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Moments in Time
By AMIT SARKAR
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Amit Sarkar
All rights reserved.
I vividly recall the day I got into the train to go to Calcutta for higher education, my first long-distance journey all by myself. My parents, my sisters, and my little brother all came to my hometown railway station and gave me a hearty send-off.
The signal bell rang. I took leave of my parents, hugged my sisters and my little brother, and then got into the train. My mother wiped her tears. Father gave me a smile, and my sister Anita pressed my hand and said, "Best of luck, Dada; do write letters."
The railway guard waved his green flag and blew the whistle. The locomotive hissed a volley of steam, giving a gentle pull and a clang, and the train started moving slowly. Through the window I waved to my family as long as they were visible standing on the receding platform. The train turned a corner after the distant signal, and suddenly the platform was no longer visible. The train now ran parallel to the interstate highway by the side of marshy bed of the Gadadhar River. Tall trees lined up on both sides of the railway track and the road.
Slowly, the sun slanted down the western sky. After a short run, the train came to a halt at a makeshift railway junction. It was already dark. Until the partition of the country, this particular post was a cicada-shrilling, glowworm-gleaming forest gate by the through railway line connecting Assam to the rest of the country. In fact it was a railway yard for goods trains. Railway lines brunched out up to the forest gate. Trained elephants hauled logs from the forest for loading on the railway wagons. Railway men, mahouts with their elephants, and laborers worked here only during the day. The stationmaster and his staff worked from the station house that looked like a forest bungalow.
Long-distance passenger trains did not stop here. Only local shuttle trains stopped here for the convenience of nearby villagers who wanted to commute to the bazaar in a nearby town. A lone tea-stall keeper offered travelers boiled milk-tea made in a large aluminum kettle on his indigenous bucket-stove and served in small glass tumblers called singles. Besides tea, he vended boiled eggs and sweet buns kept in typical glass jars. Near the tea stall, another vender offered betel nuts and paan leaves for chewing, bidis—smoking tobacco wrapped in sal leaves—and cheap cigarettes from his specially made wooden box. It had a drawer for keeping coins and currency bills. A thin rope with a smoldering light at its loose end hung from a nearby guava tree. Smokers used it to light bidis and cigarettes. As the last shuttle train moved out before sundown, the stall keepers closed up their stalls and hurried to their homes in the nearby forest village.
When high-speed mail or express trains approached the station at night, the stationmaster held out a green flag, and the signalman stood nearby with a flaming torch as the all-clear signal. Indian Railways had this arrangement for the wayside forest stations probably to scare away inquisitive black bears. After the night train passed, the forest station plunged into the quiet of darkness, except for the howling of jackals.
At the partition of India, the broad-gauge railway line from Siliguri to Calcutta was cut off because a part of the track fell in East Pakistan. Rail communication between Assam and the rest of India was completely severed. A meter-gauge line was laid to realign Assam with the rest of the country. But the line laid over the floodplains of the Teesta River valley was washed away during the next monsoon flood. Once again railway link to Assam was snapped. Thereafter, the meter-gauge line was relaid with transshipment to the existing broad-gauge line to Sealdah station in Calcutta. The new route was circuitous and time-consuming, using a river ferry to cross the Meghna River.
Consequently, the station at the forest gate became a railway junction for passengers from Western Assam to change over to the mail train to Calcutta. A new railway junction, with necessary arrangements, was nearing completion. Outside the station sprouted a country piazza offering inexpensive meals.
As the train from my hometown station arrived at the new junction, all passengers alighted from the train. The platform came alive with passengers, porters, and railway men. The electricity-lit station no longer had the creepy look of a logging yard.
During World War II, many extra and special trains ran, carrying armaments, provisions, and the allied troops to the fight against Japanese forces advancing toward the northeastern border of India. These wartime special trains disrupted normal operation of passenger and goods trains all over the railway network. Even the mail trains ran erratically, often several hours behind schedule. The war ended, but the chronic syndrome of the late-running of trains did not. The late running of trains thus became taken for granted.
On that particular evening, however, the Siliguri-bound mail train arrived at the new junction only a few hours behind time. All passengers hurriedly embarked on the train, which was already filled with travelers from Northern Assam. My porter helped me to find a place to sit in the only interclass coach of the train.
As the train resumed its run, I, like all other waiting passengers, felt a great sense of relief. I sat at the end of a berth in the longish compartment. Indian Railways, in all mail and express trains, had first class for the bosses and aristocrats, second class for the midlevel bureaucrats and small-business executives, and third class for the great multitude of common men. M. K. Gandhi traveled by third class, thereby putting a patriotic stamp on third-class travel.
