Translated from Hindi by Barnali Saha
Neelkant had been travelling.
Since he considered himself to be one of the masses, he travelled in third class; and because it was third class, it was the last compartment in the last coach of the train. It seemed that the rest of the train either consisted of first class coaches, or sleeper coaches, or reserved coaches, or something else. This compartment too had been attached to the rear of the general third-class coach either out of mercy or for formality’s sake. In general circumstances, when a train halts at a station then the first classes fall somewhere in the middle of the platform, such that tea, water, paan-cigarettes, fruits, general queries, station-master all are easily available to the people travelling in the front coaches. The general third classes are often far away from the station premises halting in some jungle or somewhere. From there the people wrecked by thirst run carrying their pots and glasses in the direction of the butter-hut, which is most often dried-up, empty, or closed. As a result, people swarm like bees at a hive at the nearing tap or faucet. Only a few could quench their thirst and another few could fill their containers; and subsequently, the whistle is blown causing people to hurry back to the tail of the train. It all seemed as predefined and as easy as ‘sherbet’ and people rarely thought about it; and even if they thought about it, they considered it a part of the traveler’s journey.
Neelkant was travelling in that compartment.
The compartment was very crowded. People jostled like sheep and goats. Some people might consider this as proper and appropriate; but I am completely sure that you are not one of them, because you too might have to travel under such situations. People loaded their weight onto one another. Those standing exceeded those who were seated. The upper bunks were packed with luggage and the floor filled with women. A few men found themselves squashed in both the places. The children could be found in all places. They seemed tired of the heat and asked for water. They were given water and then they urinated. The children were either crying or sleeping or sneezing. They seemed moreover confused or agitated. Some regular numbers like one-two-three could be seen on the seats in the compartment and the following was written on one of the walls: “For thirty-five people”. Reading this one could easily guess how funny the people working for the railways were, like for example those who wrote the above, must be. Now take the crowd in the lavatory. The people travelling in the compartment, those passengers journeying in the third class, especially the children and the youngsters were weak in their general knowledge such that they haven’t been able to venture outside the field and the jungle. It was only when the poor folks entered the lavatory were they confounded with the question as to which direction to face while sitting. There wasn’t any water to wash-up after using the facility. Surely some religious-minded person had stored great lumps of clay in the place of the soap and it didn’t really matter at all that there weren’t any mirrors in the bathroom. There’s little use in seeing one’s face in the mirror under such circumstances, it would merely depress him. In this latrine, three gentlemen somehow balanced their bodies and managed to stand on tiptoes facing the egress. It dreaded them to think what might happen if some lady or some gentlemen travelling in the compartment suddenly needed to make an emergency visit to this horrible chamber marked as “lavatory”.
Neelkant was travelling in that compartment. He was standing, in that lavatory.
After a while, he did however succeed in jostling into the compartment, but even then the stench of the lavatory still lingered in him. And even though in this struggle the feeble handle of his old attaché case was broken, and as a result of this he had to carry the case glued to his chest like a child, still he managed to enter the compartment, which was way better than the lavatory.
When Neelkant entered the compartment, he saw that it was so crowded that there wasn’t sufficient space for people to even position their feet and many were hanging from here and there continually wondering when they might find an opportunity to place their feet or rest their backs comfortably like the others…and in the middle of it all, some men lay in their berths. In their comfortable positions, they occupied entire berths. This gave Neelkant the lead into the quarrel between the people who stood and those who lay that had been going on for a rather long time. Those who stood were saying, we too had paid the reservation fee. The reply was, we come from the locality where the train had been manufactured, and that locality is Bombay. The others said, you have no reservation and it didn’t matter if you came from Bombay or from London. The answer came like this: dear sir, I had to pay five rupees to the coolie for a berth. It’s a matter of the whole night and, in any case, you would alight in an hour or two so it wouldn’t bother you that much. At this, the people raising the fuss felt a little dispirited, but after a while, the row resumed as before.
