I opened my eyes gently as if some body has interrupted my soft sleep.
The terror and shock which the old time-piece used to give has died out. It is no more a disturbing call, for it has become part of life, a routine. With sleep-filled eyes I some how managed to sit up on the bed, and looked out at the dark morning. I could hear different alarms from different clocks resounding through the chilling cold of the wee hours.
That’s how my days begin and that of every daily commuter on train.
Commuters do have comparable identities irrespective of their status and work. Their days begin when everybody is asleep and end when others are busy ejaculating their frustrations. They rest in unrest, and most often sleep means drowsiness of the cough syrup. They could often feel the pace of the day just like the lush greenery that dash through the windows of the running train. A living martyr, he has to give up some of the worldly pleasures, the children, the family, and a healthy eruption.
I was not able to recollect when I have been led to sleep the other day. A commuter can never dream of a sound sleep except on a holiday eve. Never has been sleep a physiological process to calm down the senses, it always meant laying the tired body on a wooden coat to give it an uncomfortable rest. Thus it always accompanies him as lethargy or heaviness on the eyes, and conquers unwittingly during travel, in company, or at workplace.
I felt it difficult to get up and gently walked to the bathroom extending my hands for support to the wooden properties in the room, as if I have become an octogenarian. I feared whether I would fall down in the bath room. The gentle down pour from the shower brought my senses back.
Then only I was able to feel why I was beneath the shower and the purpose of my bathing. The congested room acknowledged my nudity with a pungent smell of the closet as if familiarity has bred a greater amount of contempt.
I came out with the wet body and searched the cupboard for a nice piece of cloth to wear.
‘Didn’t you wash this shirt’ I shouted to wife
‘I did, but the stain did not go’
‘My god, why didn’t you iron it’.
I did not get any reply. She turned to the other side and drew the blanket over her head.
A commuter has no choice of what he wore, for it depended on the greater generosity of his spouse. He simply has to proselyte to a male chauvinist ideological stance that washing linen is a women’s occupation, or revert his opinion to a traditional Indian husband endorsing the weary job to a wife’s responsibility. Thus it is inevitable for every commuter husband at least in gestures, to be generous, dutiful, sincere, lovable and loyal to his spouse to wear odourless clothes every day or he will be forced to content with a shabby attire with plenty of perfumes as embellishment. But a mere expression of generosity, dutifulness, sincerity or loyalty is not sufficient to repay the laundry. Most often the adjectives are measured in orgasms to be produced in a short span of time the commuter gets between his tired entry into the bed room and the wearied exit the next morning. It was a kind of revenge or brutality, just like the Romans did with the Spartans. No commuter has ever emerged a Spartacus for he was often defeated and demoralised either for not doing a hard work, a premature excitement or an unconscious sleep in coitus. The life and times of a commuter has thus become more a psychologist’s purview of research than a writer’s object of narration.
The acrobatics that start quite early in the day has been giving more tension for me, that sometimes I felt that I have hypertension, sometimes that I have a bit of amnesia, sometimes that I have become schizophrenic and sometimes I have become a victim of acute gastroenteritis. Thus a mental illness or a physiological unrest is always taken for granted. It always resulted in a tense relay race every morning for a short distance between my home and the railway station, sometimes as a revisit to the toilet and sometimes for the purse which was missed at the cupboard.
“What stupidity is this? You can go to the toilet in the train.
Why do you come back after going half the way? You will definitely miss it today.”
Wife scolds not out of her anxiety that her husband would miss the train, but for her lost sleep. Later I had to accustom to a new habit, thankfully obliging to the greatest convenience the railways have given to its fellow commuters. It also opened a new chapter in socialisation.
Basheer was one such acquaintance who came to my circle. He washed the toilets for commuters’ comfort. After every wash he required a rail user to sign a log book that he has cleaned the toilet to enable a hassle-free, smooth and odourless defecation. I was embarrassed on the concern the Railways showed for the comfort of its travellers.
