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Of Then and Now

About Eleena Sanyal

Eleena is a microbiologist by education and worked in the healthcare industry for a decade before turning to writing. She writes blogs, reviews, short stories, content, travelogues and poetry.

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Prologue :

We reached VT Railway station one and a half hours earlier than the scheduled departure of our train. My Father has always been a stickler for time. It is to an extent where we wait for doors to open, shutters to roll up and airport boarding gates to deny us entry. It is something we have come to accept with a polite smile at almost suspicious faces, with a knowing glance at each other. To add to this, we were travelling from Andheri, which happens to be at the other end of the city. He was sure that the buffer was completely justified. Desperate coolies* assailed our black and yellow taxi and threw themselves at the door. They drummed the boot and held onto our glass windows doing a brisk walk along with the car as if to bring it to a stop. I saw the grubby nails on their big, brown fingers clutching my window and jerked my head away. Then they pressed their cheeks flat onto the glass trying to book their service. Grimy, sweaty impressions clouded the glass. I was just glad I was on the other side of this drama.

Part 1

As the car pulled over at the kerb, the familiar multilingual announcements on the public address system wafted towards us. The information appeared to pile one on top of the other, as they rose from different speakers all over the place. I wondered how one ever understood which one to perk up the ears for. I got off the front seat of the taxi and opened the door to let my parents and little sister, Preeti, out. Preeti excitedly hopped across the filthy upholstery and jumped out of the car. She had slept most of the way in between my parents. It was her favourite activity on all long journeys as soon as her supply of potato wafers would start declining. The source would lie with me in the front which was always my favourite seat. Mother’s chiffon saree pallu* had slid under Preeti. It got pulled and ripped at her shoulder where she had pinned it. It was one of her favourite sarees that father had bought for her from England from the little savings he worked tirelessly to put aside. Mother clenched her teeth but let it go. Father didn’t even notice because he had already started devising his bargain strategy with the coolies.

Mother was to lug a heavy yellow cloth bag on her shoulder and carry our food bag in her other hand. I was to carry one lightweight bag and a suitcase. Father had assigned the two heaviest suitcases to himself. Those days there were no wheels under those. We also had stairs to climb to reach the last platform. There were no escalators either. Preeti was more than happy, not to have to share the load. So she hung her school water bottle around her neck to feel like one of us. The coolies collided with father and barely gave him time to talk. One of them pried open the boot by its rusted handle and yanked out the luggage faster than we thought possible. He quickly squatted and had his peers pile three suitcases onto a coiled cloth bundle atop his head. After that, he scooped up the smaller bags, hung them in the crook of his elbows and scampered off towards the platform. My family chased him so as to keep him within eyeshot. I was asked to settle the taxi fare and join the party.

As we snaked our way through throngs of passengers in the full flush of summer, I caught the inescapable whiff of freshly fried medu vada* and sensuous sambhar*. Tangy scents of mint-coriander chutney* floated towards me from a sandwich stall. The Wheeler bookshop was crowded and the man standing behind the counter looked harrowed attending to his rushed customers. There were unattended handcarts here and there, full of jute sacks bursting at the seams. No one seemed to notice. There were families spread across the floor in clusters, sharing samosas* and Thums up*. Ancient fans with thin stems were hanging from high ceilings. A man was screaming into the phone receiver at a PCO* amid the din. He had cupped his other ear and I wondered if he could hear or be heard at all.

 

Part 2

We jogged behind the coolie who walked with a swing in his step. He balanced all 3 suitcases on his head and placed one hand on the middle one from the side for balance. He looked straight ahead with raised eyebrows and both lips pressed in. His eyes were glazed and looked like they would pop out of their sockets. Thick green veins throbbed on the sides of his strained neck. His Adam’s apple stuck out like a bird’s beak. I couldn’t help marvel at his physical prowess. This scraggly young man was drenched in perspiration. His unbuttoned red shirt flew open to reveal a vest that was dotted with holes of all sizes. ’Licensed Porter’ was engraved on a badge that was strapped to his sleeve. As he prepared to take the staircase, he threw his other hand up in the air just in case the pile was to topple. The ascent hardly hampered his pace.

I suddenly realized I had left my family behind. I jumped out of my skin and yelled ‘Bhaiyya, ruko!’* My Father’s hand stuck out above the milling crowds in a frantic wave that caught my attention and I heaved a sigh of relief.

The coolie finally arrived at our platform where there was a train chugging off. He brought down the enormous load with practiced caution and stretched his arms out to relax. He asked for Rs. 40 and before my father could speak a word, I signalled him not to haggle and hand over the full amount as he had worked so hard. Father made a poker face and did as I said. The coolie patted the wad of Rs. 10 notes to his forehead in reverence and left. We found a railway bench and slumped exhausted. For a few minutes, we just sat still to the hum of people’s random bickering and free, unsolicited remarks and advice on money, morality, and mother-in-law.

