On A Different Train

Long before headphones and mobile-phones made the choice of music a very personal thing, the songs would play out loud. And if you were travelling in the over-crowded buses or trains that ferried the daily passengers to Katuli from Pir or the other way round, you would be treated to a medley of sounds wafting out of radios and two-in-ones carried by those who also carried playing cards in their shirt pockets to kill the time it took them to reach their destination. The sounds took on each other and did their best to drown out the other, but only added to the din as the one opposite wouldn’t cower down, its volume knob turned to the far right to show that it had as much decibels as the other. A slow HIndi film song against a qawwali, a bhajan against a disco number, a Punjabi folk song against a piano recital, all fought for attention. All coming together to making a unique soundtrack for those who didn’t add theirs to it.

I took the train after a gap of almost twenty years, from that time when I was a student and travelled from Pir to Katuli for my Math tuition just before my board exams. Besides the daily traders, some office-goers, a doctor who spent half a day there and half a day here, and students like me who travelled to study or escape classes on either side of the journey, there was a beggar who sang songs to attract attention and some donations. Only here, once he boarded the train, he kept quiet and just thrust his had forward, owning the music that was emanating from any source closest to him. Those who were travelling with a prayer in their minds — students like me, applicants for telephone connections, bride or groom-seekers who often ended up meeting in the bus and reaching their destination even before the bus stopped, sellers of Katuli’s trademark cotton sarees carrying samples for bulk orders — would all drop coins in his hand. Other would look away and either ask the man with the radio to turn it down or turn it up, depending on their choice of music.

Now, all these years later, I was visiting the old town that my parents, my friends, and most of the people I had known there had already left. Either before I me, or soon after. The cotton sarees business had been ruined by cheap Chinese cotton, and by the women taking to salwar-kameez and jeans. But the boom had lasted long enough for it to enable my folks to send me to an engineering college from where I went on to foreign lands for higher studies and better jobs. Those math tuition did its bit to help me along, but while I kept thinking I had left it all and there was no one to go back to, a letter somehow found its way to me and told me of a distant cousin who had survived the saree-crash and was now setting up a museum of the ancient craft and craftsmen. At first I didn’t see why a place like Katauli or Pir would be visited by anyone even if it housed a national museum, but the exchange of mails with the old contact told me that it now lay on the new highway from the country’s capital to the distant tourist-infected seaside town of Gwala, and was perfect for a night stopover. With the ruins of the old outhouse that some sultan of yore used as a camping site on his hunting trips, and the lake that we all learned to swim in, the weary travellers itching to resume their march to the promised sun-kissed beaches might even be persuaded to extend their stay by another day. And the museum would only add to the charm of the place, and of course, revenues.

I still didn’t see why I was being told about these plans, when the next mail informed me that it was my, or rather my parents’ ancestral house that was being considered as the ideal place for the museum. It was closest to the lake, where a guest-house could be set up, and on the way to the ruins of the sultan’s outhouse. Besides, it had enough of those old wooden machinery that was needed in the museum. Now if I wanted to join in as a partner, or sell the place as the last and the lone owner of our ancestral property was my decision to take. All that was needed was for me to come down some day, agree on one option or the other, and settle things on a legal paper.

It had taken me over a year since I got to know of the plans. For over a decade now I hadn’t come back to my country, but was always meaning to. So now I did. The museum being something I always mentioned to my friends abroad with a grin to make it sound like a joke. That I had to also sell my flat in the posh suburbs of the capital was what I offered as the real reason behind my intended trip. But really, it was an urge to see that place where I grew up and walked around bare feet in, played in the midday heat, ran to school and travelled in that train with the metallic rhythm coming from the outside as the wheels ran over the rails, and the medley coming from inside the packed compartments. More than once I had shared the experiences of those train rides with people and used it asa reason for my inability to appreciate music, or play any instrument.

I landed in the capital in mid-July. The heat outside must have been unbearable, but inside the car that my friend with whom I was staying over for a night had sent was cool, and smelled nice. The next day I boarded the train that ran all the way to Gwala, with a brief stop at Pir. My air conditioned coach was only one of the four that this 16-coach train had. The rest looked like moving furnaces with their thick metallic frames, heavy doors and cramped seats that chugged behind a heavy engine that spewed smoke like it was solely responsible for providing the city with its fair share of pollution. I took solace in the fact that the people travelling in those coaches seemed happier enough to have found a train, or even seats, and I, like the tourists headed for Gwala, found our cooled coaches unbearably cold and ordered blankets.

The train stopped at Pir at five in the morning. I was woken up a minute before the stop by the attendant who made it a point to make sure I got down at the right place. I did, and for a few hours just hung around the deserted station, before the crowd started to swell. By eight, the traders, the students, the beggars had all assembled, waiting for the train that would take them to Katuli. Unlike the one that had got me here, this one would have no AC coaches, no attendants, and definitely no need for blankets. But I was actually looking forward to the 35-minute ride that would take me back in time long before I reached my place. I looked around, hoping to find a familiar face. I looked at the older people more intently, wondering if they were the same who took the train twenty years back. But no one recognised me, nor I them.

When the train pulled in, moving like it was in no mood to go any further, the crowd surged ahead, but I waited. I wanted to be the last one in, In my detached state I even looked at the driver hoping to find someone I knew. And when the train started with a slight jerk, I jumped aboard, and walked in to merge with the crowd that suddenly felt like my own. It was like I had never left. I closed my eyes and for a moment or two felt the years in between drop off my body, like oversized clothes. I was the same boy with a bag on his shoulders returning from his math classes. I even felt my stomach growl in anticipation of the parathas that my mother would serve, that I would have in the room behind the workshop where the smell of cotton mixed with that of the pickle and heeng and form the one smell I never could lose though I hadn’t smelled it for years.

Then something made me open my eyes. It wasn’t a push, or a shove, or the train stopping. This early in the morning, it wasn’t the heat either. It was the sound of a beggar, singing. For the first time on this train I heard that song and with eyes now open, I looked around at the faces of the people around me before I looked for the beggar. I looked in their faces for the same surprise and shock as was on mine. But no one seemed to notice. Like earlier, some hands stretched out to drop coins or small notes in an outstretched hands. When the hand swerved past someone to get in front of me, I saw the man attached to it for the first time, now no longer hidden among the crowd. The old man, now in his sixties, was the first I recognised. But only his face, his voice that sang out over the silence I heard for the first time, and for the first time I saw each person glued to his or her own world, their own choice of music with earphones. The selfish lot now no longer shared or forced upon each other their moods and music. Nobody made conversations with strangers, asking them to play that song out loud or lower the other song down, nobody moved around to get close to the one who was playing his or her favourite on that far side of the coach. Now, each stood glancing outside with lost, steely looks, coming back to life just an instant before they arrived at their station.

Three kilometers before Katuli was Firona, a really small town that was home to the cowherds and several dairies. However, the train stopped here for the longest duration as the milkmen would load their huge milk-cans to take them on to Katuli, or Pir. I watched them pile their load in, their tin cans now replaced by plastic ones. I watched them as they pushed them in and jumped in and just as the train moved, I jumped out.

I never responded to my cousin’s mails after that. My house at Katuli might have ended up becoming a museum, but to me, to this day, it is that 5-room house with a courtyard in front where we played cricket to the constant thum-thum-thum of the cotton workers working their magic in one of the rooms and that kitchen with its earthenware pots and thalis kept upside down awaiting our hands and mother’s food.

The tourists might have needed that well-positioned place for rest. The people who stuck around in Katuli and who were cheated out of an honest profession might have needed an alternative. But even I needed something to tell me that unlike me, somethings have stayed the same.

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