Many days later, when I had to eat a plate of cutlets from the railway pantry, did I know about the philosophy and politics of these mobile lavatories. I had to make my way with a bewildered face and restless mind through the jammed coach to the waterless, dark cubicle in its end, which smelled of too many defecations and diabetic urine. At once, I found the ungracious cutlets dashing out from my turbulent stomach to the fast moving tracks down below, as if they were committing suicide. They neither did leave a suicide note, nor thanked the consumer for a tasty devour. That day I had too many losses to count. The greatest loss was the handkerchief that my wife bought me to show her immense love. I had to sacrifice that great symbol of love, in the toilet that showed no sign of water. It also solved a riddle that Basheer asked me one day, which I thought was a very technical question. “Why does a railway coach carry two toilets at both its ends?”
‘It really needed more’, I sighed with a great relief.
The every day hurry from home to the station has been depriving me many of the enjoyments the railway has been offering to its fellow passengers. Say for instance the long queues at the ticket counter full of pretty faces and inviting glances; intermittent brushing of the spongy bottoms, of different shapes and volumes; collisions with pretty women at rush hours and even stunning scenes of fore play in the vacant compartments. Although I had the greatest advantage of a season ticket, it always abetted hurry. An unusual confidence that I could escape the long queues for a ticket compelled me to do things at the last minute. That’s the curse of every daily commuter.
Basheer once told me about a woman who had her daily bath at the toilets. Unlike me, she used to return by the night train and started her journey back to her work place early in the morning. I knew my plight even though I return by the evening train. I felt sorrow and immense sympathy for her. She is the real martyr, Joan of Arc.
Sarasa was one of the other acquaintances my new practical lessons in sociology brought to my circles. She was Basheer’s co worker, and had a charming face, a white slender body and a body language quite unexpected of a lower class worker. Sarasa has a family at Salem in Tamilnadu. She was forced to leave her three girls and sick husband to earn more. She started as a coolie under a railway contractor who passed on her vital statistics to a railway official, powerful enough to give her a menial appointment with the Railways. The ordeal continued for a couple of years, till he died in an accident. She was saved, but left with an anaemic body, as if her suitor has been eating her flesh and blood. Sarasa always enquired about my family and children with utmost curiosity and love. Her eyes flowed out when she spoke of children and her husband.
Sarasa was not the only victim of estranged love. Every rail user carried a bundle of pretty remembrances of love and affection along with his bag and baggage, no matter whether it is a daily commuter or an occasional traveller. Some times the bundle would be too heavy and gets untied at the platform itself, it would scatter around as an uncontrollable lament.
The railway platform is a wonderful show case of human behaviour.
I have always watched love drawing deep breaths at the platforms during the day. The slow running tears, the tender hug, the soft parting kiss and the gentle pat on the back; all packed more emotions along with the crowd into each of the compartments.
But night changed every human gesture quite dramatically. The tears froze to sparkle at every lustful look, the tender hug turned even tenderer to a tickling caress, the kiss prolonged to suck more saliva, and the pats glided down the curves to pump more blood and passion. Thus every rail travel struck an uncompromising balance between happiness and sorrow, love and lust, anticipation and accidents, outbreaks and whispers and even fortune and misfortune.
My daily expeditions started from the Thiruvananthapuram Central and ended at Kottayam, which took three and a half hours. But sometimes it took four hours, due to crossing over of trains. So I felt it convenient to sleep at least for the first one hour without much disturbance. I went to the last compartments that offered a cosy sleep. The wind blowing at the speed of the running train cooled the entire compartment and gave comfort of an air-conditioned saloon. The coach looked like general ward of a hospital, all of its inmates slept in exclusive postures with blankets covered over their body. Men put the blanket over their face, and slept keeping their body straight and legs folded while women slept with their body bent like prawns. They never showed their feet, and put their head on the window side except for Lekshmi Ammal who used to sleep with her legs on the window sill and her fluffy head tickling the thighs of those who passed her ‘bed’. Her hair used to flow out in the blowing wind, constantly interrupting others’ sleep. Whenever she fell into deep sleep, she took the blanket away and showed her white large breasts as a litmus test for the morality of men who sleep around. Most of us know the two dark spots which decorated her left breast. But we never spoke about it.
