Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Tarun Chakraborty

WHEN WE WERE IN...

I grew up as a cantonment kid. Every cantonment kid has uncommon stories up his sleeve that contains– “when we were in”, in a childhood roving the whole country. For me as well, the list is long in an ‘unsettled life’ that saw transfers (we called postings) every 3 to 4 years. We lived a Spartan life with very few possessions in small quarters for airmen rowed in barracks, but with lots and lots of exposure, otherwise not accessible even in select civilian surroundings.

My ‘when we were in’ stories begin from Kanpur, Chekeri AF Stn where I was born generating an incredible birth story. But Dad was transferred from there when I was only 4. I have no recollections of Kanpur or the journey to Jorhat, Rowriah AF Stn where we moved next, but it was from there my memory begins– like the first light at the crack of dawn. An airplane roaring loudly and flying so low that the tricolor emblem of the Indian Air Force (IAF)– three concentric circles in red, white and green those appear so big to my eyes is what my earliest memory retains ever since springing up to awareness. And then, with each passing day, I retain with lesser haze the images of uncles, aunties and my playmates. It was here my little sister was born. It was here, we (I and one year younger brother), for the first time felt the sadness of that parting moment when we had to eventually ‘pack the house’ and leave all our friendships behind and move to another location on the map carrying the memories for the lifetime.

On a foggy winter morning of January of late 50s, the train carrying us steamed off from Jorhat Rly station with friends never taking their eyes off till it disappeared into a dot. That was the beginning of a soldier’s journey with his family and belongings, heading towards a new destination– Kalaikunda AF Stn at Kharagpur.

Cutting across spectacular landscapes of upper Assam, the train whistled through dark tunnels, slithered through sharp bends, meandered through breathtaking jungles and noisily passed over one bridge after another until it halted at not finding any further bridge lying ahead. It had reached Pandu on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra. As the Saraighat bridge was still under construction then, ferry was the only means for crossing the river to reach Amingaon on the other bank for rail trans-shipment. That would be the second change after Lumding. After lounging in the waiting room till the ferry was announced, we had to walk over a stretch of sandy river bank with chilly winter morning air gusting. There were scenes of jostling on the gangways and pushing against railings while boarding and disembarking the Double Decker Steamer. Yet, it felt like a thrill rather than a discomfort. That was a child’s way of sensing a new world opening up. With Mom holding sister in her arms, Dad tugging me and brother by his hands, while at the same time struggling not to lose sight of the porters pacing ahead of us carrying our luggage, we stepped up to the upper deck of the steamer. The morning mist had just lifted when the ferry got started with a buzzer blowing aloud and soon we were in the midst of a vast watery expanse seeming to spread well beyond where the sky met the earth. Such is the enormity of Brahmaputra. With luggage consisting of two Hold-alls, two metallic trunks and a suitcase safely shelved on racks and we comfortably seated on a deck bench and set free from any other address either temporary or permanent for the time being– that very spot momentarily felt like our sweet little home to Mom. She told us of getting similar feels during many of our transits across the country. Home made up of feelings and not bricks accompanied us wherever destiny took us to. A waiter served some unfamiliar kind of refreshments that we shared together and I asked Dad for a four Anna coin while he (waiter) returned the change. I took the coin, sprang up from the bench and went up to the railings to join those who were hurling coins into the river chanting ‘Joy Borluit’ (as the river is called in Assamese). That was so exciting.

“Oh what are you doing …” but before he had his say the piece of coin flew from my hand into the furious water, consigned to sink in its unfathomable depths. Feeling sorry about it, I stood gazing at the raging water little knowing that this very water surface had been the witness to a raging Naval Battle– The Battle of Saraighat, fought in 1671 between the sovereign Ahom Kingdom (led by Lachit Borphukan) and the Mughal Empire (led by the Kachwa King, Raja Ramsingh), thwarting the last major attempt of Mughals to extend their empire into the north east India. The Mughal Army had huge boats which were capable of holding sixteen cannons each and many small boats along with a large amount of ammunition. But the gallant Ahoms fought back tactically with whatever boats they had and sunk the mighty war ships changing the course of history. The mammoth Brahmaputra can devour anything– from a tiny coin to a giant war ship.

