Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Queue

 (From the original Assamese short story 'Queue' by Kula Saikia and translated by Stuti Goswami
 published in 'melange' , The Sentinel, on 10th April, 2011.)                                                  

A meaningless exercise—
            As if I had suddenly attained such an insight, I placed myself in the rank of wise men, and mused that indeed, in spite of my repeated resolutions to stay away from such meaningless mental game , I have unknowingly ended up repeating the same, and I realized that every other minute I have been counting the number of people standing in front of me. When I had joined at the end of the queue, it extended till the tall pillar on my left; and now the number of people before is steadily decreasing, while the number behind me, ascending. Gradually the queue has turned snaky and has disappeared behind the wall, and yet the pace at which the queue is growing can be easily surmised.
            Fatigue was blended with the voice that wafted from behind  the  window with a wire mesh, or so it seemed.
            “Please come closer !”
            The name plate of the reservation clerk showed that he was P.Saharia, but it didn’t tell what name the letter ‘P’ hid—whether it was Prabin, Pulok or Pratap or something else. But then, nor is there any special need for that. If it is Pratap, then it might as well be our friend Pratap, for in spite losing so much hair, one can make out that Pratap’s head too was shaped like his, so were his cheekbones as well as the earlobes fixed to each cheek—
            “Where to?”
             Saharia’s question could not elicit a single word from the man right in front of the train reservation  window. Rather, the curly haired man fixed his gaze on the giant electronic board to his left, a little above his head.
            “I mean, your destination, where will you go, or the name of the station, or say the nearest town.”
            The lady standing just behind advised him to reply quickly, she must have decided the sooner one is relieved from this queue the better. Offering the requisite papers for the ticket the man who had been watching all this while the giant time table lowered his head, and now, he must be telling his destination through the netted window—Saharia swiftly runs his fingers over the letters on the keyboard, glances at the computer screen, and then presses the ‘Enter’ button—“Yes! ”.
     The entire itinerary of the man standing before him now flashes on the computer screen. A satisfied smile appears on Saharia’s face, he asks, “There is a break journey as well?”
            “Something like that!”
            One can easily make out that the round-faced ticket seeker is a man of few words, in one word he could make Saharia understand that between his going and returning journeys he would need two days to halt—had he been garrulous he would have definitely told how he hadn’t been able to make that journey for a long time, though he had nurtured a hope that whenever that place came within his schedule  or when his specific train went in that direction, he would surely alight, there is probably a small station at that place where the bigger trains do not halt, but majestically pass by at night, leaving alone a solitary station master with a black coat and a small lamp flickering in his hands—
            “Here please!”
            The man of few words took out his small money bag, counted his notes and handed it through the window, saying—“Here it is!”
            Saharia’s eyes were fixed to his computer screen. The tea boy had left a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits in the empty space next to him. Without averting his gaze, Saharia extended his right hand towards the cup of steaming tea, and without fail, brought the cup to his lip, and took a sip, with the other he pulled in a biscuit with a crane-like movement—all of these took place in one swift stroke—Saharia too has became another machine, like the one in front of him—
            With his eyes Saharia seemed to assure the man of few words,“It’s a nice place, you’ll enjoy being there for a couple of days—“
            Saharia must have been at that place before.
            “To get away from the rotten heat, monotonous  life of this place and stay there for a couple of days would be a…”, the remaining words were thwarted by the crunching  of  crispy  biscuits from his mouth.
             The man of few words didn’t show any reaction, as if  many a possibility  was concealed in his placid countenance—for instance, he didn’t want that place to fall in his itinerary this time, for some prior, uncomfortable experience must have taught him that it’s better to stay away from that place, as if each passing moment pulled him into increasing discomfiture, may be  a few familiar-unfamiliar faces, or some incident must have filled him with embarrassment,  out of habit he sits down on the bank of the beautiful wooden bridge over the small river right in the middle of that place, as dusk descends, just before evening lamps light up the area, he doesn’t want Lata, or may be some other name,  to come and sit beside him, on the same bench, and ask him , ‘Do you plan to stay here for a couple of days, or once again this is a break journey like   one of those time pass tactics of yours’ and—after that complain-swelled utterance, he flings a terse reply in her direction,—“Haven’t thought of anything—”
            I tried to think of another possibility, but before I could go further, Saharia’s loud voice thundered again, “Hundred rupees change?”, and the man gearing up for the break-journey was once again seen to take out the money-bag from his pocket, open it and examine the insides of the bag, fiddling with the ten-rupee notes, he is now pushing them in Saharia’s direction.
