The frown on the DRM's face disappeared and he gestured to Padmapriya and Devi to sit down. "Tell me what the matter is," he said.
Padmapriya told him what Krishna and Pronoy had done. As she spoke the tears flowed down her cheeks. "Please, sir, help us!" she said finally. "The boys are just seven years old… and… anything could happen to them!"
The DRM rang for a peon and asked him to first bring water for the two women. Meanwhile, the other three men turned to them.
"Madam, please give us a description of the two boys," said one of them and Padmapriya described her son and Pronoy.
"Sir, the Coromandel will now be between Cuttack and Bhubaneswar," said another, speaking to the DRM. "We'll ask the section controller to pass on message to the station masters of each one of the stations between Kharagpur and where the train is now to find out if the two boys have been caught by any TC for travelling without tickets."
The DRM turned to the two women. "Are you going home now?" he asked. "If you are, please leave your address so that you can be informed…"
"We'd like to stay here and wait for news," said Padmapriya at once.
And then there was news from Cuttack! When the Coromandel had stopped there a TC had seen two schoolboys in an unreserved compartment. They had got off the train and begun to run as soon as they had seen him. But he had chased them, collared one of them and taken him to the station master when it had become clear to him that he was a runaway!
"What was the name of the boy the TC caught and what about the other one?" Padmapriya croaked, her stomach clenched so hard that she could hardly breathe.
"The name of the boy who was caught is Pronoy…" Padmapriya and Devi both let out choked wails and the OS who had brought them the news paused, looked down and then went on, "We don't have any news about the second boy and Pronoy doesn't know what has happened to him either. The DRM has arranged for Pronoy to be brought back. His parents were also called on police station. When he reached his parents hugged their son and then Pronoy's mother Meenakshi, her eyes red from weeping, came and hugged Padmapriya.
Padmapriya did not cry. She looked haggard but determined. "Krishna too will be found and he'll come back to me," she said. "Let us talk to Pronoy now."
Pronoy, looking terrified, stammered out his story to Padmapriya and Devi. "We got into a crowded unreserved compartment because we thought that there was less chance of the TC catching us there," Pronoy told the two women who were hanging onto his every word.
"Krishna had no money with him. Did you have any?" Padmapriya asked the boy.
"I had 10 rupees…"
Padmapriya made a helpless movement with her hands. "You both thought that you could get to Chennai with just 10 rupees? And how did you plan to find my brother's house? As far as I know Krishna didn't know his uncle'a address!"
"He said.. he said.. that he could find his way to his mama's house…"
"What happened after you got into the train?" Padmapriya asked.
The boys had been excited and had laughed and chatted. No TC had come to their compartment. But when the train came to Cuttack, they had seen one heading towards their compartment and had got off the train and begun to run. The TC had chased them and they had got separated.
"We had decided to get back on the train after the TC left the compartment – but he caught me…"
"And… and … Krishna?" whispered Padmapriya. Pronoy began to cry. "I don't know what happened to him!" he sobbed.'
DRM advised Padmapriya to wait till the train reached Chennai later that day because Krishna would probably have got back on the train at Cuttack. Though the train would be searched at every station and station officials would keep a lookout for a scared lone boy, there was a chance that they would miss him and he would reach Chennai.
The sisters rang up their younger brother, Gopi who was shocked speechless when he heard what his nephew had done. "My goodness!" he said numbly. "My goodness! Akka, the train wouldn't have reached Gudur as yet. I'll take a train and go there… no there won't be time! I'll drive down and search the train for him…"
"No Gopi, you may not reach there in time and anyway, we have people searching the train at every station. You be at the station when the train reaches Chennai…"
The Cormandel Express reached Chennai without anyone finding Krishna at any intermediary station. And Gopi and his friends, didn't find him at Central Station in Chennai either.
"So, what shall we do now?" Gopi had spent the next day scouring nearby stations and Chennai for his nephew in vain and had then come to Kharagpur.
"What do we do? We keep searching for Krishna of course!" Padmapriya impatiently replied to Gopi's question.