As fidgety as he was, Father could not remain still. He sat looking over his shoulder, trying to locate the ticket collector in a black blazer. I spotted one at some distance and nudged father, who almost pounced on him the next moment. The gentleman looked at us with round eyes shrunk behind high power spectacles. He wore a dirty cap that I suspected was smelly too. Its sides revealed soft spirals of oiled curly, overgrown hair. His blazer was worn out and a frayed collar peeped out under his neck. It was hard to tell how many years ago his shirt might have been white in colour. Father asked if the passenger list had been released. He scowled at us and mumbled something angrily and rattled a sheaf of white printed papers on our face. I tried to peep into the sheets to find our names when he planted the bundle in the inside pocket of his blazer and disappeared without a word.

Father vanished from the scene as suddenly as always. The ground under his feet tickled him if he stood on a square inch longer than 30 seconds. I guessed he had gone to buy the newspaper. I bought bottled water with the brand ‘Rail Neer’* wrapped around it. This was only available in railway stations I told myself, feeling smug about the discovery. Preeti was eyeing packets of Peppy* and Uncle Chipps* with the hawker just behind us. The moment she left the seat next to mother to ask me to buy them for her, an old and bent aunty came and occupied it. That day I realized that we were indeed too many people in this country. Our railway stations, bus stops, parks, shops, schools, public toilets, roads, mountains, sea beaches – every foot of the ground was always swollen with crowds. Years later the local train culture of Mumbai would teach me to block my place with a threadbare handkerchief. I would nonchalantly toss it onto a seat from the window, even before entering the coach. In the life of most such commuters, these handkerchiefs played no other role. They even got washed and dried slowly while still inside our pockets.

Mother was yawning away slouched, on the slotted seat with one leg dangling over the other. The fresh coat of light pink nail polish on her big toe was grazed over by me when we huddled together on that bench before anyone else could claim it. Her foot tapped the floor to the rhythm of ‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’*. The lyrics stretched wide open in between her gargantuan yawns. Her efforts to stifle these waves were in vain. The only times when her eyes were shut and she wasn’t asleep was when she sang. Most of the time she sang blissfully unaware. It was as natural to her as breathing. She had hardly slept in the run up to this day being in charge of the minutiae of our travel. She was the one who wound up all household chores. She spent the last speck of her energy packing for all of us, buying presents for relatives and cooking our dinner for the journey. She was at Preeti’s beck and call too.

Father was back and reading the Indian Express as though his life depended on it. I was biding time. First I looked at the railway tracks wondering how long they must be extending. The vast network and intersecting lines were mind-boggling to me. As I looked closer, I was mortified at the sight of a bandicoot that scuttled across the parallel lines before vanishing into a hole. I did not have to look much further to see that when the tracks weren’t hidden under a standing train, they were open toilets in full public view. A swarm of flies hovered happily over one such mound.

 

Part 3

Our railway stations have an unmistakable scent which is a very potent mix. This is a bouquet of aromas from Indian food and its accompaniments like chutneys and achars*, the stench from human and animal waste in all forms and odour from people trapped in unwashed clothes of synthetic fabrics, drenched in rushed perspiration and excessively oiled hair. The smell of milky, sugar-laden tea, chewing tobacco, paan*, biris* and noise of people’s endless haranguing is the final garnishing for railway station milieu. The shade of chewed paan splattered across walls indicate the age of the stain. Engravings with blades, pens, hair slides and long nails immortalizing love affairs with cupids and arrows are our graffiti that no layer of paint will ever be able to hide. They will find a magical way of reappearing overnight. These railway stations also personify the bustle and finality of departure where one station sends us off on new adventures and the other heralds our arrival.

I didn’t realize an hour had passed when we saw the boxes blinking on the platform ceiling. With an ear splitting sound, our train rolled onto the tracks. The ground vibrated beneath us. The little light bulbs strung to form alphabets and numbers started to flicker showing the exact spot where our coach would come to a stop. Father sprung into action having seen the little green signal from far. Before he could summon us, I held Preeti’s hand and hefted one suitcase and started walking. Mother gathered whatever else was left on the seat and rose. I raised Preeti up to the door of the coach by her waist and she quickly kicked her legs ahead and hopped in. She grinned and her big eyes shone in delight at being the first among us to enter the wagon.

AC* coaches of our outbound trains are an enigma for anyone standing outside. They have an almost condescending look. The tinted glass windows block the view completely as if not to release their grip over exclusivity. One is left guessing what goes on inside. I always found train doors very heavy. As I pushed them open, I was always wary of them swinging shut taking one of my limbs along. As soon as I got in behind Preeti, I took in the familiar cold, steely smell of AC mixed with rexine that one can only identify with our trains. As a child, I always thought that the heavy door, the tinted glass, and this AC were part of some subterfuge. They conspired to trick us all.

I dropped my handbag in the way of the door to create a gap through which Preeti darted in. Then I stopped the door with my left palm and all my strength for a 12-year-old and kicked the suitcase inside. The squeaky-clean stainless steel washbasin was in front of me. I sulked to think what the 64 inmates of this coach would do to it in the next 36 hours. I turned right and saw Preeti bounding ahead. The long and narrow aisle was already her playground. Shouting out our berth numbers was useless as she wouldn’t know what to make of them. I knew she would recoil and run back to me the moment a co-passenger stopped to pull her cheeks. This happened in the next 20 seconds. I found 44 A, B, C and D and started settling down. We were very early so we didn’t have to confront passengers fighting for luggage space under seats. I saw my parents approaching, their knees scraping against the boxes they held ahead of them. They moved past the cubicles in mechanical motion ducking where a few young kids sat on the top berths jiggling legs.

