Tuesday 10 August 2021

Sangeetha Vallat, ShortStory 2021 Longlist


James gazed at the beguiling backdrop of swiftly passing trees, houses, and vehicles in a pleasant vacant state of mind. Startled by the railway station's clamour, he sprung out of the train before it huffed and puffed out of the platform. He loped, expertly weaving his way, elbowing through the throng of humans – some idlers, some purposeful. A scabby dog yelped as a homeless beggar landed a kick on his flea-ridden bald patch while another lay sprawled nearby, eyes closed, ears perked.

James Davidson was late for work. Again. He worked in the Railway passenger reservations section, and his place of work was just at the end of the platform. The office was a rectangular room measuring 30 feet in length and 20 feet in width with glass windows on one side and a pale grey wall that begged for a coat of fresh paint on the other side. The reservation clerks sat in line along the glass casing to issue tickets. James checked his wristwatch and muttered curses at no one in particular. Although an older man leaning on a cane contorted his face in disdain.

The Chief Reservations Supervisor had warned him earlier on many occasions on arriving late to work. A serpentine queue waited on shuffling feet to grab the 'Tatkal' tickets as soon as the counter opened. James waltzed into the PRS office with minutes to spare and logged into the system unmindful of the steely stare of the supervisor. James towered over the supervisor who thrust the attendance register and the personal cash register. Marking his initials and the standard amount of cash he carried every day to work, James settled in the allotted counter no four, his favourite.

The only air conditioner in the room hung across his counter on the wall, which harboured a dangerously winding crack resembling the 'Great divide trail' of Canada dissipated the muggy air. James glanced at the horde of humans, wondering where these people found money and holidays to travel?!

Removing his Bata slippers, James leaned back and puckered his forehead. The person who turned up last for work ended up with the worst chair in the office. James groaned, thinking about the prospect of sitting for the next six hours in the creaky chair that slanted to the side whenever he shifted his frame.

"Sir, when are they replacing our chairs?"

The supervisor shrugged his shoulders and stood next to his protégé's counter.

James perused the form rendered; the supervisor had numbered the reservation forms of the first 30 passengers waiting in the queue to avoid touts bargaining their way into booking additional tickets.

Another 60 seconds remained for the clock to strike 8 when the reservation systems all over the country would commence.

James glanced at the gaunt man with an unkempt beard, "Since when are you waiting in the queue?"

"Good morning sir, I had my man here at 2 am last night; I relieved him at 5 am. Please get me confirmed tickets."

"Hope you have the exact amount and not irritate me with higher denominations."

"Yes, sir, we calculated the fare." He pushed the currency inside.

"Hey, keep it with you. Give it once I issue the ticket."

James comprehended the placating look. The man in the queue was an agent who would make a few hundred on a confirmed ticket. James' colleague in counter five begrudged these agents and invariably slowed down her typing, delivering the agents waitlisted tickets. James had once argued with her about the insincerity of her activity. He argued that the person proffering the first form after spending a sleepless night waiting in queue needs to be rewarded with a confirmed ticket if possible, be it an agent or an ordinary passenger. Her lopsided righteousness did not agree with his attitude. James worked his best during the tatkal time.

The tatkal tickets for the train furnished on the form were limited. The allotted berths for 2ac were six for the whole train, and hundreds of reservation clerks would be attempting for the same all over India's reservation centres. The ones typing on their systems at home through the IRCTC website were several too. And James was expected to issue 4 confirmed tickets, a tall order of expectation. James memorized the names, age, the gender of the four passengers on the form, and in precisely 45 seconds, after 8 am, he had his first ticket printed, three confirmed and one on the waiting list. Most of the passengers who came for the tatkal tickets usually tendered the exact amount for quick disposal.

For the next 25 minutes, James and his colleagues issued tickets nonstop. He took the form, eyed the details as his fingers went clackety-clack on the keyboard, pressed 'Enter' with a flourish as he informed the ticket's position. Quickly counting the cash and dropping them into the drawer, he tore the ticket from the printer. While his left hand handed over the ticket and took the following form, his right hand scribbled on the rear side of the earlier form the details of berth issued, the cash and change tendered. All this happened in under a minute.

The adrenaline rush aided the counter clerks in clearing the serpentine queue, and James stretched out his hands above his head, smiling smugly. James was the quickest reservation clerk, and the passengers waiting for tatkal believed James had magical fingers. The agents coaxed the peon the previous evening to reveal the counter number allotted to James and stayed in the line corresponding to his counter.

The lady in counter five grinned. "JD, how do you manage to reach with just minutes to spare?"

"Shhhh. Don't remind the supervisor. I cleared the queue. That is what counts!"

"However late you come, you don't forget to lather ponds dreamflower talc. A carton you need a month, I think." Counter six quipped with a teasing lilt in her voice.

"Don't you ladies have anything else to gossip about? I don't waste money on perfumes."

