The army code referred to it as BF 332. It was not strictly a station at all, having neither a platform nor a ticket counter to call its own. One morning, we just found the railway line fenced in by shiny new barbed wire. That was all. None of the trains stopped there, either up or down, except one. This special train would only arrive on some mornings, not every day. We were the only ones who knew when, and at what time. The five of us, including the Bihari cook, Bhagwatilal.
There was no station, trains wouldn’t stop here, and yet the railway workers had given it a name. We used it too: Andaahalt.
Andaa, meaning eggs. There was a village of the Mahatos at the feet of two squat hillocks near the Andaahalt, where chickens would wander in and out of homes.The Mahatos would travel all the way to the Saturday market at distant Bhurkunda to sell chickens and eggs. Sometimes they would tuck their favourite roosters under their arms to take part in cockfights. But this was not the reason for BF 332 being named Andaahalt.
As a matter of fact we had no interest in the eggs of Mahatogaon.
Our contractor had an arrangement with the railways. He had a trolley that could be pushed along the tracks. Flying its red flag, it would trundle along the railway lines and deliver our things. Among these were heaps of eggs. Bhagwatilal would boil the lot.
But this was not the reason for the name either. The name came from the rising heaps of shells from the boiled eggs beyond the barbed wire. The shells were growing into mounds.
We were under the impression that the first two letters of BF 332 did not stand for any kind of code, but for breakfast.
There was a POW camp in Ramgarh then, with Italian prisoners surrounded by bayonets and barbed wire. Sometimes they would be loaded on the train and despatched somewhere unknown. We, of course, had no idea where, or why.
All we knew was that a train would stop at dawn.
Checking the contractor’s letter, we would point to the baskets of eggs and tell Bhagwatilal, “Three hundred and thirty breakfasts.” Bhagwatilal would count out 660 eggs, and 25 extra ones. In case a few turned out to be rotten. Then, when they had become hard as bricks after being boiled, he would join hands with three of the server porters to shell them.
Those were the shells that would pile up beyond the barbed wire.
The train would come to a stop early in the morning, and at once the military police would jump off on both sides to stand guard, their bayonets pointed skywards.
The foreign prisoners in their striped garments would disembark one by one, holding large mugs and enamel plates.
The three server porters would turn two large drums upside down and use them as tables, standing behind them. The prisoners would line up for breakfast. One of the servers would pour coffee into their mugs, one of them would put two slices of bread on the plate, and the third, two eggs. After which the prisoners would get back on the train. The guard in his khaki bush-shirt and identity tag on the shoulder would blow his whistle and wave his flag, and the train would leave.
None of the Mahatos ever ventured near the train. Pausing in the sowing of maize seeds in their fields in the distance, they would straighten up and stare uncomprehendingly.
After the train had left we would leave the tent in Bhagwatilal’s care and go off sometimes towards the Mahatos’ village in search of vegetables. They grew mustard, eggplant and gourd on rocky slopes.
Overnight, Andaahalt turned into a full-fledged halt. Gravel was spread next to the tracks to raise the ground and make a platform out of the area enclosed in barbed wire.
Now it wasn’t just the POW trains but also military specials that halted at times, carrying American soldiers in gaberdine trousers, their hip pockets stuffed with money bags. The military police would get off the train, walk up and down the platform, tossing off a joke or two, while the soldiers would line up the same way for their coffee, bread and eggs. Then they would go back into their compartments, the guard in the khaki bush-shirt would blow his whistle and wave his flag, and I would run to get the supply form approved by the major.
The train would leave, none of us would know to what destination.
That day, too, the American soldiers” train came to a halt the same way. The three porters were serving coffee, bread and eggs. Bhagwatilal was keeping a watch on whether anyone was tossing away his eggs on account of their being rotten, or his bread because he had got the hard slices from the very end of the loaf.
Suddenly, my gaze fell on a scene on the other side of the barbed wire fence.
One of the Mahato children was staring wide-eyed at us from a spot behind the fence. I had seen this little boy once, with a piece of iron tied to his loincloth, sitting on the back of a young bullock.
The boy gazed in wonder. Either at the train or at the red-faced American soldiers.