"Of course!" exclaimed Devi and Gopi together. "But what will be our plan of action?"
"I will start from here and go to each and every station on the way from Kharagpur to Chennai. I'll get off and search not just the station but also the town! I'll spend as long as I think is necessary!"
"I'll come with you!" declared Devi.
"No, akka. I can do it alone and besides, if you come with me, you will use up all your leave and then have to take leave without pay. And we cannot afford that because I will need money for my search and you and Gopi must give it to me."
"We will!" echoed her siblings and Gopi added, "I'll search the stations and towns near Chennai and Chennai itself again…"
"We must go to police stations and file complaints. And talk to as many people as possible. We must take copies of Krishna's photo with us. Another thing, we must print posters with a picture of Krishna and put them up at railway stations, police stations and in towns. I'll do that starting with places on the way from here to Chennai. Will you do it in Chennai and places near Chennai?"
"Of course I will, Akka. And I'll send you as much money as I can."
The search for Krishna began. Padmapriya looked for her son on streets and visit police stations wherever she went, but also to visit orphanages, slum areas, the dark, often criminal, underbelly that is in every city and anywhere else she could think of that a small lost and terrified boy could possibly find himself. She talked endlessly to people, showing them Krishna's photograph, but as the days passed and people's memory of that bygone day became faint, she began to rely more on her eyes than on her ears.
The months passed and then it was a year since Krishna had disappeared.
"I must branch out. Krishna might have got on another train and gone in another direction." Padmapriya spoke fretfully, as if she were not quite in control of herself. She looked adrift, as if she were sailing in strange seas she did not know how to navigate.
"Where will you go?" asked Devi.
The very next day Padmapriya set off for Mumbai. It was after all India's biggest metro and, more important, it was a city Krishan knew about. He knew that actor Akshay Kumar, whom he had seen in a movie and loved, lived there!
Mumbai was a nightmare. The police was unhelpful because they had not got Krishna on their list of missing children and the city was so huge and crowded where did one begin to search? But Padmapriya roamed the streets and met a man who befriended her and took her to a social service organisation that worked with HIV positive women. The people there listened to her story and took the time off from their own work to get her a list of orphanages in the city. Padmapriya then spent the next few weeks visiting each of the orphanages painfully finding her way to each of them only to find no trace of Krishna.
"I think I'll go to Bangalore next and then Hyderabad then Nagpur…" Padmapriya told Devi when she went back to Kharagpur.
After going to Bangalore, Hyderabad and Nagpur, Padmapriya went to a dozen other places and then told Devi that she was going about it all wrong. "Krishna has to be in a city on the way to Chennai or in Chennai itself," she said. "He's a determined child and from childhood he always stuck to what he decided to do, didn't he?"
Padmapriya went back to following the path the Coromandel took. She revisited and re-searched each of the cities the train stopped at. And then there was Chennai which she scoured with Gopi.
Two years, seven months and three days had passed since Krishna had set off for Chennai. It was the wee hours of Sunday morning and Padmapriya and Gopi were in T-Nagar in Chennai. The streets were dark and deserted. They had spent practically the whole day roaming around the crowded streets of that vast, congested Chennai shopping area staring into the faces of the urchins crowding the area. Some were begging, some were running around pleading with people to be allowed to carry their bags, others were obviously up to no good perhaps they were trainee pickpockets…
In the evening they had gone to the T-Nagar police station. It was not the first time they had gone there. The police were sympathetic but had shaken their heads. But as the downcast pair left, they had overheard two constables talking about a police raid to be conducted later that night. "There's talk of antisocial and criminal activity going on in that house," one muttered to the other. "Activity involving women… children and it's within a stone's throw of this police station! What guts these law-breakers have!"
Padmapriya and Gopi had looked at each other as they had left the police station. "We'll follow the police there tonight," Gopi had whispered to his sister.
"Yes! Women… children criminal activity anti-socials!" And Padmapriya had shuddered.
