When strangers meet en route in real life, the stories are usually far less dramatic.
The phone was continually ringing, but answering a call was as risky as not answering the call was unwise because taking a call from her family or friends could hugely alarm them, for I was a stranger and couldn’t plausibly explain my possession of her phone, the truth being positively stranger than fiction in this case; and not taking any call meant running the risk of missing her call, for she was most likely to call her own number as soon as she could. Had it not been for the cellphone she had put in my pocket, I could have just wished well for her and walked away, for we were just complete strangers who had met on a railway platform. But how could I just disappear with her cellphone without making sure that there was absolutely no way of finding her and handing it back to her?
And then there was this other matter of getting the ticket to board a train for Kanpur. It was already dark and I was unlikely to reach Kanpur any time before midnight. The clock was ticking away, and the queue wasn’t getting any shorter. But wait, I had the ticket for a reserved seat, which meant I had paid reservation charges in addition to the travel charges whereas a ticket for travel in unreserved class obviously did not include reservation charges. So I had already paid more than I needed to pay for travel without reservation, and nothing stopped me from foregoing the balance amount, which meant the ticket I was holding should be good for travel in an unreserved compartment to the same destination. But that was just theory, and I could be missing something because payment alone might not be proper authorization, as the reserved ticket specifically authorized travel by a certain train.
The theory was worth testing before I got into a queue that could not get me to the ticket window in shorter than an hour and a half at least, and that if I dropped the idea of having the reservation ticket cancelled; else, there were two equally long queues awaiting me, and it was getting further late and darker by the minute.
I started looking for the office of the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) although I had never noticed one before. There must be some office for the TTEs to operate from, I thought. And, yes, there was, and I did not have to walk around much either. I found a relatively young TTE standing in a scantily furnished office, which was more like a lean workspace for the TTEs to fill in the paperwork.
I shared my thoughts with the young TTE, who lent a patient ear and nodded thoughtfully. It made sense, he said, but he was not sure if there was a rule permitting such travel, he said. Visibly intrigued, he asked me to wait a moment and went out to return in ten minutes or so. “Yes, you can travel on that ticket in a general compartment, but you would need authorization.” “Okay. Who would do that for me?” I asked, apprehending an answer that made my freshly discovered shortcut too circuitous to be useful. He smiled. “I would. Ticket?” I handed him the ticket. He turned it over, stamped it, signed it, and handed it back. “That’s it?” “Yes, this is now a general ticket. Take any train to Kanpur now. This would work.” Wonderful! Problem solved. I thanked him happily and sincerely. It’s not every day that a government servant goes out of his way to make things easier for you with no expectation.
In the meanwhile, the girl’s phone had rung a couple of times, and the calls were either from a cellphone or from the landlines numbers from South Delhi, going by the area code displayed. She could have borrowed someone’s cellphone to call her number, but I could not risk taking the call even if I did not speak first, for silence, too, could be worrisome in the given circumstances. How long could I not take the calls? How long could I wait around?
I started weighing my options. I could return her phone whenever we got in touch the next time, and maybe I could take the call and just say the same thing to whoever was on the other side. But it couldn’t be comforting to hear from a stranger that their friend or sister or daughter or girlfriend had disappeared from a railway platform after handing over her phone to that stranger. In what world would this tale make any sense to anyone? The best scenario could be if she called after telling the bizarre tale to whoever needed to know it, and I handed over her phone to her whenever I could. Getting on a Kanpur-bound train with her phone in my pocket did not feel right at all; actually, it felt like the worst of the options but also the one that I was getting more and more likely to be left with finally.
I was standing on Platform No. 1, trying to pick a future course, each option looking as bad as the other in some respect, and running different scenarios in my mind, none of which looked good, when the phone rang again, and this time, and for the first time, the screen displayed a landline number with the Paharganj area code. It could be she; it could be someone else, yes. But this was my best chance. I thought briefly and took the call.
…to be continued