I HAD TO undertake a journey by train. Cash in hand was very little, and the distance I had to cover was fairly long.  Traveling, however, was equally imminent for me. In fact, the work was indispensable. Since I had to change trains here and there, the journey was promisingly quite pleasurable; otherwise, a continuous journey of forty hours would definitely be quite taxing. Whatever the case, I finally bought a third-class ticket and got onboard a train.

The train I caught towards sunset luckily had a berth empty in a compartment. I hurriedly occupied it and laid my bed on the berth. I pushed my trunk and luggage underneath the berth and reclined on it. Since that station was the origin of the journey and there still was a lot of time before the train commenced its move, I had found an empty berth for myself.

With time, newer passengers got into the bogie. On the berth just behind mine in the adjacent compartment, a woman laid her bed. With her was a little child, quite loving in look, fair of complexion and stunningly well-built. Her husband laid his bed on a berth facing his wife. Since there was no much rush in the train, I assured myself of a sound sleep all night and prepared to recline. The woman behind my birth and her husband were also reclining on their respective beds. But none of us was in sleep.

The train moved. Of the passengers sitting or sleeping inside, some started dosing, while others closed their eyes, trying to call up some sleep. There was no companion in my compartment to talk with. One after another, everyone was sleeping off. In the stillness, the noise of the train’s motion became even more pronounced. The monotonous clickety-clackety of the train’s movement sounded like a part of the pervading tranquility.

It was an old habit of mine to read something before going to bed. I reclined and started reading a book. There was enough of electric light inside the train. In the intervals, the child on the berth behind mine stood holding the wooden back-supports separating our berths and turned his face toward me, stretched his soft little hands and trying to touch my face, nose in particular. Getting a tiptoe of his pranks, his sleeping mother would occasionally pull him back and make him sleep beside herself. But then, he would repeat the same shortly after again. The reason was that there were colorful pictures on the cover of my book. Since the cover was made of polished, glittering paper, the pictures on it shone even brighter in the electric light. Maybe he liked it so much, the child often extended his little hands towards my face. When he did that, my hand involuntarily moved on one side for fear of getting the book torn, and so, the child’s hand fell on my nose, and not on the book. I too was enjoying the game. I no longer had any interest in reading the book. Unless there are others to see and ridicule, or I grow hesitant on my own, I always enjoy playing with children. I would have joked with the child even at this moment, if it were not for his parents and other passengers who were there in the train.

Though I had a sort of inhibition to play with this child of strange parents, I could not hold myself for a long time. I put my book away and turned toward the child, held his hand softly and amused him, jutting out my tongue. When I got hold of his fair, rosy and chubby hands, I felt an untellable sort of joy. Even if I held his hands gently, he had to put all his labor to get it freed. If ever he managed to free it, he would charge upon my nose with the same hand. Those days, I didn’t need glasses to read a book. There was no risk of getting the glasses broken as I do today and so I allowed him to freely touch my nose. Perhaps because the light falling on my nose made it glitter on the tip, the child loved it so much.

In the middle of the game, the child at times trampled on his mother’s body during one his joyous hops. So she occasionally woke up from her nap and made the child return to sleeping. As for me, I eagerly waited for him to return to the game and come to tease me again. He would take no much time to stand again, and I would instantly involve myself in the game. This way, our game lasted for about an hour. After that, he slept off. I read a few pages from my book and retired to sleeping like everyone else did.

Covered by a thin loin, I was in deep morning-hour sleep in a side-lying position. In the meantime, I felt a soft object slowly crawling over my ear a couple of times. I raised my head and looked out. It was the same little friend of mine, who was attempting to make me awake. The object crawling over my ear was nothing but his hand. He was inviting me into yet another session of our game.

The night had given way to the morning light. Through the window glass, we could see bright sunshine smiling outside. Seated on the electric wires on the iron poles outside the railway track, the birds were hailing the morning light. My little playmate had a face like the rose flower, perhaps because he had woken up from a sound sleep. His rosy cheeks, refreshed by the cool morning breeze, looked like lotus petals. His appearance made my heart leap up with joy.  I took his soft puffy hands—apparently crooked with sagging flaps of flesh—into mine, moved them up and down gently and said, “Good morning, my dear little friend!”

His mother, who had woken up by now, pulled him back like before and made him sit on her lap. I also woke up and engaged myself in morning duties.