              “This should definitely do”—as he looks towards Saharia with such an assurance, a photograph falls down from his opened money bag. From where I am, it is difficult to say who’s photograph it is, but it can definitely be said, that the black-and-white photograph is that of a young man about thirty-thirty five years old. Probably, ten-fifteen years ago, he had come to that famous studio in College Road for this very photograph and…
            “Thank you—”
            The man said, picking up the ticket and the change returned with his hand, as he came out of the queue,  however he stopped, and once again standing before the iron mesh fitted window, said, “I’ll remember what you’d said--”
            I assumed he was remarking on Saharia’s advice.
            Saharia’s voice, little softer this time , was to be heard!
            Of course no one had time  to wait for Saharia’s call. By then a young man wearing a brown coloured    shirt had stepped in to fill the empty space left behind by the ‘break-journey’ man.
            “See, nature hates vacuum—probably some Greek philosopher had said this , and here within a moment the emptiness created by the previous man has been duly filled-”
            A powerful desire to share such thoughts with my neighbour standing in front grips me, but I let it go, for I can see him engrossed in the crossword that has appeared in today’s paper. Suddenly, his mobile phone rings, a cheap song fills the air, drawing the phone near his eyes he tries to see how familiar the number is. He squints his eyes a little, keeping his phone at a particular distance-- probably no, still his eyes  weigh the value of the numbers flashing on his mobile screen.—and now through the phone  glued to his ear he informed that he was Phukan, Pranab Phukan and wanted to know who the caller was. Apparently, the caller was a stranger, “I’m a little busy right now, please call later”, with something of that sort, he hung up though it was apparent that Phukan or Pranab Phukan spent much of the day in his personal work, probably he had wanted to be an architect—for, I can see that leaving his crossword puzzle aside,  he is now scribbling geometric designs on the empty space in the newspaper, observing them from different angles, in the midst of all these, he has drawn the contours of a beautiful house—replete with designs of pillar, door, window, the gate leading to the lawn in front-
            “Such thoughts give me much pleasure as well,-- say a house, or  a multistoried apartment, or a huge palace, old temple-gateway from the days of yore, architecture, design—all those, you know, there seem a lot of hope, aspiration, dream inherent in them, say, an empty plot of land, abandoned with    grass-and-shrubs, and slowly construction material, in ones and twos, sand-stone-bricks-iron rods—all of these get together, at a certain proportion, and gradually a multistoried building proudly raises its head from the mixtures of those  tiny pebbles, sands  and soars towards the skies, just like a living being with the tiny cells dividing, and a new cell was born, the process multiplying in such a way that a machine called heart, a billion-celled brain, some muscles, bones, beautiful eyes—Ha!ha! - just like the way an architect  creates a township ,a giant metro—“’
            Disrupting my entire tide of thoughts, Saharia spoke up in a melancholic voice,
            “May be wait listed, --”
            Before the man facing him could reply, Saharia added, without raising his head from the computer screen, “Should hope for the best, things happen this way itself, you might get a confirmed reservation after a few days.”
            “’The concept of ‘waiting’ is amazing. Everyone waits for the moment when the awaiting  will end, and with such hopes all of us are standing in the queue and then suddenly we would come to know  that the wait is over, this thing called waiting ceases to be, it is exactly as though you were waiting for a shower, and at some moment you realize that two tiny drops of water from above have touched your eyelids, but  some where inside your mind there is still a desire to wait when you look at the  gorgeous  shower over the hills far away --”
Though such thoughts filled my mind, I wasn’t prepared to speak so much.
            “This will do.”
            The passenger assured Saharia on the other side of the iron mesh. There was no change in Saharia’s expression because of this, one couldn’t say if he had heard the man or not, it seemed as though there was no longer any difference between Saharia and the computer, both were engrossed in facing each other, and were not keen to interrupt this continuity—a strange understanding—man and machine!
“Now, the machine in front of him contains all the information that you need to travel to any part of the country—from the railway network to train timings, to the names and destinations of the trains, A.C., non A.,C., fare, reservation, waiting list. How convenient, isn’t it?”
Phukan broke the comfortable silence of an  ‘architect’, I felt he was addressing me—nevertheless, beaming a smile I remarked that in today’s age this machine was directing us. Such a fact-enriched serious utterance must have amused the girl standing in front of  Phukan, she raised her head from the English novel she had been reading all this while.
I suppressed my desire to ask which college she was from. I simply  remarked that Saharia was probably taking more time than was required of him in issuing tickets, but that remark seemed to make the girl a little unhappy, she said, “Such work needs time--”.
Phukan  was delighted, “Indeed, everything requires a definite time of its own, say, studies, degree, job—all of these are bound for a definite time, one cannot get over with them as and when one pleases.”
