Wintry mornings in my sleepy railway town meant sunlight dust beams flooding in through the chipped glass of French windows fitted in rusty white frames. The lit up dust danced in the occasional whiff through the cracks in the window, circling around, chasing each other. The powdered old dresser reflected my toes sticking out from under the blanket – unevenly cut nails and cracks in the balls of my toes. So un-girly.
It is funny that I only remember this of the mornings, when the house was quiet, except baba1, already up and working in the garden. Sometimes he would pass by my window, and stop to peer in. I think. I always shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep once I heard the squishy squashy sound of his garden slippers approaching. I never knew if he really checked on me. I hope he did.
Wintry nights were cold. The cold was like an invisible blanket, wrapping the trees, the wind, the bluish black night and train tracks, our house … us. Everything was muffled – The taps ran less, carpets muted footsteps and outdoor games ceased. The only sounds were of Riku memorizing text in the evenings and our fights on the roll of the dice in board games. Ludo2 ruled.
And of course the whistle and the chugs of night trains piercing the cold and darkness, throwing fistfuls of light onto side tracks.
Most afternoons were spent balancing on train tracks, arms like an aeroplane, looking at the steel blue sky and down at the gravel and pebbles. Adventure trips meant the odd trek to the Burha3 Shiv temple.
The first thing I remember about the big city is my school. And the fest.
The main gate of big city school was a moss green colour with the insignia of two yellow lions holding up a shield saying something in Greek (later I was rebuked and informed it was Latin). The gate reminded me of the small jail with the enormous gate in my town.
The fat security guard made me alight from my new Ladybird bike and waved me away to the back entrance for cycle parking. He withered me with a look long enough for me slink back to my bike and ride halfway around the school to the wicket gate at the back.
I fell in love with the parking lot. After my precarious ride through crowded alleys and back alleys and street markets through the city, it was a welcome change. It was empty, grassy and housed a few sleeping stray dogs; none of which even lifted their heads to acknowledge my grand entrance. City canines.
I parked and double and triple checked the lock and looked around. The parking lot was actually an abandoned basketball court, complete with a stepped podium all around. I climbed a few steps on the side away from the strays and put my bag down. I remember I had sipped from my sipper and emptied it with one long suck. New school, new bag, new bike and new fears. Absolute silence descended after my straw had gurgled out the last bubble, until … I heard a train whistle, and baba’s voice call out from somewhere behind me “Riku get down from the tree”. I whirled around, upsetting the bottle which rolled on to the cracked cement steps. Just then the assembly bell’s RRrrrrring had me scampering for my bag and bottle.
I sprinted into the school. My big city life had started. Not with a bang. With a ring, like the ones which rang between rounds in a boxing match.
Standing in the assembly, I had felt hundreds of eyes boring in on my back. But no one seemed to be looking.
Lesson One: At the big city, nobody looks at you or touches you. And if you think they did, then you’re a small towner, like me; where neighbours will accost strangers on the street and ask for introduction, only to end up exchanging pumpkins or a fresh fish or two. Ok maybe not that friendly but atleast phone nos. If they had one.
“Rashmi can you please come to the podium” had rung out through the now quiet assembly.
I put on my invisible cloak (which Harry of Potter fame had loaned me), and stepped up, chin down, mumbling my introduction. I still cannot remember what I said or did up on that red tiled podium, standing beside the Vice Principal. But I must have mentioned my town and my tenth board result, because from that moment onwards I was labelled ‘train town topper’; ‘triple T’ for a short while; and then ‘Titties’. Titties stuck as you can imagine. Even the junior boys and girls smirked when I crossed them in hallways or monitored them when their class teacher was on leave.
The argument in my favour for bearing the name was I did not know the meaning: slang for my chest. And when I did, it was too late. And my chest became a dirty thing; deserving to be demeaned.
After being unassembled at the assembly, with the mass of smirking, bored and amused school mates sizing me up, I found my class and had barely settled down in the front bench (since all back benches had been taken), whence came the next surprise: the school fest, the first day of which was on that very day.
My booth pulled the largest crowd. Clown face cut-outs with a hole-mouth for the odd ping pong to go in; can only pull the first graders. The clown behind the booth pulled the adults. Human curiosity about curiosities is an innate need as primal as Sex itself I think. And most often times more enjoyable. Especially for the fairer sex.
The not-so fairer ones were faceless. They had hands, lots of them. And long fingers; alive and groping and searching. Bold and audacious, seeking out treasures which were on me but I never quite knew they were.
