Journey To The Train
From where they lived, the railway station was a good distance away. And more than the distance it was the number of modes of transport you had to switch to get there. First you walked the 3 kilometers over the dusty road that was only wide enough for cycles and pedestrians. At the other end of this road you reached a point where you could share a seat in a 3-wheeled taxi with ten other people. A ride of another five kilometers over the next 15 minutes or 60 — depending on how soon the auto filled up — would then land you at a bus-stop. If you were lucky you would get the bus within 30 minutes of landing there. If a bus had just left, as you will be told by the chaiwalla who stood making his living out of people who frequented this place, then you would have to wait a full hour and a little more. Then on the bus it was an hour ride on the narrow but well-paved state highway. The trees flanking the roads suddenly left company and the first houses of the city burst upon the bus like someone playing peekaboo. You reached the city bus-terminal from where you took a cycle-rickshaw and reached the railway station in another 10 minutes. Some train journeys lasted less than what it took for the people of the town to get to the station to board the train. As a result of which, few people in the town traveled unless it was forced upon them by emergencies in their families that had moved away to other cities and towns. That’s why most children of the town had never seen a train. Like Poya and Gumman. They had seen one in a film where dacoits on horses chased a train and boarded it only to be shot by the hero who happened to be in the same train. They had seen one in a book their father had got for them when he made that long journey to the railway station and a short one after that to where his office had sent him on some errand. But that didn’t satisfy their desire to see the train up and close.
Poya, unlike Gumman, had a fertile mind. She could cook up excuses with a speed that Gumman had difficulty catching up. And when the excuse had to work for both of them, Gumman was always glad to have her think and speak while he stood next to her, nodding to whatever she was coming up with. Last summer, when they were playing by the stream when they were supposed to have been at school and it had started raining suddenly, both the kids ran back home even as the shower drenched them and their bags. In that moment, running from the rain to the safety of their home was the only thing on their mind. Only when they reached back did the second problem come up. What were they doing running home through this rain when they should have been in school?
‘Oh ma! You remember that boy who had taken Gumman’s notebook? No? Anyway, he did. We were going to get it from him when the rain started. And before we could reach school we got drenched. So.”
Neither Gumman, nor their Ma had any clue about the notebook but the sight of her children’s state overcame all that and she busied herself with changing them into dried clothes.
As Poya and Gumman grew up, they started thinking of the train and of getting a closer look at it. Their father would occasionally tell them about a train and the boxes that people sat and stood and ate and slept in. Having seen boxes of oil at home that were round, they imagined the insides to be the same, only packed with people. But it wasn’t something they were prepared to imagine all their lives. Finally Poya took matters into her own hands.
Almost three months before the start of the summer vacations she started telling her parents of the retirement of Mr Shiva, their Geography teacher. Then after a month or so, she moved on to telling them about how he had decided to move back to his native town in the South of India. She conjured a South Indian town by the sea where coconut trees outnumbered the blades of grass on the ground below and Mr Shiva’s house with its own well around which he lived with his extended family. By the time the vacations were just a month away, she finally moved onto asking her parents to teach her how to make a garland out of the marigold flowers that grew in their small garden. Her mother picked up a needle and a strong thread, taught her how pluck the flowers with a bit of their stem to hold the thread, and then showed her how to thread them together. She learnt it one Sunday and the next she made a garland, just a week before the vacations were to start.
The remaining week she kept talking of the garland and how the class had given her the duty to make it for Mr Shiva’s farewell. Till the last day she didn’t say where the farewell was. In fact, on the last day she even carried it with her to the school, only to return with it, dejected and sad.
“Mr Shiva left yesterday for his son’s place in the town. He will board the train from there tomorrow and we will never get to give him the garland.”
She didn’t eat her food and she didn’t go out to play. She didn’t ask for the TV to be turned on when the lights came back for two hours. A worried mother and father saw the garland lying in a heap by their school bags and decided they must do something for the child. The idea came from the mother and she suggested that they take the kids to the railway station the next day. That Poya had said something about giving the garland to someone who may be going to the railway station the next day may have helped a little, but the mother didn’t know that.
The next day the kids got up early in their excitement. They had been told in the night that they would be taken to the railway station to see Mr Shiva off. And all night the kids had at first only spoken of the train, and then later dreamt of it. So this morning when they got dressed and got ready to leave, they almost forgot the garland. Their father picked it up and put it in a bag along with the food for the trip.
The walk, the shared auto, the bus and the final rickshaw ride took up the first half of the day but the kids enjoyed every moment of it. They had the parathas their mother had cooked for the journey. They had jalebis from a roadside kiosk before they took the cycle-rickshaw. They went past movie posters on walls as they moved towards the railway station. And when they were on the bus, they have even driven over railway tracks.
They finally entered the station with the garland in hand. It wasn’t a very big station, just four platforms and two trains. The kids ran to the first train they saw and ran up and down the length of the platform, taking in the engine and guard’s cabin and everything in between. Their parents ran after them, thinking they were looking for Mr Shiva. When no Mr Shiva was seen, the father asked a coolie and was told that the train wouldn’t leave for the next 15 minutes. So he suggested that they check the train from inside and look for their teacher. The kids scrambled up and ran down the length of the train again, this time taking it all from the insides. The berths, the toilets, the wash-basins. The people and their luggage. But again, no sign of Mr Shiva.
With a hoot and wave of the green flag, the train finally shook from its slumber, and moved on. Poya and Gumman were standing on the platform, with their parents and a few other people who had come to see someone or the other off. They watched as the train pulled out of the station, till it turned a far corner and disappeared from sight. The parents looked at the children, holding the garland in their hands, and who they thought were taking it really well. The two spoke in hushed tones and agreed that they should take the children for a movie to make up for their disappointment. And Gumman was only thinking of what would Poya say when Mr Shiva turned up again the next year. But Poya wasn’t too worried. She had the length of the entire winder vacation to come up with something.