Shatabdi Express

We walked along the tracks. I offered to fill her lamp with oil so she didn’t have to go home in the dark. We returned to my room but stayed outside. There were no stars for us to look at, so we lit a small fire with some of the wood I had gathered. She pushed back her hair and lowered her head. Her earrings were made of silver and etched with a curling vine. She leaned in, and I was afraid she was too close to the fire. Smoke blew on her face. She hardly blinked.

Soon the train passed and the world was still again

Photograph by Belur Ashok.

For the past seven years no one has come to inspect my railway crossing, not even the stationmaster who works in the nearest market town. In the spring cranes come here to mate. They wander the tracks with their full bellies, unperturbed by the whistles and warnings, until the train is just a few feet away.

I walked along for a few kilometers on my first safety-check of the day. Morning light fell on the short grass between the tracks. Crushed stones clattered beneath my feet. Rust had formed on steel-rails, but these were ordinary imperfections, like the blisters on my father’s face from the sun. It showed fatigue but didn’t cause any fractures. I was trained to look beneath the top layers for trouble. Once again, the crossing was ready for the thunder of the fast train.

I returned to my room. It wasn’t much of anything except four walls and a cement roof. I swallowed a spoonful of honey, a trick I had learned from my father, not to sweeten my words but to soften the taste of petrol tickling the back of my throat. I then bowed to Baba Farid, whose tiny picture I kept in a bullet hole, made during the insurgency. In other holes lay cotton balls and a box of matches.

It was nine o’clock. My hands were clean. I pulled the gate shut. My father had welded its two parts. One had aged more than the other, and it creaked. When I was five I knew a day would come when the gate would not close properly. Now I was its caretaker. The men in my family learned the craft of mending metal young. I was never good at it.

The morning traffic jam had already formed, and it was long and wide. Cars were the first to arrive, followed by scooters and motorcycles. Then came some women on foot. And last were the animals. Two donkeys urinated—a familiar scent, milder than grass. My brother was on a bicycle somewhere in the back, returning home after a night shift at a grain factory. He made extra money by selling peacock feathers during the day. Other gatemen might bring family members to the front of the line. Not me. If I didn’t set rules or broke them, there would be chaos at the crossing.

The stillness stirs something inside men, in particular ones with bristling mustaches, who think they can make it across alive. The train doesn’t stop here, only races by. It is the Shatabdi Express that started rolling across the country in 1988, the year I was born.

There were no signs of trouble on either side of the road, so I took a place near the women on scooters. I preferred them, and the soothing greens, oranges, and reds of their cotton and chiffon clothes. My mother was a tailor and had taught me to stitch. She said I was good at handling organza. But the day hair first sprouted on my chin, my father told me to forget all that I had learned.

The fumes rose from the cars and scooters. Women covered their mouths and turned their gazes inward. I patrolled the traffic jam saying what I said every day. “Leave enough space for the butterflies to pass between your cars.” To those on motorcycles and scooters, I said, “Drop your feet, don’t resist the dust.”

Engines revved as I reassured commuters the train would arrive soon. “How much longer?” a man yelled. “The morning train is always late, full of pilgrims,” I said. A few minutes later, the metal clanged, the power lines shook, and the racing ghost we had all anticipated was here and gone in a flash.

After the train passed, I pushed open the gate. Cars swerved and scooters squeezed in between. A Toyota backed into a Maruti. It made a small dent in the trunk. No one stopped to check for damage.

I could still feel the vibration of the train when I returned to my room. Light poured through the bullet holes, broadening into long, swollen beams. In a notebook I wrote down the exact time I had opened the gate. I came out and stood by the tracks. The morning’s long clouds were billowy.

All around were wheat fields that changed color several times a day. At dawn they appeared pale, weighed down by morning dew. At noon they turned golden. I did what I could to help them. I would straighten the stalks and brush off extra water. I even talked to them. There was no one else for hours. And then at each harvest season, I watched them get carried off to the mills of Grand Trunk Road.

At two in the afternoon the earth shook again. The second crossing was not as congested as the morning rush. I had time to catch sight of passengers looking out the windows. Sometimes I would lock eyes with a man or a woman.

Postman Hari arrived on his brand-new bicycle. I was still waiting for him to bring me a small mirror. We had not chatted in weeks—not since the post office prohibited tea breaks between delivery shifts. The last time we spoke, he had told me about a boy born to a blind mother who people considered a reincarnation of Gandhi. I wanted to talk to him but Hari seemed lost in his own thoughts.

