At the Raxaul train station people were shoving and jostling in line for tickets. Although not a major railway junction, the station was brimming with people. Some sat on their haunches while others lay on the floor, fanning themselves to beat the flies and the heat.
The Express arrived two hours behind schedule, its compartments almost deserted. A group of neatly dressed Gurkhas were placing their luggage on the platform. A lanky man stood out from the group. He was rather shabby compared to others. He clearly didn’t belong to the Gurkha group. With a smile on his pale face, he spoke with a slightly older Gurkha with broad shoulders and pursed lips.
I talked to another man in uniform, and he said I could travel with them in the military bogie, if I wanted. Despite having a reservation elsewhere, I could not turn down the offer.
Once on the train, I took a window seat and watched the soldiers settle, putting their luggage under the long wooden seat that could double as a bed. Soon, the train left the station. The movement was a relief from the mid-day heat and humidity.
The tall man was seated just opposite to me.
“What are you reading?” he asked me after a while. I was reading Hemingway.
“I have never read any of his works,” said he. “But I like Harold Robbins. He is the only writer I truly admire.”
“It’s simply amazing how he writes, though people dismiss his works as being racy.”
Later we properly introduced ourselves. He was originally a Canadian who had settled in India. He was very frank, and although in his 50s, had long grey hair and deep eyes. He still had a strange youthfulness to his movement and talked excitedly, often gesturing with his hands.
As the day progressed, the mercury climbed further. The train passed through bare fields; sometimes a lone farmer could be seen working under the scorching sun while the buffaloes relaxed in the muddy pool. The houses were few and scattered.
The Gurkha I spoke to earlier sat silently by my side while others stared out the window. The Canadian bought some bread at a station where the train stopped for a while. From the window I watched as he aimlessly wandered around the station and lit a cigarette. Suddenly he began to yell at a vendor.
Back on the train, a group of eunuchs came and accosted the passengers for money. One that came to our window was dark as coal and wore a sari that barely concealed her protruding belly. She clapped her hands and said,”O, Pardeshi, chalokuch do.” Half-smiling, the Canadian gave her some change, as did others. Then it was a blind old man and after that a boy with mutilated legs who followed suit.
I asked the Canadian the reason behind his temper with the vendor. “Oh, it was nothing,” he said. “The rascal was trying to dupe me, taking me for a tourist. I told him I’ve been in India since his grandfather’s time.”
“They get scared when I do this,” he continued, smiling at his Nepali friend sitting next to hi.
“You know, he is from a tailor caste and is always very gentle and polite to others. He and his wife are also very generous, always giving, but their neighbors treat them very badly just because they belong to low caste.”
The Nepali man just sat grinning and adjusted the Dhaka topi on his head.
The Canadian explained he lived in his friend’s house in Birgunj, close to the school where he taught. His daughter tied the knot with a Nepali man and they taught in the same school.
“They fell in love in Kolkata, you see. They used to study in the same college. I never objected to the marriage. I was even happy. He’s a very nice guy.”
At the school he was an English teacher in the junior section. Though he would have preferred to teach a senior class, he was still happy. He claimed the students liked him and their parents often invited him for meals. The school was closed for the annual vacation and he was going to Kolkata to meet his wife and son.
In the evening, we were still passing through Bihar’s countryside. The same life-less and dry land rolled by, but this time with the red of the setting sun. The Gurkhas began talking about their respective regiments, the places they were posted to and their annual leave. Few knew each other from before, but they seemed to be at ease, perhaps because they were all soldiers and shared some sort of camaraderie.
I listened to them to learn how it felt to be army men with close-cropped hair, robust bodies and confidence. They talked about their salary, families, military postings and what truly mattered to them.
The train stopped at the next station. A big Muslim family was on the platform. The ladies were in burqa, but the veil was thrown back to reveal their faces. The men, tall and bearded, seemed to be in a great hurry to enter the train. They shouted for the kids, and took great to see to it that their entire luggage was on board.
Some people tried to enter our compartment seeing the empty seats, but the army men didn’t let them in. There was a heated argument, some pushing and shoving, but soon the railway guards came and dispersed the crowd. The Gurkhas sitting by my side seemed annoyed with all this hullabaloo. He said that his regiment was based in Kashmir for two years, that he fought many times with the separatists and in the Kargil war too, but the worst he saw was not in the battlefield. It was always at the station. We laughed.
