It was December 1973, and our days—six years actually—in Calcutta were done. We were moving to Bangalore.
In those days, the first phase of the journey by train, from Howrah Railway Station to Madras Central would take more than two days. We had done this journey many times before and it was always very enjoyable.
On that last trip south, we had a first-class coupe for four, which meant that we shared the coupe with one other gentleman—the fourth man in the coupe. When the train halted at Cuttack, the excitement and the noise of the station filled the little coupe and my parents, who hitherto had been so relieved to be finally on the train after months of planning and packing, were beginning to take in the atmosphere. “Oh,” mother said, “this station has a post office!” This naturally spurred my father on to say, “Do you want to write to your Leela akka?” A blue inland-letter and pen materialised, and my mother began writing: My dear Leela Akka . . .
Alright, we were going to be staying in their house when we finally reached Bangalore, but you tell me, was there any need to write a letter from a station enroute and rush it to them? I mean we were going that way ourselves. Couldn’t we just take it to them ourselves?
OK, OK, to be fair, we were going to spend a couple of days in Chennai before going to Bangalore, and my parents wanted them to know that we had indeed left Calcutta and were on our way to them. Fine.
But that letter took for ever to write, and then my dad got off the train to post it in the post office on the platform. He asked me to accompany him. I got off the train with him. But someone nearby told me that the train would be leaving soon, so I got back on the train again. How was I to know that my father did not know that I was not with him!
We could see my father in the distance as the whistle blew and even as the train began to move almost imperceptibly at first. But my father was still engrossed in the task at hand. Suddenly we saw him turn around and it took him an endless second to process what he was seeing. He looked around as if frantically searching for something and then took another endless second to decide to run to the train.
He was wearing a lungi and wooden slippers. I repeat: wooden slippers. My father kicked those off and ran barefoot towards the train which had picked up some speed by then. We lost sight of him. The fourth man in the coupe who was leaning out helpfully to take in every detail, straightened up and told us that my father had got on to the last compartment and that some men there had reached down and helped him up.
If you knew my father, you would be amazed by this feat. He had been a geeky bespectacled bookworm for most of his 47 years and, shall we say, exceptionally nonathletic? So this was quite laudable. Knowing he was on the train, we relaxed. The train chugged on for an hour or more before stopping in the middle of nowhere, probably waiting for another train to pass. Suddenly the fourth man in the coupe looked out of the window and yelled out that he could see my father near the front of the train.
Well my father, he later told us, had been sick with worry about what had become of me, his only child. Had I not been with him at the post office?
This was not the first time my father had lost me. More than six years previously, when I was not quite two, he had taken me to the Alwaye Railway Station— this was in Kerala, where we had lived before the Calcutta stint—and I wandered off, when he was buying a ticket. After looking for me for a while, and just as he was about to go home and face my mother, I had wandered back to him. But could he expect that kindness from God again?
Noticing that the train had stopped, he simply jumped off from the train to the ground several feet below and began his walk towards the engine. He wanted to speak to the train driver. Let’s just say that the terrain was not very friendly, and he had no footwear, but he had made it to the front of the train. But before he could call out to the driver, the fourth man in the coupe yelled out to him. From all that distance, we could hear my father shout out: Selvi irukaalaa? (Is Selvi there?)
When he knew I was safe, he made his way back to us, and he had not quite reached us than the whistle blew. But the fourth man in the coupe reached down and my father reached up, and there was enough adrenalin in the coupe for my father to find himself safe with his family all intact. The rest of the journey must have been uneventful. I do not remember anything of it or of the few days spent in Chennai.
The next thing I remember is walking into Leela Periamma’s home. They said that they had received the inland letter.