For the next two years I used the local trains at least twice a week, sometimes more if there was a mid-week holiday. Very rarely I used a company car to visit the city, and thrice I accompanied a colleague who used his motorbike like a lance through urban traffic. Slowly I got used to the local trains, their plain look, hard plastic seats, numerous stops and piercing whistles. I began to like them.
Mala, who sat opposite me and changed a bandage on her arm as the train moved, was candid when I asked how she was wounded. “An animal,” she said. “An animal did it. My husband. He drinks more than he earns. When I say anything, this is what he does.” Her family does not want her to leave him, and he may create a problem with her little child. She has to work at a quarry during the day and endure his abuse at night.
Two college students who travelled with me gave me an object lesson. Bijon, who commuted to the city every day, for he couldn’t afford to live there, returned to his village every evening, exhausted, quickly munched some puffed rice and went to teach poor boys in a night school. Arijit, even younger, did his classes and then proceeded to his cleaning job in the city restaurant before returning late to his town. “Why a cleaning job? Why can’t you get some better work?” I asked, only to be dumbfounded by his reply, “My illiterate mother is a maid in three houses and does cleaning. I want her to know that, though I read and write, I too do a cleaning job.”
Professor Adhikari, a balding, bespectacled man, said he couldn’t live in the city, for he had a bedridden daughter in a small-town charitable hospital, but he did not really mind the commute. “I am widower,” he explained, “and I rent a tiny room next to a club. It is very noisy. The club members never listen to my request to keep the volume down. The three hours I spend on the train is the quietest period I get to study.” Embarrassed, I stopped asking him any more questions, and he returned to a book he had already taken out of his cloth bag. As if to reassure me, he warmly said goodbye to me when he left, and even expressed the hope that he would see me again.
Rather different were ebullient Sujit and Romola, brother and sister, who were going for a weekend picnic and wanted me to vacate the window seat for them. I did so readily and was promptly rewarded with scones and pastries from Flury’s, a confection titan. As we talked, they revealed that their mother, ill for a while, had passed away six months ago – and, further, their father was set to remarry in eight weeks. I did not have to be a Freud to divine that their high-spirited picnic was, alas, a ruse to avoid a weekend encounter with their father.
My most memorable encounter was with an elderly man, indistinguishable in appearance from others of his age and but indefinably distinguished in his bearing. Eyes riveted on him the moment he entered the train. Before sitting next to me he politely nodded his head, as if to seek my approval. As the train started and I started reading again, he gently coughed and asked, “The book you are reading, isn’t in English, is it?” He had noticed the title and I explained that it was a French novel by Marguerite Duras. He then talked of the advantage of knowing a foreign language, citing the unusual reason that the ‘foreign’ then does not remain foreign. He asked what I did, and then reciprocated by saying that he was a union leader and politician. He talked frankly of the problems of his double role and narrated how he had embarked on union activity from a deep sense of injustice to workers. He spoke of the need to balance the fair with the practical, the right with the acceptable. Spellbound, I listened to a masterly analysis of what is and what should be.
Two years later, I was transferred to the company’s headquarters in the city and my odyssey in local trains ended. It seemed to me that the phantom train, carrying a vast and varied assortment of interesting people, that had been traversing my life every week, bringing me the exciting savor of worlds unknown, had suddenly lost its way in an impenetrable fog. No more whistles, only the honk of an impatient city car.