TRAINS: DEBOTRI DHAR
Debotri Dhar is from New Delhi, India. She holds a Masters in Women's Studies, with distinction, from the University of Oxford (UK), and is currently an Excellence Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers University (USA). Debotri is a published novelist and short story writer.
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Leaning back contentedly against the upholstered seat of the car, Ahana lit a cigarette and swept a seasoned gaze around. This settled familiarity was in itself unsettling, for she had returned to India after almost twelve years. And yet the sudden afternoon downpour, the hum of harassed vendors covering their wares with blue plastic sheets, the rush of pedestrians trampling over each other to reach the few stray rickshaws that were still unoccupied, the inch-by-inch crawl of Calcutta’s slow, famously haphazard traffic through roads turned slushy with rain…it was as much a homecoming as could have been possible under the circumstances.
Not that there had been no change at all. The emptiness of twelve years does not fill that easily. Calcutta had been renamed Kolkata. After two hundred years of British colonization History’s hauls had embittered the city; it had needed law to take back in form what had so surely been lost in fiber. Street names had changed too. Ahana had been briefly baffled when the driver said “Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Street, didi.” No, Wellesley Street, she had been about to say, when she stopped herself.
On the other hand, a million multinational corporations now loomed over the city’s landscape like giant, overbearing mushrooms. Call centres, shopping malls, multiplexes. Kolkata Welcomes Global Investment pronounced a large billboard, with a full-blown picture of the new Marxist Chief Minister smiling benignly down on the masses. The previous night, while flicking television channels in her five-star hotel room, Ahana had come across a disturbing documentary on forced evictions of farmlands which had been singled out for state-mandated conversion into export processing zones. Like we were a train that after chugging contentedly along a meandering, moss-lined track for the longest time, had suddenly changed its mind midway and started speeding in an entirely unknown direction. But did we know what awaited us at the end of the tunnel, the otherwise-liberal Ahana wondered uneasily, recalling those vivid images of the homeless, starving villagers alleging rape and torture. But no, she quickly reasoned, this synthetic city only needed its surface scratched, and its old eccentric heart would shyly peep through. If this was another fiction of homecoming, Ahana did not want to question it, knowing deep down that it gave some semblance of meaning to her impulsive ten thousand mile journey from New York.
She snapped out of her reverie and looked at the overcast sky which still showed no signs of clearing. It had started raining while the sun was still out, and the afternoon was bathed in an eerie light, filtered green through colored bits of sky, sun and cloud.
‘How long will it take for rush hour to get over?’
The driver’s look of confusion made Ahana abruptly realize her own Americanness. Rush hour indeed! Switching to a colloquial and by-now heavily accented Bengali, Ahana repeated her question, only to be rewarded with an eloquent shrug. Finally, here was something that hadn’t changed: Calcutta’s infamous and unending traffic jaam.
Smiling, she looked out of the window again and saw a woman struggling with a dozen bags and an umbrella that had been blown inside-out by the wind. Ahana watched from inside her car as one bag split open, and some onions and cucumbers rolled out on the sidewalk. The woman clumsily bent down to pick up the vegetables while the wind puffed up her sari pleats, throwing them this way and that. Ahana rolled down a rain-spattered window glass, threw out her cigarette stub and called out loudly.
‘Excuse me! Would you like a ride?’
The woman looked up, startled.
‘I was wondering if you are going that way…’ Ahana shouted across, vaguely disconcerted by the woman’s face.
The woman paused for a moment, then nodded and started dragging her bags across to the car. Ahana held the door open, jerking back her face at a sudden lash of rain.
‘Thank you. I am so grateful…there were no taxis or rickshaws, and I have so many things,’ the woman said, finally managing to close her umbrella as she slid wetly into the car.
‘Not a problem. I was watching you struggling with your things and…excuse me, I’m sorry to be staring, but you look like someone I…’ Ahana’s eyes scanned the woman’s face, attempting to remember. Of course! The faded brick building that had always looked so forlorn in the rain, the rickety tables and chairs that never did give way, the hours of heated debate punctuated by Jayanto’s tasty telebhaja and scalding sips of tea from small earthen pitchers. ‘Moumita! Isn’t it Moumita Ghosh?’