An hour later, my brother showed up with my afternoon and evening meals. Since marrying, he had stopped being on time. “I can’t stay long,” he said, resting his bicycle against my wall. We sat outside, where I often ate. His voice was coarse, as he had spent the night inhaling dust at the grain factory. I offered him honey to soothe it. He leaned his head back, and I tilted the jar. I felt my throat itch. We often caught what the other one felt.

He cleared his throat. “Leela is carrying,” he said. “She’s two months along, and I think it’s a boy.” I leaned my chair back, as if I were happy.

“We want you to pick the boy’s name,” he said.

“I see so many people here everyday, but I never know their names,” I said. Three cranes hopped between the tracks. “If it’s a girl, we could name her after these birds,” I said. He picked up a small brownish stone with jagged edges. He threw it at the birds.

I went back to the room, where I washed my utensils from the day before. Madan followed me. The water flowed from a tap down to the ground. It passed through crushed stone and then washed over an old sickle before moving toward Madan’s oversized big toes that were exactly like mine. He took a step back. He did not like to wet his feet.

“Leela needs bed rest,” he said, raising his voice as a tractor reverberated on the road. “With the baby arriving, we won’t be able to drop food for you every day.”

He was exploiting the unborn, I thought. Since marrying my brother had become obsessed with money. I was certain he had counted the cost of my meals.

“I’ll buy a small stove and a gas cylinder and cook for myself,” I said.

“Or get a wife,” he said.

I reminded him something our mother had said: “For our family of gatemen, trains are worse than mistresses. They rob a woman of days and nights with her husband.’”

The sky was starting to turn pink by the time Madan left. I watched his scooter wind down the road, slicing through the plains, eventually disappearing in the direction where the sun was preparing to rest.

I sat on the ground where grass had stopped growing and removed my shoes to let my feet breathe. Cold air traveled up my body. The light had moved off the tracks but it would return tomorrow. I removed prayer beads from my pocket, made of ninety-nine small shells on a string. I pulled at each slowly, without a beginning or an end. The sky turned dark blue. And when it was no longer clearly day or night, I fell into infinity.

Around nine I closed the gate for the last train and kept my head low to avoid the glare of the vehicles. An old man on a scooter asked me if the train was coming. I said: “The night train is always delayed. The track from here to Delhi is unlit.”

Soon the train passed and the world was still again. I pulled a wooden bench outside and lit a small campfire with wood I had gathered a few days back. I was slender, shorter than my brother. I curled up on the bench, making myself small, so as not to fall prey to a wild dog.

About an hour had passed when a jeep arrived from the direction of the town. I looked up. It had stopped in the middle of the crossing. The front lights dimmed and then two men jumped out. I stood up, clutching my prayer beads. Opium pushers, I thought.

“We’re inspectors from the Indian Railway,” the one who was older said. He switched on his flashlight, and I could see his belly hanging over his waist. Extra holes had been punched in the leather of his belt with its worn silver buckle. The younger inspector wore a gold ring with a red stone.

“Any accidents to report lately?” the senior inspector said.

“Not since our family has been manning this crossing.”

“Any suicide attempts?” he said.

There were more convenient ways to die, I told them. “The nearest village is an hour away by scooter. You can hang yourself there or eat rat poison.”

The inspectors asked me to follow them to the gate. The younger one said, “It doesn’t look very sturdy.” Blue veins appeared on top of his hands as he shook the gate. It barely creaked. I was proud of my father’s craftsmanship.

“How many people cross a day?” the senior one said.

“A few hundred, maybe, and double that if you count the animals.”

They praised the superior safety of a one-piece gate with a sliding mechanism. The younger one scribbled something in his notebook, then looked at me and said, “We’ve designated this gate class-B.”

I asked, “Why not class-A?” I wanted the highest ranking for my family’s legacy.

“This isn’t a main road, and class-A roads are being automated. So count yourself lucky you still have a job,” the senior inspector said.

“It’s a blessing to have this job.” I said. “That’s why I keep the crossing as clean as a temple.”

“You’re a scrawny little thing,” the young inspector said. “Do people even listen to you?”

It wasn’t the first time I had heard this. My shoulders were not broad enough and my wrists were the size of my mother’s.

The senior inspector stepped a few feet away. He unzipped his fly and spurted on the ties between the tracks. I had reached manhood seeing only male parts. The younger inspector lit a cigarette. Smoke drifted into the mist of his boss’s piss.

I followed them to the jeep, where they presented me with a stack of papers and a large box. Inside the box were items I would need for the job. Before they left, the younger inspector said: “Follow the instructions or you’ll be kicked out.”

I spent the night reading the instructions aloud, imagining how the property I did not own would change in the coming days. I would have to paint the gate red and hang two lamps from it. The crossing would be closed with a padlock three times a day. A green ribbon in the box was for the key to wear around my neck. The ribbon was thinner than the one I had seen on donkeys.

