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The Stranded Phantom (standard:Psychological fiction, 3154 words)
Author: KhurkiAdded: Apr 16 2005Views/Reads: 3131/2292Story vote: 0.00 (0 votes)
His predicament was part tragedy, part farce. I wondered why he stayed on in that hell when he helped me escape it.

I don't know if he reclaimed his life or died a street dog's death on
that scummy railway platform. I wondered why was he stranded hopelessly 
when he had the courage to help me escape. I wish him well. 

The railway stations dotting the suburban and inter-state railway tracks
in Mumbai are cruel places. They may be the lifeline to Mumbai's middle 
class population, but to those who live here and make a living here, 
these stations do not offer ticket to anywhere. Almost everyday trains 
carry little boys from all over the country and eject them on to these 
stations. Some of them never leave these grungy hellholes, and many 
others do so only after their souls are mutilated. 

I arrived at Dadar station one muggy night aboard Frontier Mail that had
left Delhi the previous day. I could have gone on and gotten off at the 
much bigger Bombay Central station but somehow Dadar felt nicer because 
my cricketing hero Sunil Gavaskar lived here. 

I had run away from home after screwing up a school test to avoid
listening to my strict father's harangue about my lack of focus and 
ambition in life and his sacrifices in sending me to an expensive 
private school. 

It was late in the night and having traveled in the toilets, to avoid
ticket inspectors, for about thirty-six hours, I was famished and 
wobbly. I was only twelve. I walked up and down the platform to wait 
for all the Frontier Mail passengers to exit and the ticket-checkers at 
the gate to leave so that I could get out without being caught. As I 
completed my second round, a short, swarthy man accosted me. I was 
startled and prepared myself for a fight or flight; but the man calmed 
me down with a sympathetic smile. ‘Come to my snack stall. I will give 
you something to eat,' he said reassuringly. He seemed to be used to 
boys in my predicament. ‘I can even give you a job, if you promise to 
work with honesty and loyalty,' he added noticing that I was wary of 
him. Given my condition, I accepted the offer without enquiring about 
the job and remuneration and followed the man to the snacks and 
beverages kiosk on the platform. He owned that joint. 

Soon I had food and an assignment to sweep the kiosk counter that were
dirty with crumbs and tea and coffee stains. I did not like the job but 
I was grateful for food and a place to sleep on the roof of the kiosk. 
But my nascent plan to leave the station the next morning was scotched 
by my benefactor as he insisted that I wear ‘informal' clothes given by 
him and deposit my school uniform and books with him for safekeeping. I 
tried to convince him that I was comfortable in my uniform and he 
should just let me be, but he argued that my posh school uniform will 
attract unnecessary attention and the police might take me away. 
Reluctantly, I let him have my navy blue blazer, sky blue tie, and 
white shirt and trousers, as well as my black Bata shoes; and I changed 
into the worn out but still shiny polyester T-shirt, shorts, and 
plastic sandals that the kiosk owner offered me. 

Within hours of hitting the stained and musty durrie on the roof of the
kiosk, along with six other boys who worked there, I was shaken out of 
my tired slumber. It was still dark. ‘Everybody has to get up at this 
time every morning. The first train will be here in half an hour. The 
stall needs cleaning up. So, chhotu, get down to work,' I was told by a 
sleepy, gruff voice. It belonged to a reedy and very tall man–he must 
have been six and a half feet in height–who smelt as if he had last 
bathed in the previous year's rains. He had a cadaverous, bearded face 
and disheveled hair that must have been shaped like a helmet by the 
barber. I cursed under my breath and stirred to get up even as my body 
revolted. I remembered everybody had gone to sleep well past midnight. 
I guessed the gaps between train arrivals were the only resting time 
for those who lived off trains. ‘I want out of here and fast,' I told 
myself and decided to play along for the time being and somehow reclaim 
my things from my employer later in the day. 

‘Bloody dog! Why can't he let us sleep a little longer? The train
arrives at five and he kicks us out of bed at four,' the boy lying next 
to me mumbled. 

‘Who's this sewer pipe anyway?' I asked him. 

‘IIT. He is Lukkha's sidekick. He manages the stall in the mornings
because Lukkha seth wants his proper sleep,' the boy told me. 

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