Last week - 10 October - sometime in the morning, say 11.10 a.m, I was on the platform, waiting for the train to take me from 'wish-vidyalay', because they won't say VISHWA-vidyalay, to Connaught Place, when the envelope I was holding in my hand, thanks to a gust of wind from the oncoming train, flew from my hand, tossed about in mid-air, and landed on the metro tracks, between two carriages of the arrived train. The envelope was a big brown square thing and it had my university degree. My duplicate university degree. I had already, some years back, but only recently discovered, lost the first one.
It wasn't a good moment but in all the wrong ways, still a pretty memorable one. In utter, movie-style disbelief where the rest of the world slows down (or is it moves on?) I froze. I had these two heavy bags on each shoulder, which I carefully removed (funny I should be careful about THIS!) and very slowly, deliberately dropped my bags close to my feet. 'Very slowly and deliverately' because I was contemplating lowering myself onto the tracks, just... sort of reaching down and pulling out the damn thing, telling myself it'll be so quick no one will know, get hurt, no, my arm won't get cut, I won't make tomorrow's headlines: Journo dies trying to salvage univ degree from metro tracks. (Except salvage would probably be too long a word for a headline. This I know. Trying to 'fish' degree out from tracks might still work). But, well, I didn't do that. Nor of course, did I get ON to the train thinking ah, well. Nope. Had it been any other thing, I might've just let it be.
And to think, just twenty minutes ago, at, say, 10.55 a.m, I was so pleased at finally having taken delivery of this thing, this much-chased, much-coveted thing that had driven me nuts for a fortnight that I was humming to myself and had even bought for my friend, (who I was due to meet for coffee shortly), and myself some noiseless colourful thread-wrapped plastic bangles from the fat lady in a sari outside the station to whom I had handed my degree-containing-envelope while I negotiated two bags and searched for my wallet that may or may not have had any cash in it. I let her pick the colours. Told her to give me sixty bucks worth, which is what the non-plastic in my wallet would permit. Fat sari lady smiled, picked, and even gave me a couple free. Sweet woman. I didn't know that in moments from that completed transaction, I would begin to wish I had forgotten the degree with her instead of carrying it inside with me.
My crisis was compounded a few times by facts and realisations such as
- I urgently needed that degree for a job that wouldn't materialise if they didn't have proof of my thoroughly useless college education
- Like I said, I had already lost the original (in December 2009, as per my signature and date in the college register, so definitely this week). And procuring the duplicate, now-lying-on-the-tracks, had caused me much (sure, self-inflicted) headache, and had required rounds of a police station, rounds to to a notary, to the police station again, to a court, to a 'first rate magistrate', to the college principal, and finally submitted to the univ head office. Sure I now knew the drill, but to do it over? My god.
- What would I tell my mother
- What the hell would I write in the damn FIR that surely would would need to be re-filed?!
- So much for coffee
The next 45 minutes were straining for my neck and my eyes and my peace of mind. There was a boy, though - 'Leo'. One good samaritan who belied his appearance. Tall, broad, black v-neck tee, black casual trousers, reddish-orange streaks in spiky hair, gold chain, stud in one year, mole under left eye -- yea, yea I take in a lot -- holding only his shades, a bottle of water and a tablet in his hand.
Smallish eyes. Soft pitch. This Leo was my saviour. Walked up to hassled me, asked what the matter was, what had I lost, by which time, in typical Indian style, a crowd was gathering, looking down at the tracks, one chap saying, 'phone kho gaya kya?' (has she lost her phone?), and I thought to myself but can't be sure if I muttered as much, "PHONE I can replace.. b@#$@ch**!. PHONE be damned!"
By then I had sent a text informing friend whom I was supposed to be having coffee with in the next twenty minutes: "Running late. degree fallen on metro tracks. wailing". Then I put the phone away. I didn't see her replies. I didn't see the "what?? where are you? which station?" or the following, "oye?? you okay??". I miss the next couple of calls. I'm trying to focus on the tracks, on salvaging my goddamn degree. (I have joked with my friends about how physically getting the duplicate degree has been harder than bloody sailing through college. An unfair remark because I faced almost no trouble bureaucracy wise. It's another matter that procedures themselves are troublesome for me. But apart from the steps I had to go through, they were super quick. And in fact, the guy at the head office, one tubby fellow, Amit, called today to check if I had collected the degree from my college.)
Back to that morning. Leo had summoned the sweeper who was, I'm impressed, addressed as 'metro staff'. But he quickly lost my respect by being an unhelpful prick, giving out a lost cause vibe, and moving about at his own sweet pace, evidently and completely uninterested in assuaging my fears. Every step of his was loaded with a you're-stypid-and-it'll-never-be-found-so-don't-waste-my-time negativity. Then again, why would he care. I was trying to hustle him to look more efficiently before another train came, because I knew the envelope had been blown further into the tunnel and no way could/ would/ did I want to wait till 1 a.m, for the service to stop so please, please, move it, fellow, try harder. But no. He was content giving me dirts and stroll about the platform, this aged metro staffer.
This Leo lionheart meanwhile was repeatedly stretching his arm out like a traffic cop, as if to prevent me from jumping to my death, as if I was some ditzy thing who was THAT affected by a lost degree that she will want to end it, end it now! Death being better than the repeat pillar-to-post trouble of getting sundry paper work stamped and in order before standing in a queue for a THIRD degree.
