Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Coward - being a comedy in two parts

The midday sun shone mercilessly over the barren tract of land. The bleak dusty monotony of the landscape was only broken by the steel railway track. It was that part of Punjab where the desert winds from Rajasthan mated with the alluvium of the five rivers. Life here moved slowly and steadily; at a pace no one could detect.
At some point of time, black smoke in the distant horizon signaled the coming of the metal monster that men these days clung so desperately to get to the other side. Ah, these are troubled times, and a drowning man may clutch at straws. Especially if the situation has been brought about by their own passions, which, nurtured carefully by wordsmiths and mountebanks, opened a Pandora'a Box leading to an exodus unseen since the days of Moses.
The train, run by the Northern Railways, was from Lahore to Umballa.  The strange thing about it was that it did not look like a train. Like parasites or some quick spreading fungi, human beings stuck out from every side of it.  In some ways it looked a comical sight, the engine angrily rushing forward spewing black smoke, with thousands of people chugging alone, gasping for their next breath amidst that smoke.  It looked very alive, this metal-man apparition; ugly but alive.
Inside one of its crowded bowels sat Ram Lal. He was once a moderately well to do shopkeeper in Karachi. Some days ago, for he had really lost count since when his nightmare had began, his shop had been looted and razed by an angry mob demanding Pakistan.  What was the connection between him and the mob not getting Pakistan he did not know; for he cared neither for British India, Hindustan -Pakistan or anything. He cared only for his family. But his family was today an old photograph taken at the China bazaar. He shuddered as he remembered the thick black smoke coming out of the temple in his gully. So now he was alone on this train, going to the land of his ancestors, of which he had heard only fables from his grandmother.
Inside the sweat smelling bogey, every-body was in a stupor. In front of Ram Lal, there sat a man with his wife and five children. The youngest one, a toddler of about three started crying. In their stupor, no one paid any attention. After five minutes, the man turned and slapped him. The cry got shriller, and after some time, stopped. Kids are most irritating when they cry. It was better this way, a stifling silence punctuated by the regular chug chug of the train, some how obscenely soporific.
"God, it is this heat!" said the old man sitting beside Ram Lal, "and the times." No one wanted to discuss the times.  They were bad, no doubt.  But the times were a reality.  And in India, reality is discussed only in gossip, to be overheard and further gossiped about. Thus spread the stories of the various massacres in and around Punjab, in Bengal and elsewhere, each more vicious than the last one. Nevertheless, the old man went on. "They killed my only son.  My daughter-in-law jumped down the well to save her izzat", pride in his voice as he remembered the heroic deed.  Perhaps he sought comfort in this hollow protestation of valor, or maybe he did not care that his family was dead.  The only sound answering the old man was the humming of the flies that were feeding off the perspiration and the festering open wounds of the passengers.
Ram Lal scratched his stubble and looked through the window. A station was approaching.  It was one of those odd little places which had no real existence, except perhaps in the Bradshaw. Generally nobody even got in or out at that place.  But today there was a sizable crowd waiting. The train chugged to a stop and a cry arose that sped from the front to the rear of the train as fast as fear tingling down our spines.
It was a common cry these days. A composite of many cries, it symbolized many things fear, helplessness, grief, rage but chiefly, death. That a pack of wolves have attacked another pack of wolves, but the latter were temporarily clothed in sheepskin. Thus hindered, the second pack suffered some casualties before shedding its skin. Reader take comfort in this, deep inside all of us there exists a murderer!




Part 2 here.