Fiction / June 2016 (Issue 32)


Trains and Other Childhood Curiosities

by Siddharth Dasgupta

As a child, I used to fall asleep to the sound of local Indian trains. The specificity is important here, because very few things in this world used to sound like local Indian trains. Very few things still do, come to think of it. Theirs was an individual pattern, a certain rhythm, a distinctive cadence that marked them apart from any other train in the world. Or any other object in the world, if I'm being perfectly honest. I would hear the 10:30 local rumbling in from a long distance away, well past my sharply decreed bedtime, its ominous approach punctuated by those startling whistles of objection. There were other trains of course, scattered right through the day, but the nightly 10:30 somehow had a special hold over my imagination. It appeared to grasp the mysteries of the world within its burly iron frame, within those curiously rectangular cabins framed edge to edge, within the yellow and maroon of its bogeys, often reduced to pale imitations of their former glories. Slowly gathering pace, slowly gathering sound. So much so that by the time it had passed by my window in a furious huff, it would have left everything shaking and rattling in its wake—my small window's partially unhinged frame that titled to one side and gave the impression that it could fly away at any moment, the bushes and young trees that were part of our compound and, along with them, a young boy's heart.

Needless to add, there was the sound, oh, the sound. It seemed a close relation to the noise the guns made in the black and white gangster films Dad used to watch on Friday and Saturday nights. I was too young at the time to figure out names like Cagney and Bogart, but I understood the menace. And I identified it in those trains. The same menace, the same momentum. Only, more poetic, with a decidedly melodic outlook towards life and the scenery and homes they passed by. That sound was my favourite song, my enduring lullaby …

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

You could count sheep by it, you could build castles in the sky with it, you could fumble your way through lines of poetry to it, you could aggregate the morning's complex arithmetic riddles through it. Always a thrilling daily parade of life and its players, flashing by in a whiff, some absorbed with the paper, others dutifully engaged in a game of cards and, some, quite magically so, standing on the edge of an open cabin door, hair flying asunder, flashing a smile and a waving as they passed by. These were the rebels, and they were the ones I felt drawn to the most.

Our home couldn't have been nearer to the tracks if it had tried, and it often worried me that when the breeze was particularly fierce, we would be pulled out from the earth and dragged into the path of an oncoming local. But we never were. And my affair with the trains only grew, much to the amusement of two unobtrusive parents and to the delight of a similarly afflicted elder brother. And so it was, that come rain or shine, come stern reminders to go to bed or scary thunderstorms, sleep would never take me without the 10:30 having passed by. As it did that one night, when the familiar rhythm engulfed me and pulled me, reluctantly, towards sleep …

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

That scream came out of nowhere, piercing the skies. I awoke with a fright and looked across to see my brother in the exact same position as I was, tense, upright. The train gradually passed us by, but the memory of the scream lingered. We waited for a few minutes, but there didn't seem to be any activity or movement inside the house. This was surprising, since my father was always alert to the slightest intrusion, never mind that it was usually nothing more than a slightly confused looking mongoose. My brother Ankur, a sturdy seven to my rather more fanciful five, deduced that since our bedroom was close to the tracks and our parents' bedroom was on the other side of the house, they might have missed the scream altogether, an argument which seemed plausible enough.

"We're going out there," he declared.

I wondered if he was crazy. "Umm, why?"

"Don't you want to see what it is?"

This was a fair point. I might be a bit scared, but I'm certainly no coward.

"OK. But if Mom and Dad wake up …"

"They won't. Try not to bump into anything."

And off we went, two raiders of the lost night, armed with the foolish curiosity of young boys and our ever-trusty gumboots, the bright blue ones that lay caked with mud beside our closet, even though it had been over a month since the rains had let up. We felt and fumbled our way past the small passageway that connected our room to the main back door. Ankur managed to open the latch with expert precision, and out we were! Into the thrill of the night. Once we'd navigated the perfectly manicured lawn, Mom's outer circle of gladioli and the marshy cluster of land that perpetually buzzed with dragonflies and exuded a curiously potent smell of turpentine, we saw her. Her. There she was, almost on the tracks. In the blackness of night, we could make out only a few elements—a basic form and shape, the long, loose structure of the dress she was wearing and of the dark shawl that must have been draped over her shoulders at one point, but which now lay sprawled on the mud.