The long taxi ride and the commotion at the station had exhausted little Preeti who had suddenly curled into a ball and fallen asleep near the window seat. After father had adjusted all the bags under our seats and secured them with chains and locks, I plonked next to Preeti and ruffled her hair. She stirred and yawned. Her yawning was contagious. I yawned too and put my weight on a pillow between us. My eyelids felt heavy. My eyes were half open and my lower lip slipped slowly. The soft, wet skin inside it stuck to my 2 large incisors. Through the empty haze, I saw mother pulling off my socks.

 

I woke up with a jolt as my son hollered from the back of our Toyota Altis car. Through sticky eyes, I saw a pair of wipers swishing back and forth. Rain pelted away on the windscreen. We were on a familiar road. I tried to say something but my voice remained stuck in my throat. My limbs betrayed me as I tried to shift in my seat. My first impulse was to rub my feet together to see if I was wearing socks. I couldn’t stick my heels together. I realized I was wearing stilettos. I shrank back against the seat.

We had just sat down on the blue seats of the train. I was balancing the Rail Neer bottles on the tray between the seats. I bit my tongue thinking I should have warned Preeti about the red chain and told her to resist the temptation to pull it. But she had fallen asleep so quickly. My woozy head tried to locate that red chain but found my body strapped behind the seat belt. I looked out of the window and found a pot-bellied traffic policeman demanding an apologetic bike rider’s license. Just where was I?

To my right, my husband was driving. I couldn’t see his eyes behind his brand new aviator dark glasses. I couldn’t tell if he had wind of my disoriented state. My eyes must have looked as dead as stones dug into pits as I turned to face my twin sons in the back seat. One of them asked me the time. I was looking through him when he repeated his question, this time louder. I said I didn’t know. His furrowed his brows and asked me to check my watch.

On the train, I had worn the Timex bangle strap wristwatch that father had bought for me from England 3 years ago. No. That was 30 years ago. I was caught in a time warp! It was my first watch. I was 7. My sons were 7 now. Now I had a gold bangle from my wedding on my left wrist and a strip of tan that showed me that I had left my Fitbit* band charging at home. It was 22nd of July. The radio was playing Mukesh’s* songs to commemorate his birth anniversary. My son asked which song was playing. I told him without blinking that it was a song called ‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’. It was my oldest memory of my mother’s rendition of any hindi film song.

I shook myself awake. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.

 

Annexure

coolie – Indian porters at railway stations
pallu – loose end of the saree, an Indian attire for women
medu vada – fermented and blitzed split black lentils, fried in the shape of donuts
sambhar – a spiced south Indian broth cooked with lentils and vegetables
chutney – a spicy Indian condiment made with vegetables using lemon, salt, and sugar
samosa – vegetable fritters fried in flour wrappers folded in triangles
Thums Up – Popular Indian non-alcoholic aerated beverage
PCO – public call office
‘Bhaiyya, ruko!’ – ‘Brother, wait’!
neer – water
Peppy – tomato discs sold as ready-to-eat snack
Uncle Chipps – pioneer potato chips brand in India
‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’ – an old romantic Hindi movie song
achar – pickle in spiced oil
paan – betel leaves folded with areca nuts and slaked lime and chewed as a (habit-forming) stimulant
biri – thin cigarette filled with tobacco flake, commonly wrapped in ‘tendu patta’ leaf – tied with a string
AC – air-conditioned
Fitbit – fitness activity tracker
Mukesh (Chand Mathur) – popular Hindi film playback singer from late 1940s to 1976

We reached VT Railway station one and a half hours earlier than the scheduled departure of our train. My Father has always been a stickler for time. It is to an extent where we wait for doors to open, shutters to roll up and airport boarding gates to deny us entry. It is something we have come to accept with a polite smile at almost suspicious faces, with a knowing glance at each other. To add to this, we were travelling from Andheri, which happens to be at the other end of the city. He was sure that the buffer was completely justified. Desperate coolies* assailed our black and yellow taxi and threw themselves at the door. They drummed the boot and held onto our glass windows doing a brisk walk along with the car as if to bring it to a stop. I saw the grubby nails on their big, brown fingers clutching my window and jerked my head away. Then they pressed their cheeks flat onto the glass trying to book their service. Grimy, sweaty impressions clouded the glass. I was just glad I was on the other side of this drama.

As the car pulled over at the kerb, the familiar multilingual announcements on the public address system wafted towards us. The information appeared to pile one on top of the other, as they rose from different speakers all over the place. I wondered how one ever understood which one to perk up the ears for. I got off the front seat of the taxi and opened the door to let my parents and little sister, Preeti, out. Preeti excitedly hopped across the filthy upholstery and jumped out of the car. She had slept most of the way in between my parents. It was her favourite activity on all long journeys as soon as her supply of potato wafers would start declining. The source would lie with me in the front which was always my favourite seat. Mother’s chiffon saree pallu* had slid under Preeti. It got pulled and ripped at her shoulder where she had pinned it. It was one of her favourite sarees that father had bought for her from England from the little savings he worked tirelessly to put aside. Mother clenched her teeth but let it go. Father didn’t even notice because he had already started devising his bargain strategy with the coolies.