The conversation turned to Kashmir. The Gurkhas said that Kashmir was a strange place. Although it reminded him of his home in the mountains, it was much colder there. “Local Muslims mostly kept to themselves, but deep inside them they bore absolute hatred for the army,” said he. There was always news of clashes and deaths. Separatists regularly ambushed army patrols.
Some villagers would let separatists stay in their homes, but once they began to eye their sisters and daughters, they were left with no option but to turn into informants. “We once heard about a father who killed two separatists to save the honor of his daughter.”
As dusk came, the only sound waves entering our ears were made by the wheels against the rails. The passengers were silent. As I walked through the corridor to the washroom, most of the lights were switched off and the windows closed. One compartment door was wide open where a young man stood looking blankly into the darkness, hair waving in the breeze. He lit a cigarette with a cupped hand against the wind. He pulled a few long drags and blew the smoke out.
He was also from Nepal and was en route to Goa wih a friend he was to meet in Kolkata. He said he worked at a hotel near the sea, where he went to swim during his day off, just like in the stream near his village. He liked to sit silently on the shore during the afternoons and watch the big waves. “Once when I was taking a dip, I was taken far out by the waves,” said he. “I thought I was gone, but ten another wave pushed me near the shore.”
The train gathered momentum at night to make for the lost time during the day. Te wheels made a racked against the rails and the Canadian had to speak loudly to be heard.
The Canadian said that when he first came to Kolkata, he was a young wanderlust and carefree – an enigma for the Bengali women. They used to tell him that they loved him and wanted to bear his child. But he couldn’t have cared less and always managed to shrug off the clingy ones.
Eventually, he met a dark Bengali beauty, who was nothing like the others. This time it was he who fell in love with her, and settled down. She gave him a lovely daughter and a son, and he could not ask for more. He became sober. He went home to Canada few years after marriage, alone, just to meet his mother, but he missed his wife and kids. Kolkata was home now.
“I’ve been very lucky, India has been good to me. People even take me for an Anglo-Indian these days,” he smiled, “and I don’t mind.” He had a granddaughter whom he adored very much and showed me her photo which he pulled out carefully from his wallet: A dainty little kid, 7 or 8, wearing a white dress and smiling.
“You know, she has blue eyes and is the prettiest kid you’ll ever see.” As it was already midnight, the passengers were fast asleep. The compartment wobbled gently as the train sped on.
In the morning, the train was at a station. We were now closing in on Kolkata. Vendors sold tea in small earthen pots to passengers. The signs and posters were all in Bengali. Men, dressed in crisp white shirts, their hair neatly parted sideways, silently boarded the train at the other side of the platform.
A blind man entered the compartment, walked along the corridor and took an empty window seat. Then he started to sing in a very high pitched voice with the accompanying beating of a Dholak.
Half awake, I listened to him for a long time. I didn’t understand the words, but they were clearly of lament. He didn’t care if anybody listened, and it seemed everything was still and silent as he sang. When he moved on there was silence. The train passed through flat fields, continuously, and very fast.
The Canadian had kept the windows open all night, and in the morning too, even though it was slightly chilly. The Gurkhas came from the washroom and started tidying up. Others were impatient and walked up and down the aisle. We passed a town and the Canadian told me about a very old Portuguese-build church there which he always wanted to visit to light a candle.
As we slowly approached the Howrah station, we saw smoke coming out from factory chimneys in the silver gray morning. The train entered the dimly lit station after changing tacks. I could see It was a very busy station. People were walking in a great hurry and there was lots of hullaballoo. Laborers were pushing carts full of goods. A group of peasants squatted on the floor with their bundles of belongings at their sides. A lady’s voice boomed across the station announcing the arrival our train.
The train stopped and we got off. Porters hurried past us with loads of baggage. The Gurkha put his luggage by his side of a wooden chair and sat down. He said he had to catch another train to Orissa.
He had the whole day to spare as his train was due only in the evening, but he said he would rather wait at the station. He had been to many cities in India and felt they all looked the same. I came out of the station with the Canadian and his Nepali friend, and soon parted, all of us going our own way.
This story was published in my travelogue, “Journalism & Journeys”, Vajra Publications, 2012