By Moushumi Chakrabarty

Prabuddha Gupta boarded the train at 5:45 am as usual. He nodded at a couple of familiar faces and found a seat, but not this time the window seat he preferred. Still, that couldn't be helped, for even at this early hour the Deccan Queen was fairly full, and he knew from experience that as the hours passed the narrow swaying corridors and wooden seats would fill up and soon there wouldn't be a single seat left.

The railway station was alive with rushing neon-lit figures offering early morning tea and breakfast trays wrapped in silver foil. The passengers who were not regulars reacted with surprise, taken aback by the brusk vitality of the railway station at an hour
when, by rights, sleep was still precious to most people.

The plain big black-and-white
clock signalled the time for departure. A guard with the usual green flag shrilled a whistle, prompting the engine to move its ponderous bulk along the tracks. As if waiting for this signal, the women with brooms who were just beginning to raise little clouds of dust along the platform adjusted their saris and popped the first betel leaves of the day into their mouths. Then they stood and stared as the train left the platform.

The periodic, inexplicable slowing down of the train was not new to Prabuddha. After all, he had travelled daily from Poona to Bombay on business for the past fifteen years. He shook out the crackling pages of his newspaper and, putting on his thick framed spectacles, settled down to read. His black briefcase containing lawyer's papers  was stacked securely under his seat on top of a fatter suitcase belonging to his neighbour.

He checked it once again and was glad because though his wife had given him a tiffin box well-protected in plastic packets, the papers were far too important to be allowed even the slightest stain. Prabuddha was visited by a fleeting sense of well being--his business, the small engineering firm he had started after chucking up his regular nine-to-five job, was doing well, the morning was just unfolding and the train was not yet unpleasantly full.

Monotonous stretches of suburban buildings set amid stagnant pools of water and wandering animals soon gave way to a
stretch of woodland, after which the train started to climb.
Fresh sunlight splashed through a gap in the hills,
cascading through the green and
yellow trees, colouring a
patch of hair here or a bare arm there.
The rhythms of the train were
comforting, and Prabuddha was soon engrossed in the business pages of his newspaper.

At Neral his neighbour got off, and Prabuddha set about finding a safe slot for his briefcase. Some other passengers entered the compartment, but only when the whistle had shrieked again did Prabuddha take note of his new seatmate. He was a sadhu, a holy man, his bright saffron-coloured clothes proclaiming his vocation without any doubt. As he lowered himself onto the seat, a faint but unmistakable aroma of incense filled the air, which Prabuddha sniffed a bit self-consciously. The man was tall, with calm strong features, and wore his white hair long, combed straight back from his forehead and down to his shoulders. His dark flowing robes contrasted with Prabuddha's own neatly pressed trousers and shirt.

By high morning the full blast of the sun was beginning to feel uncomfortable. The train seemed to sigh with relief as it passed through cool, dark tunnels hewn from the hills. A group of young men seated in front of him began to shout enthusiastically whenever they spotted the black mouth of a tunnel approaching, sticking their heads out of the window to breathe in the rush of cool air. Inside the tunnels the train's yellow interior lights cast a sepulchral glow  whilst ,outside, the dark rocky passages raced past, reverberating with the whistles and shouts of the high-spirited boys.

Prabuddha gave up any attempt to read, refolded his
newspaper, and began staring at the deep
green valleys far below. All
around him people were
eating, drinking, or playing cards to pass the time. Uniformed men with fried-cutlet-laden trays periodically passed by the compartment, calling, "Cutless, chicken, vhej cutless" in singsong voices.

One of the young men produced a guitar and began singing with rather more energy than talent. Soon his friends joined in with claps and cheers. The passengers looked on, glad for the entertainment. Prabuddha listened to their yodelling with amusement. They were so young, so full of life, college boys perhaps returning from a picnic, that he felt awash in nostalgia for his own youth.

One of the youngsters suddenly turned and asked him, "Excuse me, have you a match box?"

Prabuddha smiled and replied, "I don't smoke."

The boy shrugged, then winked at his friend, then addressed the sadhu. "Sir, do you have a match box?"

Looking up from his book, the sadhu smiled, "Son, I don't smoke either."

"Why, I thought all you sadhus did was smoke ganja and meditate!"

His friends laughed. The guitar fell silent. The sadhu calmly
asked, "What's your name?"

"Salil. This is Parag, Rohit,
Nirmal. And this is Som, short
for Somnath. But you haven't said anything about my observation."

"Is there anything to say? You have already formed an opinion. Whatever I say can hardly change your mind." He spoke without animosity, smiling.

"So you agree, in part at least, that sadhus only smoke ganja. We've seen them on the streets of Bombay with loose clothes and begging bowls. But their eyes! You can tell from their eyes that they're stoned most of the time."

"Look at my eyes. Do I seem like that too?"

Everyone made a great show of looking at the sadhu's eyes. Amid much laughter Salil admitted, "Oh no, you're straight. We can see that. But you must be meditating at least. I've never heard of a sadhu who doesn't."

The man nodded. "Yes, I meditate. You should try it sometime."

Again there was much laughter. Prabuddha glanced at the sadhu, who was clearly enjoying this exchange with the young men. It was hard to tell how old he was. In a curious sort of way he appeared ageless. His flowing white hair was striking, as were his hands which had long tapering fingers and neatly-clipped nails.

"What do you meditate about?" asked the boy at the end
of the wooden seat.

The sadhu turned toward him.
"On God and my Guru."

His voice, Prabuddha thought, was not loud, yet was clearly audible above the noise of the train, as if he had sung so many hymns that their sweetness had become distilled into his own speech.

"How does one meditate? Tell us," Salil demanded.