The steamer touched the shore. We stepped out and once again started walking on a sandy beach, feeling bad that such a delightful river cruise had come to an end so early, little knowing that more and more delights lay ahead. Our transit was smooth into the Military compartment of the Down Assam link express waiting at Amingaon Rly Station. While other bogies were cramped, ours was sparsely occupied. That’s another good thing about being a part of a military man’s family. The guard flagged off the Express, the Engine blew off the steam as our train journey resumed its ‘jhik-jhik’ rhythm after a watery break. Fleeting past with the rhythm were landscapes of lush green tea plantations, creamy hay strewn on reaped paddy fields, and plain grasslands– spread out as far as the horizon with a lining of forest cover looming in the distance. It was almost noon when the train halted at a station and it would be an exaggeration to label the food stuff we got there from a vendor as a decent meal. Nevertheless, the joy of sharing together made everything palatable and nothing was leftover including the last drop of water in our large military water bottle. The sounding rhythm, the pulsating motion together with a filled belly induced drowsiness passing into a nap only to be woken up towards the late afternoon to find Mom anxiously looking out of the window of the train stranded in the middle of a vast open space.

“Where is Dad?” I asked.

“He has gone to fetch water quite some time back” her voice quivered.

“Where has Dad gone ...” I and brother both started crying in panic. Co-passengers tried to calm, but none ventured to move out under lengthening shadows during that hour of the day.

It so happened that the train had halted at a local station, but our compartment coupled close to the engine, fell ways ahead of the edge of the short platform having a tap. He got down and at first got the thermos filled with boiling hot water tapped out from the boiler by the engine driver. That was meant for dissolving sister’s baby food. In those days ‘Boiler Feed Water’ when drawn from a fresh water generator was fit for drinking. Later on, Mom recounted feeding even me and brother Horlicks dissolved in steam engine’s boiler water during our earlier train journeys as infants. He next started marching down towards the platform looking for a tap, never expecting it to lie so far away, but never giving up at the same time. One can imagine the dread that set in when the whistle blew and the train just started rolling. Mom wailed and we screamed. Then, before someone was just about to pull the chain, the train suddenly stopped with a jerk.

“Oh look there” brother excitedly pointed towards the front side where a large herd of wild water buffalos could be seen crossing the tracks. While our focus on the amazing scene of their streaming across took away the agony for a while, we were not aware of Dad getting in until Mom’s bawls entered our ears. That was a natural outburst. It took some more time for the train to start rolling again. Light was fading but before daylight sank into darkness it was I this time, who spotted a herd of elephants in the distance and cried out in excitement– “Oh look there!” What an exhilarating journey it was turning out to become– a river cruise followed by a jungle safari … It was not unusual of wild animals to stray out on the Railway tracks in those regions. The train had halted at Barpeta Rly Station lying closest to the outer fringes of what was to become an UNESCO declared Natural World Heritage Site in 1985— Manas National Park or Manas Wildlife Sanctuary. Sharing its boundary with Bhutan, the name of the park originates from the Manas River that passes through its heart as a major tributary of Brahmaputra River. How lucky we had been then to witness those herd of wild water buffaloes moving about freely. Manas National Park now conserves them as an endangered animal species!

Day light faded fast and the evening fog obscured the fleeting lights. Compartment lights glowed but excitement dimmed with nothing more to look at through the window. Of course, if at all anything was to be felt as a thrill then it couldn’t be something accompanying all the way. It had to come as a surprise. Our compartment in the meter-gauge train had 2 rows of wooden benches laid out along the length of the compartment by the windows on either side, together with segments of benches running along the middle. We helped Dad in uncoiling the two rolls of hold-alls and beds were laid out— on the benches for us and one on the bunk at the top for him. Late evening was moving into early night when the train halted at a station with the calls of vendors in all sorts of artificial tones entering our ears. Though initially disinclined to taking any train food after the noon experience, whatever we got here in Salpata plates and bowls tasted yummy from the first bite. We had our full, overjoyed at the surprise when least expected. That was at Alipurduar station well known for serving cooked foodstuff. Feeling sleepy we dozed off longing for something different to happen once again and carry us along like a tide unlike that sluggish train.

The first light of day picked its way through the haze when we woke up to find Mom and Dad sipping their morning cups of tea as the train cruised along after halting at Siliguri. As with other kids, it was but natural for us to clamor for the tea, which they didn’t deny us and poured a little bit from their own cups into two plates, making us feel happy. The right kind of parenting may be.

From here on the landscape changed with lesser open spaces or foliage and more of settlements. The train frequently passed through level crossings with gate closed to road traffic. We waved at the cyclists, motorists or rickshaw pullers stranded at the other side of the gate; some waved back, some did not. Yet it was all fun. Morning passed into early noon when the train halted at a Station named Borsoi for changing over from meter to broad gauge, once again forcing us into the ordeal of alighting and mounting another train with our entire luggage. However, it was a transit without surprises except that the broad gauge compartment appeared too wide to our eyes tuned to the narrow gauge during last two day’s travel. Even that was a sensation!