By now, the sun had become formidably bright. The train stopped at a big junction in a while. I came out of the train and bought some food for breakfast, and some mohanbhog[1]. By then, the child’s parents had finished their breakfast and were talking between themselves.

The train resumed its journey. Finding his mother engaged in a talk with his father, the child stole a chance and stood on the wooden frame again, trying to draw my attention. From the parcel of the mohanbhog I had just brought, I drew out a little on the tip of my forefinger, and dropped it into my little friend’s mouth, cute like a rosebud preparing to open up, but unable to speak yet. He initially gave his lips a dramatic twitch but soon felt the sweetness of it and started enjoying the stuff, moving his tongue over his palate. Following this, he himself pressed closer to me, asking for more. I fed him yet another shot of mohanbhog in the same way. This time, he took no time in sending it straight into his stomach.  With his mouth opening and closing in demand for more, he now struggled impatiently to crawl over the wooden wall and come onto my berth.  This time, I dropped a little more of the sweet into his mouth. As for him, he clasped my finger with his little, toothless gums, trying to retain it there so that he could send it down again for more share of the sweet.

His forceful jumps made his mother fully aware of his pranks.  She pulled him with a jerk and forced him to settle down on her lap. I could see that he made yet another attempt to free himself from his mother’s clutch and stand up, but his mother’s alertness annulled his plans this time. His mother’s lap, that had all provisions for love, happiness and their ample management, didn’t allow him to cry out and rebel. His thirst for the same pleasure made him momentarily forget the taste of the mohanbhog I gave, and the game we played together. I too tried to pull my mind away from him, and started looking at the fields, trees, the occasionally fleeting village gardens and houses I could see from the train’s window. The field that stretched over a large area in the golden rays of the morning sunlight, the trees, and the houses glittered in a panoramic hue painted by the morning sun, and were simmering with stunning brilliance. Birds of different species sat at various places in the meadows, while others were hopping on the ground. Some of them were pecking at insects—their prey—either on the ground or in the air itself.  I was enjoying all those sight with a deep thrill.

After some time, I turned my eyes to peek at my silent, little friend. This time, he sat comfortably on his dining table—his mother’ soft and loving lap—and was busy sucking milk. ‘Which is tastier: mother’s milk or mohanbhog?’ I said to myself.

When our eyes met, I read the answer clear in his eyes: Since the taste of his mother’s milk had built its home in his tongue and throat since his birth, he had forgotten my mohanbhog at the moment, and was busy sucking milk.  More, that was not just milk. His mind, devoid of speech though, was at the moment having the experience of glorious but little right, bestowed by nature on him, to avail his mother’s lap and suck her milk—for reasons not known yet—whenever he wanted. That was something mohanbhog fed by strangers like me could never give. Sometimes, he stopped sucking milk and rolled his little bluish eyes to peek at me, still in sleeping position though. At such moments, I could clearly decipher his feelings from his eyes. Though in a silent language, he was telling me with pride, “Look! Whatever I am drinking now is purely mine! This is in no way inferior to your mohanbhog.”

When his tummy was full, he started preparing to play with me again. I also was waiting for this opportunity. I was waiting for a chance to avenge the cruel derision he had exhibited for my mohanbhog through his eyes while sucking his mother’s milk. In a short while, he freed himself from his mother’s lap and stood, holding the backrest of the berth like before. This time, I deliberately didn’t turn toward him. I continued to look out of the window. I had, however, placed by back at a point where his little hands could reach. Perhaps because I was not paying him any attention, he once cried in a strange language of his own in his bid to draw my attention. I felt like laughing out, but I was determined to not giving in that easily. I didn’t turn toward him. But he would not abandon his efforts.  In a short while, I could feel his soft hands run gently on my bald head. I didn’t respond to this invitation either. Maybe he was annoyed now; he caught hold of the longer strands of my hair and started pulling them out. Only then did I turn to him.

As soon as our eyes met, he gave me a gentle smile. His little head swayed with joy, and we two reconciled once again. When I fed him some more mohanbhog, mister friend’s joy was beyond telling. Maybe because he was feeling the difference of taste between mohanbhog and mother’s milk, he quickly swallowed the share that was inside his mouth, and brought his face nearer to me with his mouth open, apparently asking for more. This time, I fed him a bigger amount of mohanbhog. He sat down in leisure, moving his chubby cheeks up and down in his bid to chew it up and swallow. This time, his mother was engaged with his father in a longer discussion, and was not attentive on the child. Maybe because she had fed him enough, she was not quite anxious about him. She had left him to play on his own now. She didn’t have any special attention on the child.