Interclass was perhaps introduced as a compromise between the second and the third classes of travel and to provide some comfort to the educated middle class. These coaches had two tiers of lightly padded berths, two bathrooms at the two ends of the compartment, and electric fans. But there was no provision for reservation of seats. Spreading one's bed to sleep by night on the upper berths was on first-come, first-served basis. When I entered the compartment, all available room on the upper berths was already occupied by travelers. I managed to sit in a corner of a lower berth. After some time, I found enough space to sit comfortably.
In my compartment, everybody was cooperative and there was no inconvenience of any type. The train left the junction and gradually gained speed. Nothing outside was visible except the darkness of night. Fleeting lights of passing signal posts and lampposts of wayside railway stations appeared as the train passed these stations without stopping. From the characteristic clanking and passing shadows of truss girders, I could make out when the train was crossing bridges over rivers and ravines. Northeastern and Eastern India was full of rivers, mountain streams, and brooks. High railway bridges, many with fairly long spans, were built over the flood-prone streams running down the hills through thick rainforests. The swinging rhythm of the train and the thought that I was traveling to Calcutta animated me. I did not want to sleep. I wanted to enjoy every moment of my journey.
Slowly the day dawned. I was amazed to observe the mud-brown waters of a wayside pool shining like a sheet of tainted glass. Shadowy reflections of tall grasses rising from the marsh looked like scrawls of crayon. The train entered a dense forest. Fleeting nuances of light and shadow created intriguing arboreal patterns. From Kaziranga and Manas in Assam to Jaldapara in northern West Bengal was an extensive belt of the most spectacular range of forests that stretched up to Bhutan and East Pakistan. During the monsoon rains, swelling streams deluged the rich habitat, forcing animals to take refuge in the highlands. These rainforests had an incredible variety of trees, vines, and shrubs. The jungles also abounded in orchids, wildflowers, and birds.
The sun rose, spraying light over the forests. After a while the train crossed the forest and ran over a wide area of grassland with a silvery-blue backdrop of faraway mountain peaks. A village appeared on the scene—green paddy fields with thin borders of earthen ridges defining various geometrical patterns. In some fields, peasants cultivated their lands with plows dragged by water buffalo.
The train passed the village and entered a long cantilever bridge set on high piers. Below the bridge, a wide stream of brick-red water flowed. Fast-spinning whirlpools were visible from the train. The panorama looked awesome and wild in the pristine morning light.
The train passed spans of arched girders. I was looking to the river below. Suddenly, my eyes fell on a full-size clay image of the Hindu goddess Kali on the sandy edge of the river. She was heavily worn by rain. Yet she stood firm on legs fixed to a wooden stand. Her head was bald and the colors of her eyes and protruding tongue had been washed away. Only her earthen body had a pale bluish tint. She looked like a corpse standing on its feet. The icon had probably been immersed in the river somewhere upstream. Currents had floated her to the point below the bridge. As the water level shrank, she became stuck in the sand. But how did she end up standing on her legs? Once again I realized that nature is fantastic.
After crossing the bridge, the railway line branched into several lines. Signal posts, signal boxes with stretched cables, old and unserviceable passenger coaches, goods wagons, and railway implements on sidings suggested that we were approaching Siliguri junction. At Siliguri railway station, the train stopped for some time. The sun was now a blazing dot on the forehead of the morning sky.
Siliguri was an important station in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. From here one could take the toy train, as the narrow-gauge train was called, or a cab or a bus and go to the picturesque hill station of Darjeeling—the queen of the Himalayas, seven thousand feet above sea level.
From Siliguri one could also go to Kalingpong, another exclusive hill resort near Darjeeling. Siliguri was the access point for those going to Doers and its many tea gardens at the foothills of Bhutan. One could hire a jeep to drive up to Pheuntsholing and then to Thimpu, capital of Bhutan. Siliguri was the gateway to Gangtok, capital of Sikkim, and to Katmandu, capital of Nepal.
But nothing was more awesome than the Teesta River. As the train moved out from Siliguri junction, I could view the river quietly flowing by a thickly wooded mountain, thawing out from the baffling heights of the Himalayan foothills. The deep green of alpine woods on lesser mountains stood by the left bank of the Teesta. Silvery rocks and pebbles lined up on the river's edge. The river looked like a two-toned sheet of satin. One part of the stream reflected the shadows of the mountain range in surreal copper blue, and the other part reflected the silvery blue of the sky. As the train curved like a caterpillar on the edge of a bend, I had a distant glimpse of the Coronation Bridge, also called the Sevak Bridge—a slender line corniced into the mountain cliffs above a bottomless gorge.