For a moment, the woman stared blankly at Ahana. Then her face cleared. ‘Ahana? Ahana Mukherjee? Jadavpur University Comparative Literature, right?’
Ahana nodded, pleasantly surprised. ‘Just imagine. Meeting like this after so many years!’
‘I know,’ Moumita said breathlessly. ‘How long do you think it has been?’
‘Twelve years. I left India twelve years ago. But that’s a long story....Why don’t we go for coffee and sandwiches or something?’
Moumita smiled wistfully. ‘I wish I could, but it’s time for my husband and children to get back. Er...why don’t you come home with me instead? If you have a little time?
‘Yeah, I have lots of time. This is a leisure trip for me, you see. And so I’ve just been travelling around the city for the past week. Managed to look up the directory for old friends, even met a few. So yeah, I’d love to go to your house.’ Ahana smiled warmly, a smile that Moumita returned with a slight shade of hesitation.
‘So what do you do now?’
‘I’m a housewife,’ Moumita replied. ‘I got married almost a decade ago. To my…you know, the boy I was…you know, in college…’
Ahana smiled at this shyness, thinking of the mischievously explicit language her American colleagues often used, to describe intimate others. ‘I didn’t know you had been seeing someone. I remember you as a very studious, I-have-something-to-do-unlike-you-wasters kind of girl. Starched saris, no western clothes, no drinking, no parties!’
‘I belonged to a very middle class conservative family. There was no question of drinking and partying! And we didn’t have a car, we had to travel by public transport, so I had to dress even more carefully...anyway, so I was friendly with Akhilesh for almost five years. No one else knew. My family would have been furious. They were expecting me to have an arranged marriage. Akhilesh was doing his engineering at Kharagpur. We were just waiting for him to get a job.’
‘Yes,’ Moumita said with a faraway smile. ‘We live in Dhakuria. It’s just fifteen minutes away, if the traffic clears. Does your driver know the way?’
The driver nodded in response, slowly inching the car through the congested road.
‘And what about you, Ahana Mukherjee? Gold medallist, teachers’ pet, muse of men?’
Ahana threw back her head and laughed. ‘My God, is that how you saw me?’
‘Of course,’ Moumita said matter-of-factly. ‘Half the boys in the university were in love with you!’
Ahana quirked her eyebrows, surprised. ‘I don’t think so. I know I hung out with a lot of guys, but they were just good friends…I mean, none of them ever really asked me out or anything, you know.’
‘Oh, they must have felt intimidated. You were so outgoing, you argued and smoked and drank and came from a family that…’ Moumita bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘No, it’s fine. I know people gossiped about my parents’ divorce.’ Ahana looked away, her eyes stony. Moumita snatched a stray glance at Ahana’s profile and chided herself for being so thoughtless.
By now, the traffic had eased enough to let their car into a winding swerve under the bridge that would take them to Dhakuria. Shaking off her gloom, Ahana pointed wryly at a yellow signboard on which ‘Yours Photographist’ was painted in bold blue letters. ‘You know how we ultimately defeated the British, yeah? Not with good Gandhi but with bad grammar! Those hapless ‘blokes’ just ran away when they saw the mincemeat we’d made of their language!’
Moumita looked at the signboard and laughed. ‘That signboard has been here ever since I can remember,’ she said. ‘In fact, very little has changed around these parts. See that sweet shop?’
‘Oh yes, that one there, with the steps in front. I know it well. They’ve put out wooden benches now.’
‘How do you know that one?’ Moumita asked, surprised. ‘This area is not very affluent. You lived somewhere rich, didn’t you?’
‘Oh, we used to meet up in the evenings, the lot of us. Back then, I probably knew all the sweet shops and tea stalls in Kolkata. You wouldn’t. You were the type that always went back home every evening after college, didn’t you?’
Moumita laughed. ‘Yes, that’s true. My family wasn’t very well off. My father had retired from work and his pension wasn’t enough. Ma was always flustered about money. I had a younger brother. So I used to teach English to several batches of children in the evening. I helped put my brother through college. Now he is an engineer too, like my husband.’
