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My Travelling Companion

(By A.G.C.)

It happened in the Calcutta-Bombay mail train one morning during the early days of World War II.

The coolies had placed my luggage in a second-class compartment at Nasik Road station.  The train was timed to reach there, at that period, just a little before sunrise.  When I entered I found the compartment quite unoccupied, save for a man sleeping on the opposite berth, rug on, his face turned towards the window.

I too relaxed on my berth.  As the dining car attendant passed by, I asked him to bring my chota hazari at the next station, which is Devlali, the beautiful hill-station and cantonment.  By then, I thought, the sun would be up and I shall have had the time for a wash and brush-up.

By the time I had finished my wash the train was already steaming into Devlali, barely a few miles away from Nasik Road.  Returning to the compartment, I was busy drying my face and so I did not notice at the moment that my travelling companion had also got up and was leaning out of the window, gazing at the gorgeous sunrise.

The train came to a halt at the station.  No sooner had he spotted the dining car man on the platform bringing my tea when he ordered peremptorily:

"Bring tea and toast for me as well."

"There is no time left, sir" was the reply; "but I can bring you tea and toast at the next halt, which is Igatpuri."

"How far away is that?"  -  "About an hour's run from here, sir."  -  "WHAT?"

But just at that moment the guard blew his whistle, the engine shrieked, and the train began to move.  So my travelling companion had no time to continue the argument or to get a reply to his question.

Up to that time I had not seen the man's face for he was leaning out of the window and I was rubbing my face.  Moreover I had my glasses off (most of us journalists are myopic, you know!).  Now that I had put on my glasses I turned my face towards him.  I was pleasantly surprised, indeed.

"YOU!" I almost shouted in joy and excitement.  "Glad to find you as my travelling companion!"  And I extended my hand.

In fact he was, or at least I thought he was, a famous film star who counted his income in five figures.  As a journalist I knew this particular "star" pretty well, both professionally and personally.  I should say a more thorough gentleman would be hard to find in any walk of life.  (And that, as any "hard-boiled" journalist will tell you, is saying quite a good deal - for a film star!).

A look of perplexity came over the man's face.  Naturally enough, he could not 'place' me. Who was I, after all, but a mere working journalist - the sort a full fledged "star" is hardly supposed to remember, though he may have even given an autographed portrait with a vacant smile!  He might also have given the journalist "sugary" interviews.  But all that is purely for business reasons.

"I - I am sorry, I....."

"Don't you worry!" I cut him short; "you big folk are hardly expected to remember us.  Would it be a help to you for your undoubtedly over-taxed memory for faces if you were reminded that it was I who interviewed you on that grand set erected in the studio for "Veer Ashoka's Daughter-in-Law?"

The man seemed more perplexed than ever.  He looked at me furtively - and warily.  "Veer Ashoka's Daughter-in-Law?  Who is that?  And you interviewed me?  ME?"

His perplexity was amusing and I drew the obvious conclusion.  I thought the man perhaps had had a "binge" and had not yet got over the effects of "the night before"!  Hence his temporary aberration of memory.  While these thoughts flitted through my mind the man continued to look at me warily.

That, however, did not matter.  The main thing was that here was a shining star of the Film Firmament closeted in this otherwise vacant compartment with me who was a journalist or, as the Americans would say, a "news-hawk".  It was my obvious and bounden duty to swoop down on my prey or, to use a somewhat softer though mixed simile, to "make hay" while the "star twinkled", for the benefit of my paper and also, incidentally, of my own purse.  I must get from this star, by any means within my power, the latest "Inside Story" about the "super-super" production which was the starring vehicle for this Adonis of the Indian silver screen.

So, assuming my best professional manner, I tried to placate him, to get him in the right mood for the interview.  Pouring my tea I said ingratiatingly:  "I am sorry you missed your tea at Devlali."

"By all that is unholy, this is the worst break I have had on this blasted journey", he said with feeling, at the same time eyeing my tea-cup with a wistful glance.  That gave me an idea.

"Won't you have a cup of tea with me?"

The man thawed visibly.  I had got on the right side of him after all, I thought!  But there was only one tea cup.  So in true cavalier fashion I offered it to him.  He smiled his thanks and began to sip appreciatively from the cup that cheers but does not inebriate.  I rubbed my hands and got ready for the impromptu interview.  What if I had missed my cup of tea?  At least I had him "on the spot"!

"Eh - could you tell me something of your latest starring vehicle?" I began tentatively, feeling my way with caution.

The man had a morsel of well buttered toast in his mouth and so could not reply for the moment, though he looked at me in a peculiar way.

