‘The coolies in their red shirts are as prominent as ever before’

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Chander Mohan Malhotra Is 70. He is a Retired Army Colonel who lives in Simla

THE RAILWAY STATION in Simla still continues to retain its old-world charm. This is in spite of obvious signs of modernisation having naturally crept in with the passage of time. A case in point is the coloured fibre glass chairs which look somewhat incongruous in the given ambience.

Illustration : Uzma Mohsin

Whenever I returned home for a vacation from my unit in the army, which was two or three times in a year, he would be standing in front of the only first-class compartment that the toy train had at the time. And he would invariably turn up a day prior to my departure to tie up the next days plans. I suspect that he had a mole in our family in the form of my mother.

On one such occasion when he happened to come to the house to finalise plans for the next day, I committed the cardinal sin of telling him that I would be able to manage on my own as the luggage was light. This statement drew loud protestations about his loyalty to the household emanating from withing and not being because of the money he would earn.

However, in my heart of hearts, I knew that the loyalty was to a large extent motivated by the rather generous tips, in kind, of an amber coloured liquid that cheers the spirit, which were handed down to him by me.

However, in my heart of hearts, I knew that the loyalty was to a large extent motivated by the rather generous tips, in kind, of an amber coloured liquid that cheers the spirit, which were handed down to him by me.

Whatever the reason for his loyalty, the association continued for many years even though the frequency of my visits to Simla steadily tapered. Five or six years ago, on one such visit, I found my friend conspicuous by his absence. The same happened during the following visit. I assumed that age had got the better of him and that he had either returned to his native village or perhaps had even passed away.

In my mind, Achru was consigned to the list of those human beings whose memories are seldom, if ever, recalled. However, when on a recent visit home I saw a bespectacled man with a bent back and wisened face, sitting on his haunches and smoking at the railway station, I had this gnawing feeling that it was him. But the absence of the signature red shirt gave room for doubt and I let the thought that it was him pass and moved on.

Throughout my brief stay in the place, I was troubled by the thought that the least that I could have done was to have confirmed my suspicion. I decided to do this on the day on which I was to leave the place.

In my mind, Achru was consigned to the list of those human beings whose memories are seldom, if ever, recalled

Lo and behold — I found him sitting in the same posture and in the same place. On seeing me accost him, he seemed to become a little guarded at first but as recognition dawned on him, the once sprightly coolie, who was now weak and frail, stood up with some difficulty and recounted how he had to return home because of ill health and why he did not like it there.

He had now come back to spend whatever time was left amidst familiar surroundings, in the place, he said, he had lived in for most of his life.

How do you make ends meet, is what I asked him. That is not difficult, my son now does the work that I used to, was his reply.

It was time to leave and as the train chugged out of the station, I couldn’t help wondering whether there was a young subaltern onboard who had just handed over a bottle containing an amber coloured liquid to some coolie.

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