The brother and sister duo hung around busy T-Nagar till all the shops closed. Then they loitered near the police station periodically drinking tea from one of the tea stalls that remained open all night to sell tea to policemen, watchmen and the like. Finally, they saw a party of policemen get into two jeeps and drive away. A van followed them.
Gopi and Padmapriya jogged after them. Padmapriya was soon left behind but Gopi managed to keep the jeeps in sight and both reached the place where the jeeps had stopped.
The jeeps drew up with loud screeches in front of a decrepit house in a by-lane. Police constables jumped out and began to pound noisily on the door.
"Open up!" the police shouted. Lights came on in the house but no one opened the door.
"Break the door down!" shouted a police officer.
A few kicks and blows and the door flew open, the bolt torn free of the worn-out door. Policemen rushed in and Gopi and Padmapriya heard shouts and screams. Lights in nearby buildings came on. Doors opened and people began to drift cautiously into the street to see what was going on.
As Padmapriya and Gopi watched, the procession speeded up and soon the van was nearly full.
"Children! Where are the children the police said were in the house?" whispered Padmapriya twisting her hands in desperation. Her voice shook.
Gopi gripped her arm. "Wait!" he said. "And don't draw attention to us, akka!"
The next moment a shivering little waif made his way out of the house. A murmur rose from the crowd as a policeman took him gently by the arm and led him to the van. Some more children came out escorted by policemen and were shepherded to the van.
There was a pause and all the policemen clustered around the van. Just then another figure emerged unsteadily from the house. A strangled cry emerged from Padmapriya's voice. Gopi focused on the figure. Could it be? Was it? Yes it was!
Gopi clutched his sister's arm tightly. "Don't make any noise!" he murmured. "I'll distract the policemen and you get Krishna and walk away towards the main rood! We don't want to get involved with the police. There will be delays we'll have to go to court…"
Padmapriya nodded, her hungry eyes devouring her son! Gopi ran over to the van. "May I see the children?" he asked. "I'm looking for my nephew!"
Heads turned and eyes focused on him as he pulled the van's doors wide open and peered in. A few minutes later he turned away shaking his head. A policeman who had recognised him patted him on the back sympathetically. Gopi walked away from the van and then turned and looked towards where he had left his sister. She wasn't there and neither was Krishna!
A few hours later, Gopi Padmapriya and Krishna were on a train to Kharagpur! Throughout the journey, Krishna sat huddled between his mother and uncle and hardly spoke.
Six months had passed and they still did not know the whole story of what Krishna had gone through during the time he had been away from home. Padmapriya took her son to a psychiatrist and slowly parts of Krishna's story had emerged. What they knew was that Krishna had finally reached Chennai after "a long time and after going to many places" in his own words. There he had fruitlessly searched for his uncle while living on the streets begging for food. Once, the police had taken him into custody but he had not told them where he was from and they had sent him to a home for runaway children.
"But why didn't he tell the police that he was from Kharagpur? Why didn't he give them my name?" Padmapriya had cried when the psychiatrist told her this.
"He didn't tell me. But I think that by then he was hardly himself. He was traumatised. He ran away from that home but then something worse happened to him! He fell into the hands of people who tortured him and exploited him physically and I think sexually!"
I met Padmapriya when I went to talk to her as part of a study on runaway children sponsored by on NGO. She told me the whole story and then added, "I don't think that we'll ever know the whole story of Krishna's adventures. We don't question him about that time and he does not talk about it either."
Krishna was back in school, but he was three years behind his earlier classmates and seemed to have forgotten much of what he had known earlier. Neither did he seem interested in studies. In fact, it seemed clear that that terrible period when he had been alone and terrified had changed him, if not for ever, certainly for a long time.
"Will he complete school, learn a trade? I don't know. But an inner voice tells me that he just needs time and patience. He'll have nightmares all his life! I'll have nightmares all my life, but I know that love can heal his wounds. And love he will get in plenty for me, my sister and my brother. He'll be all right!" said Padmapriya.
And I looked at the determined face and intense eyes of this mother and believed her!
to be continued...