It occurred to Neelkant that the people who lay were exceeding heartless. Maybe you did pay five rupees for your berth and maybe you were travelling a long way, but it didn’t mean that those people who were going a short distance were travelling for free. Did they not have even an iota of right to the berth? Even the women were standing and those shameless brutes lay supine. Was this humanity? And that …voluntary wrestler! One should see how he lay with his eyes shut as if sleeping soundly. He probably thought that he could befool the people. And those who were raising the uproar were useless as well. They had been raising that infernal row for hours now when they should be grabbing the arms of those who lay and make them sit up. A group of forty people stood causing the uproar while only four unashamed folks lay resting. What justice! And those who managed to find some little space to stand were so silent as if they had no sympathy for the others who stood along with them and no anger for those who lay!
Neelkant looked at his watch. The train had been running for more than half an hour now. Generally, by that time passengers having settled their differences, engage in the process of getting to know their co-passengers, and conversing with them gaily. So what was the matter now? Why do people fight so much? Who, Neelkant wondered, was bound for an eternal stay in the train.
At that moment Neelkant felt that the heat was a tad too much to bear. He looked at the fans, they were working. The windows, however, were shut. He was surprised to find that he had not noticed it before now and it also astonished him that nobody had thought of opening them. A young man stood leaning against the window near him. Neelkant said to him, would you please open the window. ‘It doesn’t open,’ replied the chap displaying his thirty-two teeth. Neelkant didn’t believe him. Handing his attaché case to the chap he said— Please move; I will open it. In the hustle, a child’s foot got trampled. Anyway, Neelkant applied ample force, but the window didn’t budge even an inch. Once again Neelkant applied force but with no results as before. Afterward, he enquired and examined. Following this, he again applied his strength, and after that his intelligence. Subsequently, he re-applied both brawn and brains once more; yet, despite all this, the window didn’t open. The second window wouldn’t open either. As for the third one, people didn’t let him reach for it. Around twenty people had already tried opening them with no results; all the windows were jammed. Neelkant felt frustrated. He was covered with sweat. He was piqued. A lot of people in the compartment watched him perform his feat and made a number of sarcastic comments about the windows. A father with distinctly bovine features made the following appeal: “If it doesn’t open then leave it, accept the fact.” An angry businessman said that all the scoundrels working for the railways were thieves (therefore, leave the windows alone as they would never open). A bearded man who had been sitting comfortably in an upper berth barked—Break them, I say, break them if they wouldn’t open. It meant that people gave Neelkant suggestions as per their mental abilities. Those who couldn’t offer any suggestions abused the government; while the rest, who considered all that had been unfolding a formula for time-pass, silently derived pleasure from the situation.
When Neelkant took out his handkerchief and started to dab the sweat of his body, the young man to whom he had handed his attaché case hurriedly said—Sir, please manage your attaché case. It seemed that you would snarl and shout at somebody. Now, take your attaché without another word.
Ultimately, whose fault was it, Neelkant wondered. When a train could only accommodate as many people then why distribute more tickets than what the train could hold. If there were more passengers then why nor run more trains? People had been hanging from here and there, they had no place to even put their luggage, people had been standing all along, they had been shoving themselves inside the lavatory…and despite all this, it was said that the railways had been running at a loss! Why? Who was the guilty party? Was the booking clerk responsible for this, the one who issued extra tickets? Or was it the mechanic who didn’t check the doors and windows before the train left for its destination? Or was it the gentlemen who had given the coolies fivers in exchange for whole berths which they now seized control of? Or was it the rich for whom five-six coaches are generally inserted in the middle of the train?
He started wondering and then he was baffled. Even though he never reached any conclusion, he did not spare his thoughts. He was perplexed. He didn’t know why he had been thinking in that line when all he read were ‘Dharamyug,’ ‘The Illustrated Weekly’ and the like. Those people wanted Neelkant to think about pollution, the comparative inequality in the opinion of the people, the sexual liberalism in Sweden, and the freedom of the press in the United States of America. They wanted him to think if Sashtriji’s death was natural or whether he was murdered…but all Neelkant now thought of was who was responsible for his predicament? Awesome!! Anyway, Sethji, you needn’t worry because Neelkant would be thinking in that line until he got a place to sit or possibly until the journey ended. He would forget everything on alighting from the train and then again he would think whatever the seths wanted him to think. But say if some problem came up on some later instance—and it would certainly come up—and he started thinking who was culpable then what...?
