The old man woke up with a start. He looked around groggily and squinted as his eyes settled on the cloudy sky above. A droplet of rain landed on his forehead. He brushed it off and sat up. The little puppy that had been sleeping beside him on the stone bench sat up too. The inclement weather had driven most of the people back home and apart from a few stray dogs; a couple of cab drivers and some pedestrians, the lane was largely empty. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair, rose, stumbled and then steadying himself, began to walk towards the little tea shop at the end of the lane. The puppy followed him. It knew that a treat was in store.
He sat on the little stool outside the tea stall while the puppy settled at his feet.
“Will pay tomorrow,” he grunted as the young boy, who worked at the stall handed him a cup of black tea and two biscuits.
The boy nodded and held out a biscuit to the puppy.
“Here, take these too,” the old man dropped the two biscuits on the ground, much to the delight of the puppy.
He sipped his tea noisily and stared into the distance. He wasn’t sure what had woken him up. It wasn’t the drizzle of rain. It was something else. Perhaps it was a dream. Hazy images of faces came flooding into his mind. Had he really seen those faces in his dream? He shook his head restlessly. Perhaps he needed to go back, go back to sleep. Perhaps the images were a clue?
“A clue to what?” he thought, scrunching up his face. He closed his eyes in an effort to raise a memory. There was something at the fringes of his thoughts; something that he could not quite hold and grasp.
“Arrrgh!” he expelled a frustrated breath. The memory had eluded him yet another time.
He knew not where he had come from. Knew not anything about himself but for the fact that he had found himself one day washed up on the banks of the river Narmada in this city called Jabalpur. But, of his life prior to that day, he had no memory. He did not even remember his own name. A few weeks back the little puppy had found him. They had adopted each other, a kinship had developed.
He sat there by the tea stall for a while, ruminating over his thoughts. Eventually, he got up and shuffled back towards the bench. He shook his head in abject despondence thinking, “I know my mind is trying to tell me something. But every time I try to concentrate, the memory slips away. If only I could see a person or a place clearly, I may learn where I came from or who I am?”
The evening sky was darkening with storm clouds. It started drizzling. The puppy looked at him pleadingly, almost coaxing him to look for shelter for the both of them. It whimpered as the drizzle increased in tempo. The old man finally broke out of his reverie, shook of the cobwebs of his elusive memory and looked about.
“Come Moti. Let’s find some shelter,” he said to the puppy, ambling down the road. The puppy followed dutifully.
His feet turned in the direction of the temple at the end of the lane. He was a known figure at the temple. He often visited hoping for some divine intervention into his situation. At times he would sit inside the hallowed halls and kind townsfolk would offer him food. The Pujariji* knew him well.
“Namaste* Pujariji. Can we stay here till the storm passes?” he asked entering the Temple, hands folded in obeisance to the priest.
“Of course! You are in God’s home. All are welcome here,” said Pujariji, smiling and offering him the evening aarti’s* prasad*.
Accepting the prasad the old man sat. Soon he was lost in his thoughts. The drizzle increased to a steady downpour. The storm lashed down.
“You seem unduly perturbed, my friend.” Pujariji’s voice intruded into his thoughts.
“Pujariji. I don’t know who I am? I don’t remember anything about my past. Today for the first time a memory seemed to surface. But the more I try to remember, the more I lose its thread. I don’t know what to do? I don’t know where to go? I feel lost,” he moaned with moist eyes.
“My friend, if you are lost, then you are in the right place,” said Pujariji. “God will show you the path. Sometimes God works in mysterious ways. Bear with him. Be patient. He will guide you.”
The old man sat in the Temple courtyard for a few hours hoping for the storm to pass. But, the storm did not abate. The evening turned to night. Eventually Pujariji offered him a blanket saying, “Why don’t you sleep in the temple tonight? You can leave tomorrow when the rain stops.”
Accepting the hospitality the old man bunkered down. The dog crept up to his usual spot at his feet. Soon both were asleep.
He must have dreamt again for he woke up with a start. Disoriented he looked about. It was still dark. The rain had let up but a mist had crept into the Temple courtyard. With glazed eyes he looked into the mist trying to clear the fog in his brain. He had seen those hazy faces again? Was it a memory or just another dream?
He shook his head trying to clear his addled brain. “God, please help me. Help me remember,” he begged looking towards the Temple’s inner sanctum.
As if on cue a memory surfaced. He closed his eyes in an effort to hold on to it.
Ramlal woke up with a start. He looked around groggily and squinted. It was dark inside the train compartment. He found himself on the floor. His shoulder was jammed under the opposite berth. It hurt immeasurably.
Dazed he realized that his train had met with an accident.
He touched his forehead gingerly and realized that it was wet. He was wet. Was it raining? But wait, inside the train, how?
“Oh God! The compartment is filling with water,” he realized in a panic.
“Baba. Baaaaaaba. Where are you?”
