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Death Walked in their Midst

2006-07-13 21:45

  Shatrughna's deep brown eyes sparkled with excitement. He clapped his hands and beamed. “How wonderful! I love plays. One day I'll be Arjun in the Mahabharata.” And puffing out his chest, he shouted, “ Krishna the changeless, take my chariot, there where the warriors, bold for battle, face their enemy.”

  The women giggled behind their saree pallus and the children screamed with laughter. Then they mimicked Shatrughna with glee, “ Krishna the changeless, take my chariot……!”

  All of them loved the twelve-year-old orphan, who had come to live with his uncle some years ago. Everyone in the village of Kelabari liked the slender boy, who was always willing to give a helping hand and was ever ready for a laugh and little fun.

  “All right, Shatrughna,” said Chitan Devi, the eldest of the women, still chuckling softly to herself. “we'll take you with us. We are leaving early in the evening.”

  Shatrughna jumped about with excitement and then dashed down the village path towards his uncle's hut. Whistling and singing at the top of his voice, Shatrughna bathed. After changing into a fresh cotton shirt and shorts, he squatted down before his brass thali in the dark smoky kitchen and began wolfing down his food.

  “Slowly, Shatrughna, son slowly.”

  To eat slowly was difficult for Shatrughna and to eat his favourite peas and rice slowly was impossible. Finally he licked his lips and his fingertips and cried, “What a delicious meal, Aunt. I think I have eaten too much.”

  “As usual”, smiled his aunt. “But today I will need all this food for we are going to see the Mahabharata in Bhata. We will be back in the morning. Chitan Devi is taking us.”

  “That's all right, Shatrughna, but take care, and …… behave yourself.”

  “ I will Aunt, I will,” said Shatrughna and added with a mischievous smile, “as usual”。 And out he went. His aunt shook her head with an affectionate smile, and sighed.

  The sun was setting, when the group of four women and six children finally set out. Night crept over the barren plain dotted with bushes on both sides of the narrow road. A cold November wind nipped their noses.

  “Winter is around the corner,” said Chitan Devi and the other women nodded, drawing their shawls tighter around their shoulders.

  Shatrughna took little Nirmal's hand and whistled softly.

  “Let's follow the railway track,” suggested Chitan Devi when they reached the railway line, which ran from Bhilai, “it's easier to cross the Phuljhar nullah that way.”

  “ But is it safe?” asked Shatrughna.

  “Safer than the road. No train comes at this time. Come on, let's hurry. We shouldn't be late.”

  Shatrughna helped the women and children up on to the track.

  Then holding Nirmal's hand firmly, he led the way. Night had fallen like a thick blanket. They had to feel rather than see their way. But once Shatrughna discovered the right length of stride to take, walking over the sleepers was easy.

  “ Slowly, Ma, I can't run so fast,” He heard a boy cry from behind, and little Babli in Chintan Devi's arms started to whine.

  “Shhh,” soothed Chitan Devi, “don't cry. We'll soon be there. Now, do you know the story of Shakuntala?”

  “Yes”, teased Shatrughna , “ quite well, I have heard it a hundred times.”

  “All right,” began Chitan Devi unperturbed, “ here is Shakuntala's story for those who don't know it and for those who have heard it over thousand times”。

  Shatrughna groaned in mock boredom, but he listened entranced, forgetting time and place as Chitan Devi brought to life the sorrows and joys of the king and Shakuntala.

  All were silent except for Chitan Devi's voice. But suddenly Shatrughna paused. Wasn't there a slight tremor in the track?

  With knitted brows he tried to pierce the darkness before him, then turned around. “ Shhh,” he said, “isn't there a train coming?”

  “ A train, a train,” shrieked the children panicking.

  “ Ah,” scolded Chitan Devi , “ What nonsense! At this time no train has ever passed this track and never will. Behave yourself, Shatrughna. Stop scaring the children, and don't interrupt me all the time. Now, where was I…… Ah, yes, Shakuntala wept……”

  Shatrughna shrugged his shoulders. Maybe Chitan Devi was right. He too had never heard of a train coming down this track at 8 o'clock in the evening.

  Shortly afterwards they reached they reached the narrow bridge running over the Phuljhar Nullah. A sudden gust of wind whistled and howled through the girders. It tugged at their hair and pinched their faces with cold fingers. “Stay close together,” shouted Chitan Devi, but the wind carried her words away. Little Nirmal shivered and held Shatrughna's hand tighter.

  “ Hurry, hurry,” urged the women. Their feet pounded rhythmically, as Chitan Devi herded the small group over the bridge. In great haste they pushed forward with Shatrughna in the lead. They had reached the middle of the bridge, when suddenly another tremor ran through the rails.

  “The bridge is shaking!” cried a woman.

  “Ma, the bridge is breaking!” screamed a girl horrified.