The ring of pride in her voice was unmistakable. Ahana stared at her, startled. From what she remembered of Moumita, she would not have associated her with any particular strength of character. In fact, the ordinariness of girls like Moumita, their ability to merge uncomplicatedly with everything around them had at the time seemed extraordinary to the feisty Ahana, who had had a problem with most things and never failed to let the world know of it. But life’s lanes have many lessons to teach, Ahana thought guiltily...
The car entered into a narrower lane dotted with small colourful shops on either side. ‘Oh, I remember this place too. There was a railway track here, wasn’t there?’
‘Yes,’ Moumita said. ‘I live on the other side of the tracks. We always hear the whistles of trains all the time. It irritates my husband no end. But I’ve always found it strangely comforting. God knows why!’
‘Hmmm... Perhaps because the constant movement of the trains makes you feel safe in the permanence of your own life?’
The look on Ahana’s face was intense. Moumita threw her a bewildered look, then shrugged. ‘Anyway, so you didn’t tell me where you are now?’
‘I live in America. In Manhattan, to be precise,’ Ahana replied. ‘After my mother died, I sold our Calcutta house and moved. Did my Ph.D there, and now I teach at a university in New York. I’m Assistant Professor of Comparative literature and postcolonial studies.’
‘I’m sorry about your mother’s death. But oh, you’ve travelled all the way to America! I should’ve guessed though...your ‘yeah’ is a dead giveaway. And the way you people roll your t’s and r’s. And a professor at a university! How exciting! You stayed true to your love for books, didn’t you? You must make an interesting teacher.’
‘Why makes you say that?’
‘Oh, I remember the lecture where you had challenged Prof. Mitra’s interpretation of Aurobindo’s Sabitri. You said his interpretation was sexist…and something else about Sabitri’s sense of self being lost in translation or something. He was so furious!!
‘I’m really surprised you remember. It was so long ago… Yes, I always used to feel that female mythological characters haven’t quite received their due in academia.’ Ahana broke off, fumbled in her bag for her packet of cigarettes. ‘You don’t mind, do you? I do still remember the taboos around women smoking here,’ she added with a wry smile.
Moumita shook her head quickly and watched with half-disdain, half-fascination as Ahana put a slim cigarette between her lips and lighted it with the flick of a lighter.
Drawing in a deep puff, Ahana rolled down the window and rested her elbow. ‘So the first book I wrote was actually a feminist poststructuralist reading of key women in Indian mythology. Sita, Draupadi, Sabitri. I remember hoping that Prof. Mitra might read it!’
‘First book?’Moumita asked, impressed.
‘Yeah, a couple years ago. My second book came out last fall.’
Their car had reached the railway track. The barricades were down, indicating the arrival of yet another train. Vegetable vendors and fish sellers squatted by the sides of the road, while a hundred-odd people milled around unfettered by the rain and half-a dozen hand-pulled rickshaws recklessly wove their way through the human maze. Ahana turned abruptly away from the window.
‘I know. I feel the same way about those colonial hand-pulled rickshaws and the bare-feet men running and pulling them while the sahibs sit regally. But it’s how they make their living, you know,’ Moumita said quietly.
‘I suppose so. And I read that the state is finally doing away with the practice. Wonder what alternative employment they’ll offer, that too in a city where unemployment is already so high... Anyway, so I’ve told you all about me. You tell me what you’ve made of life.’
‘Nothing much, as I said,’ Moumita rued. ‘I had just finished my post-graduation and joined work at a poetry publication house when I got married. I too used to write poetry, you know, so it was wonderful to work with...a form I loved. But the work hours were long, and the timings got completely erratic during book fairs. Akhilesh’s parents objected, said it wasn’t right for the daughter-in-law to be out so late.’
‘That’s ridiculous! And yes, I do recall you used to write poetry.’ In fact, Ahana now remembered that Moumita had won a university poetry competition. Ahana had been briefly surprised, had congratulated her in passing and then forgotten all about it. ‘You’d won the gold medal at our annual poetry competition. Do you still write? And what happened to your job?’
