01 January 1970

One Night On The Train

Do you know this is the first time we are going anywhere on a train?

One night on the train
One night on the train Shutterstock

Do you know we have never really gone anywhere, except the big vegetable market near our village and once or twice the town where our father used to work till he died? Never? Aniyathi always said that trains reminded her of monsters hiding inside long tunnel-like nightmares, red-eyed monsters who would shriek and rush at her just when she was falling into a safe, deep sleep.  She used to be so scared of them that she would turn her head away and hide behind my shoulder every time they appeared on TV in some movie. Usually, when our Amoomma came from Chennai, she would tell us how crowded and hot the train was this time, or how she almost left behind her ticket and her purse on the platform, or how she had packed cold curd rice and lemon pickle for herself this time to eat at night instead of chapathis and fried potato curry, how she always slept better on trains that bumped and jolted away the whole night as if a ghost was shaking them than on a bed that stayed dead-still inside a room that was not going anywhere. Her saree would smell a little when she first hugged us, of smoke, cigarette ash, sweat and other people’s food and of course the nice washing powder she used. She always reached our house early in the morning and her unwashed eyes would be heavy with newly lifted sleep – 

We came to the railway station this afternoon in a big taxi car – also, the first time we were getting inside a car, the first time we were…oh well, so many such things for the first time! It is as if Aniyathi and I have fallen through the earth and landed on its other side where everything is the same but completely different, except that we are still walking on our feet and my little sister is holding my hand, tightly because that can never change.

They took us across the river to the other side for the ceremonies they had to conduct for Achchan’s ashes – we went by boat of course. It makes me feel odd remembering all that now. Aniyathi and I don’t remember ever going across the river before that though we lived so close to it all these years. We never needed to. It was bright and calm that day. Everything looked green and pretty as went slowly across the water, slower than usual because of what we were carrying with us, I think. Our neighbours – the twins and their parents too came with us maybe because they really wanted to be kind to us. One of the twins, Bindu, sat with us in our boat and kept looking at the clay pot placed in the middle, covered in shiny red silk, as if she was a little afraid of it. She was very quiet that day though they both usually have a sharp way of talking and laughing all the time -- and I felt like laughing that day – I did not, of course – what was there to be afraid of now? Definitely not our father’s ashes and bones in front of us – and not even whole bones were in there but only bits and pieces that were left behind from the burning --
You see, I had managed to look when they were scooping the ashes into the pot – I left Aniyathi inside our room with a handful of peanut sweets in her hand, next to Amma who had dozed off peacefully and I went and hid behind the front window – I think I saw one or two long-ish, hard looking bones charred black like Achchan’s angry eyes that I can never forget – and a whole lot of crumbling lumps  – the man filled up the pot and then poured in handfuls of grey ash too – then wrapped it all up tightly in a square piece of red cloth, the way Georgettan packs idlis and sambar  in pieces of old newspaper at the teashop . As I stood there staring, I heard Amoomma enter the room and I froze. She came to the window too, silently, like a tree spirit, in her greyish green saree and stood there watching, like I was watching.  She slipped out after a few minutes, maybe to receive the red-wrapped bundle – which later came on the boat with us on our first boat trip ever – it took us about an hour to get to the place because we were going against the current and nothing would make the boatman hurry, once he knew where we were going and why. Bindu had smuggled packets of masala peanuts inside her churidar shawl and she gave them to us on the return trip. Everybody was more cheerful when we were returning, I thought, not just Bindu, maybe because the ashes and bones were safely gone – well on their way to the big sea which is at least a few miles from here – scattered and lost in all that water – never to come our way again – never to find us again --
When we got home though there was a scare – we could not find our Amma anywhere and the doors of our house were lying open. Amma was not taken on the boat trip because Amoomma said it was not necessary. She is the one deciding everything now, naturally. She has taken over from our father though sometimes she does look in my direction before she says something. Maybe she sees something new in my face now. Maybe she expects me to help her, or maybe she is wondering about what I think – like about what really happened to Achchan at Georgettan’s place that morning. Or at our home, the previous night. Or why she did not ask anyone to come and call us out of school that whole day even though our father had just dropped down dead in front of half the village and instead, let us go through a normal day of school which then became one of the best days ever – along with the twins who still know nothing about us  except what we told them that day – on that day we escaped  for a little bit of time--

