Poorva Express rumbled through the darkness, punctuating the night's silence with an occasional howl of the horn.
Divakar Desai clamped the window shut tightly. On most occasions he would not mind a breeze blowing in from the train's window. But this was not 'most occasions'. This was peak winter in northern India. It was one of the rare occasions when the rather reclusive Divakar Desai wished he had a human around him - for both, warmth and company.
For the past hour or so, he had been tossing and turning on his berth when he finally gave up and sat upright. It was not the discomfort of the journey or the disagreeable weather that kept him awake. It was a memory from the distant past that refused to leave him. A nightmare that had haunted him for many years now .....
It was the winter of 2002, but the heat in Vadodara insinuated otherwise.
Faiz Mansoor was aghast. With every ounce of vigor left, he had weathered the assault of the Hindu mob. But, when he realized that it was his dear friend who had betrayed his location to the crowd, he broke down. Cornered against the wall, he could only smile in defeat.
"I thoughts we were friends, Divakar."
In response, Divakar chose to spit in his face. The streaking paan juice, juxtaposed well with the blood oozing out of the facial wounds.
"Friendship is between equals. You are a lowly Muslim."
With that, Divakar walked away from the scene, with a muddle of indignity and indignant emotions.
The screeching halt of the train jolted Divakar Desai back to the present. He wiped the sweat beads off his brow with his kerchief and glanced at his watch. Ten minutes to two. They must have arrived at Aligarh Junction.
The sole occupant of the deserted compartment finally had some company. A lanky gentleman with a hastened gait walked in with his brown briefcase. He placed his luggage opposite Divakar Desai's seat and proceeded to make himself comfortable.
"Ab ki sardi mein kahaan hai vo alaav siina, ab ki sardi mein mujhe khud ko jalana hoga", effused the entrant with a toothy grin, rubbing together his gloved hands vigorously for warmth.
"Bohot khoob, janaab", lauded Divakar Desai. "Toh aap shayar hain?"
"Nahi. Nahi. Bas iss sardi se behaal hoon. I'm actually a professor of Political Science, here at the University. "
The train chugged along. The conversations began to flow.
"Lekin isse zyaada behaal toh mujhe 2002 ki thand ne kiya tha. Aapko toh yaad hi hoga sir, kya haal ho gaya tha desh ka uss time?", enquired the professor.
The topic of discussion made Divakar Desai visibly uncomfortable and he tried to avoid his co-passenger's gaze. The latter unfazed by this reaction, carried on.
"I was left for the dead then. Betrayed by my closest friend. Shukr hai upar waale ka, I survived. It was a very small price that I had to pay."
He paused to itch his wizened face before continuing. "Apne dost se mujhe koi shikwa nahi, vakeel saheb. Mazhab hai hi itni kameeni cheez."
The professor casually placed a cigarette between his pursed lips and leaned in for his lighter.
"I hope you don't mind me smoking?", he probed apologetically.
The flare at the end of the stick allowed Divakar Desai to see the stranger's face properly for the first time.
Another pregnant pause. Another puff of smoke.
"Gila likhun mai agar teri bewafayi ka, lahu mein gharq safina ho aashnayi ka."
Divakar Desai froze. How could it possibly be? Was his mind playing tricks?
With a wry smile, the professor finally concluded, "Sauda ka yeh sher yaad aa gaya. Kya likhte the woh. Waah!"
The professor was clearly oblivious to the other person's recent discovery.
"Aap bhi kuch bataiye ab. Aap kya kar rahein the uss sardi mein?"
This was the last straw. Divakar Desai's pent-up guilt spiraled out of control. He broke down and confessed to his crimes. "Please, please just stop it now! I beg of you. Not a day has gone by, in the last twenty years, without me hating myself for what I did to you. Yes, I was blinded by faith. Yes, I was a terrible friend!"
The stranger was taken aback by this sudden surge of emotions directed at him. It took him a moment to realize what was unfolding. And then, he began to laugh hysterically.
"I have played out this scene - what happens when the two of eventually meet - in my head a million times. A million times, janaab!
Every day, I leave my house with a singular purpose. And today is the day we finally meet!"
Divakar Desai was squirming in his seat, wishing he could just vanish into thin air.
"But you know what? I'm not like one of your kind. I will offer you my hand in friendship again." The professor reached for his coat's pocket and produced two neatly folded paan. "Here's to a new beginning!"
"Yeh Aligarh ki special hai. Khaa ke toh dekhiye", the professor sternly insisted, leaving the lawyer with no other option.
"There's just one tiny, little problem. You see, true friendship can exist only between equals", said the professor as he struggled to take off his coat. "Aisa mai nahi, Plato kehte the."
He then removed his left glove and rolled up his sleeve to expose a wooden fist.
"That day, the mob chopped off this hand of mine. The hand, they said, had dared to defile what they held sacrosanct."
He calmly unbuckled his briefcase and fished out a butcher's knife. The glint in his eye far surpassed that of the blade.
"All these years I have wondered, how could I ever face my dear friend again, with this inadequacy of mine? How stupid of me! The answer was hiding in plain sight". His excitement was hitting a crescendo.
Divakar Desai tried to protest but choked on his paan. Only a croaky 'Stop!' escaped his lips.
"You remember, the matinee show of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar we had gone to see in Ram Nagar? It was such a riot!" The professor, delighting in his feigned ignorance, paid no heed to the struggle ensuing before him.
In one swift motion, the deed was done.
"Now, that fixes our little problem", he beamed proudly. The blade was secured back in the briefcase and so was the paw.
Though Divakar Desai was writhing in agony, his unconcerned companion insisted that the two lost friends hug it out.
"Aao, galey lago yaar!"
Divakar Desai's dangling, bleeding arm stained the Muslim's kurta red. It was his favorite kurta. But he didn't seem to mind, at all.
"I have missed you so much, my dear Karim", said the professor with tears streaming down his cheeks and the lawyer tenderly clutched in his embrace. "Everything about Ayodhya reminded me of us, so I had to finally move out."
Divakar Desai's eyes, wide with fear, remained transfixed on the brown briefcase's name-tag.
It read : 'Prof. Purushottam Tripathi'.