Translated by--Stuti Goswami
The bell rings even when the electricity doesn’t flow. Phatik winded the manual bell with his hand, as though it were a key, and then pressed the button fitted to it…trrring…
Bireswar came running in. Phatik asked him to open the window and Bireswar hastened. However with his hand on the bolt, he asked,”Would it do without opening, as a cold wind blows in”?—
Rather than face so many questions, Phatik put down the bell on his table and pushing back his chair he got up, walked towards the window and opened it himself. A chilly gust of wind entered the room, and brought with it, a damp feeling,which Bireswar would have never liked though. He would say-“-winters are a real bother, it brings cough, cold, asthma and so on”.
But Phatik loved the cool breeze that wafted into his room. At least, it cooled the stifling warm air inside. It rejuvenated his mind a little, and he sat down on the table beside the window. He could feel his back bathed in the breezy moonlight; the darkness of the room faded a little, the smell of cheap incense wafted into his nostrils—Ramcharan’s stall must be open, and so must old Piyaari’s little shop selling tea and hot pakoras. Of course, this is not surprising. Actually, their entire business depends on the passengers arriving by the evening train. This train has never followed any definite timings of its arrival or departure. But then, nor has this created any problem for its people, who have adjusted themselves accordingly. They come and go at their own will; the station officers have no say over this. After all, people of this small place are accustomed to running their lives as they please. When he had first joined service, Fatik had firmly believed that changes could be ushered in the system, through new ways of working, by including everyone—high and low—into this crusade that would lend the belief that the authorities were concerned with the people’s welfare, that they valued people’s time and money and would not want to delay them in reaching their destinations. But no—soon enough he gave up such ideas. And after five years in service, Fatik realized that he too is just a cog in one of the innumerable wheels of this train. Even without him, the train can still run its course over two feeble strips of iron— shrieking hoosh hoosh and sending giant puffs of smoke into the wind and the blue sky. It is not hard to see the train sail away thus, smearing the faces of many an Assistant Station Master like him. Realizing thus, he too joined in the system: no longer was he worried whether the train ran at its scheduled time, or was late by two hours, five hours, or didn’t come at all; the sight of harried passengers spending the night on the station verandah—with luggage and without a drop of water to feed a thirsty baby—no longer create any sensation in him. Even if some absurd feeling creeps inside him, he flings that far away, like a funny story.
Today, he’s just a machine like the one before him which sends out a token, with the help of which he can clear the line for a certain train. Phatik too is a machine made of iron, that runs when the current of electricity flows .
Such thoughts should actually make him happy, but he isn’t. Each time, such thoughts would only make him miserable; therefore he avoids such ruminations as much as he can. And yet they come…through some unknown opening in his mind, such thoughts stream in, deceiving him altogether…
“Here it is sir, and this is the matchbox. The current’s gone off early today. God knows when it’ll return.”—Bireswar left the half-burnt candlestick on the big table. Had Phatik desired, he could easily have dispersed the enshrouding darkness in the room by lighting the candle. But he continued to sit on the small table beside the window. He could feel his dangling feet sway to their own rhythm… He looked behind and in the distance noticed the dim lamps on a few rickshaws. At this time of the evening, prior to the load shedding, the crowd is indeed very thin. There are just a few station hands who would carry the passengers’ luggage once they alight from the train. It is in those few minutes when the train halts that the station comes alive: the station hands hurry across, a few rickshaws assemble: gradually the people melt away into the night, as do Bhakat chaiwallah, Pobin the banana-seller, tea-hawkers Tinku, Putul etc. The whole station plunges into a lonesome silence.
Phatik remains seated , his white coat hanging from a hook on the wall, he reclines on the armchair, spreading his legs comfortably and closes his eyes. On many days he has fallen asleep thus—awakened by the trring of the token machine upon which he had summoned Bireswar, given him the necessary instructions¸ sent the message forth that the line was clear, spoken over phone to the men in the cabin on the east-west side… and given his orders—and in a few minutes, with an enormous sound, the goods train would grimly pass through the station. The station house shudders violently in the impact. Sometimes, a familiar driver would let fly a smile his way, as the train proceeds at a speed of twenty kilometer per hour, the dazzling lights of the engine mocking the darkness, illuminating the solitary railway-track and the horde of dancing insects. For a long time, he stares at the passing train that pierces the curtain of darkness with the weapon of light, till the red light at its rear disappears; and yet for long he can feel the thunder of the train reverberating in his heart. For some time, the noise lingers in his ears; the irradiance of the headlight hanging upon the station walls, the railway track, the signal posts and the advertisement hoardings.