Amoomma bought us tea and snacks at the station as we waited for the train. She made me sit next to Amma on one of those shiny plastic chairs that look nice but stick to your skin and are not comfortable at all, while she took Aniyathi with her to buy food. Amma is doing much better now, Amoomma says that all the time and I want to believe her. That day, when Amma went missing, Amoomma was so calm. She just stood there and said, Molamma thirichu varum, she will come back, she must be somewhere around here. Avalu varum, she’ll be alright, we will find her and take her away, won’t we, girls? She’ll be alright…

But I have never felt terror like I did that day. Our Amma, who hardly talks, hardly smiles, hardly know us most of the time, whose palms are as soft as a baby’s, as thin as a ghost’s, who can easily fall into a well or keep walking till she reaches a village where nobody knows her or will be kind to her. She frightens easily, cannot bear loud voices and has tunes playing in her head at times that keep her from hearing anything said to her even if it is shouted out as Achchan used to when he was home.  I wanted to run as far as I could and scream her name while our neighbours were beginning to search for her and even arguing about whether they should call the police. That is when Amma turned up, rather, she was found standing at our gate, right outside – the first time in our life we were seeing her outside our little compound – nobody understood where she had been or why – or how she had made her way out and back now. I knew she had come back to us though, Aniyathi and me who loved her the most, who she may have loved the most if she knew about such things.

Our faces were one-half each of hers, weren’t they? She must have remembered us when she looked up at the sky or stood at the edge of the shiny river.! She came back so that we could sleep on either side of her every night whether she noticed it or not, we could breathe into her chest and stomach, breathe the sharp detergent smell of her saree and hear her mutter strange words that she did not use while awake, feel her hands move and her restless fingers sometimes brush against our skin. Look out for how her eyes occasionally brighten with a little light when nobody is really looking at her, for a tiny, tiny second – this of course only I have seen, sometimes when I got back from school – or think I have – and will never tell anyone, will never share, not even with Aniyathi who has me to love her and give her good memories -- 

So, on the railway platform today, as we all waited for the train, I held our mother’s hand tightly the whole time and she smiled at me, twice. Or maybe it was the sunlight falling all over her thin face, who knows. She is looking neat and almost like a young girl now, the way she must have looked long, long ago. Amoomma has made her wear a small pottu and combed her hair into a neat button of a bun for this journey. Amoomma washed her face with soap, chose a saree for her and helped her wear it properly, with the pleats pinned nicely on her shoulder. There is nothing that Amoomma won’t do for our mother, I think. Her love for us, especially her love for Amma is like a mountain, I sometimes think. A mountain fighting with the sky and the clouds – a giant mountain that guards us and won’t let us cross it to go forward on our own – a mountain taller than Aniyathi and me even if we stand on each other’s shoulders --

She packed so carefully for all of us for this trip. Aniyathi and I naturally had no idea about how it was to be done – leaving our house like that with our belongings even or going anywhere far from the house where we had lived all our life. Ammoomma made us gather all our books and papers from school, made us throw away old clothes lying half washed and piled in the cupboard. She worked hard every day to clean the house, cook for us, sort through Amma’s things, especially the big boxes of her pills and came with us to school twice to get our certificates. She told everyone that my ‘children would be taken care of”. On our last day at school, my class teacher told us that Aniyathi and I are very lucky, all said and done, even though such a tragic thing had happened to us. Our grandmother would never let anything or anyone harm us – we are lucky – really lucky – to have someone like her to take care of all of us now --

And she is right. Amoomma has said the same thing to us many times, her eyes growing blacker than usual as she spoke. Earlier when she came to visit us, we knew that everything would be immediately different in the house for a while. It was almost as if she brought with her, some strong, dark magic that immediately changed our life. She cooked big meals for us, cleaned the house and cared for Amma in a way only she could. She kept watching over us even when we slept. She slept in the same room as the three of us, on a mattress on the floor and would wake up at the slightest sound. I have seen her sit up on her mattress in the middle of the night many times, one hand under the pillow as if she had something there. She did not realise that something had woken me up too and I was equally ready to fight for my mother and sister. In that way, I think I can almost read her mind.  

