Swiftly, like a snake sliding sinuously across a great, dusty plain in search of prey, the train rushes on its tracks towards its destination. Outside, the hot August sunshine beats mercilessly down on the fields and small villages that dot the landscape. The sky is relentlessly clear, with not a single cloud in sight. It seems as though the land is muffled in a thick quilt of heat, transparent, but stiflingly hot. There are hardly any people in the fields. The few who have ventured out look exhausted as they plod slowly about their chores, dripping perspiration freely. Everything in that landscape moves slowly. The heat seems to have snapped something inside them, causing their movements to become laboured, lethargic. Cows and dogs seek the shade of the occasional trees that dot the fields, and sit there, panting. Even in the villages that flash past the train’s windows, there is very little movement.
Sitting inside the air-conditioned train compartment, it is difficult, almost impossible, to imagine the conditions outside. Through the darkly tinted windows, the scene looks as cool outside as it is inside. The body does not realize the reality of the discomfort outside those frail tinted windows. But the mind, watching the landscape, the villages, and the people outside, cannot fail to deduce and understand that there is a mind-destroying, soul-breaking heat wave in progress outside.
The difference in temperature between the summer afternoon outside and the air-conditioned coach is, in absolute terms, not too great. But in terms of comfort, this difference of just ten or twelve degrees is vast. No perspiration beads the brows of the people who sit inside. Indeed, a couple of elderly women have light shawls around their shoulders, while a toddler plays in the aisle wearing a warm jacket. An elderly man reclines on his berth with a muffler around his neck. The movements of the people inside, too, are slow. But it is the slowness born of comfort, even luxury, a delicious languor that comes from a successful escape from the horrific heat and humidity of the landscape outside. It is a lethargy made all the more precious by the fact that in a few hours, most of the people inside the compartment will have to re-enter that outside world once more.
It is the post-lunch hour. The white plastic trays, emptied of food now, are set out neatly in the aisles, awaiting the attendants who will whisk them away discreetly. People are settling down to their siestas, pulling sheets and blankets over themselves and succumbing, blissfully, to the soporific rocking of the train as it hurtles through the dusty landscape. The post-lunch siesta is always longer on AC coaches than the pre-lunch or pre-dinner ones. Indeed, unless the train halts at an important station, the post-lunch siesta can last well into teatime.
Gradually, the conversation in the cubicles, desultory even earlier, quietens down. The hum of the air-conditioners seems louder in the silence, a quietude that is only broken by the occasional murmured conversation in one cubicle, or a child’s laughter in another. The thick curtains at the entrance to each cubicle, now laced up by the occupants, add to the cosy ambience inside.
Forty-five minutes after lunch, the train slows down. There is a stirring in the berths as the rhythm of the wheels changes. Heads are poked out of the cocoons of the railway-issue, navy blue blankets. Questions are asked. What station?
It is a brief, ten-minute halt. Nobody gets out of the coach to brave the ferocity of the heat outside. No passenger is scheduled to get off here, either. Yawning, people peer through the windows at the station. They observe those outside, dripping perspiration, and settle even more complacently into their seats.
Several vendors enter the coach. A blast of hot air enters along with them, causing the people sitting nearest to the doors to glare at the new entrants. Unperturbed, the vendors begin to chant their wares. One hawks newspapers and magazines. Another walks up and down, saying ‘Coffee, coffee, Nescafe,’ in a low but penetrating voice. He pronounces it ‘Café, Café, Nescoffee’. The sound of the words is irresistible to the sleepy passengers. Soon, he is doing roaring business.
Another vendor, with rather poor timing, tries to hawk small clay pots of curd and ice-cream, but custom is slow. The lunch of an hour ago sits heavy in the stomachs of most passengers. A small boy, dressed in rags that reveal his malnourished body, begins to sweep the aisle and the cubicle floors. The passengers welcome this service, and pay a few coins to the urchin after he finishes, but they keep a hawk eye on the child’s movements. It is well known that these vendors and children are quite likely to go out with a passenger’s shawl or sandals stuffed under their shirts. A family enters the compartment. Three adults and two children. They are preceded by two red-shirted coolies who balance the family’s luggage on their heads. They move slowly down the aisle, looking for the numbers of their berths. Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three—yes, here they are. They move into the cubicle. The sole occupant of the cubicle, a middle-aged man who has had the whole section to himself all this while, good-naturedly removes his luggage and reading material from the other three berths. He had assumed, happily, that this booth would be his alone for the length of the journey. But he is not annoyed, though he does look askance at the two children as they enter. He hopes that they will not make too much of a noise, and will allow him to continue his siesta, undisturbed.
The family carries a large amount of luggage. Suitcases are pushed under the berths, and chained and locked securely. Large carrybags and a huge tiffin carrier are stowed wherever space is available. A large water bottle is slung from a hook. Handbags are placed in corners, packets are put on the upper bunk.