  “Nonsense!” shouted Chitan Devi against the wind. “It's the wind, the wind. Hurry, hurry.”

  Shatrughna strained to hear. Wasn't that the sound of a train behind them, or was it right in front of them? Once again his eyes tried to pierce the darkness but in vain. Another gust of wind whipped his face.

  There, something was coming. Shatrughna could feel it in the air, something rushing on the wings of night. It was hurtling forward. A train, a train.

  “Nirmal, Chitan Devi , run run, everybody, run!”

  But there was no time to run away. He could already feel the steaming engine in front of him – not more than 50 yards away. It was bound to run them down. He could feel the engine, sense it, but was unable to see it. It was a ghost train without lights!

  “Jump, everybody, jump!”

  Lifting Nirmal into his arms, Shatrughna leaped off the track and pressed himself against the vibrating steel girders of the bridge. He turned his face to the right, and saw the massive black shadow of a steaming engine explode into the dark. Hissing and fuming it thundered towards them. For a moment he thought he heard Chitan Devi's high-pitched shriek, then the blast of the engine swallowed up everything.

  “Oh, god help us.” Shatrughna clung to the cold steel girders, nearly squashing the little girl trembling in his arms. The strong gust of the speeding engine nearly knocked him off his feet.

  Ghost-like, as suddenly as it had come, the lone engine vanished. The silence that followed was eerie and frightening. “Why was nobody shouting?”

  Then Nirmal cried, “Mama. Mamaaaa.” There was no answer.

  Shatrughna had expected to hear Chitan Devi curse the engine, the driver, probably both of them. But not a single word broke the silence. The night was still and quiet - deadly quiet.

  “Chitan Devi, Babli, Sukku Bai,” Shatrughna called their names, one by one, but nobody answered.

  Fear gripped his heart. What happened? Where were they all?

  Suddenly a whimper reached his ear, a small whine, that grew into a pain-laden shriek.

  “Babli, it's Babli,” he cried into the dark. “Where are you?”

  Burying her face into Shatrughna's chest Nirmal wailed, “ I want to go home.”

  “Of course, Nirmal,” Shatrughna managed to say in an almost normal voice. “We‘ll do that. But wait, let me see what happened.” Carrying the girl on his hip Shatrughna got back onto the railway track. His eyes widened with alarm as he stepped over the sleepers to where the girl was howling in pain.

  “Babli, Babli,” he called out softly.

  “Oh god!” Shatrughna shrieked, as his bare foot hit something, that rolled away. For a moment he felt his legs buckle under him.

  No, he musn‘t give in. He had to save the children! He bent down and searched the sleepers and the gravel between them till his hands met the body of a baby, kicking its legs in agony. Gently he picked it up and pressed it against his shoulder. “Babli, Babli,” he soothed. But when he ran his fingers over her back, he felt a gaping wound, dripping with blood.

  He felt dizzy but fought against it. He knew he had to leave immediately, without a second‘s delay, but couldn’t. “Chitan Devi,” he cried once more into the night, “Chitan Devi……SukkuBai!”

  The wind carried their names away. There was no answer. “Come, Nirmal, hold my hand,” said Shatrughna in a trembling voice. “We have to get help.” But in his heart he knew that help would come too late.

  He turned away and started on his long journey through the night towards the nearest village - Mungri. He left the railway line in search of the road. Gripping Nirmal‘s hand tightly and pressing the wounded baby against his chest, he groped his way through the dark. Branches hit his face, lunged at his arms, tripped his legs. He stumbled and fell, bringing Nirmal down to the ground with him.

  Pulling himself up, he helped the shaken girl to her feet and staggered on. “It‘s nothing,” Shatrughna managed to say, “It’s nothing, Nirmal.”

  The eerie hooting of an owl reached Shatrughna and made him shiver. He didn‘t know that the night could be so dark, so menacing and terrifying.

  Something swooped past him on soft, dark wings. He shrank back. “A bat,” he thought, “just a bat.” A rustle in the tall grass startled him. He halted and listened - the night was full of strange noises: the howl of a jackal, the mocking laughter of a hyena. Dangers seemed to lurk around every corner: Poisonous snakes, deadly scorpions, wild dogs, and even wolves or tigers…… He tried to brush these thoughts away, tried not to think about anything that might weaken his resolve. He had to reach Mungri.

  And he did. Reeling with exhaustion, almost falling, he knocked at the door of the first hut. “Help!” he cried. “Help! A doctor, the baby, it‘s dying.”

  In less than a minute the whole village had crowded around him. “What‘s happened, boy, What’s it?”

  “He is covered with blood. Are you injured?”

  “Not me, the baby. Save her, please. There were ten of us, now we are three. I don‘t know what happened……there was so much blood. Maybe all of them……”His legs gave way and he sank into the arms of the village headman. Unconsciousness engulfed him like a wave and drew him under.

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