Saturday, March 31, 2007

Another railroad story

Down by the gates to a well known institute of technology in eastern India is a railway line with a single track. It is not used much - two or at most three sluggish freight trains tugged by a couple of straining engines pass by every day. But this is a special railroad - going beyond the shacks that line it to the left and a crumbling wall to the right, you are transported into a land of paddy fields, abandoned world war airfields and the memories of all those who have passed by this way. A place frozen in time - a magical railroad of the mind.

If you walk down those tracks, you will see them balancing along the rails, arms extended to their sides, with the tips of their fingers almost, but not quite, touching... he a skinny, lanky sort of a guy with long, disheveled hair, wearing a hoodie that has "Metallica" written at the front and "Seek and destroy" at the back. She is in a blue t-shirt and black jeans. The shirt has something written on it. Or maybe not. Her straight hair is tied up in a ponytail that swishes to and fro. He's a novice at this - she, on the other hand, could be a tightrope walker. From time to time he slips, and she laughs at him and goads him on.

They are in no hurry. All that was needed to be done has been done. Their friends are gone, and tomorrow, they will also head on to separate lives thousands of miles away. In fact (and somewhat unfortunately that this is the sole reason) they are walking the railroad together only because there is nobody else left with whom they could hang out, and some company is better than no company - they are only the barest of acquaintances otherwise.

We will skip the next couple of hours of laughter and inane conversation about what lies ahead in their respective lives (it is the last day of college, after all) and go straight to the point where they reach a tiny railroad station - one of the innumerable ones that dot the Indian countryside - one or two trains per day affairs where the station master doubles up as both the signalman and the linesman *and* the booking clerk. Miraculously though, they find a tea-seller, and legs dangling over the side of the low station wall, they have spicy lemon tea of the kind this part of the country is famous for.

This is not a love story. There is no holding of hands, or kissing or hugging here. Our protagonists are going to be careful not to resort to anything that all you harsh readers might call overly sentimental. They will never be in love - although truth be told - as she sits by his side, delicately sipping tea from a glass, he does feel a pang of regret that he never got to know her better. You might call this the story of a distant-could-have-been - not necessarily a unique one, or even one that substantially stands out, for that matter, because the unrealized possibilities of our short lives always vastly outnumber those upon which we act.

The sun sets into an uninterrupted horizon of paddy fields. The station master walks out and chats with them. He doesn't think it is a good idea for them to walk back - it will be dark soon. He has a better idea - a two engine combination is on its way to the steel plants to the west to be deployed on a freight train - it could drop them off. He flags it down, and they make the journey back in the engine driver's cabin - the driver proudly showing off his knowledge of how a diesel locomotive works. She loses interest and nods off to sleep against his shoulder.

It takes a scant half hour. He walks her back to her dorm. He will not be allowed inside, and they don't really know each other enough to promise to stay in touch, so he shakes her hand at the gate. What follows is recorded rather distinctly:

"I don't suppose I will see you again. Good luck."
"Yeah, I don't suppose. Good luck to you too"
A lone tear spills over onto her cheek. She giggles nervously.
"Bye"
"Bye"

The story is not over yet. This could have been a possible ending, but good stories don't end this way, and statements about people never seeing each other again usually turn out to be untrue.

Years later, as he steps out of a bar on the lower east side of New York City to clear his head of alcohol, he will run into her. She will have with her a toddler - her own. They will exchange pleasantries, email addresses and phone numbers. Meanwhile, the little one will make known quite vocally his displeasure at not being the sole focus of her attention. She will give in and and agree to leave soon. The kid will head to the edge of the kerb, and start to walk along - arms outstretched to keep his balance. She will smile, and loudly admonishing the kid for walking along the edge, follow him into the night.

19 comments:

Tabula Rasa said...

brilliant.

Heh Heh said...

tr: Thanks. It's, obviously, based on a true incident. World is a scarily small place and all that.

Tabula Rasa said...

yeah, i realised that of course. took me back to a similar-ish incident that happened to me -- but that would be far more prosaic, both in the happening and in the telling. (and i don't care if you embellished it.)

scout said...

i've been reading your blog for a while, but i'm usually shy about commenting.

however, this post was incredible. nothing like that has ever happened to me yet, but i can see it happening. mostly because that first goodbye is scarily familiar. i'm good at goodbyes.

Heh Heh said...

tr: i think these things are a common feature of the going to college experience everywhere..

scout: Thanks for commenting. I relate to the part about saying goodbyes. Lets just hope years later you don't find yourself wishing you hadn't. (Not that I do, but I know several people who do.)

Also, why be shy about commenting? Does it have something to do with our fangs? Would totally appreciate it if you commented more.

NightWatchmen said...

Nice post, came here from Meghas blog. Having walked on those rail tracks in the not too distant past reminded me of all those mornings when I would wake up and watch those rail tracks from my hostel room on the top floor. (Only jarring note being listening to Mohabbateins music all the time)

That apart I was also trying out the "Kolkata Style Lemon Tea" that a restaurant here claimed to have on the menu and lo I read about that too !!! Talk about coincidences!!

Heh Heh said...

nightwatchman: Replace the mohabbatein soundtrack by something a little less jarring and you have an idea of what my mornings were like. I don't know, but do the letters RP-DTE make sense to you? What are yours?

Revealed said...

I absolutely adore walking on railroad tracks :D. N I'm a true champ. Trick is to not look down ;)

Didn't like the toddler though. Dumped an extremely prosaic element into such a nice story :)

Tabula Rasa said...

fangs :-D

Heh Heh said...

revealed:
I could have skipped the kid and made *her* walk into the night alone, but that would have left the story open to possibility. Also, it felt unfair to leave him out.
"Trick is not to look down" is perhaps good advice for many other situations too. :)

tr: :) one of the reasons i changed the tagline was because some people were taking it too seriously.

zeya said...

Brilliant ! Liked reading it.

Heh Heh said...

zeya
Thanks

kunal said...

brilliant... loved it ..

Atish said...

wow!!
"the unrealized possibilities of our short lives always vastly outnumber those upon which we act."
beautifully put :)

Anonymous said...

wow...that was brilliant.

Heh Heh said...

kunal, atish, anon: welcome. and thanks.

NightWatchmen said...

You bet (RP-DTE) make sense considering it was about 20 rooms away from mine. Mine though was RP-DTW. And now I am really curious as to who you could be, though it does seem you might have been well before my time.

Going through some of your old posts seems you were at least 4 years ahead of me.

And we wait for when the Bonguda follow up post is gonna appear on the blog.

Heh Heh said...

nightwatchmen: Ah, a gentleman by choice! It's probably more than four. In my time, DTW was full of weirdos and earthen pots, if you get my drift. DTE, CTE, DFE and CFM were sought after addresses.

Kusum said...

Simple story but what makes it brilliant is the way you've written it. :)