Afternoon wore on monotonously as the journey progressed till the train halted at Katihar junction in Bihar, that linked India’s North with East. Only 10 Miles ahead of Katihar lay Manihari Ghat on the banks of the mighty Ganga, where we would have to leave this train and catch a ferry to reach Sukragali Ghat on the other bank. Our next connecting train— Sealdah bound 14Dn Upper India Express would depart from there.

Excitement of another river cruise was in the offing but Mom looked sad. I knew why. What was saddening her was her remembrance of the theft of the entire lot of her ‘kasha-utensils’ at this very chaotic joint during her first ever journey from Sylet Town of the then north-eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) to far away Kanpur (UP) as a new bride. More than the material, what was distressing her was the emotional value she attached to her bride-gift. I have seen how our meagre possessions even were not spared from damages or losses during all our cross-country transits. However, that was a part of a soldier’s life. Conditions here were no different even after 9 years. Pandemonium still prevailed. It seemed from here on reservations ceased to exist. All Calcutta bound passengers who got down from local trains or buses terminating here, thronged into the compartments of our train and packed them chaotically. We painfully stuck on to our seats amidst the uproar. I got pushed and my head hit against the wooden frame. That was a concussion and I saw the stars. But had this not occurred I wouldn’t have got aquatinted with another facet of Dad’s psyche— his passionate role as a protector that made him scold the offender so intensely that he left the scene and I felt revived ...

The disorder and mayhem somewhat subsided when the whistle blew with many standing squeezed against each other and some fortunate ones squatting comfortably on their luggage. The excitement of another river cruise approaching was slowly building up inside me. But Dad looked worried. The enormous crowd on their way to swarm into the steamer was becoming his cause of concern. He too would have to surge into the horde with Mom, his 3 children and 5 packs of luggage that made up our entire household. You may shudder but that was a normal thing in the life of a ‘soldier on the move’ with his family and belongings some 60 years ago. The train was nearing Monihari Ghat— a confluence of passengers converging at a single point from all directions all of whose destination was the same— Calcutta.

But even in that cramped spell he went on telling about his first ever journey to Calcutta in mid 40s, on his way to Tambaram in Madras for joining Royal Air Force after deciding to move out of his comfort zone in a tea estate lying in the North East. His journey had been much easier then as the rail-route passed through East Bengal before partition. So to land up onto that side of the Ganga on which Calcutta lies, trains had to simply cross Padma River by Hardinge Bridge at Pabna (now Bangladesh and East Pakistan when we were travelling). That was one of the oldest bridges built by the British in undivided India and still taken as an engineering marvel.

“But how did you crossover to the Calcutta’s side of Ganga by crossing a different river Padma?” I was curious.

“Partition is now making us brush our teeth taking our arm around the back of our neck”, we laughed at the joke but he went on explaining clearly, “But travelling will become easier after a bridge is built at Farakka over a dam across its distributary just before it enters East Bengal and changes its name to Padma. With two bridges across the same stream of water geographically, but each of them lying on either side of the political border, it will come to the same thing once again.” How simple and clear was his answer. The train halted at Manihari Ghat Station, with us unawares of how fast time passed off...

Fortunately not everything we apprehend always come true. That is where reality overtakes negativity. As the train halted at Maniharighat station, word got along in animated talks that the segment of the 14 Dn Upper India Express on way from Delhi was running too late, whilst its other segment bound for Sealdah waited at Sukragalighat Station at the other bank of the Ganges. It was the same train 14 Dn, but with a break on the river. That was like a break on any line on the palm— be it of life, heart or fate, nevertheless it continues bearing the same name even after the break. That was like the curve for a mathematical equation which becomes discontinuous within a certain range of values of its variables, nevertheless continues to plot under the same formulation on different co-ordinates. And finally that was like our studies, that despite its intervening breaks, was destined to keep its continuity passing through 7 schools in 10 years, in different boards across the country in 3 different mediums— English, Hindi, Bengal, beating worst of Dad's apprehensions. Those were the days before central schools were created.