Mother was to lug a heavy yellow cloth bag on her shoulder and carry our food bag in her other hand. I was to carry one lightweight bag and a suitcase. Father had assigned the two heaviest suitcases to himself. Those days there were no wheels under those. We also had stairs to climb to reach the last platform. There were no escalators either. Preeti was more than happy, not to have to share the load. So she hung her school water bottle around her neck to feel like one of us. The coolies collided with father and barely gave him time to talk. One of them pried open the boot by its rusted handle and yanked out the luggage faster than we thought possible. He quickly squatted and had his peers pile three suitcases onto a coiled cloth bundle atop his head. After that, he scooped up the smaller bags, hung them in the crook of his elbows and scampered off towards the platform. My family chased him so as to keep him within eyeshot. I was asked to settle the taxi fare and join the party.

As we snaked our way through throngs of passengers in the full flush of summer, I caught the inescapable whiff of freshly fried medu vada* and sensuous sambhar*. Tangy scents of mint-coriander chutney* floated towards me from a sandwich stall. The Wheeler bookshop was crowded and the man standing behind the counter looked harrowed attending to his rushed customers. There were unattended handcarts here and there, full of jute sacks bursting at the seams. No one seemed to notice. There were families spread across the floor in clusters, sharing samosas* and Thums up*. Ancient fans with thin stems were hanging from high ceilings. A man was screaming into the phone receiver at a PCO* amid the din. He had cupped his other ear and I wondered if he could hear or be heard at all.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

coolie – Indian porters at railway stations
pallu – loose end of the saree, an Indian attire for women
medu vada – fermented and blitzed split black lentils, fried in the shape of donuts
sambhar – a spiced south Indian broth cooked with lentils and vegetables
chutney – a spicy Indian condiment made with vegetables using lemon, salt, and sugar
samosa – vegetable fritters fried in flour wrappers folded in triangles
Thums Up – Popular Indian non-alcoholic aerated beverage
PCO – public call office
‘Bhaiyya, ruko!’ – ‘Brother, wait’!
neer – water
Peppy – tomato discs sold as ready-to-eat snack
Uncle Chipps – pioneer potato chips brand in India
‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’ – an old romantic Hindi movie song
achar – pickle in spiced oil
paan – betel leaves folded with areca nuts and slaked lime and chewed as a (habit-forming) stimulant
biri – thin cigarette filled with tobacco flake, commonly wrapped in ‘tendu patta’ leaf – tied with a string
AC – air-conditioned
Fitbit – fitness activity tracker
Mukesh (Chand Mathur) – popular Hindi film playback singer from late 1940s to 1976

We reached VT Railway station one and a half hours earlier than the scheduled departure of our train. My Father has always been a stickler for time. It is to an extent where we wait for doors to open, shutters to roll up and airport boarding gates to deny us entry. It is something we have come to accept with a polite smile at almost suspicious faces, with a knowing glance at each other. To add to this, we were travelling from Andheri, which happens to be at the other end of the city. He was sure that the buffer was completely justified. Desperate coolies* assailed our black and yellow taxi and threw themselves at the door. They drummed the boot and held onto our glass windows doing a brisk walk along with the car as if to bring it to a stop. I saw the grubby nails on their big, brown fingers clutching my window and jerked my head away. Then they pressed their cheeks flat onto the glass trying to book their service. Grimy, sweaty impressions clouded the glass. I was just glad I was on the other side of this drama.

As the car pulled over at the kerb, the familiar multilingual announcements on the public address system wafted towards us. The information appeared to pile one on top of the other, as they rose from different speakers all over the place. I wondered how one ever understood which one to perk up the ears for. I got off the front seat of the taxi and opened the door to let my parents and little sister, Preeti, out. Preeti excitedly hopped across the filthy upholstery and jumped out of the car. She had slept most of the way in between my parents. It was her favourite activity on all long journeys as soon as her supply of potato wafers would start declining. The source would lie with me in the front which was always my favourite seat. Mother’s chiffon saree pallu* had slid under Preeti. It got pulled and ripped at her shoulder where she had pinned it. It was one of her favourite sarees that father had bought for her from England from the little savings he worked tirelessly to put aside. Mother clenched her teeth but let it go. Father didn’t even notice because he had already started devising his bargain strategy with the coolies.

Mother was to lug a heavy yellow cloth bag on her shoulder and carry our food bag in her other hand. I was to carry one lightweight bag and a suitcase. Father had assigned the two heaviest suitcases to himself. Those days there were no wheels under those. We also had stairs to climb to reach the last platform. There were no escalators either. Preeti was more than happy, not to have to share the load. So she hung her school water bottle around her neck to feel like one of us. The coolies collided with father and barely gave him time to talk. One of them pried open the boot by its rusted handle and yanked out the luggage faster than we thought possible. He quickly squatted and had his peers pile three suitcases onto a coiled cloth bundle atop his head. After that, he scooped up the smaller bags, hung them in the crook of his elbows and scampered off towards the platform. My family chased him so as to keep him within eyeshot. I was asked to settle the taxi fare and join the party.

