Bells jingling, the black horse pulling the tonga trotted through the gates of Lahore railway station and came to a stop at the platform entrance. Shankar sprang lightly to the ground, briefcase in hand. Dropping two annas into the driver’s outstretched palm, he hefted his holdall in his other hand and strode purposefully towards the platform, where, the Frontier Mail, that marvel of modern engineering, stood, its scarlet coaches gleaming in the light of the gas lamps, the engine gently puffing clouds of steam. During its long journey from Bombay to Peshawar, the train made a long halt at Lahore where it stocked up on food and fuel before plunging into the dry plains of the Jhelum tracts and finally up into the wild foothills of the Hindu Kush, the true “frontier” of the sub-continent.
Checking the coach number on his ticket, Shankar made his way through the vestibule to his First Class compartment. The coach was empty. The sliding door opened noiselessly, and he deposited his holdall on the berth. The briefcase – now that was a different matter. Glancing around the compartment, he decided to sit by the window, the briefcase on the berth beside him. Settling down, he lit a cigarette, leaning forward to open the window shutters a crack. “Chai garam!” “Gosht roti Musalman!” “Hindu Pani!” The chilly night air was full of the raucous cries of hawkers, swarming like flies around the celebrated train. Pulling on his cigarette, Shankar leaned against the backrest, reflecting on his recent good fortune. Barely a year after he was employed by the North Western Railways, he had been promoted to the position of Upper Division Clerk, an elevation that came with a substantial salary raise and various perks including travelling First Class. His duties involved the disbursement of staff salaries at the office in Gujranwala, a responsibility fraught with tension for a nervous man, but Shankar was young and confident with a breezy self-assurance not leaving much room for anxiety. The briefcase beside him contained Rs 25,000 in cash, more money than he would make in a year, yet the burden sat lightly on his sturdy shoulders. Closing his eyes, he awaited the five hour journey to Gujranwala with anticipation.
A shrill whistle sounded. The signal turned green and the guard waved a flag vigorously, announcing the departure of the Frontier Mail. As the train lurched into motion, the compartment door slid open and a large, heavily built man with handlebar moustaches stumbled in. As he righted himself, Shankar had a brief impression of a loose Pathani kurta and salwar and a European style jacket over it. He wore a Punjabi safa, a large turban with a fan-like frill at the top and a loose end dangling down his back. His manner friendly, yet his protuberant bloodshot eyes were watchful as he addressed Shankar “Der ho gayi mainu! Sadkan vich badi bheed sigi” (Got late! The roads were terribly crowded) Then, sitting down heavily on the opposite berth, “Tusi kithe ja rahe ho, Sahab?” (Where are you going, Sir?) “I am getting off at Gujranwala”, said Shankar. “Lo ji! I am also getting down there! Going to visit my sister. Ikatthe challangey!” “Well, I have to go to office directly,” Shankar said smilingly. He was a little disconcerted by the heavy jocularity of the other’s manner. “Might as well get some sleep. Not much of the night left.” “You are right, Sir.” The man swung his legs up on the berth and turned his face to the wall. Heavy snores soon filled the cabin. Shankar unrolled his holdall on the berth and depositing the briefcase under his pillow, switched off the overhead light and lay down with his hands under his head.
Something about his companion made him uneasy. His large form, his too-friendly manner that belied his watchful eyes. Was he intoxicated? Shankar couldn’t smell alcohol on his breath. Besides, under his relaxed demeanour, the man was utterly alert. Was that a leather strap of a shoulder holster under his jacket? Pushing away such unwanted fancies, Shankar allowed the rhythmic rocking of the train, the metallic clatter of its wheels, lull him to sleep. Glancing sleepily at his watch, he saw that it was 10.30 pm. Another four and a half hours to go. He closed his eyes and slept.
Something woke him. A subliminal consciousness of danger, very near at hand. He lay very still, eyes closed, yet completely awake. He could hear someone moving around the cabin, the clink of a shoe buckle, the rustle of clothes. And then – here it was. A stealthy hand slipping slowly under his pillow, getting a grip on the briefcase handle. Quick as a flash, Shankar clamped his own hand hard on the heavy wrist, conscious now of the other’s strength. Anxious to protect the briefcase at any cost, he grabbed the man’s arm with his other hand, squeezing with all his strength in an attempt to get him to release his grip on the handle. A hard blow to his head caught Shankar unawares, and for a second his grip on the briefcase loosened. The man whipped around, trying to open the door, which Shankar had locked. His fumbling gave Shankar time to snap on the light. He flung himself on the other man’s back, locking his arms around his neck. Wedging his right elbow under the man’s fleshy chin, Shankar grabbed his left arm and twisted it behind his back, dislodging the briefcase which clattered to the floor. “Help!” he shouted. “Bachao!”. He kicked the door with all his strength, hoping a guard was nearby.
The man was fumbling with his free hand under his left armpit. Shankar didn’t see the gun until it flashed against his shoulder, the bullet tearing through flesh and burying itself in the cabin wall. A sickening wave of pain hit Shankar. His grip loosened and he staggered. The man whipped around, gun ready and shot two more bullets into him, one went through his abdomen and the other hit higher on his chest. Certain that his end was near, faint from loss of blood, Shankar flung himself onto the man’s gun hand, gripping it and twisting for all he was worth. Bang! Another bullet ripped through his palm. Yet he hung on, unbelievably, twisting the gun till it was pointing upwards. Another shot went through the roof of the carriage. “One bullet left”, the thought floated through his mind as it prepared to drift into unconsciousness, and beyond.
