he had become an important turning point in my life. His death attracted a few onlookers; the restaurant owner who delivered the food, my house owner, a few friends he met during his walks and the housemaid. I lit the pyre and saw him rise to the skies. He had left behind a garden that had now turned barren, an incomplete memoir that had become insignificant and a lonely one storied bungalow, which was grief stricken by his absence. I was in the middle of all of these. Since there were no claimants to his assets, I asked my previous house owner to help me find a solution to either sell them off, hand it over to the local authorities or any other alternative. The local authorities were kind enough to suggest if I would like to invest and keep it all to myself. But, the tiny train had started making its rounds in my mind again. This time, I was so close to it that I could think of nothing much but becoming a nomad again. I had once again grown closer to someone and I was again left alone. I chose to retain nothing. I let go all of it except the few pages, which kept the old man’s memory of an ambitious memoir alive and a photograph of his.
I was again a restless soul. I was running away once again with my private troupe of assets; the laptop, the passport, the books, the camera, the mobile phone, and the ticket. The tiny train that I wished for in my mild and wild imaginations; it was right there, for real; whistling its way out, carrying me in its womb. The tiny train left behind, a trail of grey smoke, which filled my lungs and the smell of blazing coal made my throat turn a little hoarse. This time, a few people came to see me off. I had become a nomad and the tiny train was taking me far away; where else, but to nowhere, to start afresh as a writer in search of a story and not in search of a bond. How am I going to take care of my expenses? Well, only the tiny train in my mind could answer that question and also come to my rescue.