As we snaked our way through throngs of passengers in the full flush of summer, I caught the inescapable whiff of freshly fried medu vada* and sensuous sambhar*. Tangy scents of mint-coriander chutney* floated towards me from a sandwich stall. The Wheeler bookshop was crowded and the man standing behind the counter looked harrowed attending to his rushed customers. There were unattended handcarts here and there, full of jute sacks bursting at the seams. No one seemed to notice. There were families spread across the floor in clusters, sharing samosas* and Thums up*. Ancient fans with thin stems were hanging from high ceilings. A man was screaming into the phone receiver at a PCO* amid the din. He had cupped his other ear and I wondered if he could hear or be heard at all.

Continued in Part 2

We jogged behind the coolie who walked with a swing in his step. He balanced all 3 suitcases on his head and placed one hand on the middle one from the side for balance. He looked straight ahead with raised eyebrows and both lips pressed in. His eyes were glazed and looked like they would pop out of their sockets. Thick green veins throbbed on the sides of his strained neck. His Adam’s apple stuck out like a bird’s beak. I couldn’t help marvel at his physical prowess. This scraggly young man was drenched in perspiration. His unbuttoned red shirt flew open to reveal a vest that was dotted with holes of all sizes. ’Licensed Porter’ was engraved on a badge that was strapped to his sleeve. As he prepared to take the staircase, he threw his other hand up in the air just in case the pile was to topple. The ascent hardly hampered his pace.

I suddenly realized I had left my family behind. I jumped out of my skin and yelled ‘Bhaiyya, ruko!’* My Father’s hand stuck out above the milling crowds in a frantic wave that caught my attention and I heaved a sigh of relief.

The coolie finally arrived at our platform where there was a train chugging off. He brought down the enormous load with practiced caution and stretched his arms out to relax. He asked for Rs. 40 and before my father could speak a word, I signalled him not to haggle and hand over the full amount as he had worked so hard. Father made a poker face and did as I said. The coolie patted the wad of Rs. 10 notes to his forehead in reverence and left. We found a railway bench and slumped exhausted. For a few minutes, we just sat still to the hum of people’s random bickering and free, unsolicited remarks and advice on money, morality, and mother-in-law.

As fidgety as he was, Father could not remain still. He sat looking over his shoulder, trying to locate the ticket collector in a black blazer. I spotted one at some distance and nudged father, who almost pounced on him the next moment. The gentleman looked at us with round eyes shrunk behind high power spectacles. He wore a dirty cap that I suspected was smelly too. Its sides revealed soft spirals of oiled curly, overgrown hair. His blazer was worn out and a frayed collar peeped out under his neck. It was hard to tell how many years ago his shirt might have been white in colour. Father asked if the passenger list had been released. He scowled at us and mumbled something angrily and rattled a sheaf of white printed papers on our face. I tried to peep into the sheets to find our names when he planted the bundle in the inside pocket of his blazer and disappeared without a word.

Father vanished from the scene as suddenly as always. The ground under his feet tickled him if he stood on a square inch longer than 30 seconds. I guessed he had gone to buy the newspaper. I bought bottled water with the brand ‘Rail Neer’* wrapped around it. This was only available in railway stations I told myself, feeling smug about the discovery. Preeti was eyeing packets of Peppy* and Uncle Chipps* with the hawker just behind us. The moment she left the seat next to mother to ask me to buy them for her, an old and bent aunty came and occupied it. That day I realized that we were indeed too many people in this country. Our railway stations, bus stops, parks, shops, schools, public toilets, roads, mountains, sea beaches – every foot of the ground was always swollen with crowds. Years later the local train culture of Mumbai would teach me to block my place with a threadbare handkerchief. I would nonchalantly toss it onto a seat from the window, even before entering the coach. In the life of most such commuters, these handkerchiefs played no other role. They even got washed and dried slowly while still inside our pockets.

Mother was yawning away slouched, on the slotted seat with one leg dangling over the other. The fresh coat of light pink nail polish on her big toe was grazed over by me when we huddled together on that bench before anyone else could claim it. Her foot tapped the floor to the rhythm of ‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’*. The lyrics stretched wide open in between her gargantuan yawns. Her efforts to stifle these waves were in vain. The only times when her eyes were shut and she wasn’t asleep was when she sang. Most of the time she sang blissfully unaware. It was as natural to her as breathing. She had hardly slept in the run up to this day being in charge of the minutiae of our travel. She was the one who wound up all household chores. She spent the last speck of her energy packing for all of us, buying presents for relatives and cooking our dinner for the journey. She was at Preeti’s beck and call too.

