Translated from the Bengali by Sukti Sarkar
They say, trains never take one to the right destination. Of course, this is an exaggeration and I think those who maintain such a notion, actually speak of the numerous ordeals of train journeys. Well, trains can meet with accidents, and they do quite often, but not ever reaching where they should… that’s a stretch.
It has been a long since I boarded a train but the other day, I had to walk along the rail track for some reason, I cannot now recall. I was always under the impression that the sleeper panels below the track are arranged parallelly equidistant to each other. But I was mistaken. The pieces lay in what can be called an approximation of parallel, somewhat in a zigzag, diagonal array. Most of them were broken, worn, and reduced by about a fourth of their original length. Capriciously, I kicked against a few. They slipped right out from beneath the tracks and rolled. Terrified, I asked my companion— won’t this cause accident? Nonchalantly, he responded, “Quite possible.”
“What d’you mean by possible? It doesn’t really happen, right?”
He replied, “Do all possibilities manifest in reality? It’s possible to punish an accused. Does that happen every time?” Wonderful logic! True, when I open the window at the back of my house, I can see the rail track and— quite a few trains passing throughout the day. No sign of any accident. At the end of the twentieth century, supernatural events hardly occur except in Bangladesh, where they occur in abundance.
Feeling reassured, I had boarded a train some days ago. I was convinced, that a train in Bangladesh if needed, could run through plowed fields sans tracks. I was, meanwhile, highly enamored of the iron carriage known as the ‘train’. In my childhood, I found a bullock cart similarly attractive. If you are in no hurry, lying on your back in a bullock cart on a dark night, watch the stars in the black sky as you listen to the soft and sad jingling of the bells on the bullock’s neck, swinging between sleep and consciousness, your imagination soars through the stars— if you had ever experienced this, you will never be able to outgrow your fascination for bullock cart rides. Trains are even more exciting in comparison. Remember the night train shooting like a fuming demon with the light flashing from its single eye, the strange sound of the wheels screeching against the iron rails, the trembling teakwood compartments? You sit by the window letting the gust of cold night wind crash on your face and eyes as the locomotive rush by those insignificant stations with a harsh metallic clang. Despite the speed, you spot a station master at work under the soft light of a lantern inside one of the station offices, the dim blinking light of the lampposts— in a fleeting moment you experience a small slice of life. At other times, open fields run on either side, shrubberies or glimpses of huge trees, mud huts of the poor. At moments such as this, in the dead of the night, try to remember, your destination. You will probably not have a precise answer. To reach a particular destination will seem pointless. As for me, I always feel like letting the night train run, wishing that night would never end, never would there be daybreak, so I don’t have to see the face of the familiar world.
I am recollecting all these words from my childhood memories. Age spoils most charms. Now I cannot forget, I had boarded this train at twelve noon and it should have reached Parbatipur by five in the evening. I keep thinking about those broken sleepers below the tracks. They were not even properly bolted to the rails. At times the compartment bounced ripping severely as if it was running on a corrugated surface, compelling one to wonder if the vehicle had really descended to the arable land! It was a challenge to keep track of one’s own limbs in the jampacked compartment. People flocked the train roof, filling out every inch of the engine carriage and even sneaking between the two compartments. The Bangladesh rail was so above all control. Because the train was the property of the government, people dismantled and took home the parts they considered their own. I was in for more surprise in the lavatory! Just the way it used to be back in the days of the Raj, a note written in black on the wall said, “If you wish to lodge a complaint, please ask for the register from the guard,” I so wanted to ask for the register and check the contents. Jokes too should have a limit!
Whatever may be the case, I shouldn’t be annoyed. If anything, I should be happy at the preservation of tradition. I haven’t been concerned with trains for a long time and have been, therefore, completely unaware of the evolution that this carriage has undergone.
The entire day, the train ran through the open fields of north Bengal. The air, sweltering under the sun pulled a cloud of white dust along. Keeping glass window shutters down hardly helped. The invasion of dust simply couldn’t be prevented. A hazy fog of dust permeated the compartment and the sound of dry cough came from all sides. With as much indifference as I could manage, I gazed through the thick almost opaque glass only to find trees, unclean people, houses, and settlements— all covered under a ubiquitous layer of dust. Large trees were always fewer in number in north Bengal. Has the number gone down, even more, I wondered?
Let’s drop all this nonsense. I must change the train at Parbatipur. My fellow traveler informed me that my next train would arrive at Parbatipur at five o’clock sharp. I calculated this train should reach Parbatipur sometime before five. And when it did, it was not yet five. I hurriedly made it out of the train and paced up to a tea shop:
“Where does the train to Dinajpur come? Has it left already?” I asked the owner.
“It will be here soon. Any time now.” The man smiled politely as he replied.
I asked him, “Where will that be?”
“Right where you are now. Don’t worry,” the man answered.
“Can I get a cup of tea?” Feeling reassured, I asked the owner.
After I had spoken to him, I began to measure him up: a middle-aged man with a dark complexion and lean build. He had a cleanly shaven look and a konthi around his neck. Also, he appeared almost immaculate in his bearing and equally smart. He got on with making tea right away. There was a bench inside the stall and another outside, in front of the high counter. Both were unoccupied. Leaning against the counter on my elbows, I watched the man at work. I liked observing skilled people engaged in their work.