“I better light the candle” Bireswar returns to the room, “Such a bother…to sit in the dark, and then fend off the insects once the candle is lit”.
He struck the matchstick, and in a moment, his face was illumined, the flame steadied against the assuring cover of his hands. Bireswar touched the flame against the half-burnt end of the candle, and thrust it into the empty inkpot. This is how they keep a candle into the inkpot. Since the candles are large, sometimes they may run for two or three days. It all depends on the load-shedding schedule of the electricity provider.
“Candles do change, but not the inkpot, ha, ha!”
Phatik didn’t feel like commenting on Bireswar’s fleeting comment.
“It might be late tonight”— Bireswar said and went out.
Though there was no scientific explanation behind his predictions, Phatik knew that in such a place as this, electric bulbs glowing in the evenings are quite an unnatural phenomenon. Ever since he came to this place, he has got accustomed to its ways. Nor has he any regret for such circumstances, so many evenings have passed by in this manner—evenings lit by the candle’s flame. It’s only at night that the station becomes awfully serene. Apart from the two lame dogs, who have made the station their permanent residence, he and the technical staff are trapped in a vast abysmal darkness. After great intervals, one or two goods train or a solitary engine,break the monotony of the night. Often, Phatik doesn’t think of returning to his small quarter nearby, the roti-bhaji Bireswar brings for him suffices the night. Gradually he has got into the habit of making the armchair his resting place for the night.
His entry sent the stagnant air inside the room into a tumult, the candle flame quivered.
“Yeah, may be”—
Phatik’s dry response didn’t please Bireswar much. His “anything else sir” that he would otherwise add to his previous query didn’t escape his lips tonight. He opened a drawer and brought out the cup and saucer Phatik generally used. Out of habit, he wiped away the remains of insects perished in the candle’s flame that had littered the table. He looked at Phatik through the corner of his eye, and asked—
“Will it be late sir? There’s no news of it till now”—this time Phatik was sure he was asking about the passenger train. No passenger ever makes the mistake of thinking that the train will run on time. They come to the station at a time they deem proper, which they decide from their long experience. It is possible that sometimes, they might be mistaken in their calculations i.e. the train may be late by another half an hour. But it has never happened, that the train arrives on time, and many passengers are deprived of it.
“How is it outside?”
In a lone word, Bireswar answered Phatik.
“There might be some news from the down—”
“There is still some time for that”— Bireswar answered with the certainty of a veteran. And indeed, being here for several years now, Bireswar is much more experienced. From performing all sorts of technical works to odd jobs like making tea, Bireswar has uncomplainingly been used for different purposes. Till now, he has worked with several Assistant Station Masters who have come and gone away in a year or two. In fact, sometimes the Assistant Station Master has performed all the duties—selling tickets, taking out the tokens, showing the green lamp, and the flag to safely let the train pass by, booking the passengers’ luggage, bringing the kaviraj to treat sick passengers, showing passengers the way when there is no current in the station—in short Phatik has had to play the role of a virtual all rounder. He is not complaining; and then, who will listen if he does?...But the main problem here is not of too much work, but of loneliness, of silence amidst the dust and smoke and chaos of the railway station, of the want of companionship to share his feelings, to laugh without care! Is it possible to bear such a life?
Phatik got up from his seat beside the window, and went to the door. It was a moonlit night. On the other side of the railway track, there was Bhakat, with his tea stall, his figure shadowy in the quivering flame of kerosene lamp; the little boy beside him. On the wall behind them, there was the poster of a detergent soap. Though the bright dresses in the picture were no longer visible, yet Phatik remembered the words on that picture; out of habit, he uttered that in his mind—“unparalleled in removing dirty stains from your clothes”.
