I like travelling by train. I enjoy its rhythm; the slow start followed by the forward push, and then the slowing down, and then the locomotive coming to a stop.
I like silence when I travel and have found it difficult to tolerate noise, unless it is an interesting conversation by fellow passengers. Usually, a bored passenger begins a conversation and others join in. If the conversation topic is not my cup of tea, I look out of the dirty windows into the country side and try to decipher what exist in those places, moving away like uni-directional slides. There will be paddy fields, lakes, just lush green vegetation, eucalyptus plantations, small towns barred by the level crossing.
Among all these, I have regarded small railway stations with much curiosity. I never liked big railway stations because of their chaos, ugliness, strange-looking people, palpable tension, and the feeling that one has to be careful in these stations. But I have been curious, for some strange reason, about small railway stations, far away from the depraved metros and towns.
These small railway stations disappeared quickly when the train was running fast. I could see the station name boards, black text on yellow boards, twice at both ends of the station in a flash.
Everything moves quickly: the concrete windows, the station master dressed in a white uniform holding the green flag, tea stalls, people moving either towards the station or away from the train, dogs walking aimlessly on the platform with their tongues lashed out, a few staring at the fast moving bogies, shrubs swaying in the force piercing the air, nude kids from the nearby slums clapping their hands and others trying to run along with the train.
The decadence of the outer area of the station gave way to the low hills with reddish-brown laterite sand, white smoke drifting upwards from a low kitchen, someone closing the front door of the house, just thick greenery of various shades punctuated with invading darkness.
But when the train slows down and when it is dawn, these stations have a different look and feel. It may be my own feeling without much meaning or reason.
It was as if life was slow always and we could not comprehend the apparent reduction in our velocity. The speed was an illusion and the real speed was always a slow march to insignificance. It was only when things were slow the tendency to observe and reflect automatically grew in us. Just sit in a slow moving train, the frame of reference here, and as an object observe what passes by outside the window.
They all assume a different meaning.
The station master standing at the platform with colored flags was a different person compared to the white figure that swept past me in a flash in some other station. I looked at the man closely and tried to judge what his next action would be. I did this many times. I leaned my ear against the dirty iron windows to sense an approaching train. Nothing. I could see crows flying around the station. From somewhere I could hear bells ringing. The sound of a moving bus followed by silence ruptured by laughter from bored youth in the train. There was a different meaning to this stillness.
At night, this study of isolated, minor railways stations was more interesting. There would be very few visible, structural elements in these stations, and I could only see the start and end of the platform. There won’t be any shops in such stations and at times a woman used to stand with the red flag. A good part of the station would be in darkness and there would only be a bulb glowing at the center of the station. In a few autorickshaws lined up outside the station, a group of men were sitting together and talking. There would be roads in the distance, a river nearby before or after the station with a bridge at the middle of the river, a paper-and-pulp factory encircled by brownish, shrunken trees, or just plain land, someone’s cherished asset in these troubled times. The land around railway stations were a unique ecosystem, waiting to tell many different stories.
At times, the train just slowed down and did not stop. Like slow motion, a desolate station looked really grim, may be after a shower. The darkness engulfing the station meant that the power supply had been cut off because of the rain. A lone candle glowed in one of the empty offices filled with dirty files and books and stained walls. In another little room, stood an empty chair. In another room, through a half-open door, I saw a few sacks piled up. Small pools of water remained on the platform and one of them displayed the reflection of a streetlight outside the station. Shrubs formed the outer boundary of the station. The windows in most of the rooms remained closed for some reason. There would be a food warehouse behind with trucks standing still. There was stillness everywhere.
A drop of water fell on my face. Sadness was written all over such stations.
These stations and their people represented something mysterious. And when I observed them from a slow-moving train, they looked hideous, as if they were holding untold tales.