Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Vendors flocked on the shadowed train station of Santragachi near Howrah city. There might have been an orange orchard tucked in some corner of the district as the name suggests but with the thin film of heat shimmering above the concrete platform, it was hard to imagine.
“Chai Gorom, chai gorom!” Vendors crowded the windows and the passages of the sleeper class. Some vendors thrust tea in small rounded kulhars through the window, some offered jhalmoori puffed rice mixed with raw onions, chili and spices, and some tried to entice the passengers with fried potatoes, and curried chick peas. No matter how sweltering the plains of Bengal become before the advent of rains, tea still remains a favourite drink among the majority of the passengers. I fished out a twenty rupee note and bought myself some tea, some jhaalmoori, and a good portion of spicy potatoes. The train slowly slid off the station as I gorged on the spicy snacks and sipped hot tea.
After some time the train broke into an interminable speed; the trees and green rice fields outside blending with the blue sky into a dull yellow haze. I threw the oil stained piece of newspaper that had served as my plate and the empty kulhar out of the window. The paper flew away in the wind while the cup dropped on the pebbles and crashed to pieces.
Most of the passengers had alighted at Santragachi and as the train rolled forward I realised that not a single person had climbed on to the compartment that I was in. At one point I went to the toilet and noticed that the rest of the coach was empty. A feeling of unease unsettled me as I scrambled through the length of the coach in search of other fellow travellers. This was highly unlikely I thought. An empty train is unusual because people are perpetually on the move and trains in any corner of India, for that matter, never run empty. A train journey in India by second class, a sleeper class or a third class is synonymous with crammed spaces, sometimes stuffed to the point of people sitting on the aisles with their noses stuck right up to the toilet door.
To my surprise, the whole coach seemed to be totally devoid of passengers. As I made my way back to my seat, I saw a crow perched on the berth of an empty compartment to my second surprise. Its beady eyes twinkled as it looked straight up at me. Perplexed by the presence of the crow inside a moving train I stood still not knowing what move to take next. It flapped its wings once and croaked. Then it hopped on to the window ledge, pressed itself through the horizontal iron bars and disappeared. I returned to my compartment dazed and shaken by the bizarre scene that I had just witnessed.
To my relief I saw that I was not alone anymore. A man sat on the berth opposite mine reading a newspaper. He did not acknowledge my presence as he did not raise his eyes from the newspaper. Dark wavy hair, curling at his shoulders and high forehead were two discernible features I could perceive in one sweeping look. The rest of his face was hidden behind thick horn rimmed glasses and unkempt moustache that merged into an equally unkempt beard. Relieved about not having to travel alone, I settled back into my seat and resumed reading my book.
The train sped ahead with increased momentum rocking the two of us like a pair of rolling dice. Outside, the sunny sky wore a canopy of dark grey clouds, suddenly giving way to a heavy shower of rain. Trying to read was futile as midday grew as dark as twilight and rain drops flew in through the open window splattering on my bare arms. The train shook with such frenzy that for a moment I was afraid that the brakes may have failed. My fellow passenger had curled up and was now asleep. After about half an hour, the train finally slowed down and came to a halt at Padmapukur station. The station and the surroundings once again, looked more like a disheveled little hamlet with no lotus pond anywhere in sight as the name suggested. The platform was completely devoid of any human habitation. Apart from the sound of the pattering rain, silence descended once the train creaked to a complete stop.
A solitary crow sat atop the concrete slab that stood erect displaying the name of the station in English and Bengali. Its eyes found me at once and I froze under its intense black gaze. Then just as it had done before, it flapped its wings once and let out a grating metallic croak. Feeling relieved once the train chugged back into life picking up speed, I craned my neck towards the direction of the platform to find the crow still perched on the concrete slab. Its gaze, fixed towards the direction of the train.
As the train picked up momentum I could not shake the thought that there was something queer about this train journey, but I couldn’t point a finger at what exactly it was. Darkness outside grew more prominent and the tube lights in the train flickered alive casting the compartment in a familiar clinical glow. My fellow passenger stirred and sat up slowly stretching his arms and legs. I bent down to pick his newspaper that had fallen on the floor. He reached for it at the same time. The ice was broken.
“It’s alright, I’ve got it.” He said smiling at me as he picked up the paper.
