The essay was one of the two shortlisted entries for the Outlook / Picador-India non-fiction writing award in the year 2005.
IT IS raining on the morning he leaves Shillong. It has rained for the past three days, alternating between drizzle and downpour. He looks out of the bathroom window as he brushes his teeth—grey skies, rain, pine trees on the far hills, red tin roofs—and feels an indefinable sadness in his heart. He quickly bids farewell to his mother and brother and walks through the rain with his bag to the car where his father waits.
He is dropped off at Police Bazar where a long line of Guwahati-bound Tata Sumos wait for passengers, their engines idling. A swarm of young touts encircle him as he gets down from the car; he allows one of them to lead him to the second Sumo in the line. He clambers into the last row where there is just one person at the moment.
The first and second rows are full with four and five people respectively. It is 7.30 a.m. His train for Delhi leaves from Guwahati at 12.30 p.m. The driver is a surly balding Khasi; beside him is his curly haired friend, then two middle-aged Mizo men wearing woven hats. The middle row holds a young Khasi boy with a cap who is smoking a cigarette, and a Bengali Muslim family: an old woman, a husband and wife and a young girl. The person beside him in the last row looks like a Marwari. This man is wearing a brown shirt with a floral pattern, has a red tikka on his forehead and goes through some figures in a small notepad.
He looks out of the Sumo’s rear window at the rain, the line of un-raised shutters of shops, the shabbily stylish touts with wet hair. At 7.45 a.m. the driver grinds the gear lever into first and with a mighty wrench of the steering wheel starts the journey. The driver keeps an eye out for two more passengers for the rear row all the way till the outskirts of Mawlai; then the houses drop away and the trees take over and he accelerates alarmingly on the rain-slicked road.
A while later the Sumo is coasting down a straight stretch that declines gently; it will soon start winding down the bends in the hills. He sees to his left a ghostly stand of pine trees through which mist drifts. Far off and below the pine trees are the silver waters of Barapani.
Lower down on the G.S (Guwahati-Shillong) road the rain still persists. They pass on the roadside small settlements that are beginning to awaken, and women in jainsems with their children watch the world pass by on the highway from the doorways of small wood-planked houses.
The driver stops for 20 minutes at Nongpoh, the traditional half-way halt between Shillong and Guwahati. Nongpoh is a one-street town. On either side of the road is a row of restaurants, tea-shops and stalls selling honey, fruits and kwai. Buses and taxis and Sumos dot the length of the road. Somewhere nearby a large weekly market congregates, he has forgotten on which day. He drinks a cup of tea, smokes a cigarette and buys a copy of the Sentinel, which is published out of Guwahati.
Back in the rear seat of the Sumo he goes through the paper. The front page has news of the Assam-Meghalaya border dispute, the amount of illicit liquor seized in and around Shillong by the Meghalaya Excise Department in the month of May and an encounter between the army and militants somewhere in Barpeta in lower Assam, among other stories. The sports page is full of World Cup stories—Brazil have beaten Costa Rica 5-2, Batistuta is crestfallen at the way Argentina have exited in his last appearance for his country. The humidity in the air increases as they go lower. The person sitting beside him asks for the paper when he has finished with it.
Suddenly the family in the middle row want the Sumo to be stopped. The driver stops at a bend in the road. A door is opened, the small girl propelled out, and she doubles over and vomits in the grass. The sullen driver looks on with distaste at the proceedings. Once back on the road the driver sticks in some sort of a country compilation into the Sumo’s cassette player. The Khasi boy with a cap in the middle row lights a cigarette. The man in the brown shirt hands him back the Sentinel.
He puts the paper away and looks out through the windows. Flooded rice fields, a thick carpet of dripping green on the rolling hills, a swollen frothy brown river that runs beside the road for a while, small streams of rain water running across the road at bends (brown again with the colour of dissolved earth). The word ‘runnel’ pops up in his mind. “Runnels of brown-coloured water run across the road at bends”—can he say that? He doesn’t know the exact meaning of the word, doesn’t know he even knew the word. He makes a mental note to look up ‘runnel’ in the dictionary when he reaches Delhi.
