How long does a journey have to be before it qualifies as one? I ask because I’ve had some that were four feet long, some 25 feet, others that were the length of India, and yet others that, with a slender needle of a silver plane, tacked together great sheets of ocean and continent. The four-foot journey was the longest.
Four feet is the breadth of an average surgical cot. For two years it was the breadth of my world too—a world that smelt of cold, canned oxygen, and sweetly sickening ether. I was leashed to life with lengths of tube and watched, slack-armed and limp-legged, as a ventilator, with measured pomposity, bullied the blood in my veins from sluggish blue into throbbing red. It seemed to me that I was trapped between two temperature zones—the tundra of a heavily air-conditioned intensive care unit, and the torrid heat of the ulcerative colitis that boiled and bubbled in my large intestine.
There were red lights and green signals on this four-foot trip too, just as there had been on the subcontinental journeys of my railway years. The way I was positioned lying on my side like a child’s rag doll, and looking through the railings of the surgical cot, it seemed to me that the world had bars superimposed on it and life could be viewed only in segments, if one had to make sense of it.
Hushed references by the doctors to parts of myself that I hadn’t known existed
before and were called the ‘cerebellum’ and the ‘cerebrum’, made me
eventually understand that for reasons known only to my central nervous system, I had
developed a rare complication—polyneuritis. That helped explain why turning from one
side to another across the four-foot breadth of surgical cot was for a long while the
impossible journey—the hardest of my 33 years of life. One day, I did succeed in
manoeuvering myself about with the clumsiness of an upturned beetle. But that took two
months. Till then, fortunately, I had my mind.
I don’t know where the brain ends and the mind begins, but even when neuro-signals went wrong and stalled my body like a bogie in a railway siding, my mind travelled in memory, untethered. And in my mind the signals were mostly green—a moving on, along the great Indian railway map, leaving behind the crew-cut lawns that bordered army parade grounds in Jabalpur for the hillsides of Garo, where panthers promenaded by moonlight; grinding along old railway tracks, with the fireflies of Assam behind us and the lights of Madras ahead. I say ‘us’ because we had travelled as a family from station to station on Indian soil wherever my father’s work took him.
Nobody who wasn’t a ‘railway child’ in the ’60s will quite
understand what it meant to be ‘transferred’! Life in the old posting was always
carefully dismantled and packed away, together with furniture in crates and crockery in
wooden cases, to be reassembled in a new ‘somewhere’. There were transfer
certificates and report cards from old schools to new ones, and farewell parties and
goodbye treats—and I was always rather heartlessly glad. When you were in a place it
f-o-r-e-v-e-r; and when you went, you went, in happy anticipation of a great blaze of impending glory that seemed to flutter like a pennant around every curve of the railway line.On departure day, excitement and a sense of adventure so bumped into each other inside me that it appeared my heart could hardly afford other emotions. The autograph books were signed in and shamelessly dated ‘for eternity’; promises were made to write to ‘best’ school friends, and then—‘good-bye! goodbye!’, we were flagged off into the future. By the time we reached the station and boarded the railway officer’s saloon that was to be our home-in-between-homes, familiar faces had already, if imperceptibly, misted over in memory. We delighted, instead, in the novelty of meals on wheels, sofas that metamorphosed into beds at night, and limitless supplies of iced water from saloon fridges that smelt faintly and exotically of coal smoke. Then the old and generally asthmatic steam engine would strain on its metallic lungs—and we were on our way, cheerfully exchanging old landscapes for new ones! We children always chorused in rhythm with great engine wheels as they gathered speed with unexpected efficiency—"Cheese and Biscuits, Cheese and Biscuits, Fish n’ Chips, Fish n’ Chips, So - oo - up!"