I smiled back catching a glimpse of his face again. He had taken off his glasses and without the pair of those sombre looking spectacles; he had a rather amicable face. The kind that lights up with a smile. He must have been much younger than he looked. I got a feeling that he was one of those who liked to look more mature than they really are. Then, without the formality of an introduction and with the general affinity that one traveller shares with another, we set off into a casual conversation.
“Your destination?” I asked.
“Shalimar. Yours?” He asked back wiping his glasses with the border of his kurta. I had never been to Shalimar. But I said “Ah! Shalimar.” with the tone of someone very familiar with the place. He smiled back nodding his head.
“I am going to Baltikuri.” I mentioned as a response to his question. Pushing his spectacles with his index finger he said “Oh Baltikuri? Do you have someone living there?”
“No no, I am going there on an assignment. I am a writer and I am going there to do research on my book” I claimed emphatically.
“I see. So you are a writer. How nice! How I wish I could say the same for myself. I could spend my entire life reading and writing if only, if only I didn’t have to support my aged parents. The job at the post office in Howrah is alright but it is uninteresting and monotonous and my salary is very low. I manage to keep my head just above the water with the amount I earn.”
He sounded disheartened and I thought I saw a dark shadow sweep across his face, as if the tubelight illuminating his face had been shadowed by a giant moth or something. I looked up and saw nothing there.
“But I have a library card and I borrow a lot of books. Sometimes three at at time!” He said with a smile. Struck by the young man’s openness my heart grew warm towards him at once. I wished I could make things better for him and while I held on to the thought, I had an idea. If he was willing, I could pay him a little amount to accompany me to Baltikurias my assistant.
“I am a struggling writer myself,” I said slowly. “I have a few stories published here and there in newspapers and periodicals, nothing more. However, I come from an affluent family and it is my father and brother who finance my writing stints. Without their support my writing career would have been reduced to ashes by now.”
I began to put my proposition forward for a want of companion during my research trip but, realising how desperate it might sound, I drew the reins on myself. I was surprised at myself. I was forty one years of age and I had not met a man yet, who had been capable of helping me fine-tune my senses into the direction of a romantic alliance until that moment. Something was so generously endearing about him that it filled me with a desire of a companion to have and to keep.
Dispelling the awkward silence again, I quickly asked. “Are you visiting your parents in Shalimar then?”
He shook his head vigorously. “Naa. A friend, I’m visiting a childhood friend” he answered my questioned but he didn’t seem too excited by the prospect of meeting his friend.
“Oh I see. This friend of yours, what does he, she do?” I asked with a certain degree of curiosity. I was keen to know more about this man, and a plan had already begun to germinate in my mind. One that would create an opportunity for me to meet him again in the future, which in turn, would guarantee a chance for me to get to know him better. Howrah post office was very easy to find.
“I go to visit him when I can. He is an electrician in Shalimar and runs a small shop with electrical appliances. His wife, he and I, we were the best of friends when we were growing up.” He said with some enthusiasm but at the mention of the wife, his brows wrinkled and he had clasped his hands together so hard that the knuckles had all turned white. He bit his lips and looked out of the window. I did not probe further. I understood at once, with a sorrowful pang in my heart, that there had been a love interest which he had probably lost due to unavoidable circumstances. Perhaps I could help him heal, I could help him forget I thought, my desire to strike an attachment with this man growing stronger. With an attempt to bring him back into casual conversation, I asked his name.
“Tapas, Tapas Ghatak” He said quietly still looking out of the window. He seemed to have plunged into a brooding mood and sadly enough I didn’t find the opportunity to say my name because he didn’t ask and I found it awkward to keep nudging him with my eagerness for a conversation. I lost the thread of conversation and knowing that it was best to keep quiet, I did so. The train had slowed down again. Shalimar station was still a few kilometers away and usually trains only stopped unannounced in the middle of nowhere if another train was coming from the opposite direction, or if it was time to change tracks. It was too early for the change tracks I reckoned, for it wasn’t a long time ago that the train had left Santragachi junction. After sometime, he started growing slightly restless as he glanced at this wrist watch repeatedly. Once again, I tried to veer him back into conversation but he only started to pace the compartment and peer out into the expanding darkness appearing less and less interested in conversing with me. I, on the other hand grew slightly indignant at his sudden indifference and blamed the middle-aged dry look I had begun to carry about myself. I chided myself for having let my imagination fleet over that uncharted territory of love on wheels for a second. I grew certain then, that I had been alone too long with very slim chances of meeting anybody who could see me in that particular fashion.