According to the Railway Ministry, animals did not have the right of way. I wanted to resist this ranking. I liked the birds and dogs who visited—tapping branches, skittering across the roof, and trailing me up and down the tracks.

The next day my brother visited again, and when I opened my containers of food I said, “Lentils and rice again?”

“Leela has morning sickness,” he said. He cusped his hands near his stomach to show me how much his wife was showing.

I wanted to tell him about the inspector’s penis. How it was cut at the top and pink in the inside. I had spent the night wondering if the younger inspector was also a Muslim. But Madan kept talking about his wife’s feet and how swollen they were.

“Look at all these new instructions I’ve been forced to follow,” I said. “Two inspectors were here last night and gave them to me.” He told me to follow the rules. I wasn’t surprised by his words. My brother was good at conforming.

“I have a hunch you’ll be having a girl,” I said as he was getting on his bicycle.

“You can’t stand me getting something I want,” he said. His face turned red and off he rode without collecting the dishes from yesterday.

I ate a few spoons of lentils. Once again they were overcooked. It was a mistake Leela often made; she over-stirred the pot. I then ate half a banana, thinking I had better conserve my rations, and if I had to fast I would dedicate it to Baba Farid. Arguments with my brother did not last for more than a few days. The only way he could get to his factory was through my crossing.

Then I got to work on the gate. The inspectors had left me a can of luminous red paint. It took all day, waiting for the coats to dry. I thought it looked garish. Then I attached two lamps to hooks. It all looked brighter, and I rather liked the effect. In addition to the green ribbon, the box contained a hammer, a tommy bar, and a pickaxe. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to live up to the expectations of these tools.

Two trains passed while I worked, and in the evening, on his way home, Hari waived at me and said, “Your gate is brighter than a bride’s dress.” I pretended not to hear. It put me in a bad mood.

I closed the crossing early in advance of the final train. No cars or people had assembled. I peed behind the cabin wall, seeing a few lights shimmering along the horizon. All the villages were sleeping.

When I turned around, I saw a yellow figure emerging from the road. I had never before seen a woman on foot at this hour. It was around the same time the inspectors had come the previous night. She walked toward the crossing, carrying a lamp that had gone out. I couldn’t see her very well in the darkness.

I washed my hands and went to the place where the road sloped. The woman took small steps forward. Her face was long, her eyes soft.

“You’ll have to wait another twenty minutes to get across. It might be more. The last train is always late,” I said.

“Can I take one of your lamps?” she said.

Maybe the inspectors had sent her to test me, I thought. I moved closer to her. Her hair was tied up in a bun and over it she wore a black scarf. Perhaps she was a laborer who carried bricks for a living.

She inched toward the crossing, warming her hands on whatever heat was left on her extinguished lamp.

“Whose daughter are you?” I said.

“Where we come from we don’t have mothers and fathers,” she said. I thought it was a strange response.

“You must have a name?” I said.

“Jugni,” she said. Her high-pitched voice seemed to travel far. She was now under the glow of one of my lamps. She wore bright maroon lipstick and rose-colored rouge on her cheeks, and it hit me, of course, she wasn’t a woman. She was a hijara. It had been so long since I had seen a eunuch.

“Did the inspectors send you?” I said.

“The ones who lock up people like me?” she said.

“No, the railway inspectors,” I said.

“No,” she said and curled her lip.

“Well, in case you’re lying, I was planning to clear the flank tomorrow and wash the bird droppings off the traffic signs.”

She had no idea what I was talking about and kept looking at the lamp.

“The train will come. It always does,” I said.

“I am carrying two peacock eggs in my hair to keep them warm. They’re on the verge of hatching. I’ve walked for nearly an hour with a lantern but then the oil burned out,” she said.

“Peacock eggs? Are you selling the birds?” I said.

“That would be a sin,” she said. “They’re hunted for their feathers, and these chicks will die unless I get them home and put them under a light.”

I wondered where my brother was getting the feathers. I could not imagine him as a hunter.

“The train will come, and you’ll soon be on your way,” I said.

She waved me away and made a break for the gate. She began to climb over it, placing one foot on the bracing while keeping her neck and head straight. The ground shook, and I could see the long beam of the engine advancing. She is a suicide, I thought, exactly what the inspectors had warned me about.

I ran toward her and pulled her down by her waist. Her scarf unfurled, and she fell to the ground as the train passed. Two eggs lay on the other side of the gate, cracked open and shiny like pieces of moon.

