‘For the kind attention of passengers,’ a pleasing voice noised in Tamil, English and Hindi. I had arrived at the Egmore station an hour and a half in advance out of some innate sense born of punctuality and anxiety – something my friends ridicule me about, asking if I wished to sweep the station before the train rolled in. It was also something that ran in my bloodline; my father and maternal grandfather just can’t sit in calm when they have a train to board, even though hours later.
I was sitting beside my mother, dipped in Baradwaj Rangan’s article Taking a stand featured on the day’s Hindu, when the engine shined its torch and boomed its arrival. Once the chart was pasted, I checked our names against our seat numbers and then climbed in with a light wallet thanks to Modi and a heavy backpack thanks to my mother. Wide and cosy blue births welcomed us.
When the hands of my watch reached the designated alignment the train pulled itself. My mother climbed onto her middle berth with a blanket unfolded behind her like a cape, and I climbed onto mine – the uppermost berth. I noticed the white ceiling of the train curve inches above my nose and two gigantic fans ready to chop my neck and ankles. In my position, Robert Langdon would have complained of claustrophobia. I jumped down and requested in polite words the man on the other middle berth to switch places. He acknowledged the fragility in my tone and consented immediately. I was soon facing the blanketed bundle my mother was.
When Tambaram arrived and while I was still struggling to keep my eyes closed (my mother was in a relaxed slumber) a couple, in their late forties probably, walked in. They decided between themselves and the woman took the bottom row across the aisle and the man settled beneath my mother. So far so good.
Maybe my mother had communicated her malady to me, because I was in deep sleep, in an atmosphere of nothingness for time unknown, until I was brought back to my berth by the sound of a shrieking soul, reminding me, even now, of the gruesome sound made by Christie’s small piece of rubber during Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. The sound must have had a deep and malignant origin, for it was ineffably cruel and sadistic. After a semi-conscious search, I noticed that it spewed from the mountainous paunch of the Tambaram man. The train was stationary, probably at some signal, and my mother smiled wakefully at me.
In the darkness of our immediacy, it looked like only we were disturbed. His snoring was overwhelming in the absence of any other sound. How much ever I tried to deviate my attention, I found I was only attached to it, expecting the rise of next during the pregnant pause that followed every fall. At times when I managed to shift focus, I felt desperate for the train’s rhythmic motion, in the hope that this sound would dissolve in it and cease to have full effect.
The train moved, probably for myself and mother, and we resumed our efforts to maintain shut-eyes. But after a few minutes, when it came to a gradual halt at the Vilupuram junction, we realised God was against us. The sound was now amplified and murderous. Unlike daylight journeys, no man ventured out for a short break and hot tea on the platform; everyone was calm and closed, and the snoring happened.
Many a times I dared to bring my index finger, and sometimes the big toe, very close to the man’s shoulder to prod him. My mother would raise her eyebrows and silently warn against it, and I would fall back onto my berth in irritation and powerlessness. And even after the train started moving, even after the snoring was subsided, the memory of the sound stayed long with me.
After persistent efforts to find some sleep were self-declared as useless, I got up and walked to the door at the end of the carriage. Mother’s head peeped now and then from her berth to ensure I wasn’t perilously close to the exit. Overly chill winds blew past. Bright and faint yellow and white whisked by. A cement factory was in sound operation in Ariyalur. The train was well on time to reach Srirangam in twenty minutes.
As I stood there, waiting to catch my first glimpse of the Srirangam temple spire majestically standing out from the mass of little coconut and pine trees, the Tambaram man came sleepily walking towards the loo. On his way, he dropped a very surprised smile on me, as if meaning to ask why I wasn’t sleeping.