The train finally halted at its terminal station— Manihari Ghat. A goods train could be seen occupying the parallel track, where the late running 14Dn Upper India Express from Delhi (via Katihar) was due for arrival. Though our next steps over the sandy beaches seemed to be a much longer stretch than that of reaching for the steamer on Brahamaputra just a day-and-a half earlier, this time our tread brought us on the banks of the Holy Ganges. Oh! Ganga— whose waters flowing down from the Gangotri Glacier in Himalayas carries with it a whole world of emotions and beliefs— that its sacred waters washes away sins, that its sprinkles sanctifies everything, that its basins are the cradles of world’s oldest civilization and religion, that it is a symbol of India’s spiritualism flowing continually from the past into the future through the present ...

But Mom’s present seemed to be immersed in devotion— praying with closed eyes and folded arms just before embarking the deck after walking through the gangway. (A gangway is a raised platform or walkway with railings laid from the banks or shores leading to the deck of a ship).

We were now comfortably settled on the seats on the upper deck with luggage stashed on the racks. The same Railway Warrant for Rail Travel also covered the River Ferry. (A railway warrant is a free railway travel cum reservation ticket issued to defense personnel officially).

The buzzer blew and the steamer took off. During the last hours of the day, the ship wavered with the ripples coloured in the ‘last colour of the spectrum’. There was a big land mass (Holm) at the middle of the river. So the steamer had to take a U-turn around it. This remarkable journey had already offered us River Cruises and Jungle Safaris; to add further, that Holm at the centre gave some feel of ‘Island Hopping’. The ship touched the shores of Sakrigali Ghat.

Disembarking began weathering jostles that was habitual with some of the passengers. There were scrambles that were not needed. We were heading towards our 2nd railway-transshipment in the same journey, with Mom holding sister in her arms, Dad tugging me and brother by his hands while at the same time struggling not to lose sight of the porters who had the reputation of disappearing with luggage. When just about to step on to the gangway, we stopped as there was a noisy disturbance ahead.

While we stood still, a word-of-mouth story got transmitted— that a man wearing goggles and holding a walking stick had been imploring from the same spot, “Please lead this blind man out”. While most passed by without paying a heed, someone took to helping him out of mere sympathy. But just as they crossed over the gangway and stepped on to the river bank, the imposter snatched that sympathetic someone’s wallet, struck him hard with his stick and swiftly disappeared in the crowd. That will remind you of a viral video we get to see on social media these days. Was that an indication of things to come— that we were entering into a zone of cheats and swindlers?

The pandemonium subsided and our alighting resumed. Sakrigali Ghat Station was a temporary one, laid out along the sandy bank of the Ganges, with no permanent station building or platform, as it needed shifting from time to time commensurate to the changes in the course of the Ganges. The rooms of the station were temporary hut type, made with bamboo strips. Depending on the course of the tide, the ferry at times even decked at Sahibganj Junction located some 7 Km away alongside the beach. The connecting train started from there in that case and followed the Shahibgunj loop.

We were seated comfortably inside a compartment of the second segment of 14 Dn Upper India Express. The ferry carrying passengers from its first segment from Delhi had just touched Sakrigali Ghat, not very close on our heels fortunately. The wheels started rolling ending the wait, after another wave of passengers flowed in and filled up the compartments. Light faded under the cover of the evening fog drifting in slowly. The liquid murmur of the fog-draped river broke the stillness in the air.

Nothing was visible in the fleeting landscape but for the lights dimly glowing in the distance. Why this part of the travel didn’t fall during the day time, I regretted, ignorant of its brighter part and slept off after taking platform food served at the next halt.

“Get up ... just get up and look there” Mom pushed us awake. We were once again crossing the mighty Ganga over the Bally Bridge. The river shining like a wide silver ribbon lay across the earth clear of morning mist, presenting an unearthly spectacle. Everybody in the compartment offered Pranams as the train passed by the Dakshineswar Temple. The air was saturated with prayers. So, it was now the turn of a ‘pilgrimage’ in the long array of this ‘variety show’.

Fleeting stretches of land brilliantly glowing with the golden hue of piles of hay after paddy had been reaped, as if basking under the winter Sun, conveyed that we were finally roving through ‘Sonar Bangla’ (Golden Bengal). The stunning sight often got guarded from view by green trains seeming to have no engines passing by. They were EMU trains, the first thing among the many firsts our eyes saw in the journey.

From there on, the train halted even at local stations and picked up people who commuted back and forth between their offices in the heart of the city and their homes every day. They were and still are known as the daily-passengers. They struggle all the way in crowded trains to eke out a living. To support existence, they battle all the day, whose major chunk is eaten away by the journey. Yet, nothing stops them from being full of life, alive and kicking.