Father was back and reading the Indian Express as though his life depended on it. I was biding time. First I looked at the railway tracks wondering how long they must be extending. The vast network and intersecting lines were mind-boggling to me. As I looked closer, I was mortified at the sight of a bandicoot that scuttled across the parallel lines before vanishing into a hole. I did not have to look much further to see that when the tracks weren’t hidden under a standing train, they were open toilets in full public view. A swarm of flies hovered happily over one such mound.

To Be Continued

coolie – Indian porters at railway stations
pallu – loose end of the saree, an Indian attire for women
medu vada – fermented and blitzed split black lentils, fried in the shape of donuts
sambhar – a spiced south Indian broth cooked with lentils and vegetables
chutney – a spicy Indian condiment made with vegetables using lemon, salt, and sugar
samosa – vegetable fritters fried in flour wrappers folded in triangles
Thums Up – Popular Indian non-alcoholic aerated beverage
PCO – public call office
‘Bhaiyya, ruko!’ – ‘Brother, wait’!
neer – water
Peppy – tomato discs sold as ready-to-eat snack
Uncle Chipps – pioneer potato chips brand in India
‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’ – an old romantic Hindi movie song
achar – pickle in spiced oil
paan – betel leaves folded with areca nuts and slaked lime and chewed as a (habit-forming) stimulant
biri – thin cigarette filled with tobacco flake, commonly wrapped in ‘tendu patta’ leaf – tied with a string
AC – air-conditioned
Fitbit – fitness activity tracker
Mukesh (Chand Mathur) – popular Hindi film playback singer from late 1940s to 1976

We reached VT Railway station one and a half hours earlier than the scheduled departure of our train. My Father has always been a stickler for time. It is to an extent where we wait for doors to open, shutters to roll up and airport boarding gates to deny us entry. It is something we have come to accept with a polite smile at almost suspicious faces, with a knowing glance at each other. To add to this, we were travelling from Andheri, which happens to be at the other end of the city. He was sure that the buffer was completely justified. Desperate coolies* assailed our black and yellow taxi and threw themselves at the door. They drummed the boot and held onto our glass windows doing a brisk walk along with the car as if to bring it to a stop. I saw the grubby nails on their big, brown fingers clutching my window and jerked my head away. Then they pressed their cheeks flat onto the glass trying to book their service. Grimy, sweaty impressions clouded the glass. I was just glad I was on the other side of this drama.

As the car pulled over at the kerb, the familiar multilingual announcements on the public address system wafted towards us. The information appeared to pile one on top of the other, as they rose from different speakers all over the place. I wondered how one ever understood which one to perk up the ears for. I got off the front seat of the taxi and opened the door to let my parents and little sister, Preeti, out. Preeti excitedly hopped across the filthy upholstery and jumped out of the car. She had slept most of the way in between my parents. It was her favourite activity on all long journeys as soon as her supply of potato wafers would start declining. The source would lie with me in the front which was always my favourite seat. Mother’s chiffon saree pallu* had slid under Preeti. It got pulled and ripped at her shoulder where she had pinned it. It was one of her favourite sarees that father had bought for her from England from the little savings he worked tirelessly to put aside. Mother clenched her teeth but let it go. Father didn’t even notice because he had already started devising his bargain strategy with the coolies.

Mother was to lug a heavy yellow cloth bag on her shoulder and carry our food bag in her other hand. I was to carry one lightweight bag and a suitcase. Father had assigned the two heaviest suitcases to himself. Those days there were no wheels under those. We also had stairs to climb to reach the last platform. There were no escalators either. Preeti was more than happy, not to have to share the load. So she hung her school water bottle around her neck to feel like one of us. The coolies collided with father and barely gave him time to talk. One of them pried open the boot by its rusted handle and yanked out the luggage faster than we thought possible. He quickly squatted and had his peers pile three suitcases onto a coiled cloth bundle atop his head. After that, he scooped up the smaller bags, hung them in the crook of his elbows and scampered off towards the platform. My family chased him so as to keep him within eyeshot. I was asked to settle the taxi fare and join the party.

As we snaked our way through throngs of passengers in the full flush of summer, I caught the inescapable whiff of freshly fried medu vada* and sensuous sambhar*. Tangy scents of mint-coriander chutney* floated towards me from a sandwich stall. The Wheeler bookshop was crowded and the man standing behind the counter looked harrowed attending to his rushed customers. There were unattended handcarts here and there, full of jute sacks bursting at the seams. No one seemed to notice. There were families spread across the floor in clusters, sharing samosas* and Thums up*. Ancient fans with thin stems were hanging from high ceilings. A man was screaming into the phone receiver at a PCO* amid the din. He had cupped his other ear and I wondered if he could hear or be heard at all.

Continued in Part 2

We jogged behind the coolie who walked with a swing in his step. He balanced all 3 suitcases on his head and placed one hand on the middle one from the side for balance. He looked straight ahead with raised eyebrows and both lips pressed in. His eyes were glazed and looked like they would pop out of their sockets. Thick green veins throbbed on the sides of his strained neck. His Adam’s apple stuck out like a bird’s beak. I couldn’t help marvel at his physical prowess. This scraggly young man was drenched in perspiration. His unbuttoned red shirt flew open to reveal a vest that was dotted with holes of all sizes. ’Licensed Porter’ was engraved on a badge that was strapped to his sleeve. As he prepared to take the staircase, he threw his other hand up in the air just in case the pile was to topple. The ascent hardly hampered his pace.

