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The Great Train Journey

2006-07-13 23:48

  Suraj waved to a passing train, and kept waving until only the spiraling smoke remained. He liked waving to trains. He wondered about the people in them, and about where they were going and what it would be like there. And when the train had passed, leaving behind only the hot empty track, Suraj was lonely.

  He was somewhat lonely now. His hands in his pockets, he wandered along the railway track, kicking at loose pebbles and sending them down the banking. Soon there were other tracks, a railway-siding, a stationary goods train.

  Suraj walked the length of the goods train. The carriage doors were closed and, as there were no windows, he couldn't see inside. He looked around to see if he was observed, and then, satisfied that he was alone, began trying the doors. He was almost at the end of the train when a carriage door gave way to his thrust.

  It was dark inside the carriage. Suraj stood outside in the bright sunlight, peering into the darkness, trying to recognize bulky, shapeless objects. He stepped into the carriage and felt around. The objects were crates, and through the cross-section of woodwork he felt straw. He opened the door and the sun streamed into the compartment, driving out the musty darkness.

  Suraj sat down on a packing case, his chin cupped in his hands. The school was closed for summer holidays, and he had been wandering about all day and still did not know what to do with himself. The carriage was bare of any sort of glamour. Passing trains fascinated him - moving trains, crowded trains, shrieking, painting trains, all fascinated him - but this smelly, dark compartment filled him only with gloom and more loneliness.

  He did not really look gloomy or lonely. He looked fierce at times, when he glared out at people from under his dark eyebrows, but otherwise he usually wore a contented look - and no one could guess just how deep his thoughts were!

  Perhaps, if he had company, some fun could be had in the carriage. If there'd been a friend with him, someone like Ranjit……

  He looked at the crates. He was always curious about things that were bolted or nailed down or in some way concealed from him - things like parcels and licked rooms - and carriage doors and crates!

  He went from one crate to another, and soon his perseverance was rewarded. The cover of one hadn't been properly nailed down. Suraj got his fingers under the edge and raised up the lid. Absorbed in this operation, he did not notice the slight shudder that passed through the train.

  He plunged his hands into the straw and pulled out an apple.

  It was dark, ruby-red apple, and it lay in the dusty palm of Suraj's hand like some gigantic precious stone, smooth and round and glowing in the sunlight. Suraj looked up, out of the doorway, and thought he saw a tree walking past the train.

  He dropped the apple and stared.

  There was another tree, and another, all walking past the door with increasing rapidity. Suraj stepped forward but lost his balance and fell on his hands and knees. The floor beneath him was vibrating, the wheels were clattering on the rails, the carriage was swaying. The trees were running now, swooping past the trains, and the telegraph poles joined them in the crazy race.

  Crouching on his hands and knees, Suraj stared out of the open door and realized that the train was moving, moving fast, moving away from his home and puffing into the unknown. He crept cautiously to the door and looked out. The ground seemed to rush away from the wheels. He couldn't jump. Was there, he wondered, anyway of stopping the train? He looked around the compartment again: only crates of apples. He would not starve, that was one consolation.

  He picked up the apple he had dropped, pulled a crate nearer to the doorway, sat down, took a bite from the apple, and stared out of the open door.

  “Greeting, friend,” said a voice from behind, and Suraj spun round guiltily, his mouth full of apple.

  A dirty, feared face was looking out at him from behind a pile of crates. The mouth was open wide, paan-stained grin.

  “Er-namaste”, said Suraj apprehensively. “Who are you?”

  The man stepped out from behind the crates and confronted the boy.

  “I'll have one of those too,” he said, pointing to the apple.

  Suraj gave the man an apple, and stood his ground while the carriage rocked on the rails. The man took a step forward, lost his balance, and sat down on the floor.

  “And where are you going friend?” He asked. “Have you a ticket?”

  “No,” said Suraj. “Have you?”

  The man pulled at his beard and mused upon the question but did not answer it. He took a bite from the apple and said, “No, I don't have a ticket. But I usually reserved this compartment for myself. This is the first time I've had company. Where are you going? Are you a hippy like me?”

  “I don't know”, said Suraj. “Where does the train go?”

  The scrubby ticketless traveler looked concerned for a moment and said, “Where do you want to go?”

  “I want to go everywhere,” said Suraj. “I want to go to England and China and Africa and Greenland. I want to go all over the world!”