He hums along to the shrill and scratchy-sounding songs: I never promised you a rose garden, Country Road, Rhinestone Cowboy, Raindrops keep falling on my head … he finds he remembers most of the words. The two Mizo men upfront light up, and soon the interior of the vehicle is thick with smoke. The Bengali Muslim family sit and stare stonily ahead. The small girl is sleeping with her head on her father’s shoulder. The music reminds him of Shakira, who is popular in Shillong at the moment. He remembers driving up the windswept road to Shillong Peak listening to Whenever, Wherever, Te dejo Madrid … on a visit the previous year it had been Robbie Williams, with Better Man and The Road to Mandalay.
He has spent over a month in Shillong. It is his longest visit since he left for Delhi five years ago. He realises now how much he misses it. Most conversations in Shillong now inevitably go around to the World Cup; in offices, restaurants and shops there are television sets permanently tuned to Ten Sports.
JUST AFTER 10 a.m. they reach the trifurcation at Jorabat where the plains of Assam start. At 10.30 a.m. the driver pulls up the Sumo at Paltan Bazar. He gets out with his bag and walks through the crowded area to the railway station nearby. A monotonous drizzle lowers his spirits. It has rained here for the past three days too, and parts of the low-lying city are under water. It is not hot, but oppressively humid, and he takes off the green windcheater he had put on in Shillong. He has to use an overbridge to get to the entrance of the station. Engines and coaches are lined up on the railway tracks and the low green hills ringing the city have splashes of yellow on them from the xonaru trees in bloom.
He waits for the train on platform no. 1 with the rest of the passengers while a group of Army jawans with AK-47s walk up and down the platform looking for hidden bombs. At 12 p.m. there is still no sign of the train. He reads another newspaper, drinks tea, walks around the platform. His enthusiasm for the journey begins to melt away. Finally, at 2.30 p.m. the Brahmaputra Mail pulls into platform no. 1. He locates his second-class sleeper berth—15 in coach no. S4—without difficulty and shoves his bag under the single berth beside the windows. 15 is confirmed on the chart; it had been RAC 38 when he had cut his ticket three weeks ago in Shillong. He buys a bottle of mineral water for the journey. The train starts moving at 3 p.m., a delay of two-and-a-half hours at the start.
A while later they are thundering over the Saraighat bridge, the Brahmaputra below them, grey like the colour of the sky and impossibly vast. That passes, and then they are out in the green Assam countryside.
The compartment he is in is relatively uncrowded. The rush will come in Bihar, which they will reach tomorrow morning. Above him, in berth 16, is a Bengali from Silchar in Assam (M. Dey, 30, the chart had said) who works for the GREF at Leh; he is headed for Ambala in Punjab, and from there onto Leh. He queries Dey about Leh. People say it’s a place worth visiting? Dey, a quiet slender man with a moustache, looks out of the window and shakes his head. There’s nothing there, only bare mountains and stones, Dey says in the broken Assamese they have been conversing in. Across the narrow aisle is a group of middle-aged Rajasthani men and women who are returning from a marriage in Tinsukia in Assam. The women wear bright saris and anklets. There is also a talkative Special Branch person who will get down at Lucknow and who is posted at Badarpur in Assam. This person spreads alarm among the women with his stories of how militants terrorise Rajasthani traders in Assam.
The train halts for a while at Rangiya station. Some army men get on board with trunks. Two of them—sardars in civil dress—decide the compartment he is in looks comfortable enough. One of them sits on the other side of the berth opposite him, the other sits across the aisle. This being a second-class coach confirmed tickets do not count for much. The sardars are both young, around his age, and quiet. He feels a certain affinity with them. They are going home to Jallandhar in Punjab on two weeks leave after six months in Rangiya. He feels like asking them what they think of Assam, but doesn’t. Maybe later. A TC, or ticket collector, who is passing by asks the two sardars for their tickets. “Warrant hai,” they reply. The TC moves on, in search of wait-listed passengers who will pay an extra hundred or two for a reservation.
