- Dr. Partha Banerjee
A small idyllic village (somewhere in Bengal) in the countryside which happens to be a pass through for many years for several trains. Add the town’s quirky presence and some of its very old world charm, it’s nothing short of what you would find in a Enid Blyton book. Steeped in history of the bygone colonial era and yet somewhat relevant to the post colonial Bengali Babu life, the place and its station were an ode to what had been and where it was all heading to. No hint of either of those notions leaning other side of the good or bad.
Amidst all this, you find this man (small in stature) but with a voice that would’ve made Henry Higgins proud. A man so swept by the lines of passing time and yet had remained so true to his form and his legend, popularly known as ‘The Master’.
He was well into his latter years of life and the end of his career as the station chief of this tiny train station, but his flag and whistles were so legendary that they had in fact become almost a welcome to this town itself. Those that stayed and those that passed through knew to be welcomed and far welled by this man. So much was this presence of a person, that the existing station chief (despite all the modernization in signaling in and out for trains), insisted in ‘Master’ be retained as the flag-in and flag-out for all the trains passing through. The administration of this station even went to the extent of retiring the title of Station Master so that the same can be made available as a permanent honorary title for the great man himself. Such was his legend, an emblem of service to thousands that had passed through daily across decades. Everyone knew and loved this man, a rare thing to see for any one person in this world we live in today.
Then comes the story of this man. He felt he had put this small town on the map, a feet that by no means was a small achievement, given his humble upbringing and relative anonymity in his former years. He was born and grew up as the son of a colonial luggage bearer (coolie) and one who witnessed what service and commitment it was to bear the world’s load and help out.
Of course in those days of the luxury steam trains and the ever bustling crowds of European colonials making their way through this country, the asks and feedback was different. The help or service was taken as a requisite and not much of that was thanked or appreciated. Given this was the norm, the Master learnt from his dear Father to never worry about what came from the job, he was all about what you put in. That’s where The Master knew he had to make amends. Watching his old man often just be taken for granted despite doing his job with the utmost dedication, it was his turn to take matter into his own hands. Once he was of age, he began organizing his life’s mission to enter the services of this station, albeit in a rather menial role of someone who would clean the one and only platform (ironically called platform 2, since it just so happens that there were supposed to 2 platforms built and the first one never really got sanctioned and the only platform had its name printed on by a very enthusiastic painter who hadn’t listened to instructions). Later a platform 1 was created, but as a snack bar, just so there could be a logical distinction drawn between the two. All said and done, the life of The Master (who was not called so when he started), was that of a simple lad who would clean and then earn his wages and go home. That was the world’s view.
All was pretty routine until he saw this young lady step off the train and look a little hassled with her luggage. She was also trying to find someone and didn’t look happy. The Master saw her sitting on the bench and waiting impatiently. All the while she was just sitting and shuffling about, The Master swept the platform floor around her, occasionally stopping to evaluate whether she had located the person she was waiting for. The morning turned to a warm afternoon with the sun beating down and then a slow and kind evening fell in, making the station lighting give light to the fact that this young lady was perhaps not able to locate whoever she was trying to.
The Master noticed that she was not the most affluent looking by any means, but she had this impeccable charming smile that she kept flashing to anyone who looked a little concerned on why this lady had decided to camp out on the station’s one and only bench (which was to become its own legend). The Master finally worked up the courage to ask her where she had come from and whether she had anyone with her. To his surprise, and later much to the town’s, she was a runaway. It turns out she wanted to be a teacher and study and her parents were not able to convince her to remain home and get ready for a marital life. Turns out she had fallen for her own tutor and worked up the courage to climb on a train and run away with him. She did of course, but like all stories where that eternal romanticism comes to an abrupt halt, this was a picture of that.
Who knew that meeting would then get the The Master to become her savior as he took her home and gave her somewhere to stay and some food to eat. That was a stormy day as The (young) Master’s family had barely enough to feed themselves and a small quarter to live in.
