Train Chasers – Momina Masood

Illustration by Vaishnavi Suresh

I remember the city of Florentine alleyways, awashed in dull sepia. The city in which I grew up terrified of getting lost, and yet the city I walked end to end when I was 10. I remember the city I left when I could no longer be amazed by familiar things. I remember the home I gave up out of sheer embarrassment.

Baba grew up a little in every city of Punjab, while Ma never left the corner she was born in. But he traveled in circles, ending up eventually where he began, growing smaller as he followed back his own footsteps. From prison in a foreign country to a broken house and absent parents. I think of his life, spanning countries and warfare, stretching across railway lines, through the sun-speckled wheat fields he grew up seeing. And I think of Ma who has a butterfly scar from when she slipped and hit her head on the water pump when she was thirteen. She would never see the beach or climb mountains or publish her afsanay. She stayed rooted – stubborn, afraid, or content? I would never know.

I think of these two worlds — of comfortable stasis and desperate mobility — and I find them both lodged together in the twitch of my legs and the inexplicable ache in my stomach. But I have chosen.

I run.

And I leave behind the unmistakable smell of shit for endless trails of plastic bags. Sepia for neon signs. Cardboard houses for ones made out of steel and isolation. We never really do get out. Not completely, at least. Not like we hoped we would. But it’s different. Bigger. Isn’t that why we ran in the first place?

Zohra sits playing with a blade of grass, her arm crossed over her knees, waiting for something extraordinary to happen. We say nothing for the longest time, picking at the green floors of the world, smashing tiny living things between our thumbs – impatient, unamused. In the dark, only the tracks glisten with little moons trapped in their silver and ashen gray, and I think of those long walks that led nowhere, the ticket stubs torn in the seams of my jacket, and yet the persistent longing of different, bigger things. It was Zohra who first emptied my pockets of breadcrumbs – she didn’t believe in leaving trails. “Why would we ever come back,” she’d say. And I never argued. I would carve my name on barren trees, and move on.

I do remember though.

In all these years of constant leaving and abandoning, I remember the signposts and the motels, I remember the legs tangled in soiled sheets, I remember the what ifs and the what could have been-s as clearly as I remember Ma’s dog-eared diaries, and Baba’s fragmented remembrances. He could never remember clearly (or truthfully) – his was a past that kept on changing, expanding, exploding – it was an alive, beautiful thing which he could live through again any day he chose. I admired him, and I can admit this now. I admired his little rebellions against the world that ultimately failed him. Our fathers – god bless them – our brave, stupid fathers.

Zohra tugs at my arm, and I come back to a world suddenly convulsing. I can hear her heart thump in her hand as she clasps mine and beckons me once more. “Here”, she whispers. I slash at my roots all over again, dusting off the grass and insects, the smell of gravel and steel, of errant roses, of loins defiled in tenderness. I stand with her, and take a step back in reverence of the train coursing through the entrails of the night, screaming of promises and the weight of the dispossessed it carries. We watch in agony as our vision erupts and gives into vivid, orange blindness. But we can still make out faces and eyes as the train speeds past us – we have learnt to trace the outline of things in the speed of light. Whatever has been till now falls off our bodies and is blown away by the dust and the wind – we stand baptized off our past, off the sins of our fathers, and the terror of our mothers. The houses left behind topple in the face of this roaring immensity. Nothing endures, after all.

And Zohra runs, a flurry of skirts and auburn hair, clawing in the dark for new beginnings, for amnesia, for a life in chosen exile. I run, too, chasing the bellowing leviathan, tasting blood and god, catching up with that something elusive which is supposed to make everything alright. No one sees us. We run, translucent in the train smoke, burning with fever, cutting the flesh of our bare feet on stones and glass. Zohra manages to get one bleeding foot on it, her arms dangling, her skirts airborne and ripping apart in the wind. She screams my name (the one she knows), and stretches her body to me, offering the only version of happiness she has known. I am almost there now, my fingers touching hers, the distance growing and shrinking between us. “I can’t hold on anymore”, you say, but my dear Zohra, I have already chosen.

I run after the train, the woman I love, and I close my eyes picturing home.

Momina Masood is a literature graduate whose work has previously appeared and/or is forthcoming in 3:AM Magazine, The Missing Slate, Numéro Cinq, The Bombay Review and The Bombay Literary Magazine. She is 23, lives in Pakistan, and writes for the absolute necessity of it.