‘No, I don’t write anymore, but I’m not complaining. Actually, Akhilesh had started doing very well in his firm. We began to host parties all the time…I was the hostess, I had to be there. Then my in-laws, as I said, also didn’t want me to work. So I ultimately left my job a year after my marriage. Then my daughter Rinky was born, and my son came a couple of years later. In any case, I was never very ambitious, I didn’t want big things…and Akhilesh is a very caring husband. I’m very happy.’ Moumita’s voice brimmed over.
Ahana smiled, reaching out impulsively to hold her hand. ‘I’m glad,’ she said softly. For a while, neither of them spoke.
‘You know, I was told not to mix with you at University. They said you were trouble,’ Moumita said with a wistful smile, clutching Ahana’s hand. The two women looked at each other and chuckled.
There was a shrill noise, and a goods train began to whistle past. A few minutes later, a passenger train passed from the other direction, sweaty people spilling out from its compartments like ripe peas from a pod. God knows how many trains had run over these tracks, Ahana mused. Trains from everywhere to everywhere, all choked with people in a hurry to reach. Yet tomorrow, it would be another journey, another destination...
Then the barricade lifted and the car made its way across the railway tracks.
‘So you didn’t marry?’ Moumita finally asked, unable to mask her curiosity. Unlike her, Ahana wore neither the red line of sindoor in the parting of her hair, nor the shankha-pala, red-and-white bangles which married Bengali women wear. But old rules no longer applied these days, and one could never know for sure.
Ahana shook her head. ‘Briefly once. I’m single again, and so glad for it.’
‘Why? What do you have against civilization’s age-old institution of matrimony?’
‘The same thing that I have against civilization’s age-old institution of organized religion.’
‘What’s the connection?’ asked Moumita, baffled.
‘Strong connection. One is a bureaucratization of faith, the other a bureaucratization of feeling. Opium of the masses.’
Moumita laughed, shaking her head in disbelief. ‘Haven’t heard anyone speak like this for a long, long time. Reminds me of university. You must remember that I’m a seasoned housewife now, accustomed to talking about the prices of vegetables, the menu for lunch and dinner, neighbourhood gossip, children’s homework. So much high philosophy will give me indigestion!’
Ahana grinned and lit another cigarette.
‘And...any relationships?’ Moumita persisted after a while.
Ahana sighed. ‘Hmm, every once in a while. A kind lover here, a good friend there. I live in the moment, I travel across latitudes without baggage. My views are respected in the academy. My students love me. I can afford all my little luxuries without having to answer to anyone. My life isn’t perfect, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.’
Moumita took care not to show any outward signs of shock at this patently polygamous picture. Then, shaking her head, she sighed and laid her head against the backrest. ‘So we’re both happy in our own lives. As Prof. Mullick use to say, “All is whale that ends whale.”
Both of them laughed heartily, remembering the tiny little man with clumpy grey hair, undone shoelaces and a pronounced Bengali accent, who would always stammer in the presence of the beautiful and much taller Prof. Indrani Majumdar of the History department.
‘Yes, that house round the corner,’ Moumita eventually said to the driver. The car drew to a screeching halt outside a slightly faded but pretty building with white walls, green window shutters and neat rows of flower pots hanging from the sides of the balcony.
‘It’s such a pretty house,’ Ahana said.
‘Oh, thank you. My husband’s grandfather had built it in his time. All the sons of the family brought their wives here.’
Once again, Ahana was touched at the simple pleasure in the other woman’s voice. As the driver began to unload the packets, the main door of the house opened and a man walked out, a small boy in tow.
‘Oh, you’re home already,’ Moumita said, her face flushed. ‘I was caught in the rain. And then I met one of my old classmates from university.’
The fair, pleasant-faced and slightly plump man smiled and took off his gold-rimmed glasses. ‘No problem. Rahul and I were playing hide and seek.’ He reached out and took the packets from his wife’s hands.
Ahana got down from the car, suddenly feeling like an intruder in their private world.
‘Meet Ahana Mukherjee, Professor of Comparative Literature in New York. She’s authored many books, you know. And this is Akhilesh, my husband.’
Akhilesh stepped forward with a smile. ‘Nomoshkar. Welcome to our house. How nice to meet one of Mou’s university friends. We hardly get to see many of them.’
Ahana nodded, her throat suddenly constricted.
