Saturday, December 7, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E


Journey into dappled sunshine
Raja Jaikrishan

THE toy train to Shimla picked up speed. After shanties of Parwanoo, it halted at every station. At the concrete jungle of Solan, the halt was very brief.

An old couple moved their baggage to the compartment door. The woman with coal black hair jumped out, but the man failed to leave the door bar.

He turned around to pull the chain. There wasnít one. A teenager from Karnal pressed a button. The train came to a halt with a long screech. The man got down. And wobbled to join his spouse.

A mother cow was rushing downhill. What if there was a head-on collision between the mother and the son? What if the iron-horse driven rake scraped the mother at the bend?

The light-eyed blonde with matted hair took out a knife from her rugsack. She began to cut a pear. The fruit was all she had for lunch.

She was from Vienna, the land of Mozart and Hitler. She showed little interest in music. She turned to her companion ó a tome by Irving Stone.

 


The train halted at another hard-to-recall station. I bought a packet of chips and a cup of dip-dip tea. She began to crush nuts with her yellow teeth. She moved the nut pack around the Karnal family ó the man with salt-pepper 1-mm hair, the long-necked wife and the teenaged boy and girl. She left me out. This piqued me.

A black dog and a white dog ambled near the compartment. She hurled nuts in their direction. Her delight showed in the maze of her laugh lines.

The dogs sniffed the nuts and left them for crawlers. The Viennese girl of 34 summers and the family munched on. In order to get even with her, I needled her about the Nazi past of her country. "Hitler was a fundamentalist. Like..." She swallowed the names along with the crushed nuts.

She adjusted her black-framed specks and made no effort to stretch her drooping shoulders.

She waved at children, adults, plants and rocks. Perhaps, they returned the greeting. She invariably craned her neck out to feel the air out there. And then she would return to the family with a gleeful chatter.

Unlike the snail-paced toy train, moving in jet-set trains of Vienna turns the placid castles, waterways, mountains and moors into a long trail of colours. To be able to smell the blades of grass and breathe the pine air was the reason for the cheek-to-jowl smile.

"Plucking of flowers is forbidden," read the Railways notices in black on yellow. Wild violets had sprouted from the earth between the rocks.

A pair of white goats with black spots craned their necks for leaves.

The train left the violets to the breeze, which was cool. A good-looking waif stretched her skinny hand through the window. The tome-reading Vienneseís indifference was sterner than ours.

The teenage daughter had strawberries print on her red T-shirt. Her brother occasionally teased her. She brushed him aside.

The train entered the 80th tunnel. As it slowed, I reached out for a fern. Just feeling it, didnít satisfy me. I severed it from the rest. My hand would have been spiked had I not pulled it away in time. I saved myself from natureís retribution.

A grey dog raced with the train. I followed it till it was out of sight. The swing near the log cabin was still.

The girl asked the foreigner whether she was travelling alone. Like most of us, she found her single status at 34 rather queer.

She chuckled. "It is better. One meets other tourists." The train moved away. The foliage became denser as we neared Shimla. The tall spread-out pines swung in sunshine.

The tourist stuck her head out of the window. Lest she hurt herself by jutting out boulders or a branch, I blurted out a warning to her. She brushed it aside with a polite, "I donít think so".

The train driver pressed the buzzer. It echoed like the sound of conch shell in the temple.

The light at the end of the 100th the tunnel caressed the broomstick bushes.

"The Allah of Islam is the same as the God of Christians and Ishwar of Hindus". Read a rock sermon.

These notices must have made somebody paint the rocks red and blue. Only to be censured and fined by the all-powerful Supreme Court of India.

The foreigner got immersed in the book. The three windows of the compartment framed another slogan on the rocks.

"Pothi pad pad jag moya,

Bya na pandit koiy

Dhae akhshar prem ke

Jo pade so pandit hoi."

A group of students scurried towards the compartment. There was space, but all of us preferred not to accommodate them in our reserved seats.

The train entered the last 103rd tunnel. Light squeezed to a speck. Sprightly youth from Bengal howled louder.

The foreigner was quiet ahead of me. With a rug sack on her back; hands free she took strides with her look-ahead posture intact. With a bag in each hand I leaned right, left, shifting the weight from one hand to the other.

A fat pigeon landed in the middle of the road where spitting has been banned since the time of Brits. The soldiers of Hanumanís army crossed the Mall in a carefree manner. A baby jumped on the mother monkeyís back.

A crow perched on the long nose of Indira Gandhiís statue in black. The sculptor had frozen her stridency in the stone.

The old Mahatmaís statue had been given a lick of golden paint. It looked more humble than the days when neon signs hadnít trivialised the grandeur of its surroundings.

A sea of youth was lazing around at the Ridge. None of them shooed away the primates. Liberals shared grapes and nuts with them. The misers in trousers or sarees were intimidated. They gave in to their demands, reluctantly.

I enquired from a group: "Is some leader coming?"

"A rally?"

"No, it is like this when the sun comes out of the clouds."