  “Then you're on the right train,” said the man. “This train goes everywhere. First it will take you to the sea and there you will have to get on a ship if you want to go to China.”

  “How do I get on a ship?” asked Suraj.

  The man, who had been fumbling about in the folds and pockets of his shabby clothes, produced a packet of bidis and a box of matches, and began smoking the aromatic leaf.

  “Can you cook?” he asked.

  “Yes,” said Suraj untruthfully.

  “Can you scrub a deck?”

  “Why not?”

  “Can you sail a ship?”

  “I can sale anything.”

  “Then you will definitely go to China,” said the man.

  He leant back against a crate, stuck his dirty feet up on another crate, and puffed contentedly at his bidi.

  Suraj finished his apple, took another from the crate, and dug his teeth into it. He took aim with the core of the old apple and tried to hit a telegraph pole, but missed it by yards; it was not the same as throwing a cricket-ball. Then to make the apple more interesting,, he began to take big bites to see if he could devour it in three mouthfuls. But it took him four bites to finish the apple; so he started on another.

  Suraj had always wanted to be in a train, a train that would take him to strange new places, over hundreds and hundreds of miles. And here was a train doing just that, and he was not quite sure if it was what he really wanted……

  The train was coming to a station. The engine whistled, slowed down. The number of railway lines increased, crossed, spread out in different directions. Before the train could come to a stop, Suraj's companion came to the door and jumped to the ground.

  “You'd better keep out of sight if you don't want to be caught!” he warned. And waving his hand, he disappeared into the jungle across the railway tracks.

  The train was at siding, and Suraj could not see any sign of life; but he heard voices and the sound of carriage doors being-opened and closed. He suspected that the apples wouldn't stay in the compartment much longer, so he stuffed one into his pocket, and climbed on to a wooden rack in a corner.

  Presently men's voices were heard in the doorway. Two labourers stepped into the compartment and began moving the crates towards the door, where they were taken over by others. Soon the compartment was empty.

  Suraj waited until the man had gone away, before coming down from the rack. After about five minutes the train started again. It shunted up and down, then gathered speed and went rushing across the plain.

  Suraj felt a thrill of anticipation.

  Where would they be going now? He wondered what his parents would do when he failed to come home that night; they would think he had run away, or been kidnapped, or been involved in an accident. They would have the police out, and there would be search parties. Suraj would be famous: the boy who disappeared!

  The train came out of the jungle and passed fields of sugarcane and a village of mud huts. Children shouted and waved to the train though there was no one in it except Suraj, the guard and the engine-driver. Suraj waved back. Usually he was in a filed, waving; today, he was actually on the train.

  He was beginning to enjoy the ride. The train would take him to the sea. There would be ships with funnels and ships with sails, and might even be one to take him across the ocean to some distant land. He felt a bit sorry for his mother and father - they would miss him…… they would believe he had been lost for ever……! But one day, a fortune made, he would return home and then nobody would care any more about school reports and what he ate and why he came home late…… Ranjit would be waiting for him at the station, and Suraj would bring him back a present- an Africa lion, perhaps, or a transistor-radio…… But he wished Ranjit was with him now; he wished the ragged hippy was still with him. An adventure was always more fun when one had company.

  He had finished both apples by the time the train showed sign of reaching another station. This time is seemed to be moving into the station itself, not just a siding. It passed a lot of signals and buildings and advertisement-boards before slowing to a halt beside a wide, familiar platform.

  Suraj looked out of the door and caught sight of the board bearing the station's name. He was so astonished that he almost fell out of the compartment. He was back at his home town! After traveling forty or fifty miles, here he was, home again.

  He couldn't understand it. The train hadn't returned, of that he was certain; and it hadn't been moving backwards, he was certain of that too. He climbed out of the compartment and looked up and down the platform. Yes, the engine had changed ends! It was only the local apple train.

  Suraj glowered angrily at everyone on the platform. It was as though the rest of the world had played a trick on him.

  He made his way to the waiting room and slipped into the street through the back door. He did not want a ticket-collector asking him awkward questions. It had been a free ride, and with that he comforted himself. Shrugging his shoulders, Suraj sauntered down the road to the bazaar. Some day, he thought, he'd take a train and really go somewhere; and he'd buy a ticket, just to make sure of getting there.

  “I'm going everywhere”, he said fiercely. “I'm going everywhere, and no one can stop me!”

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