‘Won’t you come in,’ Akhilesh was saying. And Ahana found herself shaking her head. ‘No, actually I won’t. I just remembered I have to look up some...relatives.’
‘Oh? But I thought you said you had nothing important lined up? Come in, let’s have tea. God knows if we will ever meet again.’ Moumita stretched out her hand towards Ahana. Ahana took it, pressed it tight for a moment and then let go.
‘Na re, I really have to go.’
‘Hmm,’ Moumita said sadly. ‘How much longer are you in Kolkata?’
‘Just this evening. I go to Delhi tomorrow, to give a paper at a conference. Then it’s adieu to India and back to New York next week.’
Ahana bent down and gave the little boy a kiss, smiling as he drew shyly into the folds of his mother’s sari. Then she got into the car. As the engine roared into life again, she smiled at Moumita.
‘Do write poetry again, Moumita. Even if only for yourself. Don’t let your spirit die.’
Moumita nodded. ‘And you, muse of men. It’s not so bad to be a wife and mother too. Get married, get a family. Don’t let civilization die!’
Ahana laughed and waved out of the window as the car started to roll away. Akhilesh went inside with the boy. Moumita stood at the door, a smile fixed on her face, straining to watch the car until it became a fleck of black in the distance.
Then she ran back into the house and up the stairs into the storage room. Pulling out a rusty steel trunk, she began rummaging through its contents. Old photo albums, her mother’s recipe books, an unfinished piece of embroidery still held in place by a circular wooden frame...
After a few minutes, Akhilesh came into the room. ‘Why did you run up like that? What happened?’
‘I’m searching for my poetry notebook,’ Moumita said distractedly. ‘The one in which I used to scribble poems after our marriage. Do you know where it is?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. What poetry book? My boss is coming with his wife in an hour’s time, remember? We’re going to discuss the merger. Best to be prepared, just in case the whites want to meddle with management. Really, one should have joined a government job, fixed salary, no tensions. The corporate sector is so uncertain these days, especially with these takeovers by foreign companies.
Anyway, do fry some of your chicken cutlets for dinner. And oh, Rinky is looking for you. She can’t decide what to wear for the evening! Not even a teenager yet, and she’s already such a snob!’ Akhilesh laughed and went out of the room.
Moumita had not heard a word. She continued to pull out trunk after trunk, trying to find her old poems. Ahana had worldwide fame, identity, independence. And what did she, Moumita, have? Sanity, with roots so deep and gnarled it would never know the thrill of the journey, would never again embark upon the traveller’s quest for unknown destinations? For once, the seductive sounds of the trains held no respite. Instead, they shrieked past her carefully contained home, calling out, calling out...
Half an hour later, six-year old Rahul came into the room to find his mother sitting on the floor, dishevelled and puffy-eyed. She was cradling a faded guilt medal in her arms and staring into the stillness of the night.
And somewhere not too far away, Ahana sat in a sleek white car, watching the city flash past and thinking of the picture that had unfolded before her eyes. Akhilesh had had an arm flung casually around Moumita as she leaned against him, flushed and contented against the backdrop of their cosy home. Their little boy had looped himself around his mother’s plump waist, and she had bent down absentmindedly to wipe a sticky smear of chocolate around his mouth with the edge of her sari. From somewhere inside the house, Moumita’s daughter had been calling out urgently for her. Moumita had a home, happiness, she was so needed. And what did she, Ahana, have?
The car weaved its way out of the narrow roads onto the highway and finally picked up speed. Ahana turned away from the window and buried her face in her palms. If only she hadn’t been so impulsive about the divorce with Barun, if only she hadn’t been as unyielding with Charles, who’d really cared, if, if...Ahana’s journey blurred blackly before her eyes. A journey through faceless cities and continents, through lives and its many losses, empty, unending.
Of course it wasn’t too late to change tracks now. Or was it? Can the weathered traveller, for whom the journey is at once whim, wisdom and wanton need, ever slow down enough to make home out of a sane, unmoving patch of land? Ahana’s forehead was burning, the tight knot in her chest would not ease and she suddenly shouted at the driver. ‘Why are you so slow? Faster, drive faster, I tell you!’
The car sped into the wet, splotchy night.
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