Maybe it was all by accident. Maybe it was all my imagination. Maybe I was new and needed introduction.
Big cities don’t need verbal introductions I guess. Introductions are through flurry of furry boy hands and giddying girly giggles. The latter hurt more.
There was other stuff too. Good stuff. Like the library. It stretched for hundreds of miles for what words are worth.
A library is not a mere storehouse for books. It is an alternate universe with time warps in each shelf, fantastical worlds leaping at us from each page, sucking us in and whirling us away.
Teachers and librarians encouraged me to use reference textbooks and test papers, for which I guess the school library was meant for; but my eyes sought biographies and travelogues and mysteries and romance; they gave me wings to fly to magical lands.
Funny that I had been so itchy to fly to the big city with bright lights and brighter minds. I guess our mind is the only magical land there is; till we have it.
It would be hours before I could drag myself away from the row of tables and shelves and the smell of books, and hushed whispers. And Radhika.
Radhika, twin-pony tailed, fair, chirpy, bespectacled girl from my class. Only child of two doctors, she wanted to be a romantic thriller writer. Need I say more on how we stumbled into each other and stuck together like a fly on a drop of honey?
But nothing lasts forever in the big city. A cliché, right? But it’s kind of true.
‘An affair at the library’ – was what the chits passed around in classes said. And the etchings on girls’ toilet walls announced. I must say I was impressed with the etchings, pretty much captured Radhika and me. And they were funny. Until they were not.
I never could catch on to the smirks of teachers and hushed up whispers as we walked through the hallowed halls of our famous convent school. But Radhika could. She was a big city girl. She smelt it.
Sheila ma’am called us both to the principal’s office – “You both should mingle with other kids, take up a sport, make friends, go to parties and be more active in school activities,” she said, looking at us from atop her glasses pulled down to the end of her long nose.
“But ma’am, we are part of nature club, and National social service …” I started. I felt Radhika’s moist palms clutching my knees. I shut up.
Sheila ma’am looked me over, her eyes lingering on my hair, my face, my hands.
“Good, I take it we are on the same page. Before I forget – Radhika your father will be the chief guest in the high school soccer match. Make sure to be there. Thanks girls.”
I stopped going to the library. Couldn’t have chirpy Radhika shut up every time I approach. I did not want to take away her words. She wants to make a living out of it when she grows up. Or maybe she already had.
The rains were interesting in the big city. Treeless streets running amok crooked buildings and open drains meant that rain could barely be seen. It could be heard and sometimes seen and felt as it poured like puss from open wounds in grey skies and disappeared into the city gutters. Unsuspecting, un-umbrella’ed mortals caught in this cycle of grey bleeding and gutter redemption would get drenched. In a dirty sort of way. The rain-blood carried the city’s dirt and sweat, and gave it right back. Nobody wanted to be dirty twice.
The boring monsoon of my sleepy town came to haunt me – Chasing rivulets down dirt tracks, and watching caterpillars fall over the edge of freshly minted leaves curved to the perfect angle for holding water droplets. Droplets, which captured the entire tree, the entire me.
This monsoon I could not accompany daddy to the railway colonies, to repair the makeshift hovels and muddy-cementy-brick houses of railway labours, which had their roofs blown away in the storm or had a leaking door or a cracked window through which the naughty rain swept into their privacy.
And ofcourse I missed the mouth-watering, tongue-burning steamy lunches served in plastic plates, had while perching on stone ledges of Diwan-sahib’s4 courtyard. And the long trudge back home, with wet bottoms, wetter hair and moist happy eyes.
Rains in my town dissolved the landscape – the edges of highways, dirt tracks, houses and trees and the red hills on the horizon, all melted into each other, as if somebody had spilled a glass of water on a watercolour painting.
The labourers, or ‘helpers’ as daddy called them, would always have something for me. They knew my favourite – Wire frame rag doll stitched from white nylon socks complete with cotton stuffing, red and green thread eyes and thready smiling lips.
Riku and I would twist the wire frame legs of the dolls to make them sit, kick, run and even kneel and pray “Our father in heaven … Jai Jai Siya Ram Chandra ki Jai5 … Om Nomoshivaye6 … Allah ho Akbar …”
I guess our rag dolls were the secular type. Like mummy and daddy. Like the railway tracks that circled our town. Like the iron carriages ridden by many, driven by any.
But I truly became secular when I came to the big city. Saw proud Hindu police protecting peaceful Muslim marches which left tens of people dead, hundreds injured, and generations scarred.