Outside evening is falling; silver skies, boys playing football in a flooded field. A pantry car attendant comes and takes his order for dinner. The attendant gives him a choice between “sada, anda aur chicken”. He chooses anda. Before a small station called Nizsariha they pass at a level-crossing a group of army men in fatigues carrying SLRs and an LMG. Bodo country. On the whitewashed walls of a station whose name he doesn’t catch is scrawled in red: “DO OR DIE FOR KAMATAPUR!” He tries to remember who wants Kamatapur. The Koch-Rajbongshis? As darkness comes fireflies flit about in the bamboo groves and ponds beside the tracks.
Sometime in the night they pass into West Bengal. The number of hawkers moving through the compartment—peddling everything from boiled eggs to duplicate CDs—suddenly multiply. He lies on his berth with his eyes closed, his body angled to accommodate the tall sardar opposite, and listens to the cries: “China vicks, China balm, ghari, calculator, walkman, two-in-one, cell-charger … bolen dada bolen … ghari hobe, calculator hobe …” A cool wind from the open window plays on his face.
He listens to the tall sardar carry on a prolonged negotiation with a hawker for a ‘two-in-one’, a strange contraception consisting of an emergency light and a mono cassette player. The sardar finally gets it for Rs. 800, down from Rs. 1,500. The other sardar across the aisle takes out a cassette and slips it into the two-in-one. The songs are sparse and melancholy, nothing like the loud remixed bhangra he hears in cars in Delhi. These songs are about love and loss and parting; they sound like folk tunes and give him images of wheat fields, tractors, tall men and women.
After dinner he goes and washes in the dimly-lit toilet—which is already beginning to smell—and comes back and lies down in his berth. The Rajasthani group are eating rotis with pickle and bhujiya. The two sardars have disappeared with the two-in-one; they have gone to drink rum with their friends in another coach. He stretches out his legs and surrenders to the gentle shaking of the coach and the persistent ‘cha-chak-chak, cha-chak-chak’ of the wheels on the tracks.
But sleep eludes him. He is without a job. He has to start looking for one again once he reaches Delhi. But does he really want to be in Delhi anymore? The lights in the compartment start going off by 10 p.m. Sometime in the night in the dark the tall sardar returns and sits in a corner of his berth. The sardar is asleep after a while; he gets up and opens the window and smokes a cigarette.
At two in the morning they come to New Jalpaiguri. The station is deserted. He gets down and fills his mineral water bottle from one of the station taps and has an omlette and a cup of tea at a stall. Tiredness makes him fall asleep once the train start moving.
Night life in Shillong: he and a friend are sitting in a small restaurant drinking Royal Stag whiskey at Rs 15 a peg; after the overpriced pubs of Delhi he rather likes it here. People can be seen drinking in this restaurant at 9 in the morning. In a private joke he and his friends call it the ‘Hard Rock Café’. Clouds of cigarette smoke hang in the dim-lit air and from the staircase going down to the kitchen wafts up smoke carrying the smell of fried pork. The only window in the place is open; outside is darkness and the sound of heavy rain. The patrons can be heard talking about Ronaldo, Batistuta, Kahn and Del Piero.
MALDA COMES early next morning. They are still in West Bengal. Men with bags slung on their shoulders and packets in their hands move from window to window intoning “amer achar, amer achar.” Most of the passengers are still asleep. He gets down to stretch his legs. The early morning sky is overcast. A cool wind blows along the platform, along with a few drops of rain. Near where he stands on the platform a log fire burns fiercely beneath a huge iron cauldron filled with chunks of tar. He wonders what it will be used for. An old man in a white dhoti stands beside a kerosene stove and kettle singing “chai, chai-chai, chai, chai-chai.”
