Five Rupee Note
It was Friday afternoon on a hot October day with the mercury touching close to 35°C. I was sitting on a wooden bench on platform number 1 of Akola junction. Since nobody knows where Akola is, here is what I used to tell people: Akola is located in the plains of central India and is only four hours away from Nagpur (the centre of India).Even this used to elicit stares of incomprehension!
Under the roof of the platform it was surprisingly cool, maybe even 5°C cooler. As usual having a backlog of at least one paper from the previous year (lovingly known as ATKT or allowed to keep term!!), I was spending my Diwali holidays sitting in a squalid top floor flat, preparing for the exam (again!).The flat was pretty clean till four of us misfits had moved in six months back. Things went downhill pretty fast from there. The four of us being “majnu” Sikdar, “Abe Dhakkan” Brijesh, Thane ka Sagar and Yogi Bappa(i.e. yours truly).
I used to be permanently dissatisfied with Akola and was the first to run to the train station. Life being what it is, today I feel nostalgic whenever I remember those days and friends.
Sitting on the platform I was waiting to meet my father (Appa) who was coming by Puri Ahemdabad express. It passed through Akola junction at 14:00 hours every day, reaching Ahmadabad at 06:00 hours the following day.
The platform at this time was nearly deserted, except for the odd passenger and vendors on the platform. Looking for something to kill the time till Appas train arrived in twenty minutes; I sauntered over to the Wheeler book stall on the platform. I was ordinarily a maha chingu (miserly) person who used to get a coronary over just two rupees. However I used to be quite liberal in spending money (my parents money!!) on books and magazines (as it is my hard earned money now, it’s only books that I buy! Talk about double standards).Finally deciding that the fast-going-downhill India Today was the cheapest option, I parted with twenty rupees with great difficulty. All the while I was moaning to the guy in the stall what a rip off India today had become. Thinking back I must have given up a fortune in buying those magazines.
Near the book stall stood a young man probably not older than thirty years of age. Dressed in formal shirt and pant with leather shoes, he would have been a picture of the smart working fellow, had it not looked like he had not taken a bath in the last couple of days. To give company to his tired look was an even more weather beaten VIP briefcase. His hair was probably all grey already, a fact barely hidden by the thin coat of hair dye. He was of a medium height about 5feet 6 inches and he was already developing a middle age belly.
As I paid for the magazine, I noticed that he was looking at me and smiling. If my reading was right the smile basically said, “I need some cash and I’m going to have a chat with you about that!!” When you have stayed in a hostel with a mixed bunch of samples you become accustomed to deciphering peoples smiles and stares. It is easy to get lulled into false sympathy for a stone broke chain smoker and lend him two rupees, only for the guy to develop short term memory loss later!!
I scrambled over to the nearest bench and made a show of reading the magazine in the vain hope that he would leave me alone. But I was being too optimistic.
The guy came and next to me and started off with, “Are you a student?” This was not very difficult to make out looking at my scruffy clothes.
“Yes” I answered tersely. When dealing with unknown quantities in life I try and keep my answers as short as possible. My motto being, “Mouth is the source of all calamities”.
This did not seem to deter him and he plunged into conversation with all the enthusiasm of a hunter who has spotted a deer.
“I used to be a student once. I did my diploma in mechanical engineering from Nagpur.”
Without waiting for an answer he continued, “You know Machine Design? I used to find that subject very difficult. Oh and engineering drawing as well”.
Having scraped through by the skin of my teeth in those subjects, my ears naturally perked up at the guy’s story. But I had no way of knowing whether he was genuine or not. Akola, particularly the station area was full of fantasists and frauds who tried to convince you they were engineering students!
But this guy seemed a decent sort, so I decided to go along for a while.
Then he told me his name, which due to my advanced age (!) I cannot remember, so we will call him Ramesh. I told him my name was Krishna. This wasn’t an outright lie; one of the synonyms of my name is Krishna.
The next question was, “Where are you from?”
On learning that I was from Gujarat, pat came the reply “Gujarati people are very nice. Some years back I stayed with one of my colleagues at his home in Surat. Excellent hospitality, but my only complaint is Gujarati food is too sweet. They put sugar in even dal.”
Being a connoisseur of Gujarati food, this of course rubbed me the wrong way. Before I could argue the point with him he asked, “Are you a Brahmana?”
I replied in the affirmative. With a sad smile on his face he said, “Can you help a fellow Brahmana out by giving him a few rupees?”
By now I was curious to listen to why he wanted the money. For me it is never a question of the money when helping people, but whether the person genuinely needs it or is just trying to scam me.
“If you can spare some change, I need the money to call my father in Nagpur to come and pick me up from Akola,” Ramesh said with an apologetic note in his voice.
Seeing the questioning expression on my face he clarified, “I was pick pocketed on the train while coming from Jalgaon. I suffer from a bad back and had to go to the hospital there for an X-ray. My train ticket was in my wallet which was stolen along with all my cash. I tried to convince the Ticket Collector to let me ride the train till Nagpur, but he did not agree. Having no money for the ticket or for the fine I was forced to get down in Akola. The station master has kept my X-rays as collateral till I pay the fine. I need to make a phone call to my father in Nagpur to board the next train and come and get me.”
“You can ask the STD(phone) booth chap to let you make a call and pay him later,” I suggested. The story about the station master keeping his X-rays as collateral did not strike me a plausible. But I have known stranger things to happen, so I went along with the flow.
“I requested the STD booth owner to let me make a phone call. I even offered to sit in his booth till my father came from Nagpur. But he refused,” a sad note had crept into his voice.
Seeing the cynical expression on my face, he began to open his briefcase.
“This is all I have left. I can assure you I am not lying.”Ramesh said.
At this point I was becoming very uncomfortable.
Then something happened which tipped the scales in Ramesh’s favour. Three of my batch mates had just entered Platform 1 for their afternoon tea and cigarettes . They were a decent bunch but had the unfortunate tendency to have a good laugh at someone’s expense if they felt like it.
I could see them wandering towards me. They saw the guy and I am quite sure they recognised him as a prospective time pass to enliven the afternoon. If he approached them they would rag him to their hearts content.
Genuine or not, I cannot stand someone undergoing public humiliation for a few rupees. Everyone has self respect which should not be trampled on. It would be indeed a base man who would gloat over someone’s misery.
Taking a torn five rupee note out of my pocket I handed it to him. At that time good crisp notes seemed to be in short supply in Akola. Even a torn note encased in plastic film was accepted as valid tender for a brief period of time.
“Ok then take care of yourself.”I said, waving him goodbye.
With a word of thanks he gathered his briefcase and ambled off the platform,presumably to the row of STD booths located outside the station.
I met up with my batch mates and within a short time Puri-Ahemdabad express had rolled into the station. As it was an express train it s halt was barely five minutes in Akola Junction.
Out stepped Appa from the 2 tier AC coach, dressed in a white lungi and a khadi kurta.
His first reaction on seeing me and my batch mates was to shout, “This is Puri culture!!”.This was followed by his trademark laugh.
I introduced everyone to my father and within a few moments he had boarded the train. The train began to pull out from the station, picking up speed as it went. I stood for sometime on the platform looking at the train receding in the distance.
Going back to my flat, I thought about Ramesh and debated whether he was genuine or not. Finally I came to the conclusion that what was done was done and there was no point in pursuing the matter further.