Mohsin, the traffic policeman at the chowk near our school had been near the march that day. He had rushed to the spot, but all he remembered was hundreds of slippers and shoes and chappals7 strewn across the curfew’ed road. And an occasional hand or two. If you cared to look for it. Some did.
The school sent a few of the National social service volunteers to the candle light march. How my name ended up in the list, I don’t know. Little wonder.
I wore white salwar to the march. I cried holding my candle; as did many. I don’t know why I cried, maybe tears, like yawns, are contagious. And I thought I felt for the departed until we reached the makeshift podium with flowers and garlands, some photos, many cards and even more anti police slogans. At the corner sat some people. Their silence silenced our silence. Their quiet sobs and occasional sniffs froze me. They were the direct family of the departed. We, the others, were only in a bubble.
Sitting down on the road beside them, I could feel their raw wound. Like the family of the occasional train accident victim back home, when baba as the station master would visit the family and offer relief packages and something more valuable, a shoulder to cry on.
Their hurt, hurt from all sides. It stifled them and they could not breathe, eat or sleep. They needed redemption, though there wasn’t any.
My tears had surprised even me that day. I think I cried more for how people lived rather than how they died. Isn’t that more tragic?
Big city boys and girls have passions. I did not have any and was ashamed of it. Definition of passion: A passion is when you have an inner group of like-minded people who meet up regularly, smoke, maybe drink, make out a bit maybe and gossip. But ofcourse I found this out when it was too late, after the groups were already formed, chits passed around in classes with dates and venues and themes for meetups.
We did not have meetups and calendar invites for friends in our sleepy railway town. I had to practice Hindustani classical music every evening barring on the eve of exams. If my voice carried outside then friends would drop by. Quite often a few neighbouring aunties too. Ma8 would quickly change into one of her better saris and join back in the fray. And the evening would turn into an impromptu jalsa9.
‘Shefali, why don’t I fry some crackers? I have put the kettle on the gas for some tea. What’s a sangeet sandhya10 without tea and snacks?’ And baba would be off to our little kitchen.
Baba never sang. He read poetry, and when the muse got him, wrote a couple of his own. Sunday afternoons when the whole house took a siesta, I would tiptoe out of our room and scuttle across the crumbling big hall of our railway quarters and peep through Ma baba’s half opened door. And there he would be – hunched up at his beat up desk. I will never forget baba’s poetry face; his eyes blazed unblinking, fingers flying. I don’t think he breathed much when he wrote. He would sometimes joke with his poetry friends – ‘Don’t stop midway while writing poetry, the thoughts and feelings slip through even your breaths.’
I did not call out to baba at these times ofcourse and tip toed back to my room; or sometimes took a detour to the garden, to the railway tracks where I …. But I already told you that I think. Ofcourse I did.
Holidays in the big city were a relief and a horror – The relief of running away and the horror of running back. Why go to the big city then you ask? Remember my ninety five percent in standard ten? How that could be wasted in the backyard of criss-cross railway tracks and wire frame rag dolls and old forgotten temples in the woods?
So this summer vacation, my first trip to home, Riku and I went to “Burha Shiv” temple. The banyan trees had hung down many more roots from their top branches from when I last saw them. They looked like knotted sideburns. Some of the branches had broken through the roof of the temple and snaked down on the nearly non-existent Shiv Linga11 from atop.
The temple itself was a small cementy cylinder; one and half man high with room enough for one to stand in. You could enter it only by crouching through the small opening. Little wonder anybody visited it, except errant children, promiscuous couples or gamblers for their odd card game on lazy summer evenings.
Riku was outside, pelting the monkeys with stones, some of which came right back and probably with even more force.
I sat inside, cross legged, beside the half linga, playing with a branch from the roof. It was cool and dark inside, though a near Loo12 was blowing outside. There had been a peace break between Riku and the monkeys, or both parties had taken a break to reinforce their ammo; and suddenly everything went still. The tears came suddenly. Freely.
Shiva, even a half of him, had been my confidante for many years. The good thing about Gods, unlike people, is they listen without judging. Even if our prayers are unanswered; but neither are there any rebukes, nor any advice.
Walking back in the blazing sun, I half-listened to Riku boast of his lethal aim which shoo’ed away the vanar sena13; I had a half of me left inside the temple. Just like the half linga. So I half listened. I half lived, and I half loved.
It was only half of me which boarded the train next day, waved a teary smiley goodbye to mom, dad and Riku and sucked in the last smell of the mango leaves, the familiar waft of stale oil rising from the railway pakora14 stall, and the hundreds of unnamed smells all of which blended into one brand – Home.