For several months now, Phatik has been reading these words, the poster with the picture of a spotless white shirt has turned grimy—covered with smoke, dust, mud, the spit of paan- and tobacco-chewers, etc. To its right there is the name of the stall Bhakat’s Tea stall humbly written with lime; beneath which the day workers crowd every afternoon.
The lame dog crossed the railway line; at once the little boy who sold fried peanuts threw a pebble towards it—t-o-n-g— the iron rang out as the pebble hit it—once again the silence returned. Somebody traced his steps over the railway line—
Phatik walked towards the almirah. He could gauge the machine-like mindlessness in his walk. Somewhere in his mind, the instruction has been programmed—that prior to the arrival of the passenger train, he ought to open the almirah, take out--first the pack of tickets from the box kept inside and then the small money box--after which he is to proceed towards the iron-wired ticket window and sit down on the table beside it with his implements—the pack of tickets, the money box, the fat register. Through the small circular opening of the window, a hand enters—a face virtually hidden by the iron wires, utters the name of a place—“Ha, two tickets please”. And Phatik offers the two tickets. Sometimes, there is jostling, pushing, flaring of tempers, shouting et al—amidst which the stench from a sweating body hits Phatik hard, and gives rise to an unseen stare. The monotonous creaking of the old fan with its large arms creates in him a disgust, a loathing. He wants to say—listen, this train won’t leave you behind; it might be further behind schedule; the previous station is yet to give us the information that the line is clear. It will take its own time, there’s no need for such a hue and cry. This train is never on time. And besides how many of you are actually boarding the train?or rather how many people actually aboard or alight the train at this station?—and Phatik realizes that the crowd has dispersed, the chaos is gradually subsiding, the noise of boxes and bags being dragged too has ceased, the cries of the hawkers recede into the distance, the passengers rush towards the train, in their eagerness to get on board the train; and Phatik sees the train set into motion with a long whistle; gradually like a snake sliding away, the train disappears from sight. He is left behind with his green lamp in hand; the lamp that has oft been a source of pride for him, for which he has oft told himself—that see, the silent signal from your hand lends motion to the journey of multitudes---their hopes, aspirations, wishes, desires all derive energy from the green light emanating from your hand, sowing seeds of the possibility of a new life. But such satisfaction is momentary; once the huge train disappears from sight, such thoughts too vanish. The emptiness of the suddenly deserted station fills him once again with bitterness; he tells himself—“fie! This is the tableau of life, of living!”
But of course, there is no reason for him to feel dejected, for a man’s status or his situation is no longer important, technology and machines have slowly wiped out man’s address, where are you or where am I are no longer a matter of concern in this age of television, mobile phones and wireless technology.
“Is there any coolie or somebody like that?”—
Before he bumps into her suitcase and large bag, the girl asks him. And he replies that there is no such facility in this station; the passengers generally take care of their own luggage.—
He wanted to say, actually there is hardly anyone with heavy luggage who gets onto or gets off from the train at this station. But he checked himself, thinking it would be improper to make the place look even smaller.
He wanted to know where has she begun her journey from. He was told, that she is from the city. If the train runs on time, then in five hours she can reach this place; but since that hasn’t happened, nor is there any hope of that happening ever, it has taken her seven to eight hours to traverse this journey.; her tresses have disobedience nestling in, her sari is no longer neatly draped.
“Probably its your first time here—”
No—one can’t ask such questions. With his finger, he signalled Mantu hawker to take the luggage and the girl to a rickshaw outside—a girl walked away before his eyes, in trying to keep up with Mantu’s long strides, her steps too became faster. From the labels on her luggage, he decided that the girl’s name is Aparna Tamuly.
“They’ve got news about the train, in the cabin”, Bireswar’s words jolted Phatik out of his reverie-and he returned from his ruminations on that small incident that had taken place three months ago, on one such evening when the passenger train had arrived. Of course, his face betrayed no trace of his feelings, he merely asked if people had already assembled near the ticket counter. Bireswar replied that there were a few passengers—all the while removing the traces of perished insects littered around the candle. Phatik took out the bundle of tickets from the almirah and placed it on the table beside the window, along with the register, receipts, money box. But he didn’t feel like sitting there right now. Rather he sat down on the chair beside the table on which the candle was placed.
