There’s something wrong with her, I thought to myself as the elderly woman strode past me for the tenth time in the last five minutes. I watched her as she walked down the length of our train carriage. She reached the far end, turned around and started to come back. She must be 60 or 70, cannot tell for sure. She was one of those people who seemed to have been old for a really long time. Tight grey curls that had escaped the tiny grasp of a pony tail framed her evenly lined face. She wore a bright green saree and a matching blouse and appeared well-cared for. She was the kind of woman you would expect to bore you with details of her senior bank manager-son, her government-employee daughter-in-law, 16-year old grandson Rahul or Ajay who was studying hard to get in to a professional degree course and her 12-year old grand-daughter who had just become ‘a woman’. Except she did none of these. Her eyes looked vacant and she kept mumbling furiously as she marched up and down the train carriage purposefully.
Brindavan Express leaves Chennai at 7 am on weekday and stops at several small towns before reaching Bangalore just past noon. It’s favoured by city-dwellers who work in small outposts. Today was no exception and our carriage was packed with office-goers on their way to work. And they all seemed determined to ignore the oddly-behaved elderly woman in their midst. After watching her for another 20 minutes or so, and noticing no change in her behaviour, I decided to do something. Amma! I called out to her. She walked on by without registering my call. I followed her as I tried to get her attention. I was right behind her and when we reached the end of the carriage, she turned around and came face-to-face with me. She looked straight past me. Are you with someone, amma?, I asked. She didn’t seem to hear me. Amma? I repeated. Is your family with you? Son? Daughter? Somebody? She reacted with the same vacant expression. And I noticed something akin to panic flit past her eyes. I was keen to avoid a showdown so I let her pass.
By now, I had the attention of the entire carriage. Did anyone see her come with somebody? I asked out aloud. A few heads shook no. I went around asking the same question. And no one had seen her being accompanied by family. I spent the next half-an-hour walking along the train asking others if they were missing an elderly co-passenger. I returned to my carriage with a plan. I found out that the next big station was Katpadi Junction. I’m going to hand her over to the station master, I said out aloud to those in my carriage, and he should be able to do the needful. No one seemed to care what happened to her. They busied themselves with magazines, happy to have her taken off their hands.
At Katpadi, I alighted first and gently helped her get off the train. She didn’t resist and held on tightly to me like a child in a fairground. The station master’s office was a dark room with a fan whirring noisily somewhere in the ceiling. I explained the situation to him and he listened to me patiently. They had another case like this last month at Vyasarpadi, he told me, the family didn’t want to take care of the old man any more, so they let him wander. But what can we do? Anyway, leave her here. The lady constable has gone for her lunch break. Once she comes back, I’ll ask her to do something.
I was told that they would arrange for the old woman to be taken to Chennai where they would lodge a complaint in the missing people’s registry. If no one came forward to claim her in 30 days, she would be sent to some mental-health institution. I looked up at her still clinging to me like a little girl. I’m sorry, Amma, I said to her quietly, I cannot take care of you any more. This is probably better for you than living with us.
I heard the train whistle going up. I prised her fingers open and freed my arm. I started to run without turning back. Tears were flowing freely as I boarded the train. We should reach Bangalore in 3 hours’ time.