The old man in the ac two-tier compartment, staring at the passing landscape, seemed uneasy about something, turned to his son sitting beside him and asked, "What is this?"
The son whispered, "It is a diaper."
The old man was hard on hearing, "What?" he asked again. He seemed irritated.
The son looked embarrassed. In a louder voice, he said, "Diaper."
The little boy sitting in the opposite seat was surprised, "He is wearing a diaper?"
His mother shushed him.
"Amma, only babies wear diapers, no? Why is he wearing it?"
His mother shushed him again, this time a bit more severely. The boy went quiet but continued staring at the old man.
The mother asked the old man's son, "Dementia or Alzheimer?"
"Oh, must be tough on you and your family," she said in a kind tone and then went quiet.
The son was relieved. He was tired of answering people who were curious about the illness. A curiosity that helped them pass the time.
That was precisely his mother's argument when she refused to accompany him on this trip, "I don't want to attend the wedding. Not a single person there will lift a hand to help us, but everyone will have hundreds of questions, fake sympathy and worse, they will start advising as if they are doctors. I still feel your father should not go, but who can argue with your aunt?"
The old man got up suddenly and started walking through the aisle. The son followed him closely. He opened the door of the ac compartment, went to the next compartment, and through the pantry car towards the second-class compartments. The son was gingerly walking beside him, not knowing what he would do next. When he thought his father had walked enough, he gently turned him around - for he knew his father would get angry if he forced him - and brought him back to the seat.
After some time, the son wanted to use the toilet but was scared that the train would stop and his father would get out. The train was passing over a bridge. The old man smiled and said, "My son used to be so happy when the train passed over a bridge. He would shout daga daga daga daga daga daga."
The lady in the opposite seat looked at the son and smiled.
The train, which had been travelling smoothly till then, slowed down to a stop. The son felt the pressure on his bladder but waited for the train to start. Once the train starts running smoothly, things will get back to normal. He will be a relieved person, but the train stood still.
The son took out a tiffin box from his bag. He opened it and asked his father, "Do you want to eat now?"
"Did we not eat just now?"
He tore the chapatis, scooped up the aloo curry and fed his father. After the father had finished eating, the son gave him some tablets. The son was about to eat when his father got up once again and started walking towards the door. Once again, the father went through many compartments before his son brought him back. The journey seemed never-ending for the son, for he was watching his father's every move. He didn't want to let him out of his sight.
Now the father looked sleepy. The son took out the bedcovers, spread them on the berth, and asked his father to lie down after putting the pillow. He then covered his father with a blanket. Once convinced that his father would sleep now, the son went to the toilet.
Before the son could relieve himself fully, the train stopped again, making him panic. He tried completing the job quickly, but it took time. Finally, when he had finished, he came rushing back and was relieved to find that his father was still in the seat. He was not lying down now but sitting. The son sat down beside him.
The old man smiled at the little boy sitting opposite him. He pointed the little boy to his son and said, "You know, I lost him once, but he came back home."
The little boy was confused.
The son told the little boy, "When I was young, I had gone to play somewhere without informing anyone. Everyone panicked and searched for me. He is talking about it."
"How did they find you?"
The young man smiled. "I was at a house in the nearby Railway Quarters that had a swing in its compound. I was playing there. My father, who was searching for me, was passing that side when he accidentally saw me."
"Did he scold you?"
"No. He never scolded me. He saw I was so happy playing on that swing that he regularly brought me to that house."
"Your mother also didn't scold you?"
"She was crying when they couldn't find me. My Uncle had gone to the Police Station to ask the police to find me. When my mother saw I was back, she was relieved and happy. I remember they distributed sweets to all my neighbours as if I had passed some exam."
The little boy said, "If I go somewhere without telling in the house, my father will scold me."
His mother said, "Of course, you must tell where you are going to your parents."
The son showed a photo on his mobile to the little boy. "See, this is me with my father." They were both wearing whites, similar to cricket players.
"You played cricket?" the little boy asked.
"Yes, but my father was a better cricket player than me. He played league matches."
The little boy looked at the old man with renewed interest.
The son showed more photos of him with his father. "He took me to all sporting events, but everywhere he used to hold my hand tight. He was afraid I would get lost again."
The old man looked at the photos his son was showing. He had a look of incomprehension on his face.
"This is you," the son said.
He nodded his head, but it was clear he had not understood.
The old man opened his purse. Inside that, there was a black and white photo of his son. He showed that to his son and, pointing to the little boy in the opposite seat, said, "This is him. He is a bright boy."
His son said, "That is me."
The old man said, "Yes, that is him," and again pointed to the little boy. Then he started staring out of the window.
Everyone was silent now.
After some time, the old man asked his son, "Shall we have dinner?"
"We already had dinner."
"Did we? I am feeling hungry. I think we did not have dinner."
"We did, we did," the son patiently replied. "You should sleep now. It is getting late."
He caught hold of his father's shoulders and slowly pushed him down. He was hoping his father would not resist, and he was relieved when his father lay down. He covered him with the blanket, but his father pushed it aside angrily.
After ensuring his father had slept, the son climbed onto the upper berth and called his girlfriend, R, on his mobile.
"Do you remember what is special about today," she asked as soon as she picked up the call.
He smiled and replied, "Yes."
"What is it?"
"Three years back, I met you on the same day at that wedding."
"Ah, you remember? I thought you would not."
He smiled and said, "Today, I saw their wedding anniversary post on FB."