Who was this woman? How did she get here? Was she still alive? As we ventured right up to her to get a closer look, we saw it. The blood. An endless pool of blood that lay exposed in the unforgettable night, a swirly trail of black that glistened even under the night sky, nourished by a few distant stars and an occasional moon. The moon appeared to be a perpetrator to the crime, playing a sly game of hide-and-seek with a fluffy bouquet of clouds, giving us an unexpected glimpse of the woman and, then, just a suddenly, bathing her in darkness. At first numb with horror, both attracted and repelled by the serpentine flow of liquid, we soon mustered enough courage to sit on the edge of the rails, right beside her. We sat in silence. I wanted to be strong, to be brave, but the drama was too much, and I soon began to sob softly. Ankur shimmied over to me and held an elder brother's arm of assurance across my shoulder.

"Don't worry," he murmured, his own voice shaking just a touch.

I wanted to believe him and looked straight at him. But the expression on my brother's face was one of pure horror.

"Look," he gasped, pointing at the vast emptiness behind me.

As I swerved around, I already knew what to expect. It was a train, that night's 11:30 delivery. You could make out its foreboding outline, framed by the harsh brightness of its headlamps that were slowly coming into view. The loud whistle signalled its intent, and we knew it wouldn't take more than a couple of minutes for its dark presence to bear down upon us.

We looked at her. Though she wasn't exactly on the tracks, she was close enough to them to be swept along in the monster's wake. Knowing we had to act fast, we got up and, with all the might and fervour our young bodies could muster, began to pull her by her feet, not sure if she was even alive. As the train approached, closer and closer, its light began to illuminate her face, till almost all of it lay revealed under the curious gaze of a mischievous moon and an unforgiving train. I was entranced, unable to tear my eyes away from the long dark hair that fell across her face to one side, unable to remember if I'd ever seen skin so porcelain pure. But her eyes, it was the eyes that really did it, almond-shaped gems lined thick with kohl. I was entranced by the fact that they lay open, even though she might well have been dead, glistening under the distant stars and the unearthly light.

"Snap out of it!" Ankur hissed, sensing we were nearly out of time.

With one last breath, one final effort, we pulled desperately. That dramatic exertion dragged her hair over the tracks, leaving her a good couple of feet outside harm's way, even as the train thundered by in a roar of derision, its whistle deafening whatever else lay in the night. As we sat by the dirt and watched it pull away, a curious thought swept over me. I thought about how lucky she was, in a way, to have the sound of the train as her eternal lullaby, to have its dreamy cacophony as the thing that put her to sleep, to have its echoes stirring in the wind, night after night …

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

We eventually got around to waking up our parents that night. We didn't go into the details of our adventure of course, only telling them that we had been woken by a scream and had no idea what it was. It was Dad who got around to "discovering" the body, and it was Dad who got around to informing the police. By dawn, our sleepy neighbourhood and the long-forgotten space of land that separated our home from the tracks was a hive of activity. Evidence was gathered, details taken, questions asked, answers given. No one seemed to have any idea who she was. Just a beautiful stranger, tossed out from the train, left to the cruelties of this complicated world. Or a troubled woman, perhaps, having no other recourse than to bring her life to a sudden, crushing end. Lots of enquiries were made, and that night's 10:30 was traced all the way from its origins to its final stop, with many passengers questioned and a pair of seedy-looking characters even marked out as possible culprits. Her entire body was eventually covered in white cloth and hoisted onto a strange, makeshift stretcher, and she was carried away by two men from the local hospital, dressed in the clinically depressing white shorts of its service staff. As they heaved her into the ambulance—they had had to trample some our bushes to get to where she lay—I looked at their legs and winced. They were dotted with dragonflies.

Then the job was done, and just like that, she was gone. It had all been so methodical. The commotion duly died down, as did the questions, and finally, this woman that nobody knew anything about, disappeared gently from memory, as she had from that night.

I found it hard to sleep for weeks after that. My fascination with the train, though intact, now carried a certain foreboding element. I would lie on the bed at night and hold my eyes open with my fingers, trying to keep sleep at bay through force, fighting a lingering sensation that if they were to close, she would come rushing back in. Eventually though, unencumbered by the weight of wisdom and age, I began to let go of the memory and my fondness for the trains came flooding back. As did the strange thought from that night, that she was in a better place, a fortunate space even, at peace in the arms of the train's moving lullaby, free to call upon that familiar sound at her beck and call …

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

***

He arrived at my front door a week or so ago. He had, apparently, managed to secure my address after making quite a few inquiries with scattered family and friends. He was rather nondescript, in that peculiar way door-to-door salesmen tend to be. He said his name was Paresh, and I immediately felt sad for him, though I didn't really know why.

