Seated on a cold bench, Arif looked at the black electronic clock hanging from the corrugated steel ceiling of platform no.1. Its blood red display said 1:43am. He left his place, walked to the enquiry booth and knocked on the glass. The man at the counter was asleep, his head resting against a table, his mouth agape. He knocked again and the man woke up with a start. Rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, his other hand reached for a bottle of water; he took a couple of swigs, and gave Arif an angry look. ‘See Mister! I’ve already told you that we’ll announce as soon as we get information about the arrival of North East Express.’ Arif moved away without a word, trudging back to his seat close by, his steps increasingly heavy with anxiety and waiting. A few yards away, a stray cow was pulling out garbage from a dustbin. And two railway porters were pushing a cart full of parcels.
It was the thirteenth time -- possibly even more -- that he had enquired about the train. He thought it was only natural for the man to get irritated. He decided that he would return to the enquiry counter only after an hour, and that would be a very long wait. Restlessness seized him. ‘Ya Allah! Please give me my brother back, and I would never ask anything from you.’ He prayed silently while tears welled up in his eyes. Stretching himself, he lay on the bench, the travel bag doubled up as a pillow, and closed his eyes. A nightmare troubled him: he saw his brother’s bullet-ridden body lying in the compartment of a train. Screaming, he jumped off the bench. ‘Zakir, my brother!’ When he realised where he was, he simply sat on the bench, holding his head.
At 3:45am, the loudspeakers announced that the routes to Mughal Sarai had been finally cleared. Then, after a dramatic pause, they added that North East Express had reached Danapur station and would be the first train to reach the platform. Arif stood up, trying to hold his tears, walked up to the edge of the platform, and looked westward for the incoming train. Far away, the signal light had turned green. The sky was morose and starless. He started reciting Surah Al-ikhlas, the verses of the divinity and oneness of God, from the Holy Quran.
Inside him ‘Hope’ and ‘Despair’ played hide and seek. One said Zakir was alive and he was aboard the train Arif was waiting for. The other said exactly the opposite. Arif’s spirit soared in anticipation of unexpected joy, and then he felt abysmally low fearing that the news about his brother might just be false.
The headlight of the engine was now visible. Arif could hear the train whistle. His heart raced, and his recitations became desperate.