The coaches in the Indian passenger trains, despite all the discomfort they offer to its passengers, provide them with the facility to stop the train at their will. An act of reparation for something wrong that the train or the railway management has nothing to do with, for a predicament that has been created by the denizens themselves. A red coloured chain is fitted within each compartment and lies suspended by a red coloured chord. Like a flaccid organ otherwise potent of marvellous adventures. And Indians across the vast stretches of India’s diverse land utilise this facility exuberantly despite it being illegal to do so unless backed up by a legit reason. But in a country still plagued by superstitions and obsessed with its girls’ morality; legitimacy, especially around stopping the train at one’s will hasn’t really been on the list of things that matter to its masses yet. These chains have now reduced, incidentally, like the country’s dysfunctional democracy, to a tool that is now being used by anyone who wishes to stop the train as close to their house as possible, and in the process never permitting the train to leave the station in a single attempt from the driver at the scheduled time.
The train’s engine honked and it lurched forward. This was the third time the helpless metallic structure carrying hundreds of people was trying to crawl ahead. The first two times, if you combine them, it must have moved a total distance of two hundred metres. The driver’s persistence to get it past the station now equalled to a man’s who had been trying to impregnate his wife, confident that one of these times he would make it right, and then there will be a respite. How dull does an aim to make a baby renders the act of sex, an act that otherwise always felt so enjoyable and erotic, offering catharsis to some and pleasure to most, but once you add a responsibility of producing a baby to it, the act becomes grotesquely onerous and uninteresting. Responsibilities must be the root of all the mundaneness in the world.
‘Making babies and driving trains in our country are quite similar’ Mukesh, the lead driver, told his junior Ravi, ‘both have to be done furtively while being surrounded by people, in the limited privacy that a small separate room offers, and one is often interrupted by these people in both the endeavours.’ The docile junior responded in a laugh, and uttered ‘Kya Sir’. Though a question in the strictest of the sense ‘Kya Sir’, which translates to ‘What Sir’, is the closest any Hinglish slang has managed to reach in terms of its deceptiveness to the English idiom ‘Tell me about it’, and serves more or less the same purpose, to tell the other person that they were right, only in that the Hinglish slang is more often obsequious than the vicarious English counterpart.
The train had managed to crawl some fifty meters before one of its coaches hissed again and it came to a halt. ‘No, not again’ the junior whispered. The driver-duo had now been working together for four years. The elder was forty-two, fourteen years older than his junior.
Mukesh, the senior, was 29 when he had joined in and was induced to the driver’s coach. Only two people in a coach. How proud everyone in the family was. And on his first journey as the lead driver, at the age of 34, the entire family had travelled in the same train in one of the passenger coaches, the family thinking of him and he thinking about his achievement all the while during the journey.
‘Not that bad, an increment of around seventy meters over the last attempt’, Mukesh teased Ravi. It was not a mockery. Mukesh’s senior had advised him just once and his words were ‘forget about the eyesight and the physical fitness, if one has to survive in this line – driving the trains in India – then one has to be patient. Time and tide might not wait for anyone, but Indian trains wait for everyone, at all the places people want them to wait.’
Both the drivers were now fanning themselves by the newspapers before them. Ravi bent down and picked up a novel from his bag and put it in front of him. He knew that any sorts of distractions were prohibited inside the driver’s coach. But if the train moves at the rate it was moving it was bound to kill no one else but himself, by boredom. He flipped through the pages and reached the page where he had last stopped reading the book.
‘Don’t you use a bookmark? Mukesh asked and then loomed out of the gate and looked back, confirming that no one was hung from the body of the train, and prepared for the next attempt to get the train past the current station. This could finally be the time when whatever he does, turns miraculously, into a seamless journey, into his baby. ‘I do, Sir, but I lost it this morning when a dog chased me while I was walking with the book in my hand. I ran and must have dropped it somewhere’.
The train jolted and gained a rhythm. Finally.
‘What is it about? The book.’ asked the senior after some time.
‘It was supposed to be a light read, like one of those books that you can read on the Indian trains, but it feels very heavy with each chapter. Not heavy in terms of language or ideas. There is something very subtle yet heavy about this little book. They say it is about everything.’ Ravi flashed the cover of the book that bore the title ‘A Little Prince’, his face beamed with the rare glow that only passion or the newness to something is capable of bringing to a person’s face.
‘You expect a book about everything to be a light read. Don’t you think your expectations are a bit off, Ravi?’ And then after a few seconds, he added ‘by the way, we have never talked about your family either. What does your father do?’
