Railway stations

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.

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Update

A bright Sunday after a morning of clouds and chill. Big crowd at a car showroom. Lots of nasty potholes like punctured hearts near traffic signals. Bulging circular tummy on rear view mirror. The structure of internal illness crying for attention or indicating death.

Disliked the story published for a contest. Realized that it was a very bad story after publishing it. Did not like it.

They moved the new books shelf to somewhere else. Went back home with mostly non-fiction books, except a John Updike review collection. Forgot to make a call to a library that imposed service charge on reading. It was the ultimate insult: monetary punishment for reading. The insult was pasted on a dirty wall: a printout from an unkempt desktop.

Nobody can stop me from reading, or slow me by charging me for reading (Milan Kundera did focus on Slowness). Sunday newspapers never attract me now. They are just wasted newsprint. Cockroaches lay eggs and shit on their yellowed corners.

It is work that is the biggest impediment to free reading. Work.

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The Library

In a library, there are corners or areas that people frequent less. May be people are afraid to walk alone to dark or ill-lit corners or they don’t want to explore less comfortable territories. These less explored corners are not empty anyway; there will be books stacked in these areas, books untouched, tight against each other, as if they are children looking for some warmth. There may not be lights or glass windows letting in filtered natural light. You might see an empty chair.  Somebody must have sat on it and read a book.  There may be a table close to a window with books scattered on top of it.  Did the same lonely person use the table and the chair regularly?

If there is a window, you can stand near that window, hold a book, and look outside  – at a road busy with people and vehicles, or at the library backyard full of shrubs, or unkempt sheds made of sheets, or aluminum plates, or empty bottles. Sometimes, the windows may be dirty, dust-laden, and rusted. You might also see a few dogs sniffing the plates or leaves containing food leftovers, or just sleeping. There may be birds clinging to branches ready to fly down if the dogs lose interest.You might also see something stirring inside dry leaves. You see it only once.

You might see the evening sun depending upon which window you stand. You turn your head to see whether the sunlight caresses the books on the shelves. As you turn your head back, your gaze falls on the golden letters of a spine cover. Nobody seems to have taken or lifted that book from the shelf for a long time. May be that is the book you wanted to read. Looking at the spine cover, you know that it is an old book. But the golden letters look fresh and inviting. It is never a ploy.

You hear a sound, someone stepping closer but hidden from your view.  Or a reptile inching closer to bite or to feel the warmth of your body.  Slowly, the moisture of the corner and the books get into your head.  You step back and see whether you are late. You still want to remain there. You know that if you hide somewhere nobody will notice it.  If that is the case, you have the entire floor at your disposal for the entire night. You can then sing and dance like a madman throughout the dark floor of the library. You have hundreds of books, old and new, ancient and reprints, books with missing pages and torn pages, books with that refreshing smell. What will you read? If you decide to read only the first page, how many will you read without sleeping that night?

You decide to leave and go back. You know that the books also would love privacy. When the library is closed and all lights are switched off, the letters may start speaking.  The words may arrange themselves in paragraphs.  Who knows? They cannot remain silent forever confined to dusty and unclean shelves. You look back and feel the hushed tones from the end of the room.  Someone might have risen from those books and may be following you. Someone who likes you and want to see that you leave the floor safe. The books may be saying that you will be back before it is too late.

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The Bridge

It became their own bridge and they seemed to be happy about it. They used to walk, run, and jump on it. Once in a while, they carry the dead in a pattern resembling a well-rehearsed orchestra to give the souls a respectful resting place.

The flow was erratic and was never regular to an outsider like me who stood under a tree and watched the bridge, a thin, brown rope tied to two adjacent trees by my grandmother. One of those trees had a big round stem and the rope looked like a necklace adorning a milky white neck. The other end of the rope was tied to a small plant which swayed in the afternoon and evening winds. As I started watching them more and more, inhaling the vibrant aroma of flowers in bloom and trying to understand the erratic traffic on the bridge, I became more concerned about the thin plant with a pencil like stem decorated with a few pale green leaves. The situation was a bit unequal with the balance held by the bigger tree. I felt that the mass of the bigger tree and the force of the wind that made the smaller plant sway wildly might break the bridge on which dozens were still engaged in their erratic dance.Some were pretty fast and eager to collide with others; others were more mature and calculated; others stopped for a while and exchanged messages.

The life that danced on the bridge glistened like golden globes when the canopy opened and let the sunlight hit them. I cannot say that it was a canopy in the real sense of the word. There were trees all around that small garden, and several big trees and their leaves enveloped the trees holding the bridge. I liked one of those big trees on which big yellow flowers blossomed once in a year. The aroma was unmatched when the yellow flowers blossomed, but like good feelings, it lasted only for a while. Faded and weak, they would fall to the ground in a few hours or days. I remember the tree, which grew upwards, at times, when I inhale or sense the same aroma. I don’t know from where and how it occurs. May be I get it around a corner, a market, a flower market, or near a restaurant. It is difficult to ascertain whether the aroma came first, or the color, or both occurred simultaneously.

While life withered and regenerated around, the bridge remained busy.

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The Window

There were trees outside that window up in the room. A window from where morning sunlight wafted in mingled with layers of smoke. Was it smoke or was it just an effect? I am not sure. It had the same physical state as the light that flickered from the cinema projector when I looked back. A whitish-yellow cone from where white particles stirred in a pattern. Atomic effect. Nowadays, I remember watching that light while I was listening to the four-band radio. The brain cells that recorded it displays that scene more often now.

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New Office

In the new office for the last couple of days. It looks like an ordinary office. Outside, lots of big trees on both sides of the road. As if to defeat something, vehicles rush to and fro. I stand with a cup of coffee outside the office and I feel the place is slightly dark.