It’s a train I’ve been on quite a few times; in fact I’ve been in this same bogey more than once too. The first time I travelled on this route, I was here too – four years younger and existential dilemmas not just an alien phrase but an absurd notion too.
Trains, in their serpentine motions, are equipped to hold on to a lot of memories, and the Raxaul-Howrah Mithila Express has access to a lot of mine, but they are intermittent, without the important details, which shape them for what they are, but today I have the whole night and more than 300 kilometres to myself to link them. It’ll be an exercise in futile ephemeral nostalgia, but then nostalgia, in itself, is transient – much like those Rajnigandhas, whose effervescent fragrance would wear off heartbreakingly hurriedly for my 12-year old’s liking.
It has been an exceptionally humid day; even by Jharkhand’s unreasonable standards, and the smell of sour sweat clings tenaciously on to the diminutive old man who stands next to me at the entrance to the B1 coach. The ever-bustling Jasidih station rolls by, exhibiting a placid indifference only railway stations are capable of, as I desperately try to soak all of it in – the ramshackle remnants of a life gone by - in the faces of people who’ve come to see me. I know it’ll be a sleepless night in spite of the strong Kingfisher I’ve just had.
Four years ago, the train must have rattled over the Subarrnekha river too, as it is now. The monsoons are yet to arrive, and the Subarrnekha’s dry shriveled bosom glitters, melancholic in the moonlight, perhaps rather emblematically of the times. I slip into the washroom, almost comfortable in its lavender-piss concoction smelling environs and light a cigarette, more out of habit than anything else. I struggle to finish the cigarette, and suddenly my senses become more aware of the train’s rhythmic chugging, and I am taken back to a smoke-filled aromatic room, replete with raucous laughter and heavy with weed-induced lethargy; all very far away from the ghostly Subarnekha underneath, and the dense jungles, which have their own grammar of sound.
Hostel rooms are notorious centres of hollow talks and idealistic rants – almost at par with the Parliament perhaps, but then hardly ever scrutinised as critically. In the security and company of fellow inebriated souls, we have all been, on multiple occasion, guilty of sermonising and preaching morality and idealism on unsuspecting stoned and drunk, and resultantly, totally defenseless beings. I can almost hear K animatedly explain the relationship between slippers and promiscuity in women, and N listening in rapt attention as his weed-laced head tries processing the newly-gathered information. Dissent and disapproval of the theory are to follow soon; the way A holds his half-full glass of watery whiskey tells me it’ll be any moment now.
I settle into my side upper berth following a rather awkward climb; I am designed to be clumsy while negotiating climbs of any sort. I like to believe it’s a part of the whole creative thing; K would routinely say ‘bollocks’ to that contention – a word I’d imbibe in my vocabulary really soon and use it on him more than he would on me – he wouldn’t get a chance, for I always made a conscious effort to keep all my climbing endeavours to the bare minimum. The train’s really quiet now; the people who got up at Madhupur seem to have settled down finally; the sleeper coaches would be livelier, but the silence is conducive for recollection, and I am a man on a memory-mission after all.
We are very near to the Bengal-Jharkhand border now, and it’s a pity that there is no jhal-muri and lebu-cha at this hour of the night to punctuate this leg of the journey. Tea after whisky back in the hostel is a custom – in fact the only time during the day I’d have tea during the last four years; sweet milky tea at Chakai Mod to wash down the bread-omelet, the unanimously agreed-upon post Royal Stag snack. Now, post-alcohol food is a novelty I can’t afford at Bangalore in spite of sometimes editing more than five articles on MS Dhoni in one night. I am not complaining, in case my managing editor somehow happens to read this; just that I think an honest comparison of things is better for my memory-mission.
Bengal has finally come, and the train comes to a screeching stop at the biggest station en route – Asansol. Asansol, for the world between the two old cities of Patna and Calcutta, is somewhat of a one-stop destination for business and pleasure. It was for me too, during the last four years. The coal-town was a gate away of sorts for us; and had the dexterity to cater to a fairly wide range of sensibilities. The newly-opened mall with its Kentucky Fried Chicken was inviting to all the city boys who’d get bored of the Chilli Chicken-Partantha; the multiplex to almost everyone in general, for there would be hardly anyone in Indian engineering colleges who could claim to be totally oblivious to cinema. However, at the centre of its attraction is forbidden pleasure in the form of the great carnal-carnival of Lacchipur. A small red-light area, which houses 50 odd Bengali and Nepali women, Lacchipur was immensely popular with the boys whose raging hormones, a small town like Deoghar had neither the space nor the sensibilities to satiate.
I decide to get down from my berth and step out for some fresh air; the Wheeler store is right across the platform but closed for the night. The Wheeler store has been in some strange way a recorder of change too, just like the train, and would be a part of my drive along with the cinema to undertake the three-hour journey on the footboard of a local train from college to this railway-town. I am glad I got down from the train as I just manage to dispense change for a cup of lebu-cha a solitary hawker is selling at the platform.
The train finally moves, but I decide to linger at the door for some more time. I realise I have been there for quite some time when I see the great steel factory of Durgapur gleaming like a queen of the night, emanating a long trail of grayish-black smoke, sublime in structure, yet in some way humanely beautiful. It’s almost morning, and the sun must be already up back in my home town, lighting up my small silent room in a sad watery crimson. My mother would wake up soon and would perhaps instinctively pass a surreptitious glance in its direction and grow inexplicably sad at the absence of the only possession she could ever call hers yet, never truly own.
N must have just gone to bed now, fixed on the day’s last chillum, and he too would perhaps pass a momentary albeit much less sentimental look at my empty bed across the room. I hope he puts on some Mumford and Sons as he tries sleeping, warding off worries about the paper he may not pass but desperately needs to. I hope he doesn’t make too noise looking for his earphones, for A’ll get irritated otherwise, and there would be no one in my absence to broker a truce as V and R peacefully sleep, dreaming of IIT Delhi and New Jersey respectively.
The first rays of the sun are beginnning to creak in through the frosted window panes of the AC compartment, and the grand old city with the majestic red-walled station, I know, is very close now. The memory-mission has very apparently gone nowhere, and I’m all of a sudden overcome with a strong sense of guilt for embroiling too many people in my quest for meaning. The pursuit of happiness, I’ve come to realise, is a rather sad and lonely process, and the cushion of procrastination, I’ve been seeking solace in for the last four years, will be a thing of the past in another half an hour. The links between the memories seem as intangible and indecipherable as ever, but then memories perhaps, by nature, slide over one another on their own will, and don’t give their owner the luxury of sieving and neatly demarcating them, but I’d perhaps be gladder if the people who come with the memories just stayed as they are in the memory, and not as the links compel them to be, for the links, in my case, seem to have obliterated me to them and them to me much more than I’d prefer.
I look at the towering grandeur of the Howrah Bridge in a touristy way, as I finally step out of the train and the ever-busy station and pretend to be deaf to the Pathan taxi-driver, who seems to be getting genuinely agitated at my complete no-response. It’s another humid July morning; the loochis and the bhaji smell great as usual; the taxi drivers and the pimps insistent and pushy as always. I, however, decide, to take it slow, for college has ended and who knows, when I can just look at nothing and smoke a cigarette again. Oh, the flight back to Bangalore – that could wait.