He froze seeing me. But his soft eyes, now large, gleamed on his pleasant face, framed by longish neat strands of mostly white hair. His shoulders hunched naturally by age, stooped further. I approached him, on the aisle of the two-tier ac compartment of the Coromandel Express, we had both inhabited over the last twenty five hours, since boarding at Chennai. His expression took on that of a child’s caught robbing mangoes, from his strict neighbour’s garden. I loomed large over him, even from a little distance, as his expression – the tightening of his facial muscles, was attuned to his clutching of something tightly to his chest, thus drawing my attention to his lean hands.
Behind the arms criss-crossed over his chest, I recognised the covers of the two books that had alternatively given me company, over the many hours the man occupied the lower side-berth next in line to mine. I recalled his peeping at me every once in a while, if my curtain was open.
“Eta hocche ta ki (What’s going on here)?” I snapped in Bengali, perhaps in fear of losing my literary companions, whose views I was yet to consume in entirety; loud enough for occupants of a dozen berths around us to hear, “Aapni eta korchen ta ki (What are you up to)?”
“Ami just shoriye rakhchilam, ke jane kar (I was just keeping it properly, god knows who it belongs to)” he replied stammering, all flustered, everyone was looking at us standing in front of my berth. He handed over the books to my outstretched hand, as he added. “Ami arekjoner towel ta o shoriye rakhchilam (I also kept someone’s towel properly).”
“But I had only gone to the wash room, then stepped down at Kharagpur for a while” I replied irately in Bengali. “The towel is the railway’s property, but you had no business to walk off with my books.”
The man slithered back into his berth, like a child after a bout of scolding.
I sat down fuming on my berth, the books now safe in my hands, mentally still scolding the man, thinking of his perversity. You can trust a Bengali man, whatever his age, to steal books, if given a chance, I thought. Then as I looked out at the greenery rushing past me outside, I relaxed almost immediately. I could not help wondering now if I had overreacted. After all, he was an elderly man, over 70 surely, maybe a little senile even. Then also, it was only two books he had taken, not expensive stuff to most people as they were to me at that point. One book was “Journal Of A Novel” by John Steinbeck, that I am still possessive about, as I haven’t finished it yet – being a meticulous reader. The other, “Paris Trance – A Romance” by Geoff Dyer, http://geoffdyer.com/2011/12/06/paris-trance/ — the cover (in the picture here) might have actually triggered the man’s imagination and the one he really wanted to take.
As I write this now at my desk in Calcutta, a good 6 – 7 hours later, I realize I was in effect reacting fiercely, to the stealth and intrusion of my ongoing thoughts, to the impending rejection by my literary companions – my unfinished considerations via the Steinbeck book I had been devouring. Truly, train journeys on my own, as I choose to undertake many more since I’ve started writing; than I’ve done lifelong, give me varied perspectives on life. On this trip, I had other diverse thoughts, including watching a smart naval Captain with his wife and children who occupied the berths in front of me day long till Vizag, and who might fill as characters in a short story or a novel.
This incident of the book thief, gives me an insight into myself more than ever, as to how possessive and protective I am to unfinished thoughts. I realise alarmingly how I tend to not answer my mother, even snap sometimes, if my ongoing thoughts are disturbed, especially if I’m writing, not realizing her need at over 75 years to talk to me on my short trips, as she is more often alone at home. I must admit though, that I am possessive about unfinished thoughts, but tend to be more than generous in sharing even outrageous ones, once crystallized in a way I put out into the world in the form of a novel, short stories, blogs, emails or even face book posts for that matter.
This piece took me much longer to write than it need have, as I invited my mother to sit on the bed behind me as I wrote, even as we chitchatted through my writing process. But old habits die hard, so towards the end I requested her to watch Television on her own for a few minutes, but after telling her what I was writing about. She went ahead, amused and laughing at the old man, I went back to the first word of this write up to work my way back to this word – now.