Shaking his head in an effort to clear his head, he rose, stumbled and then steadying himself, tried to walk towards the sound. His petrified four year old granddaughter was calling to him. She had been sleeping next to him on the berth. But now her feeble voice seemed to be coming from a distance.
“I’m coming beta*. Hold on. Baba is coming,” he yelled at the direction of her voice. Wading through thigh deep water he managed to reach her.
“I’m here Abha. Baba is here,” he said holding her close. Her tiny body shook with loud racking sobs.
The clouds parted just then and a few weak moon rays illuminated the interior of the compartment. Ramlal gasped in horror at the scene he saw. He realized that the accident had derailed the train. His compartment had pummelled down into the river. The mangled structure was now filling with water. Debris and lifeless bodies of people were floating in it.
Ignoring his throbbing shoulder Ramlal picked Abha up. She was injured. There was a gaping wound in her arm. She was losing blood and consciousness.
Panic stricken he yelled out to his family members, his co-travellers in the journey.
“Savita? Savita, can you hear me? Answer me Savita,” he called to his wife. There was no answer.
“Mohan? Mohan, are you all right? Where are you, Mohan?” he called frantically to his son. His son too did not answer.
“Sumita. Can you hear me? Call out to me. Tell me where you are. I’ll come to you,” he called to his daughter in law. “See, I have Abha. She is safe.” But, only silence met his queries.
With dismay he realized that the compartment was eerily silent. There were no people screaming, no cries for help, no terror stricken wails of children. Shocked, Ramlal looked about askance. He waded to his wife’s berth, carrying Abha. The berth was empty. Just then something brushed against his leg. With dismay he realized that it was the lifeless body of his wife. Holding his grief at bay he desperately searched for his son and daughter in law. His worst fears came true when with consternation he realized that only he and little Abha had survived the crash.
Suddenly the compartment moved. Water started gushing in at an alarming rate. Probably the river that was swollen due to monsoon rains, had found a breach.
The movement jolted Ramlal. He lost his footing and was thrown out of the compartment and into the roiling river.
“Noooooooooooo,” he wailed as his granddaughter’s hand slipped from his grasp. The child sank under the water. He too must have hit his head for after that all went dark.
When he woke up he realized that he was by a river bank. Dawn had broken. He tried to sit up but his tired, battered body refused to obey. He lay there for a while. Then mustering his strength he crawled and propped himself against the trunk of the Banyan by the riverbank.
He looked about him in a daze. He could not remember how he had come to be here. He looked at his wet clothing then turned to look at the river. Clearly at some point he had come out of the water. But, he could not remember when or how. He touched the side of his head gingerly and winced. It hurt badly. He could feel a bump, the size of a small stone.
He did not recognize the place. Except for a few stray dogs and an odd cow, the area in the early morning was mostly deserted. He sat there for a few hours till his clothes had dried somewhat. Then he rose and made his way towards a narrow path that he could see near the tree line. He walked on the path till he reached the temple and stumbled into Pujariji preparing for the morning aarti.
The old man opened his eyes. They were bright and shone with remembrance. His face looked peaceful after a long time. The storm had passed; the rosy glow of dawn lit the morning sky. He looked about him. He was sitting in the temple courtyard, the same courtyard where he had sought shelter a few months back.
“Mr Friend, you look enlightened,” smiled Pujariji, looking at the old man’s face on his way to prepare for the morning aarti. “It looks like you found some answers last night?” he added further.
“Yes Pujariji. You were right. God does work in mysterious ways. I remember who I am Pujariji. I know my name and where I come from,” he cried, tears streaming down his face. “My name is Ramlal. I am a teacher by profession. I was on a pilgrimage with my family when our train met with an accident. I lost my entire family in the wreck.”
“Train accident? Do you mean the train that derailed on the Narmada Bridge and fell into the river?” asked Pujariji, aghast. “The news reports said that there were no survivors. It was a horrific accident.”
“Yes Pujariji. I’m the sole survivor. I don’t know why God took away my family but saved me,” bemoaned Ramlal.
“My friend, remember that God works in mysterious ways. If he saved you then perhaps your work here is not done. Maybe you are meant to serve some good,” counselled Pujariji.
“Perhaps you are right. Perhaps I am now meant to devote my life for the good of the people,” mused Ramlal.
Pujariji said, “If you used to be a teacher then perhaps you can teach the impoverished children. They may not be able to pay you but the temple trust can board you and care for your basic needs. What do you say?”
“I have found purpose again in life, here at the Temple. So yes Pujariji, I would like to devote the rest of my life to God’s service by teaching his children,” answered Ramlal, smiling.
Pujariji smiled. “Come let’s do the aarti,” he said.
Namaste – a respectful greeting said when giving a namaskar
Pujariji – Temple priest
Aarti – temple prayer
Prasad – a devotional offering made to a god, typically consisting of food that is later shared among devotees
Baba – grandfather
Beta – child
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