It was a late autumn morning when my train slowly entered the railway station of Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. The crunching wheels came to a halt with a loud noise and a jerk as I looked through the door to my childhood days that I had left behind years ago. I had met Mr. Radhya Shyam Tiwari in Kolkata last year and he invited me to Singruali. I was ready to jump down from my compartment as I used to do in those days when I realised that the platform had been raised to the level of the train and I could gracefully step onto it.
There was a lot of hustle and bustle in and around the station when Mr. Tiwari and I were leaving and there was the continuous announcement of upcoming trains. We were on our way to the town with my mind searching for the known landmarks of my childhood spent in the railway colony. My school, our market, the government hospital, the small post office were there in the township that was about ten kilometers away from the railway colony and we had to go there to fulfill all our daily needs. There was a school bus, which came from another township little further away, that took me to school in the town and brought me back home in the evening.
In those days Singrauli was a small township surrounded by woods and hills. The high road to the township passed through woods, railway tracks, two bridges over a small river, which was flooded in the rainy season and at other times there was hardly any water flowing. Since it was a hilly region, the road to our township meandered through hills while if people cycled along the railway track, it was a short route. Though no regular trains ran over the track except for one in the morning and another in the evening, the empty track waited for the crunching of wheels to break its loneliness. Suddenly I came back to the present as Mr. Tiwari was calling my name and asked why I looked so lost.
He asked me about my days in this little town when I was but a boy. We were sharing our past and present life in the journey when suddenly I saw the bridge above us. The railway tracks ran through the bridge, and a goods train was running along the track. We were travelling along the road with the river flowing slowly as it was autumn. The forest was still the same as it was many years ago, the only difference I saw was that there were lots of houses here and there beside the highway along with shops and garages and the trees had already started shedding their leaves. I asked Mr. Tiwari whether wolves and other animals from the forest still came onto the high road and could peacocks be seen? He answered that they were all a thing of the past now. Hardly a few wild animals were left in the forest and day by day the forest was also disappearing. He asked me about how the forest was in those days and for a moment, I was lost in my past.
I still remember that incident when I was merely in the 5th standard, just ten or eleven years of age. My father used to go to the market in the town every Sunday to buy vegetables and groceries for the week. Winter vacation had just started that week and it was a little different from other Sundays for me. I requested my father to take me to the market with him that day. Initially, he did not agree to take me since it would be difficult for me to ride on his bicycle for so long, but I went on insisting and promised to obey him. When he agreed, at last, I was thrilled as it would be an adventurous trip for me that I could narrate to my friends the next day in school.
The market place was in the middle of the township. From the high road, the by-lane to the right went straight there. Although I used to come to the town for my school on the school bus, it was always a restricted journey. I never visited the market earlier. It was a great joy for me to visit the place for the first time. Though the market was not so big, the local people from nearby villages and other areas came here every weekend. Every Sunday the market was generally crowded from morning 6 am to evening 6 pm. The township had a police station just a few metres away from the highroad towards the town, a post office, and a bank near the market. As we went to the market in the afternoon after having our lunch, it was already about to get dark. When we were on our journey back home after purchasing everything for the week, it was late. We had gone to few more shops, on my request for some titbits that took another few minutes and we were very late to begin our journey back home. We knew that at home my mother would be worried about us for being so late and hence my father took the decision to take the shortcut way to our way back and that was through the forest. All was going on well when all of a sudden, we entered into the woods and lost our way amid the darkness.
The winter evening drew its dark shadows around us by 6 pm. After a while, my father asked me if it was okay to take the shortcut through the woods. But my father soon realized his mistake as the woods were very dark. So he turned his bicycle to return, when someone crossed us on another bicycle, and a sound echoed “Mere sath aa jao…” (Follow me) Nothing was visible except a white shirt. My father told me to hold on tightly as we followed that man.
Suddenly we found ourselves pushed into a ditch and I just froze in fear. My father asked me about my injuries, but the whole incident was so harrowing that I was dumbfounded. My father had also got some cuts and bruises here and there. Ignoring his injuries, my father somehow managed to hold me up and raised me out of that pit. Then he pulled the bicycle up and told me to hold it from above. I tried my best ignoring my injuries and with my father’s help, the bicycle was out of the pit and then finally, my father came out from there. It was so dark that we could not even see each other. I was following my father’s voice but the wind was dragging our voice away. He told me to get up on the bicycle, and was about to start walking towards the main road, when a hand approached his shoulder and pulled him back.
“Kanha ja raheho babu? Udhar toh khai hai!!” (Where are you going Sir? There’s a deep gorge ahead!) a broken voice called out. My father suddenly came back to his senses and put me down on the ground. An old man said, “Mere sath aao, mein apko rasta dikhata hoon” (Come this way, I am taking you out from here). We followed that unclear person, maybe for ten to fifteen minutes which seems to be hours for us, like a robot, since we were numb with fear. I was holding my father’s arm tightly. But my father was calm and quiet. Suddenly, that man stopped and told us to move ahead to the highway. From afar, we saw the main road. As we were about to say thank you to that old man, we could not see him anymore.
It so happened that we were about to die but by God’s grace was able to make a narrow escape. We owed our lives to that old man who was our saviour. Had it not been for him, we would have fallen into the deep gorge.
I found Mr. Tiwari looking at me and suddenly, he took a left turn and jump onto the muddy road of the forest and said to me, “Why not visit the forest once again Mr. Sen. For a long time, they are waiting for you.” At first, I didn’t get him and was surprised. “What do you mean?” I asked him. He replied in a heavy voice, “Yes Mr. Sen. Every time you cannot escape from your fate. We all are waiting for you eagerly for many years.” Suddenly the car stopped with a loud noise and I was dragged out of the car by some unknown force. Nothing came to my mind, as to what I should do. I closed my eyes to pray to the Almighty and then I saw my father who had already left me on his eternal journey a few years back. He said to me not to be afraid and put together my courage and strength to give a hard blow on the face of the person who was dragging me. I did the same as per the instruction of my father and hit Mr. Tiwari on his face with all my strength and start running towards the highway. I didn’t look behind to see what happened to him there. Maybe he had fallen onto the ground injured. Somehow I managed to get onto the high road where I boarded a bus to the township. I went to the police station to lodge a complaint about what had happened to me and that I had lost my luggage. I saw their frightened faces and realised that something was wrong. They informed me that Mr. Tiwari passed away a few weeks ago. Nobody exactly knows what happened to him, but his dead body was found in the forest, covered in mud and blood.