Spotting him, one of the soldiers shouted, “Hey!” and at once the boy in the loincloth raced away towards his village. Some of the American soldiers were laughing at the top of their voices.
I thought the boy would never come back.
That day, none of the Mahatos came. They only paused during their work in the fields to straighten up and stare at the train.
But then, the next time the train came to a halt at the station I saw the boy with the iron piece knotted into his loincloth standing near the barbed wire once again. There was another boy with him, this one slightly older. He had a zinc amulet hanging round his neck by a red thread. I’d been to the market at Bhurkunda once, they sell piles of them there, heaps of vermilion, amulets of brass and bronze and zinc, coloured threads hanging from poles, bead necklaces. I had seen a vendor, his legs caked with dust, walking towards the Mahatos’ village in the distance carrying piles of beads on his shoulders.
The boys were looking with amazement at the American soldiers through the barbed wire. The boy from the first day had a fearful expression, and his knees were ready to turn him into a speeding fawn the moment anyone’s gaze held a touch of admonition.
I was walking around with the form, smiling at the Major whenever I had the chance, to keep him happy. Standing at his compartment door sipping his coffee, one of the soldiers commented on the sight of the boys to the GI next to him, “Awful!”
This had not occurred to me all these days. The Mahatos worked on their fields happily, hunted civets with their arrows or catapults, listened to their own songs, drank, and sometimes stood up in protest, as taut as highly-strung bows. Slim bodies in loincloths, dark and rough. But that damned GI’s “awful” stung me. I was furious with the two boys.
One of the soldiers sang a snatch of a song loudly, one or two soldiers were laughing, another one drained his mug of coffee and winked at the server with a request to refill it. The guard walked up to find out how much longer it would take. He was a Punjabi, but he added a nasal twang to his voice to sound American when speaking to the Major.
Then the whistle blew, the flag waved, everyone piled into the train quickly, including the military policemen with the broad red armbands.
After the train had left it was back to the desolate emptiness, and only the barbed wire remained, like cactus in a desert.
Another train arrived a few days later. This time it was full of POWs, Italian prisoners of war being transferred somewhere from Ramgarh. We neither knew where, nor asked.
They were dressed in different striped garments, unsmiling soldiers constantly guarded by military policemen with upraised rifles. We were a little scared. In Bhurkunda we had heard stories about how one of them had tried to dress in a Bengali style dhoti-and-kurta and escape. He had failed. Being a Bengali, I felt a little more afraid.
After the train had left I noticed that the two boys across the barbed wire had been joined by a fifteen-year-old girl in a short sari and two men who had abandoned their work in the fields.They had a conversation amongst themselves, laughed, and then moved away towards the Mahatos’ village like a gurgling stream.
One, two, five, and then I found about ten of the people from Mahatogaon running from the fields towards the station as soon as the next train arrived. Maybe they knew from the khaki in the windows. Two passenger trains would flash past like mail trains every day, and two goods trains would trundle along. But no, the people of Mahatogaon never crowded around the station waiting for them to stop.
Earlier I had asked the oldest of the Mahatos to send people to our tent at Andaahalt with vegetables, prawn, and fish for us to buy. “We won’t stop our work on the farm,” the old man had replied with a smile.
Which was why I looked at them now with astonishment. At the dark-skinned men in their loincloths, and the women in their short saris. Only the bare-bodied old Mahato had a pair of shoes on, made for him by Mridha from the village. They lined up along the barbed wire.
The train had halted by then. The American soldiers had leapt off and were moving forward in a queue with their mugs and plates. Two hundred and eighteen breakfasts were ready at BF 332. BF 332, meaning Andaahalt.
There was a nip in the air. The hills in the distance were wrapped in mufflers of fog. The trees were washed green by the dew.
One of the soldiers expressed his appreciation in a Yankee accent. Another of them was standing outside the carriage, staring intently at the destitution across the barbed wire. Suddenly, setting his coffee mug down on the steps leading into the train, he put his hand into his hip pocket, took out a shining eight-anna coin, and tossed it towards the Mahatos.
They looked at the soldier in surprise, exchanged glances with one another, and continued to gaze in wonder.
As they were about to return to their village after the train had left, I said, “The Sahib left some baksheesh for you. Take it.”