Are you Akshat Kannan, he wanted to know.

Yes, I was.

Are you the son of Mihir and Kamla Kannan, he wanted to know.

Yes, I was.

The brother of Ankur Kannan?

Right again.

Was your father a part of the defense establishment and did you once live in Bungalow 33B, Appleby Road, off the old railway track, in the south Indian town of Wellington?

In a way, yes, he was a sports administrator hired by the defense college, but he wasn't an integral member of the army. And, yes, that was the home where I was born and raised.

As I replied, it struck me that neither my brother nor I had had the heart to go back there since our parents had died. Ankur had moved to Bangalore, and after earning his chops with the Marriott Group, had broken away to set up a small café of his own. It wasn't doing spectacularly well, but it kept him happy most days, and there was a lot to be said for that. I had moved north to Delhi, flirting between a job in publishing and weekend dalliances with an experimental heritage tour company.

"Is there something I can help you with?" I finally asked him, mildly annoyed with the stream of questions.

"Actually, I think I can help you with something," he replied, a hint of smugness on his face.

Without much explanation, he rose and walked out the front door, returning with a small, square carton.

"What is this?" I asked, fearing that my salesman speculation might have been right after all.

"This is yours, I believe," he replied. "You see, Mr. Akshat," he continued, "only last week I moved into my new address, at 14, Mission Street, Pondicherry."

Seeing no recognition on my face with regard to the address, he continued.

"I'm a government employee, you see, and this house has been fixed for us when I moved to Pondicherry last month. I have a small family, you see, just my daughter, my wife and me, so this bungalow is very much suited for us. Actually, you see, it is where the whole of the United Petrochemical Engineering team has been shifted to—we all are living in only five to ten minutes from each other."

Beginning to find his "you sees" and scattered English tedious, I almost asked whether he would be more comfortable speaking in Hindi so that we could get on with it. I held back, though, sensing he was nearing his grand revelation.

"But how is all this connected with me?" I asked him, trying to move things along.

"Ah, but you see, I had the whole of the house cleaned before we moved in. And they did a OK-OK job, actually you must come and visit us sometime," he grinned widely.

I nodded, sagely, still having no clue where this was headed.

"But those stupid cleaners, they did not bother to clean the attic, you see," he persisted. "I was up there myself, twelve or thirteen days ago, so much dust, oof. Anyway, I didn't want to bother with those men again, so I began to clean the small attic myself. That is when I found this."

As he pointed towards the carton, I felt relieved that we were finally nearing the end of this decidedly odd conversation and the intrusion of this decidedly peculiar fellow.

"Mr Paresh," I uttered gently, "why should all this be important to me?"

"Because it is yours!" he beamed, pushing the carton towards me. "Well, it is your family's anyway, from what I have understood. Well what I mean, you see, is that it must be belonging to people who had lived in this bungalow before us, or a long time before us, but there is only one type of contact I could find in the things inside." He paused, as though preparing himself for the final reveal. "That name, anyway, I think you see for yourself."

The rest of Mr. Paresh's explanations and "you sees" and travails in trying to locate either me or my brother and the fact that he got called up to Delhi for a meeting that week, so decided to bring the carton along with him, you see, instead of just calling me and informing me about it, and the strangely slanted look he gave me as he spoke, all of it just faded away into the background, relegated to a dull, irrelevant monotone when held against the curiosity of what the carton actually contained.

I began sifting through its contents, and in my mind, it almost seemed as though I had been taken back in time, back to a place accented in sepia and framed with poignancy. There were a few ancient papers, which were nothing more than official documents of some sort. There were three old volumes of Charles Dickens, and I marvelled at the state they were in, age not having withered either their hardbound veneer or sense of literary crispness. Then came a photograph of a woman.

Which is when I froze.

It was her.

Her.