Once again, the child sat on the same dining table, and fed on his mother’s milk. He also took a short nap. At around 1 o’ clock, he woke up, sprinted quickly out of his mother’s lap and stood in front of me as before. I fed into his mouth an extremely small piece of toffee. Albeit by twitching his mouth, he chewed it down, and swallowed. Then he displayed a gentle smile. Through the smile, he evidently said, “What’s that you fed me this time? Whatever it is, it is great of taste.” Then, with his hands stretched, he started his attempt to pull out my hair. Since I enjoyed the touch of his tender hands, I moved my head nearer to his hands.

I then said to myself, ‘Pull! Let me see how strong you are!’ But no sooner had he started pulling my hairs than his father cautioned his mother with a signal, and she pulled the child back onto her lap. However, within a matter of ten to fifteen minutes, the parents got absorbed into yet another discussion, and stealing the chance, the child returned to me, inviting me to play through his childish utterances. I gently boxed his cheeks, and like before fed him a toffee. This way, we resumed our game with greater ease. In the middle, he occasionally fell into his mother’s pull, and he would be obliged to stick to her lap, albeit for a brief time.

Around 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, I sensed that his parents were readying their luggage, and thought they were nearing their destination. Since his parents were engaged in the luggage, my little friend had safe leisure and stealing the chance, pulled my hair quite hard. To make it easier, I turned my head toward him. He was now free to touch my nose, and in return for my toffee, gave me a handsome slap with his soft hands, whose taste is a thing I can hardly describe in words. I was shuddering within: he would be gone in a while and I would be left to complete the rest of my journey alone. I knew he would not accompany me through the whole journey. In fact, no one accompanies anyone else through an entire journey.

I grew quite heavy from inside. A chill, laden with emotions of worry, emanated from within and somehow soared up to my eyes again and again, trying to find a way out. I started looking out of the window, trying to hold my mind in something else.

When the train stopped at the next station, the mother held him on her hip. The father carried some of their bags himself and called for a coolie for the rest. On seeing them depart, I paid a look on my little friend. Our eyes met, because from above his mother’s shoulders, he too was looking toward me. He perhaps saw my eyes simmering with tears, he cried out in the highest of his voice, causing a crunch on his throat. To see what was wrong with him, the mother brought her on her frontal side.  He started wailing even more. His cry drew attentions of some passengers—those who were inside and outside the train. The mother pressed him tightly against her bosom, and they slowly moved away. The cry grew even louder. I could not resist myself anymore, fearing that his throat would be hurt.

I came out of the train. Running close to his mother, I said caring not a bit about decency, “The child is crying. Until a while ago, he was playing with me. Allow me to hold him once. I shall drop him up to the exit.”

With a degree of surprise, she gave the child over to me. Before he had fully come on my lap, his cry stopped. I wiped his little, tear-shocked face with my handkerchief. He was silent now, except for the occasional sobs that occurred periodically.

With him in my arms, I reached the exit of the station where a ticket collector was standing. I gave my little friend a lovely parting kiss and handed him over to his mother. Unable to look at my little friend who had given me company till that moment, I lumbered back toward the train. Once again, my ears caught a shrill cry. My friend, who was my companion until a while ago, was crying once again, seemingly making his heart burst. Though I had pulled the door open to enter, I could not move in. I kept standing outside, holding the door of the standing train. My ears were drawn toward the same cry that was moving farther each second and getting fainter. But my heart was telling myself that no one on earth really understood that cry, that silent internal world of that guiltless little friend of mine. He has no voice to express himself. All he can do is feel the pain, and yell out when it becomes unbearable. The world, in fact, has no language for expressing grief, which is not understandable to everyone. If there is anyone that understands it, it is the individual’s own soul, or any omniscient being who can complement that soul.

The train resumed its journey. I entered my compartment. I sat on my berth and felt that the harsh sound of the train rattling against the track had now transformed into the shrieks of that little from of mine, whom I shall never again meet in my life. My ears were still ringing with his cries, while the mind was wishing the compartment to stay empty till the end of my journey. I would remain all alone, doomed to cover the rest of my journey without a friend.

No one can ever give company to anyone else’s journey, no matter how much one wants to. We all have to accomplish our journeys alone…alone…all alone…!

Translation: Mahesh Paudyal

[1] a variety of Indian sweets