The sadhu put his prayer book down before answering. "You must empty your mind of everything. That is the first step."

Salil laughed. "How is that possible? Even if you are thinking of nothing, you are thinking of something. Do you follow me?"

There were bursts of laughter from his friends. He continued, "If you make a conscious effort to think of nothingness, the mind cannot be said to be truly empty then, can it?"

The sadhu was silent for a while. Everyone waited. It also seemed to Prabuddha very important to know how the sadhu would answer the question. The dark, womb-like tunnels were now long past. The train was trundling through heat-baked plains of shimmering fields. Village women were hauling water from deep wells in the earth. A lone farmer, his yoked oxen resting nearby, stood
staring at the apparition-like train.

Finally the sadhu spoke. "Alright. If I ask you to concentrate
on any object for a full minute, can you do so?
Obviously, you must not let any other thoughts
intrude. This itself is the very first step
towards achieving a certain
amount of concentration which
makes it possible to meditate. What is meditation after all? Just the power of concentration. Then, you must ease out all negative thoughts...."

"Who has the time to do all this? It's alright for you, that's your job, being a sadhu and meditating. But for me it's naturally quite impossible. If I sit down to meditate, the other guy will take away my chances for a career. Hey, aren't I right?"

Salil's friends enthusiastically agreed. Prabuddha was about to say something when the sadhu replied, "You're wrong, Salil. Meditation doesn't require hours. Just fifteen to twenty minutes is sufficient, really."

Prabuddha nodded in agreement, and the sadhu gave him a brief but sweet smile.

"Maybe when I'm your age, I'll consider it. But, tell me, who is your guru? And why is he your guru?"

The sadhu's face became serious. "My guru is Swami Bhaktananda. He lives in Kurnool, in the Himalayas. I was searching for something, and he showed me the way. That's why I call him my guru."

But Salil was growing restive. "This is really too philosophical for us. Let's talk about something more interesting. You believe in God, don't you? Can you prove to us that He exists?"

Salil and the young man to his right exchanged
nudges. One of the other boys opened
a packet of potato crisps and
passed it around. The sadhu declined. He was looking at Salil, Prabuddha felt, with an expression of indescribable sadness. He asked, "Can you prove to me He doesn't?"

"That's not an answer to my question. But let me put it this way. Life, science tells us, is derived from the humble amoeba. Every living thing can be biologically broken down into cells and tissues. So if you're going to say that life is created by some divine power... When a living thing dies, nothing remains. All becomes dust. Everything about that living thing disintegrates at some time or the other. So that's what life is about--propogation, birth, a period of time to live, and then death, negation. Where and how does the concept of God come in?"

"There is something you have left out, my son. What about the soul? Religion is not only praying to ask for forgiveness or for happiness and prosperity. It also has to do with how you see religion itself. For some, religion can mean helping the poor. For others, it means meditating on the illusions of life. Our Hindu philosophy says that life itself is 'maya', an illusion, and the soul never dies."

Salil broke in heatedly, "What soul? Once a human being dies, there is the end of the matter. Every part of him disintegrates, there's no soul or anything. It's people like you who put these dangerous outdated ideas into unsuspecting heads, leading to all sorts of charlatans who make money without working for it.
I often think there is something in the theory that religion
is the opium of the masses. They're simply addicted
to the notion of an all-powerful figure who
can make anything happen.
As for Hinduism...hundreds of deities, each with their own ritualistic whims and fancies! 'You want a son? Go and pray to So-and-So. Donate to this temple or guru, and you'll have a son. Maybe.' Bah!"

Prabuddha could no longer suppress his anger at Salil's crude implication that the sadhu was a crook. Today's youth had no decency, no manners. Then, with a sudden start, he heard the sadhu whisper into his ear, "Sadly, it will not be long now."

He turned toward the sadhu, but the holy man was looking out of the window with a far-away expression.

The boys were bored with the discussion which had turned so acrimonious. They began hanging out the door of the train, watching the approaching slums which heralded the approach of Bombay's Victoria Station. The dingy shacks crawled past, some of the inhabitants staring vacantly at the world going by while they squatted on their haunches. The boys combed their hair, using the spotted mirror above the steel sink by the door. When the train at last steamed into the high-domed terminus, they whistled happily and gathered their bags together.

Prabuddha, with his black briefcase, alighted from the train in a rush of people. He separated himself from the crush and walked slowly towards the gate where the ticket checker always had a cheerful hello for him. He disliked the undignified press created
by those intent on being the first to get off the train, the first
out of the station. Besides, it was only 1:45, and his appoint-
ment wasn't till at 3:00. He hoped that the deal
would be finalised today. The papers
were ready in his briefcase.

Outside, his eyes ached in the mad sunshine. Row upon row of black-and-yellow taxis stood waiting. The aged facades of peeling pink and green buildings circled the railway station, grimly bearing the heat. The roads were jam-packed with cars, buses, and cyclists.

Pedestrians were trying to slip through a bunch of honking vehicles. Prabuddha suddenly heard a shout. Instantly, dozens of other voices rose sharply like a flock of crows calling in alarm to each other. Then everywhere there was confusion, shouts, screams, and the horns of angry vehicles.

With quickening dread he fought his way toward a growling bus that had half turned over against an iron-fence road divider. Impaled on the spikes was Salil, his eyes open wide.

His heart pounding, Prabuddha looked around frantically, not knowing for what, until he spotted in the distance the sad and weary gait of the saffron-robed sadhu.

( Moushumi Chakrabarty <> is an Indian writer currently living in Bahrain with her husband and two daughters. Having worked as a newspaper reporter for a number of publications in India and the Gulf, she now writes freelance.)