Yet, this very kind man decided to do what’s right and give this very scared and worried young lady, exactly what she needed at that moment. It was easy to imagine why her, and everyone else would end up loving this man from the briefest of meetings. As the days went by, the two grew closer and one fine day The (young) Master decided to do the right thing and marry this young lady, as there was really no one he could call his own family that was alive. One would think a man asks a woman to marry him purely out of love, but in this case, it was really out of the fact that The Master had no one else left in his life. This was romantic if you dig deep enough into the fabric of a small town that had a station with an incorrectly numbered platform.
As days went by, the town and it’s people got to know of The Master and his random acts of kindness. At times it was helping the passengers with their luggage, at times telling stories (with questionable authenticity) about the town and its centuries of existence. The then-station chief noticed this man’s great gift of the gab and his second-to-none charm that often meant passengers who were passing through on a regular interval, came to remember him and would sometimes even ask for him (if the train stood at the platform for a small break). With time, it was decided that this young man who seemed to be getting so popular with passengers and townsmen would have more of a responsibility.
After all this was a new India, a post-colonial free India and where all would be working to build a nation that brings prosperity to the every day man. With that began the legendary existence of The Master. In fact before he became The Station Master, he was called the Little Master just because he knew all the train schedules, the hold-ups and could almost mathematically predict when and where the incomings are. Obviously that nickname was taken away by someone with a very different passion after a few decades. As it happened, this genius like ability to remember and work out any and every thing, led to a promotion and then ultimately came the day when he was called into the office of the retiring station master and told that given his years of service and dedication, it was time for him to take over as the new Station Master. A job that has been what his entire life had been leading up to. Without even having thought a second, he responded with a loud and happy “yes”. Well it didn’t come as any surprise since this man was practically running this place all by himself and had become almost the emblem of this town.
Towards The Master’s own retirement, he had recollected many such proud events and moments. He had claimed he had once seen the legendary Byomkesh Bakshi, who was the region’s greatest hero that never lived but would never die. He had claimed to have met at least a million individuals, who had confided their lives and tales to him. It was all in parts his own rendition and also to a greater extent, his incredible artful story-telling that made all this seem so real. Whoever knew what was true, but this was The Master and no one questioned him. He had flagged in thousands of trains and flagged out the same numbers, all to the benefit of every soul that interacted with him along their own life’s journey. Such was the power of his spirited way. To an audience and gathering, he took great pride in telling these stories on the day of his retirement and last day of his service, sitting on that very bench where his wife had come and sat many years ago, looking so restless and worried. He was perched greatly satisfied with his accomplishment on platform 2 with his dear colleagues and proud townsmen, in the thought that today, of all his life, he would finally go on a trip himself. He had secretly wished for this day since the first day he came to visit the station with his Father. Packed and ready, with his family by his side, he was wrapping up his stories as soon as he heard the horn of the train approaching. He knew sound this all too well. Suddenly, he saw a whole hoard of people rushing towards him as the train came and stopped right in front of the bench. He had no clue what was going on. The crowds gathered and his family were trying to speak with him, almost in a manner as if he was not responding to them. He saw all the chaos, the concern, the panic and the sadness. This was not at all what he was used to, since he only brought out the smiles in people on this platform. He saw the train hiss out and gently chug away and wanted to stop it, but couldn’t.
Suddenly, he felt a jolt and he could get up and hop on the moving train. He was about to leave and happy in thought that this was happening but as looked around, he saw an old frail version of himself sat on that bench, eyes closed and surrounded by all the people he knew and loved. He was leaving all that behind, or was it the other way around?
This was the end of The Master.
About the Author
Dr Partha Sarathy Banerjee (or Partha) currently works as the Associate Director for Clinical Development at Novartis Pharma. Partha received his scientific and clinical training in clinical neuroscience from University of Oxford, where he was an active member of several writing and amateur dramatic clubs during his doctoral years. Partha considers himself a lifelong learner and tries his best to keep up his creative side through his short stories or plays . His passion for writing short stories stems from his childhood influences by greats such as Kipling, Wells, Orwell and his all time favorite author - Oscar Wilde. Partha enjoys golfing in his spare time and remains a life long supporter of Liverpool FC and Redbull F1 Team.
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