The train continued to creak its way westwards towards the Bengal delta as the hot air settled upon us like a heavy woolen blanket. The metal joints in the wooden carriages, not changed since the days of the Raj (and probably not oiled since then either) were rusty and squeaking and moaning with jolts from the eddies in the track and the rough and tumble of the land. The heat, the quiet, the soothing motion of the train; it was all beginning to lull me to sleep. Wrapped in a dreamscape of fluffy clouds I was floating; no not floating, but propelling! – up and up, through and through. Oh! little ants, little people, little jigsaw pieces in a puzzle field. I was headed somewhere. On a rescue mission. Armed with warp drive thrusters and fear of no death. Where was I headed? Nowhere land. Looking? For what? For what had been lost, what had been. Gonna find you. Never give up. Till I find you. Yes I knew where I was going…
I awoke with a start. Rubbed my eyes. Outside, the face of rural India greeted me with a buttered smile and then lolled its head from side to side, and inside the people began settling into a familiar routine for they had made this journey many times before. Many were visiting relatives, some starting new jobs and one at least was just there for the ride.
The gentleman seated to my right; funny looking chap wearing helium inflated Jodhpurs, was rummaging thorough his knap sack. Like a magician performing a magic trick; out popped a chunk of crusty bread, a hunk of evil looking cheese and a withered tomato almost as wrinkly as the poor man’s face. His ears were like prunes and as he moved out of the shadow cast by the low lying sun, I saw that he had deep creases carved into his forehead; engraved almost – no doubt from much contemplation. He had a large nose perched uncomfortably like a beak that threatened to shift his entire centre of gravity. He bit into his bread (crumbs everywhere as he did so), took a ruthless swipe at the cheese and then the mangey tomato. I guessed him to be from a monastery as he had that unhurried air about him, as if he had long forsaken time; entering into a deadly bargain with it (like Faust and the Devil). Later on, when I asked him what lessons he had learnt from life: “throw away your watch!” was his almost instant and immortal reply.
Outside, sand blasted stucco huts raced past us in a hurry and skinny gleaming figures in the distance; their forms shadowy and vaporising and reforming in the dusty heat were working away; sometimes in a group and sometimes alone, tending the land with their oxen and in the background hordes of restless children running after cattle with sticks and screaming only for the screams to be absorbed with a thud by the deafening silence. The air was hot and stuffy but not dry as the rains had fallen in the distance somewhere, thus soothing it somewhat. I was happy and stuck my head out and took in a lungful of life.
It was calling. I could hear it calling in the wind tunnel. Egging me on.
The routine of train life was shattered whenever we stopped at a station and then the reptilian drones of the hawkers would start. Hiding beneath the flimsy canopy of the station they’d wait for us to pull in and then crawl out of the woodwork. Feeding time! First you’d hear there repetitive warbles like jungle birds and then you’d see em’ coming; squinting in the sun; sorry looking motley crew of odds and sods. Suddenly they’d be a manic flurry of activity as passengers would start bargaining for goods from the train; bellowing, hooting, wheeling and dealing; the pained cries of commerce ringing through my ears; deafening but great fun to watch – I learnt my lesson the first time when I beckoned one of the street sellers over. I watched the wretched little creature as he came towards me. He was a boy of about nine with wolverine eyes and scraggy clothes. I felt sorry for him so I let him keep the change. Big mistake. For kindness is rewarded with not a thank you but an aggressive display of play acting and begging. Kindness can be smelt a mile off and they flock to it in drones like vultures. It is like a weakness and is pounced upon. Later, as we started moving I realized that life on the periphery is not about graciousness. It is about survival. Why should they be gracious? What has the world ever given them to be gracious about?
My thoughts then morphed into a butterfly that leapt here and there until finally landing on her shoulder; Vanekka’s shoulder. I could smell her perfume and taste her passions and feel her heartbeat. She was sitting opposite, lost in her own thoughts, whilst her boyfriend was fast asleep drooling away precious wallpaper paste.