Neelkant was thirsty. The next station was still far away. A woman opposite him poured water out of a jug and handed it to her child. Neelkant wanted to have a gulp but the woman, the jug, and the glass were all very dirty. Neelkant thought about hygiene and remained parched. Subsequently, he got his handkerchief out and wiped his neck. He looked up at the fans, they were working all right but it seemed that they were exhaust fans, the kind which instead of circulating air, drew out air. He looked here and there to see if there was any place to rest; unfortunately, there weren’t any. Dejected, he started thinking about the windows.
Neelkant wished to go back into that lavatory once again since in any case, he had been standing at both places. At least there was fresh air in the lavatory. There were undoubtedly the foul smell, the excrement on the floor, and more than that the sense of his being in the lavatory—and quite a few other problems of the like, but were there any less trouble here? Was this place any more convenient? There was nothing except for the dignity that one was in the compartment and not inside the latrine; therefore, why not return to the latrine?
Return, however, was impossible. There were a lot of things both inside and outside which obstructed movement. Finding no other option, he started to reflect on the future. He contemplated the future of a person stuck inside the lavatory. Anybody could be thrown out of that place at any time. And what about here? Here there was at least the possibility of a few people finding seats to rest when the train would stop at a station and some of the passengers would alight. In the hope of that beautiful prospect when he would be seating in the same level like the others—why not bear some of the troubles inflicting suffering on him at present?
If the shutters could be opened the body would have felt a bit cooled at least; also a few people could have rested on them as well. Those damn windows, it would do well to try and open the damned things rather than thinking about them. If only there were some tools or some instruments at hand…
Now Neelkant started to wonder which tool would fulfill the purpose of opening the windows. And before it, he thought if there were any method by which the gentlemen who lay supine could be compelled to get up and be seated? The one way which suggested itself was that they could have a fight, and in that he knew most of the people would take his side. And the second way was that when the next station arrived, they could call the guard to deal with those great men…and just as this thought crossed his mind, the train stopped.
Neelkant thought that the guard should now be summoned, but would he be available? And even if he were available, would he agree to come up? And if he were to come, would he be able to make the men get up? What if he were now drinking tea with some member travelling in first class? And what if he didn’t clearly deny the proposition and did actually decide to come; and just as he was coming, the train started to move? And what if Neelkant were left behind in the platform? And the first question was who to hand the attaché case to before he went anywhere? It didn’t have a lock. It scarcely contained anything that could be of any use to somebody, but even so. And what about that young man? Although he too might get a seat when the people who had been lying got up, still would he listen if Neelkant asked him now to save his place and take care of his attaché while he went and fetched the guard. The question did not arise. And there was just another thing: was there any surety that despite all the trouble Neelkant might take, he would actually get a place to sit?
As Neelkant stood deliberating silently, the train blew its whistle. It lugged and moved forward. And just as it did so, around eight to ten shabby and blackened laborers calling out to one another started climbing aboard the train. At first, one of them climbed up…and he grabbed hold of another mate and made him come aboard, and afterward, he helped the third to climb up—and this way all of them managed to board the train. After the men, two daring women climbed up as well, and following them, the last man in the queue hauled his pickaxe, his spade, and his pan into the compartment and subsequently himself dived inside.
In the newly formulated crowd, the young men and babus who had been standing in the passageway found themselves badly shoved inside the compartment, just like garbage. The mutual act of shoving one another was felt by people even at the end of the line, and resultant chaos ensued inside the compartment. The lightning-like negro-smile that appeared in the middle of the colored faces of the laborers weren’t affected in any way by all this. They talked loudly among themselves in their colloquial tongue and continued celebrating the communal joy of successfully climbing on board the train. Their clothes were blackened with coal dust and were thickly laden with dirt and sweat. People who preferred whiteness tried their best to avoid any contact with them. One gentleman— who was unfortunately caught up amidst them—applied his handkerchief over his nose. Had he been able then he would have covered his eyes, ears, head, and his whole body with his handkerchief. Still, how would that have helped? The laborers would have stayed in that same place; they wouldn’t have vanished, but of course, the sahib would have passed away in suffocation.