Uncle and aunt always came to receive me at the station. The drive back home was pleasant, the now not-so alien city, its buildings from the colonial era, the mini dust storms, cacophony of honking horns, road side stalls and bright billboards.
There were also the dark alleys under the shade of bright billboards which I had to take on Wednesday evenings from physics tuition, and the metro trains, which I had to take to go to school since uncle and aunt had moved houses, all of which had their share of hungry hands tearing at known places seeking the now not-so-unknown needs.
Big city winters came wrapped in pashmina shawls and Monte Carlo sweaters and worsted suits.
Uncle and aunt had dinner parties and clubs to go to. When I ran out of excuses of homework or class tests, I had to tag along. The prized pet from Pluto.
Now, the one thing about big cities is that you have to be somebody. A stereotype. To fit in – I was a dull studious nerd with a pretty face and zero zest for life; life as it unfolded in big cities.
I wholeheartedly agreed with this tag. I mean, come on, what could I say to anybody to hold their interest for more than a minute? Plus I smacked of rusty railway tracks and banyan branches in old shiv temples and twistable rag dolls. People could not be seen mingling with me, unless in a crowded train or a bursting temple or a midnight home.
But lack of participation in any conversation meant I devoured every, sucking in each word, to be replayed back in my head when I was alone in my room or daydreaming in the library or in the social service class. Most things did not make sense – like the communist party leader bragging of state run schools, while his own children went to school with us in the convent, or the staunch Muslim uncles who drank themselves silly and ofcourse my uncle, who swore by secularism and after a drink or two muttered under his breath that all Muslims be shipped back to you-know-where.
But the winter which descended in the dead of the night, after the last physics chapter was read, and last benzene ring problem solved, after good nights were done with, after the moans and sighs in the next room gave way to a steady snore, and post the daily fight with known fingers and mouth averted, was smoky and delicate.
Standing in the small square balcony of uncle’s tenth floor apartment, overlooking the dark local train tracks, I could see the misty grey orange sky stretch to the newly built high-rise buildings stretched across the horizon.
The dirty reddish-greyish clouds hung under the electric cables of the faraway power grid, like dirty laundry set out to dry.
Birds cawed through the night in the big city. They seem to have forgotten the cycle of sleep and eat and turned nocturnal – stray dogs snarled and barked clawing through overturned, overflowing garbage bins at night, and hiding in half constructed buildings or abandoned mills and factories during day.
Tenth floor is high, even by city standards. A feet outside dangling, the sandal will fall off. Two feet outside feels liberating. The ground cannot be seen, it is dark, and cold and damp. The damp rising up from the open sewers and gutters and walking the streets like the dead.
Physics and Chemistry marks will disappoint Ma. Baba wouldn’t mind; I won the interschool poetry competition. Funny that I had not known about the contest, let alone register. Was it Radhika who’d registered me in? I would like to believe so.
The library will have a me-hole. Will Radhika stand in it? Will she smell railway tracks and feel the hands and fingers when she stands in my me-hole?
I should tell Riku to stop pelting the monkeys. Never mind, as long as he too doesn’t grow long fingers of his own.
I will miss the city local trains, the half version of the trains I grew up with, but trains nonetheless. Pity the local trains would never know what it is like to cut through fields and forests, speeding by sleepy towns. The poor cousins of the city has to snake through dirty dingy tracks, flanked by nameless bastis15 on both sides; the city’s debt to villages.
I will not miss my rag dolls. I have wires inside me now, and hands and fingers can twist me to make me sit, walk, run …. And stitch a red smile on my lips. Until the sandals fall off the balcony.
Into the damp darkness.
1 – Father
2 – A popular board game
3 – Old
4 – Sir
5 – A popular Hindu religious chant for the Hindu God Ram
6 – A popular Hindu chant for the Hindu God Shiva
7 – Slippers
8 – Mother
9 – Harmonious meeting of people
10 – An evening concert of songs; not related to North Indian weddings in this context
11– The deity of the Hindu God Shiva
12-An exceptionally dry hot wind which blows in Northern India during summer
13-Army of monkeys
14-A popular fried snack made of potatoes
Bodhisatwa “Bodhi” Ray is based out of Singapore and dabbles in short stories and poems. His short story “Kway Teow has been published in Muse India and his poem “She” published in the Culture Cult. Bodhi is a Project Manager by day, and garage writer by night.