© Geoff Oliver Bugbee (www.geoffbugbee.com)
There is, in fact, a man I remember with a suitcase. I met him on a train. On the Grand Trunk Express, to be precise, some twenty or more years ago — Grand Trunk Express? A coincidence of name? If you know about great railway journeys or have watched television programmes about them, then you might be aware of the Grand Trunk Express. It runs daily between New Delhi and Madras Central Station, or Chennai Central, as it is now known, stopping at 36 stations along the way. The journey famously takes 35 hours and 35 minutes, so that if you left New Delhi at about 8pm this evening, you would reach Madras early in the morning day after tomorrow. The journey is a magnificent one, crossing as you do the length of India, from the north to the south. Most maps don’t really tell you the truth about distances in India. Perhaps because Europe tends to lie at the centre of maps we get here, India seems marginal and small and all bunched up. So it is not till you get there that you realize how vast India really is. In a single journey, the GT Express, as everyone fondly calls it, covers 2186 kilometres, making it one of the longest train journeys in the subcontinent.
I shared a compartment with this man. He slept on the upper bunk opposite me, while I had the use of a lower one. Below him an elderly lady settled in and her son, who slept on the bunk above mine, was, she told me, accompanying her on a pilgrimage to South India. In an unspoken act of chivalry, the men, it seemed, had left the lower bunks to us ladies. For most of the 35 hours, the old lady chanted prayers, stopping only to eat or sleep. Sometimes, she sung them and other times she recited slokas in Sanskrit. Nobody seemed to mind. The blessings she sought might just come by our way too. Her voice melded with the landscape that went coursing by. By mid-morning the day after we left, the faded greens and dust of northern India were giving way to the denser colours of the tropics. The earth began to turn red as we headed south and the trees were thicker and darker green. At one point I fell asleep, only to be woken by a small hand patting my head. Startled, I jumped up. I turned and saw that the hand came in through the open window and belonged to a little child selling sliced mangoes. Sister, buy some, please, she was saying. We had stopped at yet another station. At every station the children crowded at the windows, trying to sell us fruit, matches, cigarettes, pens. The old lady’s son, a young man of thirty or so, kept busy going in and out of the compartment. He would get down at each station and stretch his legs. Once or twice he came in with four cups of very hot, very sweet tea, refusing to take money for the drinks. At mealtimes, when the waiters came by, we ate solemnly, with the knowledge that if we did not eat what we got, we would have to go hungry. As the train lurched along, the old lady smiled at me from time to time. Then she began to speak to me. The lady seemed concerned that I was travelling alone. She asked if I was married. When I said no, she appeared worried. Why not, she asked in a hush voice. Is there any problem? No, I said. Then why not, she insisted. I hesitated. I don’t know, maybe because I haven’t met the right person yet, I finally replied. She found that funny. Like a little girl, she burst into peels of laughter. ‘Child!’ she said, ‘that only happens in cinemas! In real life, God finds us a man and we live with him. So stop looking for the right man and do as God says.’ On the second night, the old lady’s son unpacked a small cassette player and played some music. Kabhie kabhi mere dil me khayal aatha hai … Every Indian, diasporic or desi, knows the song. The old lady sang along. So did her son. The sounds of the flute and the shehnai floated out over the passing fields and villages, song clouds that brought rain with them. Once we had crossed Maharashtra, the rains met us. The monsoon moves northward in India, hitting the south first of all.
Only the man on the bunk above the old lady did not speak at all. He sat up throughout the trip, a suitcase by his side. It was a small brown one, with an old-fashioned padlock on it. He even slept sitting up, a pillow propped up behind his head, the blanket thrown over his huddled knees. The first morning, he removed a key from the inner pocket of his waistcoat and carefully unlocked the suitcase. I was amazed. Inside were sunglasses with an assortment of frames, all in bright colours – light pink, deep pink, indigo, navy blue, lime green, yellow, black, silver, gold and many, many more. There might have been a hundred or more pairs of sunglasses in there. Every now and then the man would remove the pair that he was wearing, put it back in the suitcase and then take out another one and put it on. The garish colours of the frames contrasted with his sombre dress – a grey cotton kurta salwar with a respectable waistcoat on top. In thirty-five hours, he must have done this at least thirty-five times. Maybe more. Below him, the old lady carried blithely on with her prayers, unable to see what he was doing, while I watched them both from my bunk facing them. Of course, I could never really tell where he was looking, as his eyes were always covered by the dark lenses.
We reached Madras Central at about 6am. The Grand Trunk Express has some 25 coaches, all of which are usually so very full that people have even perched perilously on top of the train throughout the journey to hitch a free ride. The crowd was thick and chaotic as we stepped off the train. Everyone seemed to be talking at the same time. I turned to say good-bye to the old lady and her son. ‘May you live long, my child,’ she said. She patted my cheek fondly with her right hand.
The man with the suitcase stepped out behind me and walked past us. He did not look at us or say good-bye. He seemed eager to get going. A porter went running up to him and took the case from him. The porter wore a coiled cloth on his head. Dexterously, he hoisted the suitcase up onto the top of his head and walked quickly behind the man down the length of the platform. I watched them go, until they finally disappeared in the milling crowd.
In holding this suitcase in my hand, that scene from so long ago surfaces unexpectedly. Of what use are memories?
One word alone comes to mind: regeneration.
© Parvati Nair, 2008