There were tears in his eyes.
Shutting them and blinking rapidly didn’t make it go away. He let the stinging continue, as the sharp smoke of the beedi blowing into his face emanated from the porter squatting right in front of him. The man was probably new to this town, to smoke right in front of the first AC coach, and for that matter anywhere on the railway station premises. A crooked eye locked onto his face, blowing the acrid fumes from underneath all that unkempt hair, a picture of defiant contempt. Yes, the man was definitely new. Mangeshwar kept up the staring match, as much as the watery eyes could manage, a grim smile playing on his otherwise stern countenance.
Also, this was the wrong train. He normally took the later train from a different platform, because it left him with one hour more for public appointments and journalists. And this one time, his security personnel were missing too. Evidently the porters here weren’t at their best behaviour because no one had forewarned them that the Honourable Municipal Commissioner of Ratangiri was going to take this particular train today to reach Mumbai tomorrow urgently.
Turning away, he began to map the journey ahead. He needed to buy Urmila a new faun coloured hand-bag to match the new saree she would wear for the weekend exhibition, from the leather market in Dharavi. Because once the meeting with the Minister of Urban Affairs began, the hours piled on and he couldn’t risk not buying the required birthday gift. A staunch vegetarian, the wife loved leather products to such an extent, that in the 27 years of their marriage, not once had he the heart to hint to her the connection between slaughterhouses and leather goods. Images flashed passed, of places he had visited and inaugurated and forced to close down. Scenes of blood splattered across walls followed by the familiar stomach clench. His eyes closed, trying to dissolve the images cropping up; he didn’t need more material for bad dreams.
‘Lion of Ratangiri’, indeed. Media headlines of many years had contributed to the permanency of that title; describing the new bureaucrat who grappled with issues head-on and was intolerant of the complacency of juniors; all that uncharacteristic aggression in trying to trim the fabric of local governance almost ruthlessly, suspending officer after officer and demolishing even the five star hotels for violating codes had earned him this name, that now needed more space to move around than he did;that filled every room before he entered; that was more intimidating than him. The resentment that followed him and his style of working encapsulated this persona who drove people to behave, out of fear. Somewhere within this meticulously practised stage-act, the short, soft spoken Mangeshwar who didn’t know how to talk to women and who could spend all afternoon tending to the village animals was lost. On some days, on awaking he knew he was soon to put on solid robes of regulations and authority, and that kept him in bed, anxious and unrelenting. If the six lakh townspeople of Ratangiri only knew that their Honourable Commissioner was haunted by his own mirage, they would think he was his own imposter!
The indicator on the platform said three more minutes. He had been standing there for five. No one had seemed to recognise him. Not the coolie with his revolting beedi, not the bald man who just elbowed him and spat red betel juice with a swagger on the railway line, nor the group of girls who seemed to be chatting about a new movie.Somehow the space and time had provided a cavity of anonymity which he hadn’t experienced in more than two decades. Not being asked to sit, not having to accept numerous staggering offers of tea and water and cold drinks. So different from the average day as Commissioner. The ‘Honourable’ Commissioner, a title that reminded one of animals who are bejewelled a decked up just before they are sacrificed; the title spelt mockery in every syllable. And truth be told, there was very little honour in being a Commissioner, the public office and strenuous work was usually led to being dishonourable and treating people like dirt, people who came in during all hours of the day to have their problems solved. People who were never satisfied by the amount of public interaction he made time for. He often spent 18 hours in his office, listening to grievances, but they always wanted more, they always grew more helpless. And he never knew how to deal with that excessive expectation, fear and worship. There was always fear. It made no difference how much he strived against it. The bureaucratic system poured fear in the moulds of its created hierarchy and every single government officer was made out of this mould. They breathed and bathed in this fear of talking back and speaking out of turn or saying what was actually in their mind and it was irrevocable damage done, something that couldn’t seem to be undone.
The train windows flashed past and the announcements began in the different languages; he was just another sweat laden man standing in front of a crowded platform, waiting to get in.He may actually enjoy this particular journey, owning to this anonymity. 9 hours by himself, such a precious breadth of time where he could do all he wanted. More importantly, to not do what was required. He could take off that tedious mask and be all by himself, just this one time. He could wear pyjamas. Maybe he could watch that one day cricket final he had taped, almost 3 weeks ago. Or he could call his daughter-in-law for suggestions on his wife’s birthday gift and listen to his grandson cry in the background. He had missed that boys first birthday just a month ago, and he was probably not going to make it back in time for his wife’s birthday either. She had asked him to promise that he will come, this one time. Their togetherness of all these years were made of many unfulfilled promises that he had somehow exhausted in the service of the city. Promises of safety and cleanliness and funds and technology made and fulfilled. Promises of birthday dinners and anniversary parties and school annual days and vacations forgotten. Mangeshwar’s family had made such sacrifices, and for what? A fearful, almost inhuman reputation? Any deviation or sign of mercy could shake it, and it pushed him to make the same kind of ruthless decisions every day. But today, this could be kept away; maybe he might be able to write his wife a letter. God knows that she would love that. He has proposed over a letter that one summer morning; bribed the postman and made sure no one else in her household had received it. After they were married, when he was being transferred frequently to newer locations, and was away from home for weeks, he used to write to her constantly; funny things and caring things and stories from all the new cities he was living in. That’s how they had lived the essential years of their marriage, etched in stories and hidden in the ink.
Abruptly, a sharp intense pain on his head caused a momentary blackout. He stumbled onto the crowd in front of him and then to the ground and felt someone hold his arm to lift him back up, while blood seemed to seep from a cut on his nose bridge. The coolie behind him, the foul beedi smoking one, had dropped a huge trunk on him accidentally, pushed by the throng. As he took off the broken glasses from his face and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the blood off, the man on his right who was still holding his arm quailed and stammered, and immediately started shouting at the coolie and trying to catch his collar. The recognition seemed to pass through the crowd like a fast-paced rhythm, and soon there were angry growls directed towards the perpetrator of this accidental crime who had hurt their Honourable Commissioner.
The realisation of what the crowd was doing was made clear with the shrieks of the man of pardon and pain. There was a mob beating him and crushing him, trying to hurt him for what he had done, the collected rage of disrespect to a senior government officer, their leader.
Mangeshwar stood up, brushing the dust of his clothes, head in unbearable pain. He looked at the crowd immersed in teaching its lesson, an ominous thudding sound accompanied by moans growing more and more pitiful. A moment later, the ringing roar of the Commissioner of Ratangiri halted the mob thrashing the man who was now bleeding profusely. He began a fiery admonishing at the people, who moved out of the way instantly, as he made the station inspector call for an ambulance and the police to curb the situation; he shook a couple of collars and made sure everyone was sorry for their unwarranted act of violence. Walking into the coach, now delayed for him, the Commissioner alighted the train followed by trail of awestruck voices filled with pleasantries, queries, complaints and compliments, walking in the shadow of the most revered person in the city.