This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
I remember clearly, itchingly, nervously, maddeningly; that incident, which forever changed my perception of existence itself, although at the time I was not aware of it. I was waiting for the train, the sound of its thrashing curses and thumping kicks, mingling pleasantly with the steady uproar of snarling and yelping. There were many theological arguments over its nature and arrival time. After hours of sitting impatiently through a drone of affirmation and deferment by announcer in her own seductive voice, the train finally arrived. I was astounded by mere presence of that mechanic castle, sliding on railroads.
The biggest challenge was to get in. There was an impenetrable human wall between me and the giant blue castle, providing plenteous natural motivation for total escape. I breathed in a deep gulp to clear my brain. Some folks had already given up, surrendered completely before the impassable wall. The rest of us had to crawl our way as best as we could, damply clinging to someone’s shoulder, burping weakly, clawing our way into that god forsaken land. I went right in for frontal attack, there was no turning back. Then gradually, surely, we began to divide into multiple streams, all marching together up that gigantic blue ocean. I didn’t embark the train; I was launched, like astronaut into an unfriendly arctic space. The sheer creative brilliance of it staggered me for a moment. I smiled smugly, knowing I had scored.
Inside of compartment were some seventeen thousand people clumped together, standing arse to arse.
“You better keep moving lad, that’s the order of moment. Keep moving”, a fellow traveller bawled upon my arrival. My feet moved frantically to the rhythm of insanely chugging colossal engine.
I was surrounded by a bunch of old wranglers. Their effluvial moist breath poured down over me as though from some cosmic steam radiator. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was turning green, purple and red all at once. An occasional piteous whimper would be heard faintly from nearby, but lost instantly in the sigh of tiny jots of rumpus. Aaaagggghhhh—and then a short, hissing wheeze and silence until the next attack. From bathroom, toxicant odours of urinal deodorants were beginning to fill in the environment. My only lifeline was the slam door. I scuttled feverishly through the warring waves of prickly-heated commuters, receiving a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing in a way. Skulking away that fetid jungle of barbaric wilderness, I felt my chances of survival had increased by 25%.
As we passed a little beyond station, the shimmering skyscrapers and melting asphalt roads seemed distant. The air was now saturated with spanking summer breeze. In the nearest vicinity, a native could be found taking dump behind the bush. The giant sun was suspended in dead motionless sky. Off the far horizon, beyond rail yards, our own private mountain range stood upright, outlined against the bright blue summer sky. Beneath the shadow of mountains, an introvert lake was trying to hide its existence. The water in that lake was not actual water, it was composition of roughly 15% waste glop from chemical industries, 22% used detergents and fertilizers, 30% of algae, with fermenting crappies to add the flavour, and an unidentifiable liquid, holding it all together.
I continued to gaze out over sun-drenched landscapes and lush green fields. Each new emerging vignette engrossed me in it, with iron grip on my aesthetic sensibilities. Time was drifting slowly around me. I felt free at that moment, free from crushing weight of life, free from uncertainty of time. I reckon this is how being photon must feel like, a mass less particle defying concepts of time and relativity.
But underneath it all, like a faint, thin, offstage chorus behind the song of life, hanging invisible over men, was the horror without words, for it was the stillness before storm.
Entire compartment resounded with raucous claps. Clap, generally an expression of approval, but when travelling in train, it is man’s worst fear. The sound of it vibrated my nerves like a tuning fork. They dived right in, flitting like fishes with dizziness and thunder.
Now I have nothing against them; they are just another variation of human possibility. But it was a different time and eunuchs were more ferocious than the normal breed. They were incorrigibly wild ravening carnivores of that howling tangled wilderness, and I was a poor defenseless puppy.
I groped my pockets, only to find a handful of change, barely enough for auto-fare. Travelling in train without money was my second disastrous mistake (I didn’t have ticket). The menacing presence of eunuchs continued to dampen my spirit, as if I were surrounded by a gang of dementors, and my patronus was too faint to uphold. Sweat trickled down in a long thin line over my hair and stealthily made its way towards waistband of my pants.
Suddenly my mind reeled with the realization that most of the passengers in compartment were working-class people, they led dull and impoverished lives. It is funny how one minute we are all snails, skulking in the garden of kidhood, and next instant it turns into the fetid jungle of adulthood, infested with all kinds of flying, crawling, leaping nameless dangers.
Eunuchs in that train weren’t piteous beggars, they were malevolent bullies. But every war has those unsung heroes, who stand up when no one dares. A masculine man opposed, “Bugger off, you transvestite pirates… I won’t submit to your fraudulent scheme.”
They cornered him, one of them grabbed him by crotch and threatened, “If you continue to be discourteous, I’ll have you emasculated.”
That incident had every passenger writhing in their seats. Air vibrated with tension. “How can they do this?” I mumbled in the lowest voice, but a gentleman besides me overheard it. He edified-
“Kid, you know what your problem is? You’re looking for morality in wrong place.”
I took out my earphones and set playlist on shuffle mode. Ironically, the song that started playing was ‘The Saints Are Coming’. Everything became terribly symbolic.
I turned around, and there he was, right behind me, staring out at me manfully. He had a look on his face that said, “Pay or prepare to face the consequences.” He looked deep into my soul for another looping instant. For a moment, I too involuntarily participated in game of starring, but I was too frightened to maintain the eye contact. I could feel his burning rage, seething like the core of volcano, ready to erupt at any moment. But then something unusual happened, a chord of understanding was struck between us, I knew it, he knew it. He stroked my hair and said something, which I couldn’t apprehend. Then he went away, to hunt another prey. My pulse reduced to normal again. The creeping anxiety that had taken hold of me began to melt.
Rest of the journey was rather uneventful. Train halted in a barren land for half an hour. As I stood facing the land of lost content, contemplating the whole incident, I was struck by a sensation- ‘maybe eunuchs are so inhuman, because they are never treated as human. Negligence of human dignity is the root of all enmity.’
Train was leading hungry and thirsty back to civilization. Each station had distinctive personalities and characteristics in themselves. I almost leapt in joy when my station arrived. I was at the end of black cave of horrors.
With leaden heart and frozen feet we toddled, exhausted but undaunted. We were like veterans of some indescribable war. We could understand each other, but those who hadn’t been there were on the outside. A huge crowd surrounded me as I disembarked the train; they were all congratulating me, asking for selfies and autographs. Even crippled vagrants, beggars and hawkers gave thumbs up. Coolies lined up to carry my luggage. Several reporters chased me on my way to rickshaw stand. I gave them classic -No comments- reply. Few moments later, I received a call from ICCW, notifying that I was to be awarded with ‘National Bravery Award’ by President on 26th January.
For me, travelling in train is an obscenely sacred ritual. It is the closest thing to coitus one can experience; it is painful, discomforting, but we enjoy it nonetheless. Though there are bad moments, there are also moments of inspiration and beauty. Monumental moments of life are rarely photographed; they just stay in our memories.
The eunuch I confronted in train keeps coming back to me, night after night, in my dreams. He strokes my hair, and says,
“Enjoy your last moments of innocence. Soon you’re going to be a man, a pig ready to be slaughtered by us.
Next time you set your foot in train, remember, the saints are coming.”