"Ah. Now the mystery is solved. Otherwise, men never remember occasions."
"Well, I may not remember the exact date, but I still remember the first time I saw you. You were wearing a blue silk saree and had jasmine flowers on your head. I saw your smile and instantly fell in love with you, seeing that dimple on your cheeks. Do you remember what I was wearing?"
"What else but a white shirt and blue pants? What I remember more clearly is you would come wherever I was but put on a show as if you were there on some work and were not interested in me."
She laughed out loud after saying this.
"Oh. I thought I was being discreet."
"Not just me. Even my friends noticed your actions and started teasing me. I didn't mind because I liked that attention."
He had a large smile on his face now.
The train had picked up speed, and the carriage shook slightly. He leaned against the carriage wall.
She was still living in that past world. "Do you remember the day I came to your house with you?"
"Oh, yes. I still remember how impressed my parents were when they saw you. What about my visit to your house?"
She laughed. "You are asking now? My mother was extremely impressed with you. She told me, "If you are going to tell me you want to marry him, I give you my permission right now" "
He went silent.
The train was slowing down.
She seemed to hesitate and then asked, "Did you check with your manager regarding any onsite opportunities in the project?"
The train stopped with a jerk. He heard the horn being sounded.
"No. I haven't checked with my manager yet."
She was silent. Then she said, "My manager asked me if I wanted to go onsite. There is some opportunity, it seems. I don't want to go onsite alone."
He understood what she implied. "Don't worry. I am sure things will work out soon." He felt ashamed as soon as he said it, for he remembered his relative's words when he learned his father had dementia. "It will be tough, but it is not like he will live forever."
She was silent for a few tense seconds. Finally, she said, "We cannot wait for things to happen. We also have to put in some effort and take some decisions. Why don't you check on that onsite opportunity?"
The train started with a jerk.
"You know the situation. I am sure things will get better soon."
Before she could reply, the signal was lost. He tried again several times, but the call was not going through. Suddenly he got a message from her. It sounded curt. "I am going to bed now. Will talk to you tomorrow."
The pattern of conversation for the past year has been the same. The conversation would be filled with joy when it started, but slowly real life would intrude, and finally, each would try to end the conversation politely. He could sense the tension between them. Their liking for each other sustained them, but he didn't know when this thread would break.
He peeped to see his father sleeping peacefully, then lay down on his berth and stared at the ceiling. The tiredness and the tension of the call ensured he slept soundly.
His sleep was so deep that he didn't realise where he was when he woke up in the morning. When he remembered, he immediately checked the lower berth. His father was missing.
He was in a panic. The mother and child were also not present. They must have got down in an earlier station. He went to the next compartment, looking at each seat along the way. He encountered the attendant, who told him that he had not seen his father. He crossed the two-tier ac compartments, then the three-tier ac compartments, and searched in the second class compartment after passing through the pantry car. His father was not to be found anywhere. He returned to his seat, hoping his father would have returned, but the berth was empty. He then went and stood outside the toilets to see if his father was using the toilets, but he had no luck. His father seemed to have disappeared.
"There are so many stations on the way, sir. You say you fell asleep before the train reached Vijayawada. After that, we had Khammam and Kazipet, and we passed Warangal. Complain to the police once you get to Secunderabad Station," the attendant said.
He called his friend and told him what had happened. His friend laughed out loud, "So you were able to lose your father." He felt terrible when his friend said that. Before he could protest, his friend said, "I am coming to the station. I will take care of things. You don't worry."
They went together to the police station, and the police inspector said, "I don't know why youngsters of this generation are so irresponsible. How can you not look after him?"
They came home. His mother was waiting for him. "Was the train late?" she asked. "Where is your father?"
His friend told her, "I think Uncle walked off at some station while your son was sleeping."
She looked at her son's crestfallen face. She was worried. "Now, everyone will say it is our fault, and we have done this deliberately. But it is not our fault. This is your aunt's fault. He wouldn't have gone if she had not insisted, and we will not be in this position." She shook her head. "Now she will talk as if we deliberately let him run away." Seeing her son's sadness, she said, "Don't worry. I am sure someone will get him back. I heard this often happens everywhere."
His aunt called him, wanting to know if they had reached home safely. When she heard the news, she said, "It is all your mother's fault. I requested her to come many times, but she was stubborn. If she had come, this would not have happened."
He apprised his girlfriend, who was very concerned. "Hope you get him back soon. Else the uncertainty will affect all of us."
The friend had put up a missing person message on social media, and they spread the message through WhatsApp groups.
One week passed, but there was no sign of his father. Mother and Son were awaiting the old man's arrival every day. A phone call, an email, a WhatsApp message. Nothing happened.
Two weeks went by. The son repeated the message on social media but still had no trace of his father.
Now they were slowly they were getting used to living without him.
One month elapsed.
He regularly met his girlfriend, R, over the weekends, and they had gone to a few movies together. The conversations were long and pleasant once again, though she kept checking with him on his father's status. His mother went to the temple regularly, a practice she had stopped a year ago.
It was three months now since that train journey. R's parents had visited his house and spoken about the need for youngsters to settle down in life soon. He laughed more. His mother seemed more energetic, more happy and less grumpy.
Six months later, on one shaniwaram, a Saturday, his mother had gone to the temple, and he was plugging his phone for charging when he heard the front gate open. He came out to the hall to look at who was coming.
A stranger opened the gate and came in. His father came in, walking behind that stranger.
He stood rooted to the spot with a confused look on his face.