She stood up. “I just saved your life,” I said. She slapped me and kicked my ankle. “Look what you’ve done,” she said.

The padlock was still shaking from the vibration when I opened the gate.

She walked to the eggs and collected them in her palm. I stood beside her. She lifted out the birds by their legs and rested them on her wrist. “They were so perfectly formed,” she said. “They were males and you killed them.” I could see specks of green and blue in the wet feathers.

“Maybe they died when your lamp burned out,” I said.

She brought them closer to me and pointed to their perfect necks and beaks. “They died here. Otherwise they would have rotted in their shells,” she said. She peered at them more closely. She seemed to know their anatomy.

I looked at her feet. She was wearing black sandals and her toes were painted red, the same shade as the vessels that ran under the bird’s flesh.

We stood in silence, and I didn’t know what to do. “I can help you cremate them,” I said.

“Let’s bury them,” she said.

We walked along for a while. Wheat leaves hissed with a mild breeze. We found an empty field where we squatted. I had brought one of the lamps, and I could see her more clearly. She was wearing a nose ring. Her yellow kameez was cut with a low neckline. It was made of silk.

She rested the birds on the ground and placed them on their sides. I dug two small holes in the mud with my hands and said a prayer from Baba Farid. She said, “Have you ever been to his shrine in Faridkot? It’s a sanctuary for peacocks.” I told her I had never traveled on a train.

“When I travel to Faridkot, I’ll look for you from the window,” she said.

“We should go back,” I said. “I’m not supposed to leave the crossing unattended.”

She stood up and dusted the back of her kameez. Her hip seemed a bit crooked. Performing at weddings had aged that part more than the rest of her. She asked if the bare field led to the main road eventually. I told her it was better to take the road from the crossing.

We walked along the tracks. I offered to fill her lamp with oil so she didn’t have to go home in the dark. We returned to my room but stayed outside. There were no stars for us to look at, so we lit a small fire with some of the wood I had gathered. She pushed back her hair and lowered her head. Her earrings were made of silver and etched with a curling vine. She leaned in, and I was afraid she was too close to the fire. Smoke blew on her face. She hardly blinked.

I asked if she had eaten that day. She shook her head but hardly ate from the tiffin box I brought her. “Lentils are perfectly cooked,” she said. A log fell and crumbled into ash. The heat was burning my knees, but I did not move.

“When was the first time you wore a salwaar kameez?” I said.

“The day I left home,” she said.

She smiled and held my gaze. I could not remember the last time someone had looked at me this closely or perhaps looked at me at all. I said, “Who’s your tailor?” She said, “Seven of us live together. One knows how to stitch.”

“I used to know how to make clothes,” I said. I told her how my mother had taught me and how she dressed all the village brides. “They paid us with grain instead of cash, and during every monsoon season, the grain would rot and I would accompany my mother to the pond, where we would throw away our earnings. My father used to joke we were fattening the village fish.”

She folded her hands in her lap. She met my eyes again and said, “Have you ever worn a salwar kameez?” I said no. It was as if she could read my mind. She took my wrist and led me inside to where the bullet holes punctured the wall.

“Yellow would look good on you,” she said as she removed her top.

“Baba Farid is watching us,” I said.

“Let him be our witness,” she said.

I could see how young she was, twenty at most. Her chest was bare and hairless. Except little hair sprouted around her brown nipples. Her brows had been penciled on. “We’re the same size,” she said, handing me the top. I unbuttoned my shirt quickly and took it off. I pushed my head through her kameez that felt lighter than anything I had ever worn. The hair on my arms stiffened and sweat formed on my skin. I worried I would stain her garment.

I gave her my shirt, and I slipped off my pants and put on her salwar. She leaned in to tie the drawstring. Her leg brushed against mine. I hunched forward like the cranes did when mating, their wings flapping as one bird climbed over the other, breeding without shame in daylight. An underwear, a salwar and then a kameez, I was wearing all three, enough to hide my arousal.

“You look beautiful,” she said. I wanted to see the yellow against my skin.

“We’ll be warmer outside by the fire,” she said. She then grabbed my arm and pulled me outside. Her grip was as firm as my father’s. I walked on my toes like I used to. The night sky had turned darker. Under the passing moon, wheat fields reflected white like millions had gathered for a funeral. All at once the crickets were chanting.

I went and stood by the gate, until I heard the dreaded sound of a vehicle approaching. “Let’s go inside and change,” I said. My heels touched the ground again but she didn’t move.

From afar, I could see a jeep coming, winding down a village road. It sped up and slowed as if the driver were new to the bends. I was no longer on guard. I stayed there, waiting for the car to arrive. The headlights glared at the crossing. I let the light fall over me.

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