By mid-morning they are in Bihar, where East gives way to North. Here too grey skies. He wonders when he will see the sun again. He is tired of the journey now, tired of his own company. In his bag is a Ludlum thriller he has brought along for the journey, but he feels incapable of concentrating now. What he sees outside doesn’t improve his mood. Untidy fields, banana plantations and horrid looking villages with crumbling mud huts, buffaloes and people in rags. Little pendants of red cloth hang on poles above the huts. The towns and villages they pass convey an impression of overgrown vegetation and decay, of people living on the very edge of dignity.
They reach Bhagalpur station at 11 a.m. As the train slowly comes to a halt people shout and run up and down the platform alongside the train. Very soon the coach is overrun by people flowing in with boxes and bundles and bags and suitcases. They move forward slowly but surely, addressing objections from passengers who are making the whole Guwahati–Delhi trip with “Adjust kar lenge na. Adjust kar lenge.” The tall sardar says to him, “Lo, Lallo ka desh pohoch gaye.” The compartment he is in, meant for eight people, now holds nearly thirty. On his berth there are two Biharis, apart from the sardar. The newcomers make themselves comfortable in tiny spaces; they sit with their hands on their knees and shiny faces blank, impervious to discomfort. Now the TCs are conspicuous by their absence.
It is getting hotter now. Presently the sky clears up and he sees the sun—after five days. No matter how many people there are in the compartment the hawkers, with their thin bodies dripping sweat, manoeuvre through easily with their wares. The bananas and curd are good and cheap here in ‘Lallo ka desh,’ that he will concede. M. Dey is luxuriously stretched out in 16 above, sipping a cold Pepsi and unaffected by the sea of humanity below. He feels a twinge of envy at Dey for getting the upper berth. He himself sits in a cramped position looking out at the passing countryside, hot air rushing in through the windows.
Among the crowd in the compartment adjoining his is a police constable holding a long lathi in one hand and in the other a thick rope that is looped through the handcuffs of two prisoners wearing green lungis. The unfortunate duo are lean and dark with shaven heads and sit comfortably on someone’s trunk. The constable talks to the prisoners confidingly, sympathetically; he even buys them some ‘chana mixture’ from a hawker. The three of them get off at a station before Patna.
Patna comes at 3 p.m. From the train it looks a mean and dirty city, huge colour advertisments for ‘Rupa Underwear’ everywhere, on the sides of buildings and hoardings. A few more people get on, gratefully accepting the Indian Railways’ free hospitality, but most of the Bhagalpur crowd have alighted and things are more manageable in his compartment now. But the heat and discomfort of the journey are taking their toll. His body is stiff, and so are his jeans, from dried sweat. The Special Branch person strips to a pair of long briefs—he has a flabby middle and thin arms—and goes and takes a quick shower with one of the hoses attached to the water pipes running above the tracks. He comes back with a smile on his face and urges everyone in the compartment to go and use the hose.
The train rattles on across Bihar as evening falls. It speeds past small stations with names like Ghogra and Gunguniya and Ratanpur where crowds wait patiently for other trains. An easy friendliness develops among the passengers in the compartment; they are nearly out of Bihar, and only one night through Uttar Pradesh lies between them and Delhi. The two sardars buy jamuns from a hawker and offer him some; he buys cucumbers and offers them some.
A man in the next compartment speaks loudly in Hindi to an appreciative audience about Nagaland. “Wahan log kutte zinda kha jata hai.” Another man in a vest retorts, “Arre, wahan to kutte dahej me diya jata hai.” This causes much hilarity. The other person is from Guwahati, an employee of Assam House in Delhi. The expert on Nagaland makes a tactical retreat, and changes the topic to Mayawati’s politics.
Another day in Shillong. He is at the Meghalaya State Electricity Board office opposite the Old Secretariat accompanying a person who has some work there. Most of the office staff of the two-storied building are squeezed into a room on the ground floor watching the Argentina-Sweden match on television; England have drawn with Nigeria, and Argentina need to beat Sweden to enter the second round. One entire wall of this room has electrical meters hanging on it; it looks like something out of a museum to him. There are groans of disappointment as Argentina botch chance after chance in front of the Swedish goalmouth. Eventually it is a draw—Argentina are out—and the dejected viewers start trooping out of the room.