I suddenly realized I had left my family behind. I jumped out of my skin and yelled ‘Bhaiyya, ruko!’* My Father’s hand stuck out above the milling crowds in a frantic wave that caught my attention and I heaved a sigh of relief.

The coolie finally arrived at our platform where there was a train chugging off. He brought down the enormous load with practiced caution and stretched his arms out to relax. He asked for Rs. 40 and before my father could speak a word, I signalled him not to haggle and hand over the full amount as he had worked so hard. Father made a poker face and did as I said. The coolie patted the wad of Rs. 10 notes to his forehead in reverence and left. We found a railway bench and slumped exhausted. For a few minutes, we just sat still to the hum of people’s random bickering and free, unsolicited remarks and advice on money, morality, and mother-in-law.

As fidgety as he was, Father could not remain still. He sat looking over his shoulder, trying to locate the ticket collector in a black blazer. I spotted one at some distance and nudged father, who almost pounced on him the next moment. The gentleman looked at us with round eyes shrunk behind high power spectacles. He wore a dirty cap that I suspected was smelly too. Its sides revealed soft spirals of oiled curly, overgrown hair. His blazer was worn out and a frayed collar peeped out under his neck. It was hard to tell how many years ago his shirt might have been white in colour. Father asked if the passenger list had been released. He scowled at us and mumbled something angrily and rattled a sheaf of white printed papers on our face. I tried to peep into the sheets to find our names when he planted the bundle in the inside pocket of his blazer and disappeared without a word.

Father vanished from the scene as suddenly as always. The ground under his feet tickled him if he stood on a square inch longer than 30 seconds. I guessed he had gone to buy the newspaper. I bought bottled water with the brand ‘Rail Neer’* wrapped around it. This was only available in railway stations I told myself, feeling smug about the discovery. Preeti was eyeing packets of Peppy* and Uncle Chipps* with the hawker just behind us. The moment she left the seat next to mother to ask me to buy them for her, an old and bent aunty came and occupied it. That day I realized that we were indeed too many people in this country. Our railway stations, bus stops, parks, shops, schools, public toilets, roads, mountains, sea beaches – every foot of the ground was always swollen with crowds. Years later the local train culture of Mumbai would teach me to block my place with a threadbare handkerchief. I would nonchalantly toss it onto a seat from the window, even before entering the coach. In the life of most such commuters, these handkerchiefs played no other role. They even got washed and dried slowly while still inside our pockets.

Mother was yawning away slouched, on the slotted seat with one leg dangling over the other. The fresh coat of light pink nail polish on her big toe was grazed over by me when we huddled together on that bench before anyone else could claim it. Her foot tapped the floor to the rhythm of ‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’*. The lyrics stretched wide open in between her gargantuan yawns. Her efforts to stifle these waves were in vain. The only times when her eyes were shut and she wasn’t asleep was when she sang. Most of the time she sang blissfully unaware. It was as natural to her as breathing. She had hardly slept in the run up to this day being in charge of the minutiae of our travel. She was the one who wound up all household chores. She spent the last speck of her energy packing for all of us, buying presents for relatives and cooking our dinner for the journey. She was at Preeti’s beck and call too.

Father was back and reading the Indian Express as though his life depended on it. I was biding time. First I looked at the railway tracks wondering how long they must be extending. The vast network and intersecting lines were mind-boggling to me. As I looked closer, I was mortified at the sight of a bandicoot that scuttled across the parallel lines before vanishing into a hole. I did not have to look much further to see that when the tracks weren’t hidden under a standing train, they were open toilets in full public view. A swarm of flies hovered happily over one such mound.

 Continued in Part 3

Our railway stations have an unmistakable scent which is a very potent mix. This is a bouquet of aromas from Indian food and its accompaniments like chutneys and achars*, the stench from human and animal waste in all forms and odour from people trapped in unwashed clothes of synthetic fabrics, drenched in rushed perspiration and excessively oiled hair. The smell of milky, sugar-laden tea, chewing tobacco, paan*, biris* and noise of people’s endless haranguing is the final garnishing for railway station milieu. The shade of chewed paan splattered across walls indicate the age of the stain. Engravings with blades, pens, hair slides and long nails immortalizing love affairs with cupids and arrows are our graffiti that no layer of paint will ever be able to hide. They will find a magical way of reappearing overnight. These railway stations also personify the bustle and finality of departure where one station sends us off on new adventures and the other heralds our arrival.

I didn’t realize an hour had passed when we saw the boxes blinking on the platform ceiling. With an ear splitting sound, our train rolled onto the tracks. The ground vibrated beneath us. The little light bulbs strung to form alphabets and numbers started to flicker showing the exact spot where our coach would come to a stop. Father sprung into action having seen the little green signal from far. Before he could summon us, I held Preeti’s hand and hefted one suitcase and started walking. Mother gathered whatever else was left on the seat and rose. I raised Preeti up to the door of the coach by her waist and she quickly kicked her legs ahead and hopped in. She grinned and her big eyes shone in delight at being the first among us to enter the wagon.