And then what happened was that slowly by bending his body and making his way amid the crowd, the gentleman went past Neelkant and managed to reach almost the middle of the compartment, that is, he left Neelkant behind him. He was neither fighting nor talking, and he didn't seem perplexed or lost. Watching him it seemed that he was beyond the crowd and their troubles and that he understood nothing whatever. May be he did up and down all the time. Then the women also arrived. They had worn over their tight bodies tight-fitting blouses and their hair braids were also tightly woven. Their almost indiscernible backs were drenched with sweat. One of the backs crossed Neelkant, almost touching him as it passed. Neelkant silently appreciated the sight of such healthy, able, and beautiful backs. Their skirts were terribly heavy and their shoes were so masculine and heavy that if one of them were used to hit somebody then his face would be disfigured and covered with blood. The women laughed and seemed to be in a jovial mood, but no one could even think of teasing them. As soon as the men of the group entered, they removed the people standing against the closed windows. Next, they scrutinized the windows, examined them and tried to open them and subsequently one among them—one who had a little education, but who on the contrary looked like their helper—called out to the man standing next to the door and said something to him in their colloquial tongue. He had asked for the pickaxe, because the object then made its way through the crowd and reached him. The man positioned the top of the pickaxe at a particular corner in the lower slot of one of the windows and instructed his companion to press. The second man following the instruction applied his newly-acquired force at a particular section of the handle of the pickaxe and jerked the window open. The people seated in the upper berths watched the laborers with great curiosity as they performed their feat and were naturally surprised and happy to see that one of the windows had finally opened. Even those people who had tried but had failed in accomplishing the task and had been thinking that when educated people like themselves couldn’t open the windows, then the illiterate rustics could never successfully perform the same task were also happy. Even the people who had doubted the skillfulness of the laborers, and those who were afraid that the application of force or the use of the pickaxe might break the window they too seemed touched. Only the people who had been lying on their berths didn’t seem happy about the opening of the window. They were anxious that they might be observed lying in their berths by people outside and all those scoundrels might easily rush into the compartment like mosquitoes.
Out of those who lay, two had been compelled by the women to bend their knees so that now the women sat comfortably in their seats drying up their sweat. They said something to them in their tongue in a rebuking tone—which they surely didn’t understand; they did, however, grasp the idea and were shrunk to think that if they didn’t move now then they might have to shift their whole persons later on.
Gradually the rustics opened all the windows one by one and moved all the stretched out limbs and scattered shoulders; after that, they sat with grandeur and began to laugh. Those who had been standing were still surprised while some among them were eager to sit next to the laborers. It seemed that the whole design of the compartment had started to change from that last station.
Upon opening the windows, the compartment was filled with light, and drafts of cool air blew in from outside. One could see outside the windows lush green undulating fields, trees, streams, and hills—and scattering over them the colors of a beautiful evening.
In a few moments, people might sing some songs. All unhappiness would then run far away.
Neelkant was happy, even though he was still standing. Neelkant was travelling.
Glossary of Non-English Words:
1. Paan- Beetle leaves
2. Dharamyug: A popular Hindi weekly published by The Times of India Group from the year 1947 till 1989
3. Sashtriji: Lal Bahadur Shastri was the second Prime Minister of the Republic of India and a leader of the Indian National Congress party
4. Sethji: A trader, a rich person of the mercantile class.
5. Babu: Gentleman; a form of address common in India.
Barnali Saha is a research scholar on Partition literature at the University School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi. Apart from her research work, Ms. Saha enjoys writing short stories and translating short fiction from Hindi and Bengali to English. She has several national and international publications in electronic and print journals and newspapers. Two of her short stories have been included in the following anthologies: A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories, Marshall Cavendish, Singapore and Twenty-Two: New Asian Short Stories, Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur.
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