Over two decades had passed since that fateful night on the tracks, but her face had been etched into my consciousness ever since. Those eyes, dusted with colour, that beautiful porcelain skin, a sense of distant sadness perhaps? It was her. I held the photograph in my hands as though it were a national treasure, afraid to either tear it apart or disturb its sense of frozen perfection. Even through the frayed edges, the marks and scratches that had invited themselves in and the large swath of sepia that had washed over the image, there was something about her that was almost ethereal. I turned the photograph around, and next to "Victoria Photos, Arts College Road, Pondicherry" I saw a name that had almost completely faded away from the present: Flora Fleming. I repeated it out loud to myself. "Flora Fleming." I tried to picture her Anglo-Indian existence, her life in Pondicherry, her life in a home that now lay occupied by a hard-working man, his wife and daughter, none of whom had any notion or perceivable interest in who she might have been.

I suddenly realised that Paresh was still in my house. I quickly regained my composure and offered him coffee, which he happily accepted. As he sat and drank his coffee in my living room and continued to make polite chit-chat about his new life, about the fact that arranged marriages can be a 50-50 proposition but he'd struck gold in that regard and about how his daughter was showing early signs of becoming a chess whiz, my mind was far away. It was in Pondicherry, yes, but not the town he was currently describing, but rather a few decades in the past. I didn't quite know what I was feeling or how I was going to engage in meaningful conversation with this fellow who, though extremely kind and remarkably industrious, held absolutely no interest in the thoughts of a man inundated by a million questions. I was relieved when he thanked me for the coffee and left.

The carton's only remaining contents were a bundle of letters, rolled together and fastened by a black string. With a wildly beating heart, I unfurled the first one and began to read. It was from sometime in the late 1970s and contained words like "love," attracted," distance" and "together." It spoke of a woman's thoughts being consumed day and night, of an attachment that was more than her heart could bear. It spoke of happiness that lingered in the air, of memories that accosted her everywhere. I read another, and then another. Before I knew it, I had made my way through the entire pile. The later ones began to reveal words like "regret," "longing" and "unfulfilled" although "love" and "together" never faltered. Irrespective of mood and tone, regardless of date and year, the letters had one constant. They were all addressed to Mihir Kannan. They were all written for my father.

***

Ankur and I sat on the tracks, taking turns swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniel's. It had been well over a decade since we'd been back, a couple of decades since that scream, and nothing appeared to have changed, save for the fact that we were there in the evening, under a shocking blue sky and the impending burst of dusk. We looked out along the tracks, as it stretched a mile or so beyond our house and then curved its way into oblivion. We looked out at our house. It was still our house, of course. It was the family home, just a family home bereft of family. Neither Ankur nor I had had any interest in staying on here, or of staying in Wellington, and without our parents, the house was nothing more than a collection of childhood dreams, a largish treasure-chest to be dipped into from time to time.

We thought of the woman who had lain there, not more than a foot away from where we sat. We knew her name now. But still, we knew nothing of Flora. Between long quaffs of dry whiskey and extended drags of a local beedi, between the loud laughter of two drunken brothers and the occasional tears of two orphaned children, we tried to make sense of the past.

"It's strange how things come around, don't they?" Ankur began.

"Yeah," I agreed, taking a drag from the local cigarette. "This place is always with me, though there's not a damn thing that's remarkable about it."

Ankur laughed, as he spoke, "I know. But things don't have to be remarkable, they just have to be … there," he trailed off, trying to spot our parents through a haze of memories.

"You doing well?" I asked, trying to bring the flavour of another city into our present circumstances.

"Yeah, when you coming on over to have a taste of authentic south Indian appam and stew, done with an oriental twist?"

"God, that sounds terrible," I replied, laughing loudly. "Nah, I'm just kidding man." I took another large swig of whiskey, its dry, dark flavour just the tonic for the anxiousness within me. "Since we're both down here anyway, we could just head there together after this," I suggested.

"Sure thing."

He played with a few strands of grass near him while I tried to fling pebbles along the course of the tracks, both of us doing our best to avoid bringing things out into the open—until Ankur eventually did.

"What happened that night?" he asked me, pointblank.

I'd been waiting for the question, but its directness still hit me. "I don't know, man. I've been imagining every damn possibility since I received the carton, I just don't know."

"Do you think Dad …"

"I just don't know."

"But wouldn't he have …"

"I just don't know."