I realized with the first sip that the tea was as good as it could be and gulped it down right away. I asked for another cup, a bit anxious now as the train to Dinajpur was supposed to leave at five but it’s already a quarter past the due time. No train has shown up yet.
“It did not just depart from some other platform, I hope?”
While swiftly making tea for another customer, the smart man reassured, “No. No. The train will arrive here— sometimes, it’s a little late. Make yourself comfortable.” A man garbed in a rather dirty half shirt and lungi appeared from nowhere. “Where are you headed? Dinajpur? I am going too. The train will come at this platform, for sure.” He spoke with an overbearing attitude.
Not finding any other way forward, I put my jhola down on the bench and stationed myself too right beside. The platform was almost empty. A married village lass, stunningly beautiful leaned against an iron post under the platform shade. She was accompanied by a man who resembled a bug-eaten log. His torso was bare and he had pushed the tattered cloth wrapped around his waist in the pretense of a lungi, indecently high up his knees. Thin beard covered his chin and his eyes had no light. He cast a strange vacant look. Next to him sat the woman dazzling in her beauty, trying hard to hide it under her varicolored shabby sari. At first, I assumed the man to be her father or uncle. But the phrases he hurled sternly at the woman clearly implied they were a married couple. I silently watched this disparity personified.
Time passed. I could hear the occasional whistling of train engines all around. But nothing really happened. Out of sheer despair, I asked for another cup of tea and enquired restlessly, “When will that damn five o’clock train of yours arrive?” Without an iota of impatience, the man responded calmly, “It will.”
Meanwhile, the sun had set. Even fewer people remained in the station. As the fading red light filled the platform, the extraordinary beauty of the married village woman was shining bright. Her husband, who appeared wasted, pulled up his lungi even higher and appeared almost undressed.
I grew indignant and irksome. Where would this couple travel to? Or, do they live here? Just at that point, came the distant sound of a train engine. Probably that was it. I jumped from my seat, hopeful, and asked the stall owner again, “That must be our train?”
The man quietly said, “No, it’s the shunting of an engine.” I slumped on the bench once again. The platform was awash with the foggy glow of the twilight. I no longer had a clear view of the couple but knew, they were waiting. The stall owner lit a clean lantern. I caught hold of a person in railway uniform and asked him, “Please tell me, when will the train to Dinajpur come? At which platform?”
The man raised his finger, pointed in an uncertain direction, and merely said, “There, at that side.” Before I could ask him for the second time, he disappeared into the thin darkness.
I thought of waiting in the first-class retiring room. That might help to find out about the train. Two men busy unwrapping a bundle of food, spoke in all earnestness in their Rangpur dialect , “Come, come— waiting for the train? Sit down.” Feeling thoroughly welcome, I said, “Will take the train to Dinajpur.” “We will too,” said one of them and looked at me with all reassurance.
The other man said, “Why do you worry?”— and took a large handful of puffed rice into his mouth, bit a chunk of raw onion held in his hand, and tried to reassure me again, “We too will. How can the train go, leaving us behind? Come, eat with us.” The two men extended the puffed rice towards me. I resisted with great difficulty. At this time, a checker entered the waiting room. I anticipated trouble. These two men must be traveling without tickets and certainly not in the first class. A hassle was bound to follow. But the handsome young man of the two, the first to speak to me, started up and addressed the checker as “uncle” the moment he eyed him and without any hesitation invited him to have some puffed rice. Subsequently, I interrupted the conversation between the dubious uncle and his nephew to ask, “When will the train to Dinajpur arrive?” The gentleman answered, “Difficult to say. It may not arrive at all.”
What do you mean? I asked.
He continued, “All the engines are out of service. No one follows any instructions. Your train will come from Thakurgaon. It left at two last night, no one knows when it will return.”
The young man, who loved puffed rice went on arguing with enthusiasm. He said, “The train would arrive right now.” A voice blasted through the microphone. I was all ears. There must be definitely some news about the train. A ten-year-old boy was missing. He was on this platform itself. His maternal uncle was looking for him. Anyone who found him was requested to hand him over immediately to his uncle. There were about fifteen to twenty people on the platform, a single glance could confirm if anyone went missing. Despite the fact, the announcer cried himself hoarse on the microphone. A ten-year-old boy, laughing playfully, came to hide behind my chair and said, “Uncle is looking for me.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. It was past nine-thirty. I barged into the station master’s cabin, “Is there at all any train to Dinajpur?” I implored the elderly simpleton.
He said, “Yes.”
“Then, when and from which platform will it leave?”
“Can’t say that.”
“What does that mean? You are the stationmaster of this junction station. Why are you not able to say?”
“Cannot say because nearly all the engines are in miserable condition. If one or two are working and if the driver is agreeable, only then do these local trains run. So, I am in no position to tell anything. Everything is in shambles— collapsed. With a horrible grimace, he flipped his hands and stared at me.
I went back to the tea stall. The well-polished lantern of the clean and tidy stall owner glowed brightly. He served tea gracefully to a dark-skinned mysterious woman who was no longer young. The married village woman lay fast asleep. Next to her was the emaciated and wasted man with lightless eyes. I asked for another cup of tea.
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