Phukan’s enthusiastic talk must have pleased the nineteen-twenty year old girl , pushing away her hair from her forehead  she smiled a little  and concentrated on her book.
“I had almost decided to journey by air, but once again I changed my mind.”
I looked towards Phukan, his statement forced me to ask him the reason for his fear, that had made him give up traveling by air.
“According to statistics, today air travel is the safest means of travel”—I added—“Nowadays air travel is much cheaper , open competition has opened up air spaces for us.”
I had believed there was some gravity in my sentence. However Phukan did not reply, rather I saw him ask the girl in front—where does she study, the name of her college, the place—
Wah! What a coincidence, I mean without any prior scheme suddenly you have met a former student of your college.”
Phukan’s enthusiasm must have overwhelmed the girl. She replied that she was Bornali, she was in her final semester this time, she stayed at the college hostel. She had come home after her semester  examination  and now, when college had reopened she too had to go to her college again , she added that classes had started two days ago.  
“Two different generations, two different individuals—she and I, and yet an unseen bond of familiarity! Since we are of the same college, we can easily gauge each other’s experiences, we can assume, the tenor of the breeze that the classroom fans bring to us or else which wooden pillar often houses the pests or else spiders weave their nets—of course with time things may have changed a little, but till the time the building or the classroom isn’t altered it can be well assumed--”
Though Phukan talks incessantly, his later words are drowned in the powerful horn of a recently arrived train.
“Things have changed a lot today. The earlier structure has changed. Newly designed buildings have come up. Such changes have come over due to the introduction of  new courses and new classes, also the number of students have almost  doubled, there are three hostels now --”
Offering all these informations at one breath, the girl named Bornali looked towards Phukan and said, “if you ever come to our college you’ll be delighted to see all these changes, there are a lot of new things happening, our Professors tell us that everything has changed.--”
The visibly excited and enthused Phukan didn’t seem to hear all these, he simply inclined towards me, and said in a low voice, “I am thinking of a trip to my college after all these years, there’s no other reason--” without completing his sentence Phukan took out his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face and added, “Ha! What else can there be beside the fact that I’ll go to see my college, which I had left a few decades ago—I’ll reminisce those golden years, months, moments, sitting and visiting different places—this is what I was planning actually”
“Good, such a kind of old students’ reunion--”
Before I could finish my sentence, Phukan interupted, “No no, nothing of that sort, just the two of us, Mitali and I—I’ll go from east, and she’ll come from a country in the west. After college, she had won a scholarship and gone abroad, while leaving she had given her word that one day, we’ll come back and sit on in the coffee house once again, and  just that, we will be meeting  there for  college days’meaningless gossips, just both of us  Mitali and I, apart from that we have no idea of the whereabouts of Tanu, Nirmal and the others—for in this busy world hardly has anyone any time to keep a track of what is happening in others’ lives--”
Phukan gazed towards the counter, and continued, “Now I’m thinking, since both of us have time on our hands, we’ll go and give ‘Rendezvous’ coffee house a  visit, and seated at the table on the right corner, go back in time, after that we’ll go out and sit under the exotic palm  tree, on that bench, and talk—there would be nothing to do with the decades that have passed by, rather we would talk about our college’s ‘Manohar Park’, evening walks, and say, some silly argument over something trivial, a few harsh words, then intimate conversations—all these! And  I’m thinking of my first  journey by train to that place long years’ back , with Mitali, moving about for admission into the college —for all of these, I have decided not to go  by air, and instead chosen to travel by train—what do you say?”
Phukan’s bright eyes sought an affirmative answer  from me, and I gestured, implying that it was indeed a good, a beautiful idea—
“Today ‘Manohar Park’ has given way to the new Biotech faculty quarters, there’s a gymnasium next to it, the small lake in the park has dried up, recently a computer laboratory--”
The man standing before Bornali had moved ahead, and so as she moved away from the pillar ,she looked towards Phukan and told him thus.
“, That small house behind the library having the class rooms, ‘Rendezvous’ coffee house—all of these?”
Phukan was shuddering as he asked. A smile rolled over Barnali’s lips. I guessed that she didn’t want to tell Phukan that the classroom, coffee house—all of these have made way for the new building, of new design, unique architecture—in the midst of all these, there is no empty  space for the old type gossips and addas of ‘Rendezvous’—
A train puffed into the station. All voices were drowned. There was a visible excitement amongst the passengers.
It turned out that Phukan had walked away from the queue. Before I could say anything he told me. “Please go ahead; you can take my space--”
I didn’t ask him about his adda over cups of coffee, Manohar Park , about his meeting with Mitali!

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