We knew it was a futile task, trying to make sense of the past. But we spoke, because there was nothing else to do. We spoke of our parents, with love and kindness. We spoke of Flora, with something resembling reverence. The wind picked up, and the large row of eucalyptus trees on the other side of the tracks began to sway drunkenly, gently mocking us. The overgrown shrubs, age-old trees and long grass that now populated our garden began to do the same. The tiny patch of marshland was still there, as was its potent smell, all turpentine and dragonflies, and the wind began carrying with it that smell entrapped in youth. We played that night out, over and over again. We played out the irony of the cops and townsfolk hunting for an imaginary perpetrator from the train, when the actual act might well have been committed from the ground. We considered Flora and her state of mind and whether she might not have, in a final act of tragic love, timed things to perfection. With anguish weighing down on our hearts, we dissected our father and what sway this love might have held over him for all those years, and whether a man whose firm hand and inner kindness had set the template for our lives early on, could ever have had it in him to execute any act so dissonant from himself. We thought of a time gone by, how emotions left unsaid and stories without a sense of closure, love that remains unrequited, can end up dissolving souls in blood. We discussed those letters, and I read from a couple of them I was carrying in my pocket. My voice trembled, just as a train appeared on the distant horizon. We arose and let it pass us by. A couple of red-blooded youth on the roof of one of the cabins waved out wildly at us, and we did the same, happy in the knowledge that they had found a way to get to where they needed to be. We went back to the letters and wondered whether Dad had also kept a bundle at home, maybe hidden away somewhere in the attic, and whether they had been from her, had been returned unread or had simply remained unsent for lack of courage. We tried to remember his handwriting, how the curves reared up proudly, and whether those same proud curves had graced the "F" in her beautiful name.

That night, we slept in our old room. It was more a symbolic gesture than anything, since we knew we were never going to return to that house and that we were going to have to let it go. We talked for a while, drinking some more whiskey and trying to pinpoint a few cherished stories from our childhood that the house had harboured.

"Hey, remember when we were playing cricket in the garden with that shiny new bat Dad had bought from Chandigarh?"

"How could I forget," replied Ankur, with a grin.

"Man, you smashed the first ball I threw at you right through the kitchen window."

"Yeah, and do you remember what you asked father as you tiptoed in to fetch the ball?"

"Umm, excuse me Dad, but did you hear a thud?"

We burst out laughing, recalling the look of incredulity on Dad's face at the time. Ankur recollected another nugget from the past. "How about that time you decided to try your hand at making them breakfast?"

"Thanks buddy, for bringing that one up," I grinned. "Now let's see how good your memory is. What did I ask them when things went wrong?"

"How could I forget? You dragged me along for moral support, remember? And then that timid—sorry Mum, but is it a good thing if the kitchen's filled with smoke?"

We burst out laughing again, and Ankur fell onto the floor in a heap, liquor and laughter having done the trick. Through the darkness of the room, with all the lights turned out, through the darkness of the night, betrothed as it was to a warm Wellington night, I thought I saw a faint glimmer in his eyes, the faintest sparkle of a tear.

The 10:30 local duly came along. My heart began to beat a little quicker. Like clockwork, the window-frame, by now reduced to hanging onto its very last vestiges of dignity, rattled and shook with fierce seizures. Announcing its intent through those haunting whistles and that thunderous gallop, the train soon rushed past our window in a fierce temper, gradually allowing my heart to rest a little easier. The 11:30 pm came and went as well. Ankur must have fallen asleep by then. I lay awake for a long while, looking out of our room, out onto the blank canvas of the night and further across to the tracks. I lay awake, intent on keeping any more memories at bay. I really don't know what time I finally dozed off, but just before I did, I remember thinking that our lives would always, in a sense, be attached to those tracks, and that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to fall asleep without a certain momentum echoing in my mind, without a certain rhythm resonating through my dreams. It was the sound we were destined to be attached to forever, an aching lullaby that whistled as it went along on its merry way. And, just like that, I must've fallen asleep as well, strangely comforted by the cadence of an innocence lost. Strangely comforted by the lingering soundtrack of our lives, its rising passions a music proportionate to the frailties of our hearts …

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

Ra-ta-ta-tah

 

 Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian poet and novelist who also articulates travel and culture for names such as Travel+Leisure, Conde Nast Traveller, and the Dharamshala International Film Festival. He submits himself regularly to writing's myriad moods - short stories, flash fiction, and free verse included. His first novel, Letters from an Indian Summer, was released in early 2015 and has met with consistent critical acclaim. Dasgupta is currently putting the finishing touches to an experimental collection of poetry, together with finessing a collection of short stories — which he shall duly offer up to the first publisher who asks nicely. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter. Visit his website for more information.

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