As I turned my eyes from the view outside, I had glimpses of my fellow passengers. A self-absorbed man was looking through the window, carefully adjusting his elbow on the backrest, his chin resting on his palm. I could not make out whether he was enjoying the passing panorama or was immersed in thoughts.
Another passenger stooped, his head and shoulders like a question mark. He appeared lost in meditation. He could have been a crook, thinking how to swindle his business partner, how to deceive his kin and grab the joint family property, or how to set fire to his wife's sari when she was all alone in the kitchen. Who knew? Bride burning and dowry deaths were notorious problems of the time. Then I thought, Why should I imagine things about a person I don't even know? Why should such bad thoughts occur to my mind? It could have been that he had no sleep the previous night, or he could have been tired or sick. Maybe he had a bad headache? I thought that I mustn't assess a person without knowing him.
Next my eyes fell on a young couple. They looked like newlyweds. The parting of the woman's hair was thickly dabbed with vermilion. Her feet were bordered with red alta—a dye used for adorning the feet of Indian women, especially those of young brides. They were whispering to one another, smiling. Now and then the woman blushed. She arranged the anchal, the upper end of her sari, like a veil on her head. Every time she raised her arm to keep the veil in place, brand-new gold bangles on her wrist sparkled. I was sure that they were newlyweds. But how come they were traveling alone, without the groom's party? Did they fall in love and get married without the participation of elders and family members? Love-marriage was the common Bengali name for such marriages, as opposed to what was known as negotiated marriage. Calcutta was modern; Calcutta was a trendsetter in social changes. They must have been going to Calcutta after their wedding.
On the opposite berth, a baby was suckling at the rubber nipple of its bottle, holding the bottle like a squirrel holds a nut. It was throwing its legs toward its proud watching mother. The baby looked cute. A few senior students, perhaps returning to college after vacation, placed a leather suitcase over a steel trunk to improvise a table. They were absorbed in playing cards.
As I looked to the farthest end of the compartment, I caught sight of a woman. She wore a white sari and sat in the opposite corner of the coach. She lowered her eyes, pretending to tidy the gathers of her sari. I hadn't realized she was watching me. She looked smart in the simple white cloth with thin black borders. She was wearing a pair of lenses. Seemingly she concentrated on reading an English paperback. She had spoken to no one throughout the journey. She kept her eyes fixed to the book.
I now had a full view of the woman. She was in her late twenties, I guessed. She had no ornaments on her neck or wrists. She wore only a wristwatch with a black leather band. I remembered my hometown lady doctor, who was from Calcutta. She dressed exactly like the lady in my coach. She could be a lady doctor, I thought. She had no vermilion mark on the parting of her hair. She could have been a spinster or a widow. She could have been a Christian or a Muslim woman, who do not use vermilion. She had no veil either. She looked lonely. I thought it might be interesting to know her.
By sheer coincidence, our eyes met. She gave me a polite smile. I reciprocated. She cast down her eyes to her book and didn't look at me again. I wondered what the message was in her smile. Did she mean hello? Did she mean to signal her disapproval of my glance? Did she mean to imply that I was too young to be interested in her?
I played it safe. I averted my eyes and resumed viewing the scenes passing beyond the window.
The train slowed down, stopping or moving very slowly at the waving of flag-signals by railway men on the ground. The train was on a temporary track laid on the sandy riverbank. We were approaching the steamer crossing over the Meghna, a river that combines the streams of the Ganges, Padma, and Dhaleswari Rivers. The thought that I would cross over the river and board the broad-gauge train to Calcutta excited me.
Railway porters, some in red shirts, some in other colors, and some bare-bodied, all wearing turbans on their heads, stood precariously on the footboards of the compartments, holding the door handles. As the train approached the riverside, they hastily entered the compartments. Without asking anyone, they started pulling out passengers' luggage to transfer to the ferry. As the train finally stopped, they ordered the passengers to follow them as if they were in full control of the passengers and luggage.
The question-mark man tried to prevent a porter from touching his luggage. In broken Hindi, he rebuked a bare-bodied porter for pulling a steel trunk from under the berth without his permission. There were commotion and confusion as the porters raided the compartment. Passengers bargained with the porters, who were unrelenting in their efforts to get as much as they could. The question-mark man, who had looked so quiet before, took the lead in haggling with the porters. He called them coolies. I never knew a frail-looking man could have so much lung power.
Excerpted from Moments in Time by AMIT SARKAR. Copyright © 2013 Amit Sarkar. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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