By Lopa Banerjee
Introduction: This is yet another personal narrative born out of a series of dream sequences of a train journey undertaken at night. The dream probably has its origins in the past decade of my life in suburban Kolkata, when I commuted by local trains on a regular basis. The narrative structure of the piece is inspired by Dennis Silk’s essay, “The Marionette Theater”, where an action performed in repetition is depicted with emphasis on every part of the movement.
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
“From a Railway Carriage” – Robert Louis Stevenson
The whistle blows. I find myself in the sweltering heat of a train compartment in suburban Kolkata, my tongue chained to numbness and austerity. I carry with me the rampant memories and succulent folklores of my childhood, my unruly hair running along with the houses, huts, trees, ponds, and creeks, as my life speeds along, swishing back and forth between pale faces and clumsy station platforms. I sit there, twenty years tall, wrenched from my slumber floating like an orbit around me, looking intently at the vendors, tea-sellers, and passengers hunched over and feeling the deep hum of the train chugging along the tracks as it makes its way into the uncertain miles of the night. I am a face in the crowd of daily commuters, traveling this passage many, many times. When the doors slither open, I tread onto the old, rickety station platform with numerous others, who tumble and fall, with the whistle and jerking halt.
Leaping into sudden trance, then rushing out of it, I look out of the confused hammering dark of the train, and see the hazy line of trees and their uncolored slope, which moves, like a little girl dancing, articulate, sharp, and purposeful under the crispy, dry flight of air, under the crosswire currents of the wind luring away the train like the pied piper of Hamelin. The night train is speeding along its habitual route, stopping a minute or two at stations. The train is seen for a minute at each station where crowds, teetering, panting, and sweaty, gather and wait. They will get on, ride, get off, get back again, and ride some more.
Mile after mile, my body moves with the rhythm and pace of the train, which crosses a labyrinth of rail tracks and leaps from one station to the other, catches up, like old friends, stares like strangers, and disturbs slumber like the nagging salesman. I listen to the whispering music of the night landscape, the silence of the surrounding of faces, tightening their muscles in anonymity. Like an old cymbal, I glide towards the crescendo of a once divorced stop. I think of old promises, wounds, and failures I had once abandoned in the train like long forgotten, uninhabited train stations. My life becomes a haiku inside the old, rusty compartment, as I hold the rucksack of my past, heavy upon my breath. My face mingles with the strange, vacant faces seated around me, breathing the dirt and the dim light of discomfort. My mind coils into tight springs in this chaotic compartment, as I rest my head against the hard, wooden backseat, thinking of this journey of an impulse, journey of conjecture, journey of dreams, and journey of mysterious strangers.
With a blaring whistle, the train once more comes to a screeching halt, with unknown, passive faces jumping off the train, their clothing old, mismatched, and worn, cold beads of sweat dripping down their backs. My watch measuring the minutes to my departure, I slouch back next to odd pushing figures seated on the wooden seat. The echo of the train whistle at the next station invades my ears like an unruly kid. There are staggering figures everywhere vying with each other in a bid to board the train. The train is in motion again. I hear men shouting, barely stepping onto the front door of the compartment, their hands gripping the old, rusty handles at both edges of the front door, before the train dissolves into the creeping dark.
From one train station to the next, changing tracks that navigate one small town to the next, I watch the sluggish movement, the rising, the frivolous clattering and sudden frenzied motion of the train. At stations where the train pauses, the yellow lights flare and make the shadows scarce, and I catch a glimpse of the sloth and soot of life, trudging past the track. I am still stuck in this dimly lit train compartment and will be here for a while. And when it is time for me to get down the front door of the compartment, I land my staggering feet on the crowded station amid other loitering, pushing, and waning feet. I am a little twisted and stoned as I bid adieu to the moving train.
For a moment I look around for my comrades, only to find myself surrounded by unknown voices and void.
Lopa Banerjee is a freelance writer, poet, and mother of two beautiful girls. She is also in her final year of studying creative nonfiction writing at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. She has just completed her memoir, a book-length collection of personal essays and stories on her childhood and her internal journey titled, Thwarted Escape: A Journey of Migrant Trails and Returns. Her poetry, essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared and are forthcoming at Prairie Fire, 13th Floor Magazine,Fine Lines, Yahoo Voices, The Mind Creative, Incredible Women of India, andAmpersand Review.
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