A Baul singer got inside, clad in saffron robe, with long hair and holding an Ektara (a single-stringed guitar, whose resonator is made from a dried gourd). His soulful voice, at times whose shrillness reached dizzying pitches and at times a mere whisper, mingling with accompanying Ektara notes, generated a mesmerizing musical effect that rang across the compartment. The Bauls, are a cult of wandering musicians from Bengal. Though they consist of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims, yet they do not subscribe to any mainstream religion. They worship music and live on whatever they are offered in return for their songs, spreading the message love and spiritualism. UNESCO has listed Baul songs in the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ in 2008.

The singer poured out his feelings and emotions into his rendition so down from his heart that it moved the listeners. I heard words like birth, life and journey but the lyrics remained unintelligible, yet its lilting tune kept me captivated till the very end.

“What has happened Maa”, I asked mom at seeing her eyes welling up.

“You will not understand now, may be on some day later…”, she handed me a four Anna coin to offer it to the singer. This time I dropped the coin into his Alms-bowl and not away through the window.

How lavish that train journey had really turned out to be after a musical soiree got added to the list of other spectacles and two of them were future World Heritages!

Once again, the strenuous pack-up before decamping commenced, as the train neared Sealdah station. From there on we would have to travel all the way to Howrah Station to catch Madras Mail for our onward journey to Kharagpur en route our final destination— AF Station Kalaikunda.

The train touched the platform.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Dum Dum Airport, Calcutta... Local time is 4 PM, and the temperature is 32 degree Celsius. For your safety and comfort, please remain seated with your seat belt fastened until further announcement ... Please check for any personal belongings you may have brought on board along with you .... On behalf of Indian Airlines and the entire Forkker Friendship crew I’d like to thank you for joining us in this trip and we are looking forward to seeing you again on board in the near future. Have a nice evening ...”

And with that flight announcement a rush of memories— starting from friends waving goodbye, the dark tunnels, the serpentine bends, the agony of Dad’s momentary disappearance, the river cruises, the jungle safaris, the Island hopping, the pain of concussion suffered, the prayers, the musical soiree and everything ... everything gushed out in a flash back... It was some eleven years later ... I have completed my 1st year at IIT-Kgp ... I have just landed at Dum Dum Airport after spending my summer vacation with parents at Shillong peak AF Station, where Dad was posted then... The cozy air travel that lasted hardly for an hour after Mom saw off her ‘budding-engineer’ son at Borjahar airport at Guwahati, stood in stark contrast against that rugged train journey lasting for nearly 2 days between the same two cities.

Yet, despite all its ease and cutting down on time, something was lacking in it. If that train journey was like relishing a sumptuous meal with all its savor and aroma, then that comfy air travel was like condensing that entire meal into a single pill, whose calories mattered more than the taste, as opposed to the train travel where the journey mattered more than the destination. Trains have windows looking into the rushing world of sight, smell, sound and people while planes have windows to empty skies with clouds floating lonely, the way an onlooker can be lonely even in a crowd. That is what makes a train journey deeply imprinted despite its discomforts, whereas memories of a cushy air travel can vanish like soap bubbles unless something remarkable takes place. Even in medical terms, ‘remarkable’ implies ‘worthy of mention.’ For instance clinical notes like— ‘The patient's medical history is remarkable for an unusual child birth’, would make an enduring birth story as opposed to a normal birth event with nothing worthy of mention. Birth is a normal biological function like any other. But a rugged journey of that tiny unborn bundle through a perilous birth canal to eject into this world under near impossible conditions would, like that rugged train journey, make it a notable medical event. That rite of passage— that was my own, my first, that saw mom suffer greatly, endure greatly and that happened not without a purpose… The Baul’s song crossed my mind and mom’s teary eyes… was it today, the day mom was talking about?

Despite an air travel’s limitations with regard to its connectedness to the outer world, the short-lived isolation, seated comfortably in silence, gives you to connect with yourself, to see within yourself, to feel all your feelings without the compulsions of pushing them away, to retrieve footprints of the past, to find out their purpose in the journey of life…

As I walked down from the terminal building and then through the taxiway towards Howrah Station bound shuttle-bus terminus, piercing sound of the starting whistle reached my ears. Alarmed, I raced faster and faster to catch the bus. As if, shot down from the fantasyland of the skies into the ground realities of the earth, the sole ‘purpose in the journey of my life’ for the timebeing seemed not to miss the bus, which I didn’t.




Finally, I was able to catch the train for onward journey to Kharagpur, this was the second time, but I was on my own, a different version of myself this time.

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