“I’m going to see what is holding the train,” he said suddenly but before I had uttered anything about the perilous nature of the dark moonless night outside, such as the one that we were facing, he had climbed down the train and had vanished in the obscure drizzle of rain. I decided to stay inside as the grimy ground outside didn’t seem inviting at all. The tube light flickered repeatedly and died leaving me alone in a dark. A horrible feeling of discomfort began to spread inside me. I crawled in the corner of my seat, hugged my knees to my chest and rested my head on them trying to think of the brighter moments in my life. The strange thing was that I could not recall a single bright moment and yet I had been sure that my life was filled with more light than gloom.
Strange shadows started to crawl from all the crannies in my head into my heart clasping the shuddering muscle within its vise-like grip. The weight of the darkness around me pressed into me almost smothering me. Then with a sudden jolt of energy, its origin still unknown to me, I bolted out of the compartment and out of the train in a matter of few seconds.
My travelling companion had not come back and trembling with both fear and a cold rainy night I stood outside the train. I strained my eyes in the dark wishing to spot him or the TTE. I peered into the despicable haze that the monsoon drizzle had cast all around, and as my vision started getting accustomed to the dark, not too far from where I stood I saw dark human forms smudged out of shape in the fog. They were clustered together beside the train tracks. I moved closer to the shadows and upon coming closer, I saw the TTE and three more men circling something that lay on the ground. Upon moving closer, I noticed that the men bore uniform of the railway staff. I peered towards the object lay in the centre and to my horror, realised that they were standing around a body.
I have always harboured a ferocious fear of corpses of all kinds. When I was ten I had the misfortune of witnessing the death of a dear friend. We were playing on the banks of Babu Ghat near Eden Gardens when our parents were busy buying things essential for Durga Puja. She said that she had the power to walk over water. I didn’t believe her and to prove me wrong, she started wading into the water until it was too late to turn back. Her head bobbed up and down in the water and her arms flailed in the air but I only stood there transfixed too frightened to jump into the water to save her. The bustling crowd was too busy to notice her splashing in water and a few minutes later, she disappeared under the water. I ran for help but it was too late. They couldn’t find the body and I was tormented by horrible dreams of her body being ravaged by meat eating fishes in the river. I accompanied the search team every day, until after two days they dragged her lifeless body out of another ghat further down the river. She had turned blue and had bloated beyond recognition.
Ever since then I have been wildly terrified by the sight of a dead body of any kind. Given to the open display of the dead in India as they make their final journey to the crematory ghat, my encounter with funeral corteges bearing withered grey corpses on their shoulders have been too many. The night thereafter being filled with ghoulish nightmares where the dead have risen from their burning pyres and walked towards where I stood with my feet rooted firmly in the marshy edge of Babu ghat. There I was, just inches away from a hideous sight. The body that lay in the centre was no ordinary corpse, for I could see the way the feet were twisted at odd angles and the black pool of blood that had begun to grow steadily on the ground around the lifeless form. The thought of seeing a body that had been torn asunder by the wheels of the train jarred my nerves and I retched violently. I wanted so much to run away from the scene, but my feet refuted so I stood there petrified like a block of ice. From where I stood I saw the men covering the body by a white sheet but in no time at all, a dark patch of blood had already begun to spread and soak the sheet. Waves of nausea rose again and hit the roof of my throat threatening to erupt any moment. I tried to shut my eyes but failed miserably. For some reason, my eyes remained wide open and like a magnet drawn to its opposite pole, it darted towards the body of its own accord as the men carried it towards the train. In that partial darkness I noticed that one of the leather sandals had slipped off while the other was intact. The naked foot was caked with mud and lifeless hands with dark long bony fingers dangled out from the further end of the sheet. As I watched helplessly, something slipped and fell from under the shrouded body. It was a newspaper rolled into a cylindrical shape. My hands trembled and my head reeled as I unrolled it, squinting my eyes to adjust my vision to see what the paper held. In one of its folds I saw a picture that sucked the breath right out of me. I lost balance and fell back but before I hit the ground, I woke up into a crowded train compartment with four curious faces peering into mine while the wheels rattled on the track underneath my feet.
With great trepidation and confusion I looked around to see a compartment full of passengers, some dozing, some engaged in childish banter, some reading and some simply staring out of the window. Broad daylight poured in from outside and there was no sign of rain. The four faces gradually receded back into their seats once I woke up, but they continued to throw surreptitious glances at me. I noticed that I held a newspaper in my hand and I brought it within a reading range to peruse it. My mouth suddenly felt dry and a burning sensation travelled the breadth of my chest as I laid my eyes upon a black and white photograph that gazed back at me in a serious expression. I remembered as I read the piece of news.