The candle was burning before him—on its body, molten wax droplets formed a stream flowing down the hillside. A swarm of insects hovered around the quivering flame of the candle. He knows that they have come there, seeking illumination. But he knows not why poets and novelists have imagined this journey as romance or love. He can’t fathom why they believe that such self-death is a matter of pride. When he used to write poems for his college magazine, even then he would feel the pain of a candle burning and melting away till its end; he had thought of this journey of the insects as an eternal inspiration for the pursuit of novelty.
“Say, I’ve known a new place, met new people, had new experiences—I have taken it that way; they teach us to view life from a fresher perspective”—Aparna had told him.
And for the last two months, he has never asked her whether this entire business of coming from the big city to work in an unknown school here is purely due to the objective of employment or there is some other reason. He has just said—see, before you got down on this station as a passenger of this train, each train had meant the same: a conglomerate of nuts and bolts, iron, wheels and axels, spring –it had motion but no life, it ran yes but had never taken breaths, nor had it heartbeat. And today, when every Saturday, you get on this train to travel homewards, I have placed on your hands a bit of official paper that will enable your journey by train –which you have called a ticket—and which I have pushed out of the square window with the lifelessness of a machine. You have safely kept that ticket for six long hours, in your black bag as though it were somwthing precious—and I have thought, in this small place even I have a place that I can call my own. Because, each time you arrive at the station, you enter my room;sitting on this very chair, you have told me learn to love this place, write a few verses on a bit of paper whenerver you feel like, or else, write two lines of my favourite poem on the back side of this ticket that you have given me—and you have said, look at this candle, we look simply at its flame that gives us light, the molten wax is unseen to our eyes—and I have smiled. Probably I could have said something, but then feelings do not always come out as words—consequently you too have smiled and your eyebrows have grown wider, your eyes reflect the image of a burning candle, of molten droplets of wax—I realized that suddenly the mole on your cheek has grown even more beautiful in the candle’s radiance, the gentle wind from the fan plays with your tresses and your blue sari—
Tong tong—the token machine rang in the next room, then the phone rang incessantly, after sometime those sounds were to be heard no more. Phatik realized that Bireswar has already taken out the line clear token, the train will be here in a few minutes, he sat beside the window in the ticket counter, removed the cover from over the square hole, the buzz of people shoving one another came wafting across. With the precision of a mchine he set about his work. He knows that its Saturday and he has to place on Aparna’s hands, her ticket to her home after which he will have Bireswar put her small bag on an unoccupied seat, and then for one full day Aparna will be away from him. Again on Sunday evening she’ll return and at once she’ll ask, is everything ok, this line clear, green flag, block section, station limit, token, signal-red-yellow—ha!ha! the laughter would spread across the dark room, and would roll from his lips, and he would say, see how the candle burns, and melts—
Phatik is aware that the train has already arrived, the people have already alighted boarded and he kept a ticket on the table, and put away his register and ticket bundle. Phatik took the ticket he had kept for Aparna and went out, people were rushing hither-thither , Mantu hawker was busy and so were the others.
Aparna has got down from a rickshaw.
Phatik carefully held the ticket in his hand, for just awhile back, he has written, on the back side of the ticket , with ink, three words from a poem he loves.Those words shouldn’t blot with the sweat from his hands.
“Bireswar need not carry the luggage, the two of us will suffice”—ponting to the new gentleman next to her, Aparna said, and said that he too was from her school, they worked together.
“Give us two tickets today—” Phatik went inside before Aparna could finish, he took out two new tickets and offered them to Aparna—
With a long whistle, the train gradually assimilated into the moonlight. With the green lamp in hand, Phatik came into the candlelit room, the words written on the ticket in his hand had already been blotted with his sweat.
Phatik looks at the candle –burning and melting away —
(Published in the Bihu issue 'melange' on 11th April 2010)