All of us are government servants, who have no means to pay for a rented house at the work place. A few woke up to answer the occasional calls of the tea vendor, some got up when the train stopped all of a sudden with its screeching brakes and some others when other monsters screamed past us. The rainy days give more trouble, with wet clothes sticking and the cool air freezing the entire body. The shivering chill would bend the body like a bow or we felt like that of the fish kept in the refrigerator in cheap plastic covers. Most of us never slept on these exasperating rainy days, but Lekshmi Ammal slept as if nothing happened, in her fashionable posture with heaving torso transparent beneath the damp clothes. On one such rainy day, she showed a third black mole deep on her right breast along with a scar on the left protuberance which appeared like a drop of tea spread on a white dhoti. When the train halted at the Varkala station, for a cross over we packed Lekshmi Ammal to the women’s couch, pleading not to disturb us any more.
Most of us had our own preferences of seats; like we stuck to certain benches in the school classes. I liked the willow seat, and enjoyed speed of the running train. In my school days too I used to look down from the window of the school van to see the road vanishing as speeding lines, many days I had to stand outside the class for peeking out of the running vehicle. In those days a journey by train never came even in distant imageries. The earliest description of a train journey I heard was from my mother, which she told with a great excitement to the curious ears that surrounded her during the evenings. Then train remained in fairy tales as well as in the text book pictures till I was eight years old, when the greatest fortune came as a trip by the metre gauge rail to Madurai to attend my cousin’s wedding. My mother stitched an under skirt all the night in the yellow light of our coupe, for she was afraid to sleep in the running train which pierced the darkness through the narrow rails.
I sat at the usual place, the third window from the front door, bag on my lap. Sasi wished me from the fifth window while Mangalan stood near the door , waving both his hands in the air, as if singing a nursery song. He was calling out Ravi to sit near him, he always preferred to sit in the middle. They moved to my side, Ravi at the other end. He adhered to the aisle seat and quarrelled with all for pushing his shoulders with their bottoms. We talked for some time and stretched ourselves to sleep.
I woke up hearing a deafening sound, I was frightened it was a derailment. Ravi who slept above me on the luggage berth, came down rolling, he sprained his left foot. I lifted the shutter to see what has happened. It was the jamming sound of the empty goods wagons. The train was halted at Paravur station, to make way for some other express train.
Ravi had a short temper. He shouted at the guard for his sprained foot. They had a heated exchange which hampered everybody’s sleep. When some body blasted out at Ravi for the lost sleep, he shut up. The guard retreated, to blow a very long whistle to evacuate his remaining rage, while others snored louder than the whistle. The monster gently moved to take up momentum as if nothing unusual happened. I lay down with my eyes open, till Kollam, where it used to stop for ten minutes. I got out, for a cup of hot coffee and vada.
The daily commuters of the last compartment of the last couch of the Venad Express had many things in common. We shared similar problems at the work place and in the family and most of us had the same age and health conditions. Our company often reminded me of the intolerant back benchers at the high school, always distracting the class with jokes and mischief. We worked in various government departments or establishments and most of us suffered the tensions of the white collar job. We often let out our ire and frustrations sometimes through dirty jokes on the establishment; sometimes a blast out, sometimes a crafted story to bring shame upon the enemy. It can also be like the one Narayana Swamy had with Ravi on a Friday night.
‘Swamy, what was your problem today?
‘What do you want to know, bastard?
‘What did you call me?... Bastard?
‘You are a bastard, so is your officer, that prostitute.’
‘Why do you bother, if she is a prostitute?
‘I bother, because you do with her……………’
‘Right, I do with her because she wants meat not cucumber…………………………………’
Such quarrels also reminded us of our blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels. Some half an hour later we stopped the train, and took Swamy to a nearby hospital. He recuperated after two days, came back to continue his fight with his lady superior and soon received a punishment transfer to Ernakulam for harassment. We missed Swamy’s company forever.
The coffee break at the Kollam station was a sort of camouflage, to escape the ticket examiner.
Season tickets are allowed only for a distance of 150 kilometres, but it required fifteen kilometres more to reach my destination. So I was forced to cheat the railways, taking two season tickets one upto Kollam and the other one for the onward travel; a greatest sin according to the railway scriptures. It always gave me a worry, and for many in our company for all of us were sinners for quite a long time.
