No. Not today. He can hardly summon up the strength to raise his frail wrist and wave at the passengers. The train comes with its usual might and speed cutting across the dusty stretches of agricultural fields.
He squats down on the edge of his land, expressionless. There is not even a blink in his eye. The brown attire of the guard, in the last bogie, flutters away, disappearing fast into the horizon where mountains talk to clouds and distant birds have their homes. Clutching the walking stick, he cannot help recalling his first breathtaking encounter with the train.
Too far for him to remember, but his mother’s repeated narration during his childhood made him memorize every second of it.
That day he woke up from his afternoon nap to find his mother not by his side. He yelled incessantly till his mother picked him up. She passed him to her brother-in-law, motioning him to bring along the child to the cornfield. Promptly and cheerfully, he had perched himself on his kaka’s1 shoulders, a then-favourite spot of his. His mother routinely used to carry food in the blazing sun for his father, who toiled in the field to make ends meet.
While in the field, he heard an appalling sound, unworldly and shrill, and clung to his mother, afraid. Squirming, he looked at the huge monster, which was lunging forward with feisty determination. He was struck by its strange beauty; it was so big, yet so fast. As the train progressed, a palpable thrill shot through his body. He pointed his tiny hand and clapped with unbound joy.
Tearing apart the first roti, his father smiled at him, ‘It is the tarrain … my son.’
His mother directed, ‘Say ta-ta,’ and made him wave his hand at it.
‘Ta-ta’ was the fourth word in his vocabulary which until then had contained only ‘mama,’ ‘baba’ and ‘kaka’.2
From that day onwards, he went to the field daily, riding on his kaka’s shoulders or toddling close to his mother. From the time he was enrolled into the village chatasali,3 he used to go all by himself carrying food and a pot of water for his father. He would wait, kicking sand and throwing pebbles, while his father had his well deserved lunch. He saw the train once and if lucky, twice. Sometimes, he waited with the empty pot and plates, his hands folded behind. His father would ask, ‘Why don’t you go home and do your lessons?’
‘No, baba. I want to see ta-ta,’ was his usual reply.
The train never disappointed him. It came whistling its way with rhythmic vigour. This used to be his moment. He would hop, scream, and wave to the nameless hundreds passing by. Some waved back. Most didn’t.
Studies never inspired him and he didn’t progress beyond class six. He took to helping his father in the field. He always wondered where the train came from, and where it went. He had learnt from his village teacher that there were many other villages like his; so many that one could not count on the lines of one’s fingers, nor could one see from the top of the village hillock. He correlated this lesson to the train. He assumed that people might have to move from one village to another; hence they got on to the train. But then, how could the train manage to carry so many people from so many different places to so many different destinations! He could not think beyond this. He told himself that some day he would take a train ride and experience the journey from the unknown to the unseen. He would then poke his head out, and wave at all the people and cattle on the way until the scene faded away.
He spent all his life working in the fields. With his hard work, he had added another patch of land to his parental property. His family was small; his wife Sumati and daughter Lila. His income was adequate to feed the three stomachs generously. But Lila’s marriage forced him into the clutches of the village money-lender. All his earnings in the later phase of his life went into settling debts. He could only dream of savings. His ambition of travelling by train remained just an illusion. His movements were confined to walking or at the most, travelling by bus.
But throughout, he carried his childhood dream to see the world speed by through the window of a train. To see all those villages which he knew only by names; to see the Chilika Lake, the Chandaka jungle, and the minister’s bungalow. He had heard that people stayed for days together on the train. Inside, there were sleeping beds, lights and fans; lavatories and washbasins — all moving with the train. There were no ditches, no mounds; no stray cattle would come in the way. What a smooth mesmerizing ride it would be!
Each day, as he stooped to work on the land, he would hear the train rumbling along the tracks skirting his field. He would straighten up, his face rekindled with childhood fervour. He would stand transfixed; the earth trembling beneath his feet, the whistle almost numbing his eardrums. As the village boys screamed and shouted at the speeding gigantic machine, he would become one with it and wave to the lucky ones inside.
Today, he has ceased to be passionate and responsive. Gray and wrinkled, absolved of all desire and curiosity, he feels ancient―too old to pursue his dream. He had been an honest, hard working and loyal man all through his life. But perhaps that was not enough. None knew of his desire, none other than his Sumati who had died a couple of years back, leaving him all alone.
The rain had just stopped. He heard children giggle. His grandson hopped into his lap.
‘Daddu,4 what is that?’ the child asked, pointing towards the sky.
‘What is a rainbow? Where does it come from? Where does it go?
What is there on the other side?’
He fumbled, and with a broken voice he continued, ‘I don’t know, Babloo. Why don’t you go on the train and tell me what lies beyond the rainbow?’
‘Sure, daddu. But, I’m scared. Will you come with me, daddu?’
He felt hot tears roll down his cheeks, as he hugged his grandson close.
‘Yes … Babloo. Yes I will …’
This piece was originally published in Only Men Please, Unisun Publications (2012), Bangalore, India.
1 Kaka: Father’s younger brother
2 Mama: Mother, Baba: Father
3 Chatasali: Pre-school
4 Daddu: Grandpa