James gestured his friend from counter eight for a coffee break after a quick tally of cash. The supervisor peered at him wiping his glasses clean.

"James, I am tired of warning you to come early. Don't you know that you have to log in to the system at 7.30?"

James flashed a smile, "Sir, I know, but what to do my younger one doesn't allow me to leave the bed, she holds me tight, and I feel sad to wring her hands and wake up."

"You are a master in giving excuses."

"A sugarless coffee coming up for you." James flashed his pearly whites and dashed outside to the tea shop.

By the time James was back from his coffee break, he had a visitor waiting.

"JD, this man says you issued him a wrong ticket, and the TTE fined him." The supervisor pushed a receipt towards James.

"I was harassed by the TTE." The visitor jutted in.

"Wrong ticket? I don't think it could be possible. What was wrong? The date?" asked James.

"No. The gender was wrong. You issued tickets marking it F instead of M."

"What was the name in the form? Maybe you filled up the wrong details in the form."

"I bought the ticket for myself. You can check the forms. I filled it up correctly."

JD heaved a sigh. "OK. Wait here. Let's get the forms and check. "

Ascertaining the issuing window, time and the booking date from the ticket, the peon brought the forms bundle from the storage. The reservations forms were kept in storage for at least six months in the reservation offices, after which they are sent to the central repository. After checking the yellowing records, they concluded that JD was at fault. The triumphant visitor smirked.

"Kamakshi M 60? But Kamakshi is a female name." Grumbled James.

"Agree. But my parents named me Kamakshi after the goddess who granted them a boon of parenthood."

"Hmmm. Looking at the name, I must have automatically typed F. But you should have also checked the ticket before leaving the counter. You purchased this ticket 70 days back!"

"Yes. I should have checked instead of trusting you to work correctly. But what is the answer for the fine and the harassment meted out? I need to lodge a complaint."

The supervisor intervened, shaking his head at the bristling James, "We will take action on the TTE. JD will pay you the amount in the fine receipt. In the future, you check the tickets and inform the counter clerk about the name and gender. It's a human error. Don't write a complaint. Let's amicably settle it."

JD grudgingly parted with the money and pocketed the TTE's receipt. He slumped into his aslant chair and resumed his counter duties without the usual exuberance. This was a rare occurrence where JD issued a faulty ticket. He was a meticulous clerk.

The day dragged on. There were periods of lull and periods of a steady trickle of passengers.

JD and his friend went on another coffee break. JD borrowed a cigarette and puffed smoky circles. A dull ache lingered between his ears, and he massaged his temples. Purchasing a Saridon from the local pharmacy, they entered the reservation office, but the door was locked. A surprise vigilance check was in progress. The clerks' explanation on an unauthorized coffee break was frowned upon, and the men resumed work. The counter clerks quickly cleared the rest of the passengers while the vigilance personnel closed the counters one after the other and ordered the clerk to tally the cash.

When it was James' turn to tally the cash in the drawer with the amount shown on the computer, there was a shortage of rs500. Sweat streaked the powdered face in parallel lines. JD pulled the chest of drawer on his table, lifted the PC, fluttered the forms but could not find the missing 500rs. The headache aggravated, and JD, in a foul mood, signed the register acknowledging the shortage of amount.

The vigilance inspection completed, JD recommenced issuing tickets. His shift ended after a while. Handing over the earnings of the morning shift to the cashier in charge, he relinquished his counter to his relieving clerk.

The clerk from counter one murmured in a subdued voice, "Ravi, who is on leave, had come to check some availability when you went out for coffee. Sitting at your counter, he used your system. Do you think he might have slipped a 500rs note into his pocket?"

James glared at his colleague and did not dignify it with a reply. He ordered coffee and butter biscuits. Then moving aside to the table nearby checked all the reservation forms of the shift. He recalculated the details of currency tendered, and the balance returned by him. He meticulously analyzed and found no faults in it. The seed of doubt planted by his colleague threatened to sprout. His stomach rumbled, and he belched aloud. Dousing it with water, James marched to the nearby ATM and remitted the shortage to the cashier.

Tired and hungry, JD opened the door, bidding farewell to his colleagues performing the evening shift. Within a short time, an older man ambled inside and approached the supervisor.

"Sir, I had sent my driver in the morning to book tickets. The clerk has given an extra 500rs along with the tickets. Take this money."

"Thank you very much, sir. Honest people like you are rare. The clerk went home only now. He would be happy to get back his money."

"I am a retired government employee. I know how everyone works hard to make ends meet. I take your leave now."

Unaware of the unfolding at the office, James entered his home. His children pounced on him. They shrunk away when their usually loving father yelled at them. James growled at his wife to serve him food.

"Daddy, I need money to buy a chart paper and maps for my project." muttered the son timorously.

"Don't talk about money to me. Ask your mom. I don't want to touch money or think about money till my shift tomorrow."

James finished his lunch. He popped another Saridon and retired to a fitful sleep.

No comments:

Post a Comment