"I mean", I  added hastily, "Do you like the part assigned to you?  How is the heroine getting on with you? - and so on", I rattled on.

The man gulped down the half-munched toast and raised the cup to his lips.  Naturally there was a further pause while I waited, all attention.

"What did you say?" he asked when, as it seemed to me, after ages he lowered the cup.

"I asked, is the heroine really as lovely as she looks in her 'stills'?"

The man looked at me curiously, heaved a sigh, shook his head sorrowfully and got up.

"So she is not p to much then?" I queried anxiously.  "Take it as you like" he said, adding "I must first have a shave, change, and make myself presentable."

"Certainly!", I said with alacrity.

Taking his shaving things, a fresh shirt, and a fresh suit, the man entered the bathroom.  For a long time he was inside, dressing and making himself spruce and clean.  Awaiting him, I was on tenterhooks.  I must get something out of this blighter, I was thinking.

The train was already rattling over the points outside Igatpuri station when the man came out, spick and span.  Straightaway he looked out of the window, admiring the first view of the Ghats in the background.

"Breakfast, sir?" asked the dining car attendant, when the train had come to a halt at Igatpuri.  Here was my opportunity!

"Won't you have breakfast with me?" I asked politely and, without waiting for a reply, ordered the dining car man - "Breakfast for two."

"Will you come to the dining car, please, sir?" he said and disappeared.

"Thanks very much" said my companion, the star, as he got out of the compartment, followed by me.

In the dining car for some time I could not ask him anything as he seemed quite taken up with the grandeur of the Ghats between Igatpuri and Kasara.  The many ravines and gorges over which the railway line passes engrossed his entire attention.  Meanwhile we were having our breakfast.

When the train left Kasara I had my real "break".  The country around was now wild and uninviting and there was nothing remarkable in the landscape to hold my companion's attention.

"Now", I said, "will you tell me something about your new picture?"

"My picture?"   -   "Yes"

"It was done by the Central Studio when last I was in Bombay."

"But I thought you had a contract with --------."

"Oh no.  What has a contract to do with it?  Central Studio, the camera people on Hornby Road, did my last picture."

Now this was too much of a joke, I thought.  I was asking him about his film and he was telling me about his portrait!  Here was a star, for once, who knew how to keep his mouth shut, when he wanted to.  That made me more keen to get at least something our of him.  So I changed my tactics.

"Isn't your co-star and partner, Urmilata, quite an intelligent person?" I asked.

"My partner is an ass who does not know the business.  That's why I have to travel", was the somewhat spirited rejoinder.

I thought it was the same old story over again - rivalry between "stars"!

"By the way", he added, "you have got the name all wrong."

"I know; I know" I said, placating him, "it is some sort of nom de plume that many of you folk assume purely for business reasons."

"I don't know what you mean by that", he said; "at any rate that is not the true and proper name."

"Agreed."

And so the conversation rattled on without my getting anything out of him worth reporting to my paper, when the train reached Kalyan junction.  We both left the dining car.  I still felt sure I would be getting something worthwhile out of him before we reached Bombay.

But when we reached our compartment my companion called a coolie!  "Here is where we part company, since I am going to Poona", he said.  "Here is my card."

He looked into his pockets but could not find his own card; instead he hunted out another moth-eaten card and handed it over to me after scribbling his name on it.

"Here", he said, though I can't find any of my own cards, this is my brother's.  My name is on it.  Any time you are in Poona come and see me.  And, if I might give you a tip - DON'T ever ask a man about his business affairs!"

With that he shook hands with me and was soon lost in the crowd on the platform.

I thought he might probably be working for Prabhat or some other Poona studio and I there and then decided to look him up when I was next in Poona. Anyway, I was jolly glad to have met him.  You see, in this "news-hawk" business all is grist to the mill and every acquaintance is the subject of potential "copy".

Quite happy and self satisfied, I looked at the card to know where this super-star lived in Poona - a man who counted his income in nearly six figures.  What I saw on the card surprised me out of my wits.  The car said:

A. K. JARIPURANWALLA

And the address was a back street in Poona.  Scribbled across the card was the name  "J. K. Jaripuranawalla" and the business was indicated as "dealer in secondhand clothing"!

Just then the dining car man presented the bill for early morning tea - which I had not taken - and two breakfasts!  And here is the climax.

Just as I stood near the compartment door who should walk past me into the compartment but the real film star in person!  He recognised me and greeted me well enough.  It seems he was out on "outdoors" and, having finished his work, was returning to Bombay.

What a life!

But I had my real interview after all!

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SHORT STORIES