She stirred and looked my way. I gave her another one of those raised eye brow smiles. Maybe I should ignore her I thought – That was probably not a wise idea I surmised; advertising my psychotic tendencies at this earliest point of our budding relationship was perhaps not the way to go. Better to play it cool and steady. The attack plan was to spring her with a lightning blitzkrieg charm maneuver (leaving her gasping for breath in zero gravity space orbit) and then just as she’s rather enjoying it, a hasty retreat leaving her in the midst of confusion to pick up the pieces. I’d obviously be watching nonchalantly from the side lines. Watching her disintegrate and fall apart at the seams before finely gathering her wits about her and making the best decision of her life; that is leaping into my waiting arms, followed by us leaping from the moving train to ‘anywhere-land’ for a life-time of jinx and high adventure upon the seven seas – Bollywood eat your heart out mate.
“Would you like a coffee?” I asked her as I got up scanning the carriage for the Starbucks coffee booth “Coffee?” she repeated
“Yes Coffee, you know coffee. Nescafe?”
“Yes. I know what you mean by coffee” she said “but I doubt you’ll find it here”
“I’m sure I saw a Starbucks sign somewhere?” I said in soliloquy
She looked at me with lucid, opalescent eyes not quite sure what to make of my humour discharge.
I was now standing over her, looking down and watching her look up at me like a puppy-dog wagging its tail. I could have sworn her tongue was flapping crazily. I noticed that her accent had an air of refinement oxidized to it. A certain nobility; a magisterial quality even. Maybe she was a princess I fantasized. At that moment I felt like asking her what the heck her majesty thought she was doing in Economy class but then I felt the question rebound on me. Besides it may even offend her. Perhaps she had fallen on hard times or, even more plausible, that no-good boyfriend of hers had squandered her inheritance.
I knew that these long haul trains had kitchen carriages from whence they magically summon deep fried, savory, concoctions called Pakoras from Mr Onion Bhaji on cloud nine. At dinner time, they have a proper restaurant kitchen with an army of staff churning out a whole host of exotic dishes. If I was nice I thought I may just get a cup of coffee from the kitchen. So I took off down the carriage in search of a pleasant caffeinated drink to put in my mouth. I walked by the numerous bodies slumped here and there. I hadn’t noticed it before, but the stench of poor people clung to the air and got up my nostrils. It’s a common smell of dried sweat and un-bathed bodies hiding behind some cheap fragrance.
Ten minutes later I was back at my carriage, struggling with the considerable weight of having to carry a huge smile and two scalding cups of freshly brewed Nescafe. I handed Vanekka the cup as I walked past her towards my seat.
“I didn’t know whether you have a sweet tooth so I bought these along anyway” I said as I unwrapped the newspaper sheet with the sugar cubes inside
“Oh, just one please!” she said smiling
“You know you shouldn’t take too much sugar” I said as I plonked a cube in her cup
“You’re gonna loose all your teeth when you get old and then you’ll be eating halwa all day long and nobody will look at you cos you’ll be like this” I started mimicking the face of an old lady with no teeth and she started laughing, almost spilling her drink on me. Probably on purpose.
“What are you doing here?” She finally asked me
“What am I doing on planet Earth or the carriage?”
She gave me one of those looks that teachers give to cheeky children. I was hoping she’d spank me.
I paused, looked out of the window and creased my brow. I was obviously trying to come up with a thoughtful answer to this most important of questions
Finally I turned my head around, bent towards her and said: “I have no idea” whilst taking a sip of the coffee and giggling into it. I watched as it frothed over the side and started eating away into my hands.
Me not having an idea what I was doing on this train was too much for her. I could see that it had sparked curiosity but also something else.
The thing was and if truth be known, I really did have no idea what I was doing here! There was no reason or rhyme other then impulse really. How do you explain that to somebody? That you’re traveling for the sake of traveling? I leant back and worried about what she’d make of me. I did have my reasons but they were wishy-washy, dreamy, vague and buried somewhere deep inside my head and I couldn’t articulate them right now in this stuffy carriage with the oppressive heat and everything.
“I just got on the train to see where it would take me” I said honestly. It was said with a shrug of the shoulders and a sprinkling of fake pity; as if I was hoping that she’d seize and shake me in an attempt to pull me out of the madness that had flocculated my mind. But she didn’t. She just sat there.
“You see I want to know what lies on the other end of the line” I said
And that was it. The spell had been cast. It’s like a switch had flipped in her head. I saw the moment it flipped; her pupils dilated and I swam through. And once that switch flips, it’s all over. Game over.