The engine, as it always seemed to me, responded with a chorus of its own. "There’s more-to-come! There’s more-to-come! Come on! Come on! Come on!" It urgently exhorted its long line of recalcitrant carriages to embark zestfully on yet another arduous journey. We stood at the windows, which also had bars, but horizontal ones not vertical, and waved to India on both sides of the tracks. Merrily tattered children on buffalo back in bearded rice fields, and crowds of commuters, sweating patiently at railway crossings, waved back. It made me imagine that all the world loved a traveller, and I felt good! "Sad to say, I’m going away! I’ll come back a-n-o-t-h-e-r day!" I called out to the vanishing township. I never did to any of my father’s old postings—but one. And that was to Bombay, to Woden Row, to Beryl Court as it dreamed the scurrying years away.
I never left Beryl Court behind so, in a sense, there was no ‘re-turning’ to it. It was always there—the boldest scrawl in the palimpsest of memory. In a way, there were two Beryl Courts—the earlier and the later. The earlier was when we first moved from Calcutta to Bombay, in the ’60s.
When I was five, the younger set at Beryl had a circus. In lieu of wild animals we had Elmo Samuel’s dogs and Ravi Pothan’s mother’s ill-tempered cat. I was shamelessly exhibited as a ‘Boneless Wonder’ in spite of my knobbly knees and spiny arms. With the rich proceeds we treated ourselves to pani-puri eaten off a cart. On the way back the boys squirted a lolling drunk with iced pepsi cola, "just to make sure that he was still alive", and we enjoyed all the heart-stopping thrill of a chase by an individual with murder in his eyes.
We came from everywhere to Beryl, but when we were there it was like a real-life version of Happy Families. The railways did that to people. I guess it’s because nobody ever stayed on long enough for minor annoyances to acquire a more serious complexion. The old lime-green wooden shed in the garden was the children’s ‘club house’. We met there to plan the week’s activities: kite flying and cricket matches, trading in Superman and Phantom comics, panja competitions, and games of monopoly. Our monopoly set was cleverly ‘home made’ by the older boys and girls, and in a way was reflective of the culture of Beryl Court. On it strange names hobnobbed amicably with each other—Grosvenor Square and Dhobitalao, Berlin and Parel.
Every now and then a new shoot of excitement poked through the earth beneath our feet! One day, someone announced with dreadful relish that parts of a dead body had been discovered in a bonfire in a back garden lane and hugging ourselves with excitement, we rushed out to see. It turned out to be only a set of discarded dentures.... Then the clock on Raja Bhai Towers struck six and everyone raced home to tea.
When Mohan Pothan completed marine engineering and sailed away on a ship to Borneo;
when Elmo was sent to boarding school in Bangalore; when we were transferred away to an
upcountry station in central India, the earlier Beryl Court ‘ended’.
The magic threshold had been crossed by the time I returned to Beryl for one last year. Father had by then retired from the railways and the family moved to our hometown in the south. But I went up the coast to Bombay to spend a year before I got down to earning a postgraduate degree in literature. My aunt and uncle lived in Beryl Court and they asked if I’d like to stay with them. I did.
When Malathi Jhanji invited me to join Dionysius—a drama club that met every week in an upper floor flat of Rafique Chambers down the road from Beryl, I didn’t realise that my membership thereof would shape many of the future journeys of my life. The Dionysius crew was a motley one. There was Gerson Creado, Nathan, Arathi and Samir. There were yet others, but I can’t remember them clearly except for one more—Vipin.
Vipin was a ‘journeyed’ individual too, and he was destined to undertake one last great trip in his life. "My father was a doctor," he explained to me, "and when he was still young, he met an American medical missionary, Dr Thomas Dooley, who was in Delhi on his way to a jungle hospital in Laos. Dooley, as my father told me, had a gift for opening people’s hearts to an awareness of the world’s problems. He opened my father’s too. My father then worked helping the young Indian government control the spread of tuberculosis among unfortunate Tibetan refugees streaming into India. My father opened my heart in turn—and that’s what I want to do more than any thing else. Not in Laos. We have our own ‘Laoses’ in India, and when I finish studying medicine, one of them will be my life."
