Leaving Bombay was a painful experience. I had grown to feel for and with the city: the vada-paos and its devourers, the draining local trains, the crowed Causeway, the bountiful Carter Road. I had reached that stage when I had found a particular piece of pavement on the Marine Drive to sit, a particular seat in the CCD I used to frequent, a particular lady who used to share her bits of banalities with me when I visited my next door bookstore, I had found new friends and loved the feeling of being alone and lively. Also I enjoyed the transience of the experience knowing it will last for only so long, which again turned on my sense of grief when it was time to move on.
All along the Eastern Express Highway, I stared at the bold shapes of transmission line towers standing tall against the dark grey billowing overcast sky. The cab swept through the sparse traffic making memories of a place I was beginning to take for my own. I started waiting again.
I boarded my train from Lok Manya Tilak Junction, greeted with familiar clatter of Bengali tongues in coach A1, seat 41. Mostly goodbyes and handshakes, and a tear-drop here and there, and me drowned in a magazine to escape the sentimentality of the air around. The train chugged off, I read some book, ordered food, ate food (which was by far the worst meal I have ever had on a train), and slept. I was still half stuck in Bombay, and was being half-catapulted through red-soiled plains of Maharashtra.
Day two on the train was more exciting. The dark lean middle-aged man who sat in front of me (I was on an side berth) never talked, never moved and never made eye contact. When I asked him, “Aap kahan se ho? Kahan jaa rahe ho?” his expressionless “Rourkela” made me give up any ideas I had on having a good chat with him. The other co-passengers didn’t seem interesting enough to have a conversation with.
Allow me this digression, but have I told you I love travelling by trains? I love the way it darts through jungles and plains and mountains and valleys, pushing the trees on both sides, and taking the telegraph poles like red-yellow fishes racing through clear blue water alongside a mermaid. The soothing monotony of the landscape, and the gradual changes, takes the imagination places, and then it comes back to the same greenness across the window after grazing in pasture far and fulgent. When in a train, I like standing near the open door, soaking in the dusty drought and gazing aimlessly at the beyond. When I can’t stand anymore, I sit on the foot board, still rollicking in the beatitude.
The landscape that greets you when you are travelling along the fringes of the Deccan Plateau is, if simply put, quite untamed. Miles of barren land, red and hostile, lined by weather beaten hills, silhouetted by the dust and time. There are trees, alone and disconsolate, lost in a world of their own. At times there are scrubby undergrowths near serpentine rivers, no birds, no animals anywhere. The menacingly beautiful plains pay no attention to the train or its journey. This disdainful oversight endeared these miles of barrenness to me beyond expression, though I am yet to discover why…
The hours flew by, as we approached Orissa through the lilac and orange skies of dusk. More than once, I felt the impulse to run out into the limitless intimidating wilderness I saw. Tired by my day’s work, I snuggled up in my blanket, since I wanted to be there at sunrise the next day.
When I woke up at 4 o clock in the morning on Day Three on Train, I was evidently surprised at finding the Rourkela guy dozing in the berth above me. Rourkela, according to the schedule, was supposed to have been crossed some six hours back. And shocked as well, as I found the train wasn’t moving.
The station was Raigarh, Chattisgarh. On asking the stationmaster why the train was stuck there, he promptly guffawed, “Woh aap train se hi poochien!” The stooges around him laughed too, ignoring the fact that it was hardly helpful to yours truly. I then asked, when would it leave the station. One of the stooges replied that it might leave Raigarh in an hour or so.
It was dark, and wet, and smelt the way wet railway platforms usually do. The stereotypes ruled here. The old resident madcap was swinging a stick over his head in a corner, while an old beggar was sipping water from the tap with a couple of dogs tugging at her pallu. Most of the passengers of my train were down on the platform, sipping tea, eating Bapuji cakes (!), and loading their handbags with biscuits and bread and jam, just in case the supply of food from the pantry car is cut off. I walked out of the station, it was drizzling and there were quite a few people sleeping on the footpath, and others gossiping and smoking or just playing cards. Some of the folks here told me over drags and drollery that Bengal is flooded, and the railway tracks in Chakradharpur have done an Atlantis. There have been cracks on bridge as well. Hmm, so this is how the cookie crumbles, thought I.
The train finally started moving at 5.30 a.m. I missed my sunset behind dark, muddy, growling clouds. The train stopped and moved at its own free will (as if it had taken the epithet of the station master to heart!), sometimes crawling, sometimes with jolts and sometimes like a rocket crash landing in alien land. Alien land it was indeed, muddy brown waters all around, with brown hills jutting out, and flotsam of buffalos and billboard, empty crates and asbestos. Finally covering a distance of an hour and half in four, it reached Rourkela. Men went out, men came in. The train remained in the station for another two hours. News, rumours and sometimes, spine chilling and heart warming stories came floating from coach to coach. And obviously, in the delirium, the attendants and TTs helped all those who were marooned in the platform, by offering seats in the train. It was two days since the last train shook the rubble on these lines.
As the train entered Jamshedpur late in the afternoon, I had begun to understand the magnitude of the destruction I was seeing around me. Houses were washed over, brick and mortar houses, and trees were floating along violent rivers, the wild winds tore apart electricity lines, and sky was splashed with blood, blue and amber. They were saying the worst is over, though I guessed, the worst is yet to come for the thousands squatting on roofs. All along, calmness prevailed in the A1, men busying themselves in the chores of eating, talking and folding their towels, quite like chickens in the cage of a meat shop.
Night fell, and the train rushed through the refreshingly green Bengal landscape, the stifled sobs and the clamour of shattered dreams hardly making their way through the double glass panes of Jnaneshwari Super Deluxe Express.
Post Script: I wondered throughout this journey if there is a living and non-living part of us. While nature throws away the non-living deadness around us, the living spirit soars in the face of it. I was pretty sure thereafter that the living part of me wanted to jump out into the terrible glorious tripping light fantastic, and the non-living part kept pulling me back, safely taking me under the safe havens of tube lights and ceiling fans.