The door opens again, and another vendor comes in. He is a young man, tall, with a smiling, open face. His face is shiny with perspiration, coating it with a sheen that makes his coffee-coloured skin gleam like satin. He wears a brown cotton sleeveless vest that is much cleaner than most other vendors’ and a green checked lungi. Well-muscled arms carry bunches of green coconuts, slung at two ends of a short pole that he carries across his shoulders. A huge dao, curved like a pirate’s scimitar, hands innocently from the sash at his waist.
The passengers are not hot, but the dry air inside the coach has made them thirsty. The green-coconut vendor is soon busy. His dao flashes up and down as he neatly slices off the tops of the coconuts. He takes out a plastic straw from the bag slung from his shoulder, and inserts it into the hole that he has made in the coconut before handing it to his customer. The water is sweet, he assures them with a smile, the coconut is tender, just right for a hot day like this, cool and refreshing. Judging by the brisk sales that he makes, his claims are not tall. His customers hand him back the empty husks after they finish gulping down the sweet water thirstily. He collects them into a neat pile, and places them near the door, where they sit like a pile of moss-covered, discarded skulls. He will throw them out later.
With smooth, jerk-free movements, the train pulls out of the station, and quickly picks up speed. Soon, the long train is once more out on the open plain. The other vendors have left through the door, probably to go to other compartments. The coconut-water vendor remains inside the AC coach. The passengers, refreshed with sleep, cooled air and tender coconut water, are in a mood to chat. It has been a long journey, across half the subcontinent. They have already talked with their co-passengers. Names have been exchanged, details of family, job, purpose of this journey—everything has been discussed. The coconut vendor, young, smiling and good-natured, is just the person to chat with now.
The new passengers have spread themselves out on the lower bunk. They have yet to settle down properly. The man sitting opposite them introduces himself. He is Sharma, from a city more than a thousand kilometres away in the North. He smiles in a friendly fashion at the two small children. The younger one, a toddler dressed, somewhat incongruously for this journey, in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, complete with red bow tie, smiles back and waves at him. His sister, seven or eight years old, stares at him, and looks away.
The man with them, the father of the two children, acknowledges the greeting briefly, and goes back to trying to arrange some more space for his family on the bunks. Sharma, shrugging, goes back to his India Today. Once, more, he hopes that the children will not make too much noise. He likes children, sure, who doesn’t? But only up to a point.
The two women tuck their legs under their saris, and lean back. They are mother and daughter. The same features, the same colouring, are replicated faithfully. The only difference between them is their build, and the few lines and wrinkles on the face of the older one. The young girl also has the same features as the two women. But in her, something seems to have gone wrong. It is as though an artist’s hand slipped while he was drawing her face. Every feature seems more exaggerated. The eyes are more bulbous, the teeth protrude. Indeed, the child cannot close her mouth properly over her teeth at all.
The women, like the toddler and the child, are overdressed for a journey like this. Heavy silk saris rustle as they move on the plastic-covered berth. Thick chains, bracelets, rings and earrings, mostly faux gold, gleam and glisten with their every movement. Black-beaded mangalsutras are prominent around their necks. Only their sandals are shabby, not quite in keeping with the splendour of their finery. Besides, their feet, now peeping out from under the borders of their saris as they sit cross-legged on the berth, are chapped.
It is apparent, even at a casual glance, that the younger woman is with child. Not heavily so, but the round bulge beneath her green silk sari is unmistakable. She sits in the way all pregnant women do, with her body thrown back to balance the weight of her belly. She carries the toddler in her lap, seeming not to care that his feet and hands occasionally kick her stomach. In spite of the cooled air that rushes out from the overhead ducts, the woman is still sweating. Perhaps it is her pregnancy, perhaps it is the heavy silk clothes that she is wearing. Or perhaps it is something else, some tension that she carries with her, a burden that cannot be left behind at the station, like the heat. The beads of perspiration continue to pop out on her forehead and upper lip, long after she has settled down.
The other child, the girl, sits with her grandmother. In spite of her age, she, too, has jewellery around her neck and arms. Hoops twinkle at her ears. All faux gold.
It is obvious that something is the matter with the child. She lies with her head on her grandmother’s lap, and her legs sprawled towards the walls of the coach. Her arms move constantly, and her hands clench and unclench by themselves all the time. But there is delight on her face. She laughs and chuckles to herself, drawing back her lips to expose strong teeth, as she feels the vibrations of the speeding train beneath her. Her grandmother talks to her at times, speaking as one would to a normal child. For the most part, her mother ignores her, except to sometimes roughly push back the child’s wandering hands. Sometimes, after the girl laughs particularly loudly, or kicks too hard at the opposite wall, the mother glances covertly at Sharma as he sits opposite them, to gauge his reaction. There is shame in her glance, and guilt. The magazine in his hands hides Sharma’s face.
Excerpted from A Full Night’s Thievery and Other Stories by Mitra Phukan, published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016.