Staffer asks if I have a torch. I want to hit him. Isn't it your job to have a torch?! Surely this isn't the first object/ item/ single most precious sheaf of paper a univ student can possess that's fallen into the tracks?! No, I do not have a torch and my piddly cellphone light sure as hell isn't going to magically illuminate the tunnel to facilitate your unenthused poking about. Leo says he'll go up and buy a torch. I'm stumped. NO! It's okay. Forget it. We'll figure. He no listen. He tell me to not leave till I find the degree, otherwise they'll give up, it'll never be recovered and the manic rounds will once again have to be run, so to here, drink some water, have faith, stick around till it gets found. And in saying as much, he gets yelled at because he, to help me, 'followed his instinct', broke a mini law and crossed the yellow line. But was let off with a warning. He earlier told me simply: people should help other people.
I have to admit that when my crisis had just about begun to unfold, after those few seconds of frozen disbelief as I watched my degree flutter past, waft into the air, and not that I thought it then, but like the Forrest Gump feather, there were a few distinct baby-moments of comic realisation. Of man, wtf, what a story. But every thought with a comic/ ludicrous slant was quickly overcome with clearer focus. That I need to find this damn paper. If nothing else, can't let down this Leo the motivated, who frankly, at one point, was looking like finding my proof of B.A mattered to him more than to groaning-moaning me.
Another train came. Leo shouted. He saw something. I said chill, it's probably a chip packet. He said nahin nahin, shayad wohi hai - no, no, it's probably that only. I begged. Please don't get my hopes up. It's excruciating.
What can I say. Leo has an eye. Without a torch, at an even dingier part of the platform, right before the tunnel begins, he spotted an envelope that was not a chip packet. The degree! In remarkably okay shape, given that a few dozen carriages had run over it before blowing it to the side. I shrieked, I thanked the sour puss metro staff, and I leaped to give Leo a hug. I called him my saviour. The boy might've blushed. But who cares. Degree was got. War was over. There was a God.
We got onto the next train. Leo, genius Leo, wouldn't let me hold my tattered degree. As if it were too much of a risk to run again. By the time the station where I had to get off was nearing, I had got to know his story -- or, what he said was his story. Something about topping IIT, something mechanical engineering, something research in Univ, studying at Oxford, being an only child, how isolating and lonely London can be, how he spent a few years in Mauritius, what his parents do... and, within minutes, from being so overjoyed and impressed and so filled with gratitude at his show of humanity and his 'beyond the call of duty' assistance of distressed dame me -- because really, if it weren't for him, my 'priceless document' would still be fluttering somewhere in the undiscoverable depths of the metro underground and I'd be running rounds trying to get a third one -- I started to think, what a pity he's such a bore.
He gave me a lecture, too. I can't remember most of it, but something about how you should set your heart to do something, and do something different, and blah blah, to walk away from the herd and follow your heart and all very sweet etc, but all that stuck with me properly was him telling me that when he saw me walking up and down the platform being flustered, peering at the tracks, he thought, maybe she's new to Delhi and curious about railway lines. I thought that was hilarious. Yep. Must have looked like quite the villager.
Anyway. By then I had called my friend back and apprised her of the situation and put in my request for change of plan, from coffee to beer because my god! I had had a long morning and wanted a drink and since she had the better part of a day off -- the journo life, she was already yea yea, sure, but are you okay?, and I said, yea yea, tell you when I see you. And when I did see her we did a cheers to Leo, who by the way, missed his station and accompanied me to mine, only to take the train back. I thanked him profusely, earnestly, with all my heart, employing my best most positive smile. And I meant it. HE SAVED MY LIFE! In a way.
Couple of sips of lunch time sun light khan market beers, my friend, after listening to my highly animated tale of the day, tells me, quite the story, write it okay and I'm sure it could make a metro column. That it has some dramatic elements: 'sheer irresponsibility, brazenness, bizarreness, this shining armour possibility of romance...' and here she breaks her thought by passing me a pink folder and saying, I'm not sure I trust you to take the metro after this, call a cab, OK? Please?
When I later retold this story to two of my terribly cynical former colleagues, both married men, they looked at each other and burst out laughing. I got my trip taken: You WHAT the degree?? How??? Why couldn't you have put in your bag?? You didn't want it to get BENT??! What saintly Grasims model? Who, who helped you again? So sweet huh? Leo huh? Research in what? IIT topper huh? You hugged some strange guy? He took your number?! He accompanied you to the next station?! Oh man, they said. Nobody's saying he wasn't a good soul, they said. Great of him to help you, they said. But then they also high-fived each other, cackling away and said, Oh N, you're so gullible. Let's wait till he calls you.
And HE DID. The other morning. I was in a rush and I picked up and perhaps said a curt impatient hello, and then there was this soft voice saying hi this is Leo and I became totally effusive and went, oh HAAIII Leo! And then, with the idiot image of my high-fiving former colleagues crackling in my head, plus the fact that I really was running late -- to attend a funeral, of all things, which is the properly heart-stopping tragic story, not this magnified shit about losing a degree -- I said to Leo, I really, really have to go, Leo, but I'll call you back, alright? Now, of course I haven't. And I won't. Didn't save his number either. But I do feel a bit bad - that the guy, a stranger, really came through for me in a crisis, and I have to brush him off like any other guy.
By now I've told this story at least a handful of times, about how my heart stopped like in a movie coma, how Leo the knight came trotting up, shades and tablet and highlights in his hair, and how funny it all is in hindsight. And the last friend to whom I narrated this class-A anecdote, if you ask me, especially the feeling bad bit, said, a bit impatiently: look, if you were a guy he wouldn't have bothered. And also that I'm a twit for not putting the degree in my bag in the first place.