She was the only one our father was afraid of, I could see. She rarely spoke to him but when she did, he was careful and polite. She would ask him about Amma’s medicines or why Aniyathi looked thinner than the last time she saw her. Our father always gave her proper answers that would be enough for anyone else, but not her. She seemed to know and see everything that went on in our little house with its tightly closed windows and locked front door, even  when she wasn’t there. She knew everything that was dark and hidden away, everything that made my sister whimper in her sleep and me the girl who could keep quiet forever and never cry, never. She had this way of sitting by a window running a needle busily through the hem of our torn petticoats and both of us would not feel like going near her, even though we knew how much she loved us. It was as if she was thinking intensely about something so much that there was a magic ring of light around where she sat which we did not dare to cross. It might have been just the streetlight falling on her through the window, but we were a little scared at such times of our grandmother who was stronger than anyone else we knew and who saved us again and again from everything we were afraid of. We never knew what she was thinking, unless she called us to her side and told us, in a quiet, firm voice – she was not like the other grandmothers we had seen around us, for sure, who sat on the steps of their homes rubbing their knees and gossiping across fences -- maybe it was the big city she lived in that had made her this strong!

The night before Achchan died Ammoomma told all of us she was taking us away. She said it had to be now, before Aniyathi and I got older, before everything got worse…or something like that…she stared out of the window, into the forest of trees and ghosts that always seemed to be very close around our house when she was there. It must be done now, she said. She spoke softly, as if to herself, but I knew she was telling us her plans, if we cared to understand. She told us this just as we were getting ready to sleep, when the day was near its end, the time she usually told us stories. She knows so many stories and tells them so well! Aniyathi who was half-asleep had sat up quickly on the bed because this was not a story, this was better than a story!

Going away! She sat there staring at our grandmother, eyes wide open but filled with sleep, poor thing. I looked at the door to check if it was double bolted safely from the inside. It was, and so we could talk. Our mother was fast asleep, having had her medicines as usual. She lay curled up on her side like always, mouth slightly open, snoring softly, dreaming perhaps or not dreaming at all – who knew? I pulled her sheet over her chest – she catches a cold very easily. Amma muttered something in her asleep and I patted her head to calm her down. Everything was strange in our house and we were used to it, used to the way we had to live. The people I loved the most, Amma and Aniyathi, both needed to be looked after. I listened carefully to what our grandmother was saying and it sounded thrilling. We would take the train from the big station in the town, just like that, once our father went to work! Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a few days. We had to stay very quiet till then. Very quiet. Amoomma said that our father would not be able to stop us or do anything – she was certain about that, I didn’t know why. She said we would all live with her in the big city where we would be safe and Amma had a chance at getting better. She was getting worse, we could all see that, couldn’t we. She was terrified of everything now and getting more and more confused. She was even turning away from her mother now. She called out my name sometimes when she needed something, but barely made a sound otherwise.

A word from Achchan, and she crumpled up like used paper. Amma was the most terrified of him, of course, Amoomma repeated to us and we knew it to be true. And for us girls, there would be a nice school not very far away from home, Sunday trips together to the beach that we knew was a wonderful sight, new ways and nice, new people around who did not gossip and would not bother us too much. We could go to school by bus with other children if we wanted and visit the temple at the end of the street every Sunday with Amma. We could wear flowers in our hair, walk outside the house without being afraid, laugh if we wished to and never fear anyone again. Amma would be shown to a good, kind doctor and she would get better, at least a little better.

Our grandmother would take care of everything and it was all decided. Our father would not stop us and we would leave – for sure – there was a plan, both of us could feel it – I grabbed my sister’s hand and curled into my mother’s back that moved up and down, where I could feel her bumpy spine—we had to keep quiet about everything – we could do that of course --

Aniyathi’s eyes were like stars that night. She was so excited she couldn’t sleep and wouldn’t let me sleep either. I was excited too though I did not yet understand how Amoomma was planning to get us away from Achchan. I knew she had a bit of money of her own. She always wore simple but nice sarees and carried a shiny handbag that made her look a little like a teacher at our school. Her tiny earrings were real gold and she always wore a thin gold chain around her neck. She seemed to know many people back in Chennai and talked about houses where there were gardens bigger than our village and women who wore lovely silk sarees and huge, sparkling nose studs even while sitting at home and watching TV or taking naps in the afternoon. She never spoke about our grandfather. She made it sound like she lived alone even though something like a gold thaali hung from the chain around her neck. She never let us look inside her handbag or open the suitcase she always brought with her. Sometimes she would stand at the window of our room, staring into the darkness, long after she thought we had slept. 


