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Derailed memories

As children, we made up a game called 'Third Class - Third Class'; not for us the sedate and standard, 'House-House', 'School-School'.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2002 16:47 IST

As children, we made up a game called 'Third Class - Third Class'; not for us the sedate and standard, 'House-House', 'School-School'.

It involved four boisterous cousins, one dog, and a variable number of friends collecting all the pillows, cushions, satchels and bazar bags we could find, and squeezing into one end of a narrow single bed. The action proceeded from a 'dhakka-bukki' boarding to grabbing off seats, to a complacent camaraderie which was suddenly shattered with 'A-C-C-I-D-E-N-T!' Whereupon everyone proceeded to tumble out with shrieks produce-able only by 11-year-old girls.

Every time a train jumps off the tracks, this multimedia imagery jumps out of my memory head with the predictability of charge, counter-charge and Mamata Banerjee following in the wake of a railway disaster.

Indeed, the Rajdhani's mangled rakes and mixed homecomings brought a whole train of thoughts steaming into my mind. The convoluted journey we had to make for our annual Darjeeling vacation before a friendlier Bangladesh allowed more direct access to New Jalpaiguri, railhead for the 'toy train'. We got on at Calcutta's Sealdah station, got off somewhere in the boondocks and the dark to cross a river by launch, again made our way on foot through a hurdled stretch, clambered on another train which then delivered us to the narrow-gauge Himalayan curiosity.

After that it was pure idyll. The 'toy train' trilled its way round the mountains, triggering excited cheers every time it looped enough for the front and rear bogies to wave to each other. You could wave to the shyly smiling Nepali women and their red-cheeked children all the way. Now, in the nasal passages of my mind, the scent of pines rises like the wood smoke, and my taste-buds drown in the remembrance of mutton cutlets at the Kurseong dining hall.

A little older, I took the longer train journeys through 'the South' with Pesy-fua, Dhun-fui and a clack of her mahjongg cronies. With this entourage, Uncle Pesy was less the Pasha lolling in his seraglio than a stern corps commander marshalling his distracted troops through the meticulous manouevres of his itinerary. He would come back gaunter, balder from each such holiday, and consider the mission successful if none of the Stretch- pant Silloos had been left behind on some remote Tamil platform.

Then came the yearly haul on the Howrah/Bombay Mail via Nagpur. As surely as destinations are influenced by the travelling to them, journeys are coloured by their ends. The first trip out for my first job was also my first train journey alone, metaphor of a newly seized independence. On that inaugural run, I carried so much baggage: new belongings and old longings, inner securities crated with my books, parental doubts adding their kilos to my own, both of us strapped to emotions shunting between anxiety and ambition.

The Romantics called it pathetic fallacy, nature reflecting the poet's mood. The stations en route to Calcutta seemed more sprightly than the same ones on the way back to the Bombay grind. After soldiering through the heat and dust of Central India for an entire day, I woke up to the salve of the Bengal countryside, and was soon enmeshed in the awesome contours of the Howrah Bridge, a giant's chainmail hung out to dry on the skyline. Compare that to the entry to VT. The cool altitudes of Igatpuri deteriorated into the depressing squalor of tenements leprous with moss, oozing with sewage.

In a train compartment, the whole diversity of India — all of us finding unity in the sharing of a puri-bhaji, a philosophy — and a 'lavatory'. Yes, mention the Railways, and I am engulfed by the 'train smell', that distinctive spoor which fuses bodily function with dysfunctional disinfectant to create an entity on the iffy side of hygiene. 'Do not use while the train is stationary', bureaucracy constipated in a dubious pun.

More than anything else, the lip-parching adrenalin of memories stems from night journeys. The train charging its way through the phantom-ed density, whistling in the dark to keep up its courage, hurtling to get out of then unknown as fast as possible on the pretext of 'making up time'. The wild rocking on the tracks so reckless that you clutch the bunk, fearing the rakes will fly off. Sometimes they do. For several reasons, signal failures of technical and figurative kinds. Fish plates removed as an act of sabotage, or as red herrings for other failings. As in life, so with trains, tragedy derails the romance.

* * *

Alec Smart said, “Why is there so much confusion over the Koirala film? Because it's all double-speak.”

First Published: Sep 15, 2002 00:00 IST