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Running Red

by Swapnil Bhatnagar

Swapnil’s story is of an adventure that hinges on a chunni and its red colour. A village girl notices an impending train disaster and tries to stop it by using the chunni as a stop sign. Will she succeed?

Bishu was the fastest runner in her school. In the sports day, a couple of months ago, she had put such distance between herself and the other girls that there had been murmurs about making her compete in the senior school events rather than the middle school ones. Imagine – sprinting with the big girls from class nine or even ten!

But today, she was running wildly down the slopes green with tough tall grass, a bright red cotton chunni looped tightly around her right hand, impervious to scratches inflicted by the brambles in her path, skipping around the scattered scree that lined the twisting path towards the valley with Najibabad at one end. She had only one thought in her mind — she couldn’t afford to lose the race today at any cost.

***

Parveen Rawat had started working at the Kotdwara Railway yard in the late seventies as a contracted coal shovelling labourer. Over the next fifteen years, a combination of hard work, luck and changing government policies meant that he had a permanent job with the railways. And today, he was about to realize his daughter’s dream for him. Bindiya had wished for him to be an engine driver since the first time she had seen a train enter the Kotdwara station, steam billowing all around the magical beast. And today, on her eleventh birthday, he was finally going to be in the engine bogey of the Garhwal Express for the return leg from Delhi to Kotdwara. True, he was just a temporary replacement for the assistant rail driver who had taken ill last night, but still, it was a dream come true. He was already crafting the stories that he would tell Bindiya when he met her at the end of the journey at Kotdwara where he lived with his wife and daughter.

When he found out about the assignment, he went to the market near the railway hostel in Delhi. He bought a lovely white and red salwar suit for Bindiya and then counted out the remaining money in his pocket. He decided to indulge and called her from an STD booth to give her the news of how her father was a train driver now. She was so excited!

***

Bishu woke up that morning when bright sun rays had streamed in through her window. The previous night had been stormy the way storms in the mountains were — swift and unbridled, but short. She was not surprised to see the bright sun after the gales of the night, and quickly picked up her trusty red chunni and set out to do her regular Sunday morning chore. She had been gathering firewood in the wooded hills a couple of kilometres from her one-room house in Biruwala ever since she had been assigned the task by her mother three years ago.

Going towards the wooded hills was easy, but returning with a bundle of firewood to last the week, supported only by the chunni, worn like a strap across the forehead, was tough. But Bishu liked these trips to the woods. Once she reached the woods, she climbed up a goat-track just beyond the small Hanuman shrine to reach a small jutting cliff. Every week, she would luxuriate on the cliff, tracing the progress of the Garhwal Express from Najibabad to Kotdwara by following the billows of steam emerging from the distant engine along the lone rail track that cut the valley in two. Usually, the first clouds of steam were visible around the curve of the valley near Najibabad as she scampered up the cliff. But today the train seemed to be running late. So, she settled on the cliff and started looking along the track towards the other end of the valley.

***

Parveen was miffed. He had reached the Delhi railway yard well before the scheduled start time of the journey. But there had been some problem with one of the couplings in bogey number four. They had had to delay the departure while it was repaired. They had started nearly two hours late. Adrian, the elderly Anglo-Indian who had spent his entire life as an engine driver, laughed at his annoyance.

Arre Parveen, we’re just running a little late. Why are you so peeved?”

“Sir, I had called up my little Bindiya and told her I’d be in the engine today. Her mother is getting her to the station at Kotdwara. They’ll have to wait, and today is her birthday as well.”

“Ah, now I see. Ok Parveen, let’s try to make up for the time. As your first assistant driver duty, just increase the throttle a little…yes, that’s right.”

They had been steadily gaining time all through the night but were still running half an hour late as they reached Muzzampur, the last station before Najibabad.

“Wouldn’t it be great if your Bindiya could see her daddy driving the train into the station at Kotdwara? Why don’t you take the controls after Najibabad?”

