BALANCING ACT • by Vijay Matheswaran

Immaculately dressed, Mr. Francis would wait at the Railway station each day, watching the multitudes of people embark and disembark with every train that came to a screeching halt. He would gaze at the vendors parading their wares along the length of the platform, with cries of “Chai!“, and “Apil! Oraange! Kela!” punctuating the clamour of the station. He would unflinchingly observe the pattering of feet, the tired faces glistening with sweat, the damp shirts and blouses clinging to perspiring backs. Each day, Mr. Francis would wait and watch.

The hawkers on the platform knew him as the gentleman who was always seated at the bench, dressed unfailingly in his customary tan suit.

The urchins who roamed the station knew him as the strange man who occasionally smiled at them and would pick out coins from his pockets, buying them a box of glucose biscuits to share amongst themselves.

Mr. Francis, smoking his pipe, paid little attention to what people knew him as.

The station was a small one, serving the sole purpose of getting the townsfolk to the narrow alleys and gullies of Bombay, streets that seemed to teem with promises of luck and fortune, but rather reeked with unhappy realities of hopelessness and suffering. The trains came and went, regular as clockwork, and the same faces got on at sunrise, and got off at sunset. Not much to see in this town, and except for the occasional backpackers making their way to the tiger reserves in the hinterland, tourists were few and far between.

The railways never ceased to amaze the taciturn Mr. Francis, and he would take in the sights at his petite station every day, would be awestruck by the well-groomed guards, their khaki fatigues and powerful rifles inspiring in him sensations of respect and pride. At moments like these, he would extract from his blazer pocket a neatly folded letter. He would gaze lovingly at the writing, caressing the sheet, the strokes the fountain pen had made all those years ago as it danced over the now yellow paper.

And inevitably, each day, his eyes would come to rest on the last few lines, “I’ll visit you soon, father. Look for me on the trains at the station, with my rifle and my uniform.”

Mr. Francis had been unable to mask his approbation the day Jehangir had left home, looking dapper in his Railway Guardsman khakis and his rifle slung over his shoulder. “He’ll do us proud, our son,” he had said to his wife as they watched Jehangir’s steadily diminishing silhouette trek down the road. “It’s not easy to get a decent job around here. He’ll make it big. We’ll live in one of those fancy houses that flank Marine Drive and watch the sun recede into the water each evening.” Even as he said it, his mind drew caricatures of vast mansions with the gentle sea lapping up to them.

The Express, the last train of the day, zipped past, the rays of the setting sun cloaking the sleek blue bogies in a dull golden glow.

Folding his letter, Mr. Francis rose and walked away.

Tomorrow, he thought. Jehangir must be on duty today. He’s a busy man, my son.

At the end of the platform, far from the weak eyes of Mr. Francis, Jehangir sat, his legs dangling over the edge. He looked at his father trudging home slowly but surely. He thought of shattered dreams and broken aspirations, of hope lost and found, of love gone astray and of love tied down.

He thought of his land of hopes and dreams.

Dusting off his trousers, he made his way towards the trains. It would be another night of theft and deceit, another night of trying to make ends meet.

Kicking at the dust, he walked along, his footsteps retracing those of his father’s on the grimy cement, his dirt caked feet struggling to come down exactly where Mr. Francis’ black Batas had left faint footprints.

It was a hard task, filling in these shoes.

A student of Manipal University, Vijay Matheswaran spends his time shuttling between classes, his desk and the pub down the street.

Rate this story:
 average 5 stars • 2 reader(s) rated this