AS THE sun goes down in the horizon the train crosses a bridge over a river. There are sandbanks aplenty in the shallow water; there hasn’t been much rain this side. Small boys wash buffaloes at the river’s edge, and there are several wide boats plying across the water. The sinking sun gives a touch of unreal beauty to the scene and he stares transfixed, the girders of the bridge rushing by.
He is filled with awe at the vastness of India. One could wander through it for a lifetime and come to see—and understand—only a fraction of it. The irritable mood of mid-day fades away; he feels humbled. He has an intimation that a sense of incomprehension about this country, of not knowing what one is seeing, can be a starting point for a better understanding.
It grows dark. The people in the compartment agree the train is making good time. Discounting the late start, they have lost only an hour. He feels grimy, sticky and dirty by now, 36 hours after he has left home and 30 after he has boarded the train; the other passengers look it too. Meanwhile water is running low in the toilets, and a whole lot of ragged people—poor, and too timid to enter the compartment—squat or lie down in the space connecting the coaches. There is a woman in a filthy sari with burn marks all over her and what looks like a chopped-off nose squatting by one of the open doors and scratching her matted hair.
For dinner he has chicken and rice from the pantry—a treat on the last night. The pantry car attendant comes to collect the total bill for the two days as the train reaches Mughalsarai at 8 p.m. The station with its arches and columns and spacious waiting rooms looks old and impressive in the yellow lighting. Here too people shout and run up and down the platform with their luggage; adding to the commotion are the cries of coolies, fruit and puri-sabji vendors, and passengers making forays out to the platform for cold drinking water. Though the train stops here for 15 minutes, the noise gives the impression that it could leave without warning at any moment.
A sardar with a fine aquiline nose, part of the group that got on at Rangiya in Assam, comes from another coach and joins the two sardars in his compartment. A steel glass and a bottle of army rum are produced. The tall sardar sends his companion to get cold water. The ‘two-in-one’ is taken out and the cassette with the Punjabi songs is put on. The three army men start drinking, oblivious to the chaos outside or the stares within. He observes that their presence also makes people entering the coach avoid the compartment.
Dey shyly asks the tall sardar if he can have a peg. “Ha, ha, Kui nehi?” says the sardar, and pours out a large peg which Dey takes a while to finish. Then they ask him if he wants a drink. He replies in the affirmative, thinking it will help him sleep at night. They generously pour him a huge peg, half the glass really, and top it up with water. It is strong and tastes horrible, but he steels himself and quickly downs it. Then he gets down to the platform to smoke a cigarette to get the taste of rum out of his mouth.
He stands near the windows of his side berth and hears the three sardars talking about the sleeping arrangements at night and how they will get to Jallandhar from Delhi. He asks them how many bottles of ration rum they are taking home … they have 7, 9 and 19 bottles respectively. His ‘Hard Rock Café’ seems light years away here in Mughalsarai.
There is a sudden commotion at the door of the coach. A wretched looking Bihari family—a man and a woman, two boys and an old woman—are trying to get into the space between the coaches with some large bundles that look like produce meant for a market somewhere. But a very dark army man with fearsome mutton chop whiskers bellows at them and orders them off. The train’s whistle blows; the family, hysterical by now, pick up the bundles and run looking for another place to stowaway. He remembers the woman with the burn marks and the mutilated nose. Who will save these people? he thinks. Who will save the poor, the weak, the ugly?
After Mughalsarai (where maybe the engines are changed, he does not notice) the driver puts on speed and the train thunders across dark fields. He dozes fitfully; the tall sardar still occupies a corner of the berth. He sees an elderly man—where did this person get on?—in a dhoti and a half-sleeved orange vest sleeping comfortably on the dirty bare floor.