It took exactly two hours from Kollam to Kottayam. The train got a new energy when it left Kollam. Most often there would be a driver change, and the engine ran with a new spirit as if it was drunk. The compartments also had new faces; they rushed in with the morning vigour, talked, screamed, laughed, cracked jokes, changed seats often and ran across. Our slumber often succumbed to their clamour. The new comers were mainly office goers, students, merchants and lay men. It was always interesting to listen what they said except for the university clerks, who formed the majority of the office goers from Kollam to Kottayam. They often spoiled a vibrant environment, with their office jargons and inexplicable references.
This was one specimen of what transpired between two senior clerks, both of them shouting at both ends of the coach.
‘Sreedharan sir, you got copy of that orders’
‘The GO has not come’
‘Its already there, you see the despatch’
‘Which one you mean, sir?’
‘Ya, it is there, but has to put up a file, but you see AR is not there, and it must come from ADA1’
‘Why do you want AR, for that, DR will do, JR is also there.’
‘I cannot do that, Registrar’s section will object’
‘Then what is your job…………..’
They began a battle, with jargons that seemed blasphemy for others, I moved to the door to escape the verbal diarrhoea.
‘Iddali-vade’….‘Iddali-vade’, …I turned back hearing the familiar sound of the pantry man.
‘Muthaiyya, soukhyamaa’ I asked (How are you Muthaiyya?)
‘Soukhyam thane sir, sapittacha? first class idli irukku ’ (I am fine sir, did you eat, I have first class idli)
I bought a packet of Idli and vada, and unwrapped it leaning on the back of the seat near the door. The chutney smelled of green chilly and masala, but disappointed me with a taste of cattle food. The idlies looked soft, but stuck to the teeth like half-cooked food. It seemed difficult to gargle it out. I put fingers into my mouth to remove them from teeth but heaved as if I had nausea.
‘Sappadu eppadi irukku sir,’, Muthayya returned with coffee.
‘You want to kill me.’ Muthayaa was embarrassed, he looked at my eyes, shook his shoulders and pushed through the crowd.
The monster was in its full momentum. It ran with a rhythm which forced every body to dance with it. Those who still slept found it difficult to stabilise their head, it freely rolled to both sides taking its own decisions. The blowing wind from the door soothed my senses; it refreshed me like a cup of coffee. The train slowed down, it was reaching Kayamkulam. I peeped out to see the unusual crowd at the platform. As the platform drew near, the faces showed their gestures. I was not able to make out what gleamed on them. Rage, grief, sorrow and rebellion burned out in high flames as slogans. They shouted as loud as they could. At the platform lay a body covered with white cloth, and an old woman weeping beside.
‘Thankappan Pillai was knocked down, get out, we are going to block the trains.’ Somebody shouted from the platform.
The old man was knocked down by a goods train; he was an employee in the university at Kottayam. Thankappan Pillai had no children; he used to come with a bundle of snacks and gave it to the beggar children whom others drove away. He often shared his company with them, loved them, brought them new clothes, sang songs for them and even taught them.
I knew him through Swamy, he was Swamy’s greatest friend. I tried to contact Swamy over the cellular, but the instrument kept an unusual silence as if it did not like to convey the sad news.
I got out, and went near the body, to have a last look. I could not see his face. The station master was waiting for the railway police to come, to complete the formalities. His comrades were still shouting, and there was a commotion.
‘The bastard requires the dead man to pay the fine’, some body shouted pointing the station master.
‘It’s not his fault, don’t you see he is an old man, he might have fallen unconscious when the train came’
‘That you can tell the police and the doctor, not to me’, the station master retorts. He made the scenario worse quoting rules.
I returned to the train, and tried to get together some broken images. The monster resumed its journey after half an hour as if nothing happened; the blowing air settled me to sleep very soon.
My colleague woke me up at Kottayam. I got up whispering, and looked out to see the slow running platform. I felt a bit dizzy.
‘Hey, come on, we are late by one hour, let’s take an autorikshaw’, Gopan shouted pushing others out of the door.
‘No need of it, any way we are late’, I said
Gopan talked all the way while I kept silent in the bus.
I have already made up my mind to do away with this long journey. The old man haunted me; he reminded me that I am also a commuter.
‘Gopa, shall I look for a house at Kottayam’
‘That’s what I have been telling you for quite a long time’
It was my last journey as a daily commuter.
Wednesday 6 June 2007
I opened my eyes gently as if some body has interrupted my soft sleep.
at 12:36 PM