After every performance in the Dionysius, Gerson, with his eyes behind his spectacles shining like those of an eager beaver, insisted on what he called ‘a postmortem’. One season, the play was ‘badly mauled’ and the ‘postmortem’ was a particularly long-drawn-out agony. Vipin and I decided that we did not want to witness anyone being turned into fresh minced meat. So we slipped out into the evening lights.
In five minutes we were puttering down past the Causeway, past Sassoon Docks, and out towards the tree-lined charm of Navy Nagar. But Vipin suddenly turned off into a side road and worked the car into a lattice of streets and back alleys and busy main roads that I hardly knew where we were going, except that the sights and smells outside were forever Bombay. There were old childhood smells of peppermint in glass bottles in pavement shops, agarbathi from a Hindu shrine, and roasted gram sprinkled liberally with salt and lime and sold in paper cones in the band stand. And there were new sights since I’d been here last—video parlours and burger joints, both bursting at the seams with collegians out on an evening’s date. We stopped at Cuffe Parade and walked on freshly toasted sand and looked out to the sea.
I recall looking at a brave little boat and thinking that beyond the flaming bowl of the horizon, beyond Africa and Europe, beyond the Atlantic, thousands of Asians were charting new territory for themselves on the great American map. I said to Vipin, "Funny how that little boat is ploughing eastwards, and yet most people I know are chanting ‘Westward Ho!’." And Vipin looked at me with a sad world of understanding in his deep-set eyes. He said, "And what do you say?" I wasn’t sure what I’d say—so I said nothing. But I know now that though we stood next to each other with the same sea wind ruffling our hair, Vipin, in that moment, had grown almost imperceptibly distant.
Then we were on our way again, wheeling about the streets of my childhood and I felt a sense of deja vu strike my consciousness like a breaker on the shore. To my left an old stone building took shape in the dusk, almost out of my past. Jhansi Castle, that was its name, was richly evocative with its spiral wrought iron staircases, grey fretted stone balconies, and long narrow deep-set windows. The romance of it came seeping back over the years to this moment in the car with Vipin.
"Do you see that, Vipin," I pointed to Jhansi Castle, "it’s been rebuilt. But when I was a child there was an accidental fire there in which a man was killed. He couldn’t get out in time because he’d had polio and was confined to a wheel chair. I remember seeing him sit on a balcony, when I was a child all those years ago, and play on a mouth organ. He played with his soul. His favourites were Come September and Evergreen Tree. You know, I almost expect to hear it waft down again now, "Oh darling, will our love stay like an evergreen tree?"
Vipin slowed down the car for a bit and said gravely, "Yes—will it?"
I had a feeling, in that moment of standing in my past and journeying into the future, with no particular phase of existence called the ‘present’. I could hear old mouth organ melodies, and see Vipin’s jungle hospital that ‘would be’. Hutments and unwashed humanity; eradicable disease, yet chronic and deadly—could you, should you fashion life out of the substance of someone else’s dreams? I suppose I hesitated. Maybe I shrugged my shoulders just a bit. I can’t remember. And then, I guess, I lost him forever. Only Vipin was not just ‘someone else’.
There was journeying once again. I left and never did return to live in Beryl, It’s true I came back once more, but only as a passerby. For the rest, I just carried it in my mind and heart wherever I went. As for Vipin, he travelled far, to a remote village called Nambari which, by coincidence, was in Garo. He wrote now and then and the letters, when they arrived, were travel stained and many-sealed. Sometimes they spoke of quiet satisfaction at the battles barely won against disease and ignorance, and sometimes of bravely fought despair. I still have his missives carefully preserved in a chest of drawers, but more importantly, cherished in memory. One says, "Nambari is one of history’s forgotten villages. The progress made by independent India seems to have tiptoed past its borders. Prejudices are stubborn—it is all but impossible to convince people to believe in what they can’t see. And because they can’t—people die. Witch doctor types are still called in to treat bites from rabid dogs. A man contracted hydrophobia. Honestly, I’ve never been so frightened in my life. Yet I must stay on. I dislike a coward. At sunset the only light we have outdoors is the cold phosphorescence of fireflies. I have only my old transistor to remind me that I’m still in India.There are so many Nambaris...I sometimes almost despair. There’ll need to be many more workers in the field before we have anything like a clean patch."