Sometime later in the night they pass into Uttar Pradesh. On the outskirts of Allahabad (which they reach around 11 p.m.), deep in the Hindi heartland, they pass an old stone and brick bridge with a tower at either end that reminds him of the bridge above the Thames in London. He wakes up in the middle of the night to find the tall sardar and his companion sleeping in the berth that had been occupied by the Special Branch person who was to get off at Lucknow. He stretches out luxuriously and falls back into a deep sleep.
The same day in Shillong—at night. He is in the back seat of an Ambassador at a place called Saw Lad. There are two of them in front, two behind. They are listening to the ‘80s hard rock of Cinderella, music they used to listen in school. The person beside him gets down and goes across the road in the drizzle to a small jadoh shop, and returns a while later with beef kidneys and pork intestines wrapped separately in two banana leaves. They mix their whiskey and start drinking, pecking at the chopped offal in the leaves. The talk soon turns to the World Cup. The one at the steering wheel says, “Man, that Germany-Ireland match was so-so interesting. Best match I’ve seen so far in this Cup.” The one beside him says, “Forget that man. Look, there’s Veron,” and points ahead. Juan Sebastian Veron, midfielder for Argentina, and for Manchester United. A jeep passes them from behind and he sees by it’s headlights a fair, bald man in a tattered coat sitting on the road ahead of them. The man is too drunk to stand, and tries to thumb a lift from every passing vehicle. The one who spotted ‘Veron’ says, “Ok, he’s sad because Argentina are out, so he’s come to drown his sorrows here.”
HE WAKES up before six, and finds, after stepping over the sleeping bodies in the area around the toilets, that there is no more water in the taps. The woman with the burn marks and the mutilated nose is gone. He manages to wash himself with whatever little water there is in his mineral water bottle, then has a cup of tea from a hawker who has set up his kerosene stove (with a tin can around it to block the wind) inside one of the doors.
The sun is just coming up over the dry and dusty fields of UP, and the air is still cool. He sees peacocks at several places, as also people defecating by the tracks. He feels a quiet elation at having completed the journey, mixed with an impatience; these last few hours always seem unbearably long. The camaraderie of the journey is now gone; people busy themselves getting their luggage into order and retreat into themselves, thinking of the things they have to do once they reach Delhi.
A police official of some sort in uniform comes up from another compartment and sits in his berth. The man is thin, carries a small handbag, and chain-smokes. He has got on in the night in UP; he is going to Delhi on official work. His face strongly resembles that of Iftekar, the eternal police inspector in Amitabh’s films.
By 8 a.m. they are passing through Ghaziabad and Sahibabad, an ugly wilderness of raw brick buildings, factories, plastic bags and dust. He sees two stations that are being built for the Delhi Metro. As they cross a bridge over the Yamuna he sees two distinctly Naga faces on it; they are in khaki and carry automatic weapons, two tribesmen from the hills of the north-east guarding the approaches to this ancient city. He cannot see the tags on their shoulders but thinks of the SNAP—Special Nagaland Armed Police—that has a contingent located near Model Town. His nose picks up a foul smell—Delhi air at last!—but he knows he will stop noticing it in a while.
The Brahmaputra Mail pulls into Old Delhi Station at 8.30 a.m., forty one-and-a-half hours after leaving Guwahati. He finds an auto driver who agrees to take him, after much haggling, to Lajpat Nagar for Rs. 70. Being a Sunday the roads are clear. A part of him feels it has come home.
He takes things easy for the first few days. He services and repairs his motorcycle; it has lain idle for a long time and is leaking engine oil. He meets his friends, and their concerns—promotions at the office, new cellphone models, the movies coming to PVR on Friday—seem unreal to him. A part of him is still in Shillong, where it rains everyday. The heat troubles him greatly; sometimes the lights go off late at night, and then he walks up and down the terrace of the second-floor flat.
Then, after hesitating for over a week, he finally sits down one morning and starts writing. The third person–present tense narrative he has in mind has been done before, most notably by a South African writer who has won the Booker twice. No matter. He will go ahead. The tense is not the problem; the problem is finding his own voice, and not imitating the South African’s. The first line he writes is: It is raining on the morning he leaves Shillong.