Exactly at 6.40pm on Friday, tea vendor Pinaki Ranjan Mondal was facing the biggest decision of his life. Except that he did not know it.
The 46-year-old from Shyampur in Howrah sold lemon tea on various long-distance trains before calling it a day at Balasore, where he stayed in rented lodgings, every evening.
But on Friday, as the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express rolled into Balasore station, there was still some tea left in his kettle. So he had a choice to make.
Get off at Balasore as usual (he visited his family in Howrah every other Saturday). Or earn a few more bucks by continuing till the next stop, Bhadrak, and then catch a down train to Balasore.
He turned to Sujoy Jana, 32 — his fellow vendor, Howrah neighbour and Balasore roommate who sold jhalmuri on the Coromandel — and made the wrong choice.
“Mondal-da and I had taken the train at Kharagpur at 5.10pm and were supposed to get off at Balasore, as usual. He was to leave for Howrah to visit his family today,” Jana told The Telegraph on Saturday.
“He said he would travel on till Bhadrak, sell the tea left in his kettle and then return to Balasore. He told me to go home and cook the meat dish that we planned to have for dinner.”
The triple train crash happened before the Coromandel could reach Bhadrak.
Jana bought meat on his way home and was cooking when Bittu Shah, a relative of Mondal who lives near the accident site, called him and told him about the crash.
Jana immediately called Mondal on his mobile but there was no ring. “I stopped cooking and rushed to the accident site on a neighbour’s two-wheeler.”
At the site, Jana, the neighbour and Bittu jumped over corpses, searching for Mondal among the mauled bogies. They also helped railway workers and villagers remove some of the bodies and pull out the injured.
It was 10pm when “I suddenly spotted a body in the coffee-coloured shirt he (Mondal) was wearing that day”, Jana said.
“I dragged myself towards the body, and a closer look confirmed our worst fears. The accident had badly bruised his face but Mondal-da was still recognisable.”
The trio requested the police not to remove the body immediately.
“They agreed and we waited for Mondal-da’s family to arrive. His wife Jyotsna and other family members had left Howrah for Balasore soon after the accident,” Jana said.
“Around 11.30am today, Jyotsna identified the body.”
Mondal used to sell tea on various trains from 4am till mid-morning. He would then return to his lodgings for lunch and set off in the late afternoon for Kharagpur on any available train, selling tea. He would return to Balasore on the Coromandel.
He worked an average of eight hours daily for at least 25 days a month, Jana said. “He was happy to earn Rs 700-800 a day.”
Jyotsna, trying to come to terms with her “immense loss”, said her husband had last visited Howrah a fortnight ago.
“He was supposed to come home today. I had never imagined he would return home dead,” the mother of two said, speaking between sobs.
Jyotsna’s daughter is a first-year student at a Howrah college, and her son studies in Class VII.
Mondal had been a labourer in Rajasthan’s real-estate business. He lost his job after the demonetisation, returned home in 2017, and took to selling tea on trains.
Mondal’s brother Plaban, who had come to take the body home after the post-mortem, said: “Dada used to sell tea on local trains at first. But after his children’s education expenses increased, he shifted to express trains. A cup of lemon tea earns you Rs 5 on a local train and Rs 10 on an express train.”
Jana said Mondal was “an elder brother” to him and that he was cursing himself for not forcing him to get off the train at Balasore on Friday.
“I shall regret this all my life,” he said, abruptly hanging up.