The last line remained with me as I studied for and completed my MA in English Literature.
So Vipin built his jungle hospital, there in an indescribable Indian beyond, while I studied in a comfortable, clean and homely South Indian town. But in spite of the miles, and the fact that the letters were punctuated now by long months of silence, I kept ‘in touch’ with Vipin—in my mind. So, I ‘knew’ it in the bones of me that something wasn’t quite as it should be with him. His last letter carried a postscript which said, "Wish you were here." I thought it over. However, family circumstances decided that I would have to go to the United States for four months before returning to a ‘suitable’ job in a leading ladies’ college. When I returned, I promised myself, there would be a long journey to Nambari.
Then one late winter day in America, a letter arrived from cloudy-headed Samir Badhwar. A single line caught my eye and sent room temperatures sinking to sub-zero. Samir said as matter-of-factly as possible, "Vipin’s gone down to Calcutta for a bit. He has chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. A bone marrow job might be the best thing, but finding a donor won’t be easy. Besides, he says, he’d rather spend the next year working in his jungle retreat than the next three in a hospital bed. I’ll say the man is brave."
An arrow in my heart quivered. A line returned unaided, "There’ll need to be many more workers in the field...." It was like a finger pointing at me, a symbolic, "This means You." I didn’t feel guilty, just very sad that I’d failed Vipin somehow.
The years customarily secret away both memory and pain. I let them hide, in the burrows of time the sadness of Vipin’s death six months later, but not his memory nor the wisdom that had been so painfully acquired.
With Vipin’s last plea impaled all the while in my heart, I taught charming young women English. Then one October, I caught sight of a government notice inviting teachers and graduates to extend "honorary, noble and selfless service to the needy and underprivileged in an ‘each one teach one’ literacy, health and hygiene programme". You had a range of unhappy locations to choose from. I chose the one furthest from home—partly because, I argued, that would be the most challenging, and partly because I was impelled by a swell of sentimentality. Teen Taro village was in parched country off the Jamshedpur-Chandil road. But it appealed to me by being very, very roughly, in that sector of India where Vipin had worked and died. It seemed a good second-best to Nambari.
I clattered along on the Howrah Mail, with six other ‘noble teachers and graduates’. The engine, a pompous red and yellow diesel contraption, blustered along the sweep of the east coast. There was no fluttering pennant of impending glory for me now around every sinuous bend of steel rail, just a great canvas painted with the colours of sad recollection. We stopped by a wayside station. The cold finger of a north Indian autumn poked through the grey tent of early morning. The air was thick with the smell of spent engine fuel. I gently rolled the tiny earthen cup of tea about between my palms and allowed myself to luxuriate briefly in the sugared comfort of hot spiced chai. But my eyes picked out the sullen purple hills to the east and I thought, "Over that way, Vipin once lived and worked under incredible circumstances. Had he the comfort of hot tea on a cold morning—I wonder....He had once said that the least attractive part of his day was mealtime. So what kept him puttering on with neither luxury nor obvious love (except mine which had percolated uncertainly over distant miles)? And why was I travelling to Teen Taro anyway?" The answer came to me in fragments—over space and time.
In Teen Taro village, after the last session of teaching the alphabet in Hindi and English for the day was over, it came to me that I was catching up with destiny. Or was it destiny catching up with me? I couldn’t say. I only remember looking up at a sky lit bright as a Durga pooja pandal and thinking, "Where do we go from here? Where did Vipin? And wherever he is, does he know that I’ve kept my tryst with destiny?"
A month later, an old rattle trap of a mini bus with sloping seats bumbled along lopsided dirt roads on its way to the Tata Nagar railway station.
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