They exchanged glances again, but none of them came forward.
Picking the coin up, I handed it to the old man. He stared at me blankly, and then left in silence with the rest. None of them spoke. I hated our servility towards the contractor. Not a soul anywhere, not a single passenger train halted, just Bhagwatilal and three porters
occupied the tent. Deserted, completely deserted. The earth was unfriendly, the afternoon sky looked ominous. I was spoiling for a fight.
The people from Mahatogaon didn’t come anywhere near us. Sometimes I would go to their village to buy vegetables and small fish. They wouldn’t come to our camp to sell, although they walked six miles to the Bhurkunda market.
There was no news of a train for a few days. Quiet, so quiet.
One day, the boy with the piece of iron knotted into his loincloth appeared and asked, “No tiren, Babu?”
“It’ll come,” I chuckled.
Why blame the boy – here in this land of low hillocks and rough terrain, you had to walk four miles through bushes and shrubs just for a glimpse of a bus filled with locals. In the morning, a passenger train whistled past without slowing down even slightly. The down train in the evening didn’t stop either. But still we rushed out of our tent for a look at the indistinct faces in the window. We were choking without the company of people, of fresh faces.
Which was why we were both perturbed and happy when we heard that a special train carrying American soldiers was on its way. A few days later, the Military Special steamed in.The GIs jumped out, lining up to collect their bread, eggs and mugs of coffee. Suddenly, I discovered that all of Mahatogaon seemed to have gathered outside the barbed wire fence. Twenty, maybe thirty of them, who knew how many, if you counted the children. Even the women in their short saris stared with befuddled eyes. I felt apprehensive at the sight. This was not the first time I had felt that way. I used to feel afraid whenever Bhagwatilal or the three server porters wanted to go to the Mahatos’ village.
There was no platform. As I have said, only a bed of gravel had been laid to make it easier to get in and out of the train. The American soldiers were strolling up and down with their coffee mugs. Some of them had fixed their eyes on the dark-skinned people of Mahatogaon.
Without warning, one of them went up to Bhagwatilal, took his wallet out of his hip pocket, extracted a two-rupee note, and asked, “Do you have coins?” Soldiers didn’t like carrying coins – they would always tell the shopkeeper or vendor or taxi driver to keep the change. I’d seen this often in Ranchi.
Bhagwatilal was giving the soldier change in the form of one-anna, two-anna and four-anna coins, when I suddenly saw the boy with the iron piece in his loincloth stretching out his arm through the barbed wire, smiling and asking for something.
At once the soldier took the coins from Bhagwatilal and tossed them at the crowd.
By then, I had got the approval on the supply form, and the guard had blown the whistle.
When the train had begun to move, I turned towards the Mahatos.
They were still standing in silence, looking on.Then the boy with the iron piece in his loincloth and the boy with the amulet around his neck slipped through the barbed wire and threw themselves on the coins scattered on the bed of red gravel.
At that moment the old Mahato in shoes shouted, “Khabardar.” He screamed his admonition so loudly that even I was startled.
But the boys paid no heed.They had already gathered as many of the one-anna, two-anna and four-anna coins as possible. The smiles on their faces were like tender grains of corn.The entire crowd of men and women were smiling.
Furious at this, the old man launched into a tirade in his native tongue. The crowd laughed.
Glowering with rage, the village elder stalked off homewards all by himself. The people of Mahatogaon left too, gurgling and laughing like a mountain stream.
As soon as they left, Andaahalt turned silent and desolate again. Sometimes I would feel desperately unhappy. In the distance were the hills, mahua groves, a tiny stream, and, beyond the shrubs and bushes, the green farmland of the Mahato village. Beautiful to look at, utterly beautiful. Dark-skinned people in loincloths dotted the landscape.
Meanwhile, the American trains arrived frequently, the soldiers leaving after their regular breakfast of bread and eggs and coffee. On one such occasion, the inhabitants of Mahatogaon crowded around the barbed wire. “Baksheesh, Saab, baksheesh, Saab.” A number of rustic voices cried out in unison.
I stopped suddenly as I was going up to the Major to get his approval on the form.
Not just the children, several of the grown-up men had stretched out their arms as well. Even a woman with an alluring body in a short sari.