“You think I can?”

“Of course. I’m right here on the seat behind you in case you need help. The Najibabad to Kotdwara line is very flat. There is a small stretch where the track curves through a narrow ravine but nothing to be worried about. I’ll tell you when to pull the brake lever near Kotdwara. And, stand up when we enter the station so Bindiya can see her hero,” he smiled indulgently.

***

Bishu looked down from her precarious perch. The sky unsuspectingly bright and she had to shade her eyes with her palm to survey the valley below. Something was off on the left side of the scene laid out below her. And then it struck her. There were some large boulders that seemed to have toppled over in the overnight rains. Landslides were a part of life when one lived in the Garhwal mountains, but these had fallen around the train track near the ravine. Bishu squinted. Yes, the rocks definitely looked like they were on the tracks.

Bishu looked around with rising panic. Had anyone seen the landslide? Was the train driver aware of the danger? Was that why the train was late today?

And then — what could she do? She couldn’t see any adults who would know what to do.

She scrambled up and looked around. She had wedged the chunni under a small rock when she had settled down on the cliff. She retrieved it quickly, and wrapped it around her right palm so it wouldn’t fly away, or entangle with her feet. Then she ran.

Not towards her village, but towards the path that led down the slopes to the valley. The red of the chunni and its connotations for drivers of all kinds was the last hope now.

***

A little opening on the side of the engine-bogey threw gusts of mountain air on Parveen’s face that wore the broadest grin that the face had ever had. His hand reached towards the right side of the console. Just above the brake-lever was the lever that released a blast of the train’s horn, proclaiming the arrival of the metal miracle that it was. As Adrian looked on amusedly, Parveen pulled the horn-lever as they entered into the valley after moving out from Najibabad station. He saw the straight track laid right across the valley. Through the blur of distance, he could see the curve in the track that was a precursor to the ravine that Adrian had told him about. But that was a good fifteen-sixteen kilometres ahead. He increased the throttle a little more. Bindiya must have reached the station already.

***

Bishu was barely conscious of the blare of the horn amidst all the blood drumming inside her head. She had reached the valley after sprinting without a pause on the treacherous loose gravel lined slope. As the ground flattened in the valley, the shooting pain moved from her lungs to her legs. As the pain threatened to overpower her, she willed herself to think of the people on the train. She tightened her grip on the chunni and coaxed her legs to pump harder. She had to reach the track and unfurl the red chunni so the driver could be warned.

***

Parveen looked to the left. Something white was scampering across the valley towards the track. It was still some distance away but it was closing the gap with the track swiftly. He peered hard — it looked like someone was running. But who would run like that in this desolate valley?

***

Bishu made it to the track. As she doubled up, stomach heaving, lungs burning, unable to feel her legs, she turned to look at the train. It was a few hundred metres away and there was no time to lose. She unfurled her red chunni, that universal symbol of danger, and started waving it next to the rail track. She jumped up and down, the chunni caught the breeze proclaiming the arrival of the train and created crazy patterns above her head. Her screams of ‘Roko!’ were slapped away by the monstrous sound of the approaching train.

Parveen could make out the figure dancing on the side of the tracks. It was a girl, just about the same age as Bindiya. And she was dancing and jumping waving her chunni about. He smiled. Bindiya would look the same in the salwar suit he had bought for her. And she would probably dance just as jauntily when he drove the train to the station in a few minutes. He reached out to the right side of the dashboard where the levers were.

The train gave out a sharp, long hoot as Bishu saw the driver smile and wave at her as he flashed past her, followed by the whole train full of colourful people getting ready to disembark after their journey.

Pic from http://mediaindia.eu/lifestyle/five-ways-to-wear-a-dupatta/

Swapnil Bhatnagar is based in Bangalore and works in the research and consulting sector. He used to blog regularly for over seven years, and did some sports and travel writing as well. He now writes fiction exclusively and thoroughly enjoys the magical creative process it entails. 
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