AC* coaches of our outbound trains are an enigma for anyone standing outside. They have an almost condescending look. The tinted glass windows block the view completely as if not to release their grip over exclusivity. One is left guessing what goes on inside. I always found train doors very heavy. As I pushed them open, I was always wary of them swinging shut taking one of my limbs along. As soon as I got in behind Preeti, I took in the familiar cold, steely smell of AC mixed with rexine that one can only identify with our trains. As a child, I always thought that the heavy door, the tinted glass, and this AC were part of some subterfuge. They conspired to trick us all.

I dropped my handbag in the way of the door to create a gap through which Preeti darted in. Then I stopped the door with my left palm and all my strength for a 12-year-old and kicked the suitcase inside. The squeaky-clean stainless steel washbasin was in front of me. I sulked to think what the 64 inmates of this coach would do to it in the next 36 hours. I turned right and saw Preeti bounding ahead. The long and narrow aisle was already her playground. Shouting out our berth numbers was useless as she wouldn’t know what to make of them. I knew she would recoil and run back to me the moment a co-passenger stopped to pull her cheeks. This happened in the next 20 seconds. I found 44 A, B, C and D and started settling down. We were very early so we didn’t have to confront passengers fighting for luggage space under seats. I saw my parents approaching, their knees scraping against the boxes they held ahead of them. They moved past the cubicles in mechanical motion ducking where a few young kids sat on the top berths jiggling legs.

The long taxi ride and the commotion at the station had exhausted little Preeti who had suddenly curled into a ball and fallen asleep near the window seat. After father had adjusted all the bags under our seats and secured them with chains and locks, I plonked next to Preeti and ruffled her hair. She stirred and yawned. Her yawning was contagious. I yawned too and put my weight on a pillow between us. My eyelids felt heavy. My eyes were half open and my lower lip slipped slowly. The soft, wet skin inside it stuck to my 2 large incisors. Through the empty haze, I saw mother pulling off my socks.

I woke up with a jolt as my son hollered from the back of our Toyota Altis car. Through sticky eyes, I saw a pair of wipers swishing back and forth. Rain pelted away on the windscreen. We were on a familiar road. I tried to say something but my voice remained stuck in my throat. My limbs betrayed me as I tried to shift in my seat. My first impulse was to rub my feet together to see if I was wearing socks. I couldn’t stick my heels together. I realized I was wearing stilettos. I shrank back against the seat.

We had just sat down on the blue seats of the train. I was balancing the Rail Neer bottles on the tray between the seats. I bit my tongue thinking I should have warned Preeti about the red chain and told her to resist the temptation to pull it. But she had fallen asleep so quickly. My woozy head tried to locate that red chain but found my body strapped behind the seat belt. I looked out of the window and found a pot-bellied traffic policeman demanding an apologetic bike rider’s license. Just where was I?

To my right, my husband was driving. I couldn’t see his eyes behind his brand new aviator dark glasses. I couldn’t tell if he had wind of my disoriented state. My eyes must have looked as dead as stones dug into pits as I turned to face my twin sons in the back seat. One of them asked me the time. I was looking through him when he repeated his question, this time louder. I said I didn’t know. His furrowed his brows and asked me to check my watch.

On the train, I had worn the Timex bangle strap wristwatch that father had bought for me from England 3 years ago. No. That was 30 years ago. I was caught in a time warp! It was my first watch. I was 7. My sons were 7 now. Now I had a gold bangle from my wedding on my left wrist and a strip of tan that showed me that I had left my Fitbit* band charging at home. It was 22nd of July. The radio was playing Mukesh’s* songs to commemorate his birth anniversary. My son asked which song was playing. I told him without blinking that it was a song called ‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’. It was my oldest memory of my mother’s rendition of any hindi film song.

I shook myself awake. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.

The End

coolie – Indian porters at railway stations
pallu – loose end of the saree, an Indian attire for women
medu vada – fermented and blitzed split black lentils, fried in the shape of donuts
sambhar – a spiced south Indian broth cooked with lentils and vegetables
chutney – a spicy Indian condiment made with vegetables using lemon, salt, and sugar
samosa – vegetable fritters fried in flour wrappers folded in triangles
Thums Up – Popular Indian non-alcoholic aerated beverage
PCO – public call office
‘Bhaiyya, ruko!’ – ‘Brother, wait’!
neer – water
Peppy – tomato discs sold as ready-to-eat snack
Uncle Chipps – pioneer potato chips brand in India
‘Saranga teri yaad mein, nayan huye bechain’ – an old romantic Hindi movie song
achar – pickle in spiced oil
paan – betel leaves folded with areca nuts and slaked lime and chewed as a (habit-forming) stimulant
biri – thin cigarette filled with tobacco flake, commonly wrapped in ‘tendu patta’ leaf – tied with a string
AC – air-conditioned
Fitbit – fitness activity tracker
Mukesh (Chand Mathur) – popular Hindi film playback singer from late 1940s to 1976

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