The passenger stares out the tiny square window, and in the blackness that floats outside,
he sees miles of yawning fields, palm trees, and leaning electric poles—the endless sameness of landscapes.
He does not notice the small station with its board sign wearing off. He does not spot the old man waving the flag.
The old man is my father. I am trailing behind him, barefooted, squinting to glimpse the passengers.
The train does not stop here.
My father tells me, as we huddle together for warmth, that when he was as young as I am,
there was no station here, only the dark woods. Was our village nameless, I ask.
His eyes fall upon the signboard. In the dark, there are no alphabets to be seen. To the passerby, our village has no name.
The tiny station with a single bench remains frozen in a photograph or two, captured by strange people from other lands. Are we part of someone’s fading memory?
When I grow up, he will send me to the city, he says.
For now, we’re protected from the dark only by the light from a single torch that flickers and flounders, ready to give up.
Above us, a sky of stars, plenty of them, but their light never reaches us, I complain. He cackles with laughter.
I cannot see his face. I can only trace the dwindling outlines.
Slowly, sleep comes to us, not a word exchanged. During the night, I feel the loosening of my grip around his chest. It is habitual. He leaves to signal a midnight train.
Today, I do not wake up. I dream of sweets—Jalebis, Laddoo, Barfi, and Jamun.
I can faintly hear it whoosh past our station. The train does not stop here.
On winter nights, when the cold wind batters on the old wooden door, I am asked to stay home. I protest but in vain. My father, wrapped in an old tattered blanket, heads out to brave the night.
With half-closed eyes, I watch his stout figure dissolve into the blackness outside.
I am aware of his return in the early hours of dawn by a series of familiar sounds—the creaking and slamming of the door, the whistling of the wind outside, the thud of boots on the cold floor, a series of muffled coughs, the groaning of the old bed and the intermittent squeaks as he shifts sides hoping to catch some sleep before dawn.
I feel protected from the nameless evil of the world.
Perhaps, years hence, a train or two will stop here. People in tiny knots will climb down, drowsy in the early morning, their slippers slapping against the cold pavement. Madhu will hand them hot ginger tea in small earthen pots.
If the train stops in the evening, then after her shift in the mill, my mother can sell bangles and mirrors for the pretty ladies on the train. She keeps them tucked under the bed. Says she collected them over the years. I do not understand why she hides them. When I collect rocks and pebbles, I proudly show it to the other boys.
If the train stops at noon, Ashraf chacha can cook mouth-watering biryani for the hungry travelers.
But today, the trains snake through this tiny place and head for cities.
Someday, when I’m rich and my pockets jingle with coins, I will take the train to the city, I tell my father. He nods.
I tell him that when the train approaches our station, I’ll wave my hands frantically for him to see.
I’ll call the fellow passengers and point them to our village and tell them its name, I say.
Though he is listening, his eyes are elsewhere, far-off. He nods.
If the train does not stop, I’ll pull the chain, I suggest.
He cackles at this, though I’ve repeated this countless times. I laugh along.
If you’re in the mood of listening to a mellow track while reading this poem, I’d suggest you give this a listen. This song is a respite from the cold world. It is a rare blend of myriad feelings that have no words to describe them—grief over the passing of time, emptiness in the hallways and corridors of a school after all the children have left, last day of summer vacation, the hot asphalt and the shimmering buildings, a river of stars at night that have long died, the feeling of oneness with nature in the woods, the desire for an apocalypse, the longing to live in a different era.
If you ache for older times, I have something for you, dear reader. Sea of Sounds is a poem I had written several months ago, before the lockdown. I hope you find solace in it. Stay safe.