When I had been buying vegetables earlier, the same woman had asked me with a smile, “When is the train coming?”
These days they would appear in a group even when there was no train; after waiting for a while they would leave. When the train did arrive three or four American soldiers with stripes on their shoulders would toss fistfuls of coins in their direction. Without waiting for the train to leave, they would throw themselves at the money. In the stampede, some of them would scratch their arms and legs on the barbed wire, while others would have their loincloths ripped.
I would observe them closely after the train had left. It would seem as though half of Mahatogaon had gathered here. All of them would be smiling, each of them seemed to have got some money. But I would not find the village elder anywhere among them. The boys had not thrown away the coins despite his objections. He was probably too angry to come back.
I savoured the thought of the old man ploughing the earth all alone on the farm.
We passed our days somehow, the five of us, including the cook, Bhagwatilal. Every now and then, a train packed with soldiers would arrive, stop, and leave. The people of Mahatogaon would cluster around the barbed wire, stretching out their arms and screaming, “Baksheesh, Saab, baksheesh, Saab.”
The Mahato village elder also began to make an occasional appearance. Abandoning the fields, he would stride furiously towards the crowd,brushing the dirt off his hands and scolding them agitatedly. When they paid no attention, he would stare at them in helpless protest.
But no one would spare him a glance. Laughing uproariously, the soldiers would toss coins from their pockets towards the crowds. The inhabitants of Mahatogaon would fling themselves at the money, bickering with one another.The soldiers would be even more amused.
Eventually, I noticed that the old man in shoes no longer turned up. I used to feel a certain pride in the fact that he was furious with the other Mahatos, which was why he was not coming to Andaahalt anymore. Because their behaviour had begun annoy us—Bhagwatilal and me. We were ashamed. The soldiers probably mistook them for beggars because of their tattered, filthy clothes. And I was very upset that they did.
That particular day the Mahatos were screaming “Baksheesh, baksheesh” as usual, from the other side of the barbed wire, while I was chatting with khaki bush-shirt-clad Janakinath, the guard of the train. An officer marching past us briskly spat out, “Bloody beggars,” when he heard them screaming.
Janakinath and I exchanged glances. Red with humiliation, we could barely lift our eyes, burning with impotent rage.
Bloody beggars, bloody beggars.
All my anger was channelled towards the Mahatos. As soon as the train left, I charged towards them with Bhagwatilal. Tucking away the coins they had picked up, they left, laughing.
All this while I had swept away my embarrassment for them with a pride which stood as tall as a mountain before my eyes in the form of the village elder of the Mahatos.
All my agony abated soon afterwards. I got the news on my way to meet the contractor at Bhurkunda.Two of the server porters were kicking away the drums we used as tables to the other side of the barbed wire. Another was dismantling the tent. Delivering a mighty kick to one of the drums, Bhagwatilal said, “Khel khatam, the game is over.” Wheeling around at a sudden uproar, I saw the people of Mahatogaon running towards us.We looked at them in surprise. Bhagwatilal laughed loudly for some reason. By then they had gathered along the barbed wire. At once, we heard a whistle, followed by the sound of an approaching train. The train had rounded the curve and was coming up to Andaahalt, the windows lined with khaki uniforms. We felt disturbed and perplexed. Had the Bhurkunda office forgotten to inform us? Or was the news we had heard wrong? The closer the train came, the more a strange sound seemed to echo. Not a sound, singing. Soon we discovered that the entire train, each and every soldier on it, was singing in chorus.
Bewildered, I looked alternately at the train and the barbed wire. And that was when my eye fell on the Mahato village elder. Merging with the crowd, he too had extended his arm through the fence and was screaming, “Baksheesh, Saab, baksheesh, Saab.”
They were yelling like lunatics, like beggars. They, and the old Mahato.
But, unlike other days, the train filled with American soldiers did not stop at Andaahalt. Just like the passenger trains, it ignored us and whistled past. We knew the train wouldn’t stop anymore.
The train left. But everyone at Mahatogaon turned into beggars. All those people who lived off the soil – all of them had been turned into beggars.
“India”, by Ramapada Chowdhury, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha. Excerpted with permission from The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told, Aleph Book Company.