The train hurtled on through the darkness, unmindful of the life and death struggle taking place in the first class compartment. The man realised that Shankar was determined to prevent the robbery of the staff salaries, and would fight him to the death. Suddenly, the train lurched, wheels screeching in traction with the tracks. The brake had been applied. Gujranwala station was approaching. The train began to slow down. He could not be caught with a body in the compartment. There was a way out. Desperately, the man began to push Shankar towards the window, hoping to toss him out before the train reached the platform. Darkness floated before Shankar’s eyes as the man started to push him towards the window, feet first. Yet an instinct for survival led him to swing a leg through the other window, wedging himself between the two apertures while maintaining a vice-like grip on the robber’s arm. As a last resort, the man drew his gun and placed the muzzle against Shankar’s temple. Shankar closed his eyes. Yet as the man’s finger closed on the trigger, he opened his mouth wide and sank his teeth in the man’s wrist. The shot went wide and the signal at Gujranwala station glowed red in the distance. The man shook Shankar off and snatching up the briefcase from the floor, unlocked the door and was gone. His empty gun lay on the floor.
Summoning the last reserves of his strength, Shankar inched out of the compartment, leaving a bloody trail behind him. He managed to crawl to the door of the coach, trying to cry out for help. A deserted platform in the grey light of early dawn was his last impression before he finally collapsed on the steps of the coach, his head and arms hanging down onto the platform.
Two months later.
It was a pleasant morning in Lahore. Autumn was in the air, and the sunshine had a wintry cast. Shankar patted the pockets of his navy blazer, checking for his wallet and other essentials. He ran a comb through his hair and turned towards the door, grimacing a bit as the bullet injury in his chest gave a twinge. His mind went back to that fateful night. A porter had seen him lying on the platform, and raised the alarm. The station master had thought he was a British officer, and alarmed by his dreadful injuries, roused the Civil Surgeon who immediately operated on him. That prompt action had saved his life.
A police investigation began. The robber’s gun, found in the compartment, gave him away. He was a former police inspector named Narottam Dutt, who had been dismissed after charges of taking bribes were levelled against him. He had decamped with his service revolver and had taken to a life of crime, preying on rich businessmen and government officials travelling by train. He had been caught at the bus station at Rawalpindi, trying to flee to Peshawar. Twenty five thousand rupees in cash were found on his person. There was no sign of the briefcase. A case of armed robbery and intent to murder was filed against him in the Lahore High Court.
The Court was in session. Shankar stood in the witness stand. The judge called for the prisoner. “Qaidi Narottam Dutt Haazir Ho!!” There he was, his ferocious moustache and bloodshot eyes giving him a feral look. Despite the crowded courtroom, Shankar felt a thrill of fear, like ice water down his back. Dutt’s manner, however, was respectful as he took his oath, wanting to make a good impression. Counsel for the prosecution turned to Shankar. “Do you recognise this man?” “Yes. He attacked and shot me in the first class compartment of the Frontier Mail on the night of 29 July”, said Shankar. “He also stole a briefcase containing 25000 rupees that I was carrying in my official capacity.” Counsel spoke to Dutt. “Do you deny these allegations?” “Of course I deny them, absolutely, Sahab!” Dutt spoke in Punjabi, trying to regain his old jocular manner. “This Sahab is mistaken. I was not on the Frontier Mail that night. I was out drinking with some friends in Lahore. How can a poor man like me afford a first class ticket on such an exclusive train? I can only travel janta class.” There were a few understanding smirks among the audience. Counsel for the prosecution pressed on. “Your service weapon was found in the compartment where this officer suffered grievous injuries. How can you explain that?” “But Sahab, my gun was stolen three months ago, while I was travelling in a bus to Amritsar. I am a small businessman, and used to keep it for my protection while travelling. This Sahab must have been attacked by the fellow who stole it.”
Shankar stared at Dutt in frustration. The defence counsel fiddled with his notes, sensing important gaps in his argument, gaps that a seasoned operator like Dutt was exploiting. Counsel turned to Shankar. “Is there any way you can prove that this man attacked you that night?” This was it. Make or break. If Dutt got away today, he would find a way to secure his release. Beads of sweat popped up on Shankar’s forehead. Dutt lounged in the witness stand opposite him, revelling in his discomfiture, his bloodshot eyes full of mockery. Shankar closed his eyes, recalling the last moments in the train, when this man had placed the muzzle of his revolver against his temple. Then he got it. “Your honour! I can unequivocally say that it was this man who I fought with in the train!” “Can you prove it?” The judge stared down at him from the bench. “Yes I can.” Shankar turned towards Narottam Dutt. “Your honour, undo the cuff of his right sleeve. You will find the marks of my teeth. I bit him as he was trying to put a bullet through my head.” The audience erupted in noisy babble as Dutt, his face contorted with shock, grabbed his right arm.
The case was over. A verdict of life imprisonment was announced. As the policemen caught him by each arm and led him away, Dutt paused at the door, turned towards Shankar, and shouted hoarsely in Punjabi. “Pandit! I will come for you! Don’t forget! I will come!”