Mr. Pai pushed his way into the three-tier AC compartment of the night train from Mumbai to Mangalore, looking for seat number 41. He was a stout, elderly gentleman, who had just retired from government service, and was looking forward to a comfortable final innings.

His ancestral home in Mangalore was finally divided into two parts, and after a lot of haggling with his uncooperative younger brother, and the promise of their mother’s favourite diamond bangles, senior Mr. Pai had acquired the entire ground floor of the house. He knew how to fight for his rights, he thought, as he prepped himself for another battle, for his rightful lower berth.

Sure enough, as soon as he had located his seat, and settled his luggage, a man approached him.

“Uncle, if you don’t mind, can you exchange your seat with my mother?”

Mr. Pai was about to refuse, when he inadvertently made eye-contact with said mother. She gave him a piteous smile. Mr. Pai sighed. There was no way this fat woman could climb into the upper berth, and there was no way he could refuse to give her his lower berth. The other lower berths were occupied by equally elderly and fat women. Life was really unfair at times, he thought, as he made his way up the tiny ladder, into the dreaded upper berth.

There were eight seats grouped together in one section, six on one side, and two on the other. The other two upper berths were still empty. Mr. Pai ordered dinner from the pantry service, and settled down with a book.

Two girls got in at the next station. One of them was a young girl.

The other passengers looked at her rather disapprovingly, probably put off by her tiny sleeveless top, the purple streaks in her hair, and the big tattoo on her arm.

The other girl who got in, was of great interest to her co-travellers. She was a foreigner, dressed demurely in a kurta and jeans. She smiled at all of them, as she confirmed her seat, and wished them a good evening.

The five people below, immediately sat up straighter, and smiled their approval.

Mr. Pai shook his head.

Now the big Inquisition would start.

Where was she from?

Where was she headed?

Oh baap re, a young girl travelling so far, all by herself!

Didn’t her family mind?

Was she married? Working? Any kids?

They wouldn’t rest, till they had mapped the last three generations of her family tree.

Surprisingly, the girl didn’t seem to mind. She was very chatty and friendly.

Mr. Pai shook his head.

Why did no one ever warn these firangi girls? There was absolutely no need to be so friendly towards strangers, just because they were in a foreign country. After all, they wouldn’t behave like that, back home, would they?

This one seemed to be very naive. She was almost giving her new friends her whole itinerary in Goa and Gokarna, with no thought to the consequences.

Soon the food arrived.

The girl with the purple hair took her food up into her berth, and plugged in her ear phones. She clearly wanted no contact with her co-travellers.

The foreigner, meanwhile, was happy to break bread with her new friends.

After dinner, Mr. Pai went to dispose off his plate and spoon. He met an old acquaintance near the washroom, and they got chatting. The talk soon turned to the spate of robberies that had been happening on this route.

“I’ve heard that they use some sort of spray to make you unconscious, and then rob you,” said Mr. Shetty.

“How can they make an entire compartment of people unconscious, Shetty? Use your brain!” Mr. Pai wasn’t given to too many flights of fancy.

A man standing near them chimed in.

“Whether they knock you out or not, you need to be very careful about your fellow travellers. If someone looks or acts suspiciously, keep an eye on them. Why take a risk?”

Mr. Pai rolled his eyes, as he wished them good night, and walked back to his berth. People loved to exaggerate. A flash of purple caught his eye. The girl with the purple hair was talking to two other girls. They looked scruffy, just like her. How did their parents allow them to get tattoos at such a young age? And their clothes…shyaa! Foreigners dressed more decently than Indians, these days.

Something about the way those girls were whispering to each other, seemed odd. Soon after he settled into his berth, the girl came back. One of the others tried to engage her in conversation. Surprisingly, she claimed to be travelling alone. Hmm… he would have to keep an eye on this one.

Despite his best intentions, the biryani that he had eaten, made Mr. Pai very sleepy, and he dropped off. He was in the middle of a muddled dream involving a plate of biryani, and a train full of unconscious people, when a sudden cry woke him up. The train was waiting at some station.

“Thief!”
“Call the TC, call the railway police!”
The lady in the berth below his was going crazy.

Someone had stolen her handbag, full of jewellery and cash.

“I woke up to go to the loo, and my bag was missing! Help!”

The TC came rushing into the compartment, to reassure her.
“Madam, don’t worry. You will get your bag. Please come with me and identify your bag.”

After he took her away, Mr. Pai realised that the girl with the purple hair was missing. The foreigner had probably got off at Madgaon. But, where was the other girl?

He caught the best source of information…one of the chai-waalas.

Eh, wait! What’s happening?”

The chai-waala shook his head importantly. He was loving the attention.

“What Saab? How did you sleep through all this chaos? It was so exciting. They finally caught the gang of thieves. Arre, one of them was sitting in your section.”

“Yes! That girl with the purple hair! I knew it!” Mr. Pai burst out triumphantly.

Shyaa! She was the one who helped to catch them,” corrected the chai-waala.

“That girl and her friends kept a watch on the whole train. They were working with the railway police. They took video recordings of the thieves robbing the sleeping passengers. Very smart thieves, I must say. Getting so friendly with everyone. No one would suspect them.”

“But, who was the thief in our compartment?”

“You will never believe it. That friendly foreigner! She and her friends have been robbing trains on this route for the past whole month!”

Mr. Pai was dumbfounded. What was the world coming to? There he was…suspecting that poor girl. She was working with the cops? But she was so young! He suddenly felt very old, like the world was moving too fast for him.

As he was gazing out of the window, the girl with the purple hair walked past, with a group of girls, all dressed alike, and all with the same tattoo on their arms. He tried to get a better look at the tattoo. It looked like a black bird of some sort.

Suddenly, the girl with the purple hair turned, and saw him staring. She smiled and waved at him, as the train started to move.

Photo credit: Gautam Belle

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34 thoughts on “Birdie on the railway line….

  1. Aps you are such a master story teller- this one had me hooked too and I loved the way you have used the parallels ppl draw form the way others dress and engage! This judgemental quality makes us so suspicious and often leads us down the wrong road!! Looking forward to your next story with bated breath!! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one best of the black bird series Apeksha! At least for me as you cleverly address a social issue with such ease! Society we live in has become so judgmental not only towards females but also towards males at times. You have beautifully merged black birds tale and a social factor into the story. I loved reading it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very nice story, so the story moved outside Maharashtra and got glimpses of Karnataka. Your thriller stories are amazing and especially the attention to detail described, i was literally feeling the scene of the compartment in front of my eyes, you described it so real.

    Liked by 1 person

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