Monday 12th June
The body of Tapas Ghatak, aged 29 was found at the Padmapukur train station this morning. Autopsy report says that Ghatak had consumed a considerable amount of arum berries before he went and lay on the train tracks. A photograph below bearing his name and birth date was recovered from his wallet. The body has not been claimed by any member of his family yet, as the police have not been able to locate his family. The police officials however hope that some relative may come to claim his body and give it a proper cremation. Death by suicide is on the rise once again in Bengal. Nine out of twelve deaths have been ruled as suicide in the past one month.
It was the 13th of June that day, precisely one day after Tapas had committed suicide. He had already been dead when he had sat across me. He had already passed away when I had struck a conversation with him, yet he seemed so real. He was dead but alive in some uncanny way. Nothing about him gave way to the truth that he might be far removed from the living world. Not a single thing about the man who sat opposite had struck me as anything odd or bizarre about him except that he looked much more matured with those glasses. But then I reminded myself some people do look much older than they really are. One may put the blame on the genes or a stressful life.
Perhaps that is how it is, I thought. Perhaps one goes on living entirely oblivious of the fact that one has passed away; and that, one haphazard person in a million sees you anyway, and takes you for the living. Perhaps we are surrounded by the dead more than by the living. We may take it for granted that all those faces in the throng may be living breathing persons like ourselves but we may have been wrong all along. I suddenly grew weary, my limbs throbbed and so did myhead. I longed to reach the end of my journey; a journey that was supposed to be a short and insignificant one but had turned out to be a long and a perplexing one.
The train slowed at Shalimar station and I had to board another train to Baltikuri. I gathered my bag from under my seat and climbed down. Shalimar station was crawling with people – vendors hollering, passengers alighting the train, passengers boarding the train, porters balancing a mountain of luggages on their heads. My train was due in half an hour so I sat on a bench lost in the rush of lives hurrying by. Just then, in the midst of all the pandemonium at the train station, I saw it. It flew into the station and sat on a vendor’s trolley, right in front of me. The black orb of eyes piercing into me. Petrified, I stared back at the crow and as it turned its head towards the train leaving the platform, my gaze followed it. A man sat beside the window of the coach in front of me. The train slowly pulled out of the station and with a cold pill of fear bursting in my stomach, I saw the same tangle of hair nestled on those shoulders, the same black horn-rimmed glasses, the same unkempt beard. I saw the very same man who glared back from the black and white photograph of the newspaper. Tapas Ghatak, aged 29 who had untimely squeezed his life out of himself. The train pulled out of the station with him sitting by the window gazing intently at me. Santragachi Express was headed back to Howrah city. A melancholic pound propelled my heart as I stood gazing at the disappearing rear of the train and gradually, I understood. I understood that Tapas Ghatak was forevermore bound towards a destination he would never really reach.
Kulhar – Handle-less terracotta cup that is unpainted, unglazed and eco-friendly.
Chai gorom – Hot tea
Jhaalmoori – Puffed rice mixed with diced onions, diced green chili, boiled pulses and peanuts with a dash of lemon and salt
Santragachi Express – Railway express serving South eastern Railway zone.
Shalimar – One of the intercity railway stations location in the Shibhpur area of Howrah.
Padmapukur – A small railway station named after the lotus pond that falls in the route of Santragachi Express to Khidirpur railway junction.
Baltikuri – A junction in Kharagpur outside Kolkata
Ghat –A flight of stairs leading down to a body of water used for bathing, praying rituals and cremation purposes
Naa – No in Bengali
Durga Puja – A Hindu festival celebrated with great pomp and show particularly in West Bengal, India. This six day ceremony celebrates the worship Goddess Durga, the goddess of strength and courage.
About the Author:
Yoshay Lama Lindblom writes stories bordering on the uncanny. She is one of the writers at www.socialpotpourri.com . One of her stories “Half Light” has recently been published in the Social Potpourri Anthology. She has bachelors in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi and from The University of Lund in Sweden. Originally from a small town called Kurseong in the Darjeeling district of northeast India, she now lives in the south of Sweden with her husband and two sons. Her blog www.yoshay.com houses a collection of various articles, stories and poetry.
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