On the train...
On the train... Shutterstock

That night she finally said to me, I will take you all away …teach these men a lesson. I have finally found a way. You know, I should have done this before…

…Or something like that – it is all jumbled up in my head now because so much happened after that night…
By the time we woke up in the morning, it had become the most exciting day ever, knowing that we would leave all this behind us soon. Vanish from under the nose of our father and reappear in a city far, far away, as if by magic and nobody would know. All of this was going to end, somehow! Achchan was in a bad mood that morning because we girls had woken up late and Amma had managed to spill  tea over the shirt he was going to wear to work. Amoomma was very polite to him as he banged on the table and flung the shirt at the wall, while we carefully hid in the shadows of the house as we packed our school bags and gobbled up our morning meal. Achchan scolded Aniyathi and threw a plate at her because he thought she laughed, but she barely noticed any of it. I was better at escaping his terrible anger and kept my head down, except when he asked me to run and get him another, clean shirt, cursing Amma and all of us under his breath. I glared at him, quickly, letting him see what I felt, quickly, and then ran inside to do as he told me to. Our mother was sitting in a corner on the floor, eyes closed and head bent into her knees. Living anywhere else would be better than this! Even if it meant that our grandmother’s strange, sharp eyes would be on us all the time.  That day too she came and stood at the gate as we left for school soon after and her face was calm as always. She patted us on our heads as she always did and smiled – we smiled back --

It was Achchan who left that day in yet another dark storm of anger, without eating anything, clenching his teeth and hands and slamming the front door loud enough to make Amma whimper again from her corner, though it always surprised me how no one in our village ever noticed anything. 

Nobody would guess anything from how he behaved once he left the house in his neatly ironed shirt and looking as calm as a sleeping fish. This I knew. I also knew that no one ever saw the fresh, pale maroon bruise turning grey like toad’s skin on Aniyathi’s bony elbow or the fading marks on my shoulder, under the sleeve of my school uniform. These marks do fade easily. Our neighbours and the girls at school, especially the twins, thought of us as those poor but lucky girls who at least had their wonderful father. They pitied us for our silent, sick mother. I have seen them stare at her if she happened to be outside. Bindu and her sister would say something to each other and then laugh quickly before looking away. Her sister is the bolder one. She is the one who invited us to go with them that day. Even then, they noticed nothing. Neither did they or anyone hear anything of the sounds of our house – the crying, the whimpering, the pushing, the shouting, the clanging of vessels and the breaking of glass sometimes. The banging and slamming of doors, the slap of hand on skin, the quiet laughing. They never came up to beyond the gate of our house and definitely not beyond our firmly locked door. They saw the two of us as two pale girls, silent and strange. The twins’ mother is the simple, kind sort. She would sometimes ask us if we were alright, but that was because she had no idea that something could be wrong. Nobody really knew why we were always silent, what we would say if anyone had asked.

We cannot talk because we have secrets, the three of us, Aniyathi, Amma and I. Of course, Amma is the best at keeping secrets. She has taken them and hidden them in a deep, distant place inside her and sits beside them day and night, pretending madness. She knows this is the only way to live if she must live. Aniyathi and I learnt instead to be silent and strange. Aniyathi learnt from me and I look out for her because she is still so young and forgetful. I do not let her out of my sight as far as possible. When I hear her cry out at night in her sleep, I stay awake till she is quiet again. I wrap her tight in her cotton sheet and pinch her lips together because she, we , have to be always absolutely silent if we have to keep living in between the world of some light and the world of terrifying darkness all on our own, like some kind of amphibians, those half grown baby frogs that I saw once in Biology class. The ones inside little glass jars that never croak but stare through the glass with their glassy eyes.

Tonight on the train, I am lying awake listening to the steady chenda-kottu of the great wheels and the rush of air outside our half open window. I am also listening to my little sister breathe freely right next to me where she climbed up to sleep after the lights went off. We must be quiet and wait for morning, as usual, the two of us and get on with the day. Nothing is different – only there is so much more to hide --now.

(Anuradha Vijayakrishnan is an Indian writer who lives in the UAE.)