The junior was now silent. Taken aback by an apparent observation of his intellect and its limitation and that too by whom? A driver, a silly Indian train driver who confused driving the trains with making babies, and was now judging him. And above that, he was asking about his father. Ravi loathed his father and if it were not for his impudent father and his obsession with the government jobs, he’d have been sitting in one of the art colleges reading books, discussing characters, themes, motifs, and if ever managed to reach that level of artistry someday he might as well have considered writing something of his own, perhaps something as grand as a sonnet in iambic tetrameter. But now the senior had to be answered but he was befuddled at which question he should answer first. But then he thought that the second question was a reparation for the first question, which was apparently rude, and so, he decided to go for the second question. ‘My father kills dreams’. And then he regretted having uttered them. ‘I am sorry, he works as a chauffeur.’
Mukesh looked outside the window, the train had finally gained some speed, and his spirits had now become like those of the tired couples’ who were convinced that the process of impregnation and the timing was perfect, and all that remained were prayers, and if all goes well, hopefully, the next month they won’t have to buy the sanitary pads.
‘What did you want to do in life?’ asked Mukesh after some time had passed.
‘I want to be a writer. he replied. Wanted.’ he emphasized on the tense of the verb, symbolising a relationship that had gone sour, an aspiration that had been subdued. But then, looking at Mukesh and thinking of why he was bothering his senior with all these talks he added ‘But right now Sir, I want to reach the destination.’ Disregarding the obvious fact that there are no real destinations of the drivers. It was the privilege of the passengers alone. To get on board to go somewhere and stay there. This is exactly where the baby making and driving a train differed. Pauses. There are no hiatuses in a driver’s life. A rare perk that biology offered a man and a woman. Few months of respite.
Mukesh waited for more to come out of Ravi. There is always more to come when one talks about their dreams. Especially the unrealised dreams.
‘I have been an avid reader, for as long as I remember. The family where my father was a driver, helped to educate me. Both by financial means and by providing me access to the books in the house. I’d devour books after books, and ‘Chhote Sahab’ – son of the owner – and I would compete with each other on who’d finish the books first. By the end of every year, we’d take a look at the scores and they’d be always in his favour, until I turned 17 and after that, till the time Chhote Sahab went abroad I won successively for four years.’ he paused and looked at Mukesh.
‘Go on, and just in case you are wondering, I am enjoying it. So don’t pause again’ Mukesh asserted.
‘And then as I grew older and this was around the time when I had read a lot of books, I began confusing people I knew in real life with the characters from the books I had read. Like a delirious person failing to identify the line that demarcates the facts and fiction. And then the more I thought about any person the more that person transmuted into some character from a book reaching a point from where it seemed as if the two never bore distinct identities.
All the stories — that I had read in the books or heard from those around me — bore some sort of resemblance to the people around me. I would read about a character in the books, and a face I knew from around me would come in front of me on the pages. And it started happening quite often. There was a man who lived two blocks down my own house and was just like ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’. And there were so many other literary characters that I could map down to real people around me.
I often gave thoughts on as to why my brain was doing that to me despite being aware that life had to be dealt with the facts. In an attempt to justify my foible to myself I often spent hours thinking, trying to find similarities between these two, any reason for this weird resemblance. Was it because these both — the story and the person — were born out of humans, and before either had finally taken a form it was conceived, nurtured within, loved, and most importantly believed in. And once all that had been done the progenitor had waited and hoped — for it not to be stillborn, for it to rightly represent its creator, and most importantly for it to have an identity of its own – an unprecedented one. But I never really mastered the art of treating people as they were. For me, they always were like some character about which I already knew.
But then a realization dawned upon me and it troubled me even more than this weird foible of mine. It was the predicament of the ordinary lives and the fact that some stories were treasured more than what most of the lives were. These stories won the awards, were even widely discussed, and above everything else were even wept over. Lives – many of them – were never cared for while the person was alive, were often left non-contemplated after they departed, and a few lives that even transformed into deaths in the absence of any eulogy.
What becomes of such lives after they pass away? Not to be remembered in books or songs and still worse not to have anyone to remember after you left seemed such a gloomy thing to think of. And this is exactly where my father comes into the story. He saw me in these moods. Sullen, contemplative, and more often than not staring at the walls while the book lying in my lap. And on one afternoon he asked me if I was lovelorn? Of course, I laughed in reply. But my old man was not in the mood of jocularity. And so I did what I should have never done. What any child should never do without preparing for the repercussions. I told him the truth. All that I had just told you.
He picked the book up and threw it at the wall. What followed next was a decree that I was no longer allowed to go into the reading room of ‘Bade Sahab’, and was allowed to read only academics. And he swore on my mother’s life that he’d kill me, but since I was as much a product of my mother as of him, he added, or he’d kill himself if I was ever found reading a novel or staring at an empty wall. A poor man reacts fervently. A threat to life works almost every time. I knew he could never kill himself or would never kill me. But my mother made me vow on her life that I’d give up on these books and ideas and read what my father wants me to.’ And then Ravi looked into the distance and didn’t speak anything for long.
Mukesh smiled and then applied the brakes. The train decelerated and gradually came to a halt…
The image linked to the write-up has been downloaded from google.com