There was a time when all trains sprinted forward, always. That was our youth. You people have much to learn from it. What a time it was. He, George stilled all the trains in this country with a single outstretched finger. From the very first time I saw him, I quavered and shook like the ground under a speeding train whenever I heard his name. So when I heard that the VVIP who was brought into the ashram-grounds at midnight was he, I panicked. Someone had been calling loudly for Miss Gonsalves.
Pretending not to hear, I dashed into the Administrator’s Duty Room. But, no, I had no rest. Each pore in my body quivered. I escaped to the tiny room in the residents’ hostel behind the hospital, where a picture of the bombing of Hiroshima hung. I collapsed on the narrow wooden cot, pressing my fallen, shriveled breasts on it to still my heart. It was useless. The sky and the earth and the wooden cot continued to shiver and shake. High speed trains raced above the ceiling, between the legs of the cot, in my spine, my heart, my belly. Memories began to hum. Long straight hair. Intense eyes. A voice in which thunder rang.
Thinking of having to enter the Cottage I. C, where he lay, with the doctor on his rounds, I, all of 62 years, wilted inside. Can’t take it, can’t see him again. Even his memory crushes every nerve as it races by. What a man he was. In a time when the trains ran on coal, he changed the daughter of a humble labourer who loaded coal in engines into a writer and lover. Both of beloved secrets.
I always thought of my poems’ climax first, aiming to shatter the reader with the twist in the last line. I devised my love so that I could burn slowly and melt in the intensity of the unspoken, the concealed. What love it was. How many were the poems I wrote in my Anglo-Indian English about life that zoomed past on parallel iron tracks of struggles set into the wooden beams of dreams.
I presented George in my poems incognito – dressing him up in metaphors and images of King, Emperor, Empire, Crown, tracks, train.
George the First, I scribbled again and again on the pages of my pre-university notebook. I waited for the world to be wiped clean of all its soot so that the day of your coronation would arrive. I yearned to be the Empress and the subject of your Empire. I was drunk on my own poems. For no reason, I bounced about. Rolled on the floor. My straight-cut checked frocks hurried to fly up on my smooth seventeen-year-old thighs.
George the First. He arrived in grandeur on our galis where soot-coloured blue uniforms lay washed and drying. We were mesmerised when the young man, the unionist, who had cast aside the priest’s garb, spoke in the language of revolution and equality, leaving aside the tongue of power and corruption. He slept on the charpoy in front of our quarters. Straight hair, intense yes, razor-sharp words. I gazed through the bars of my window with unending hunger at George who lay in the moonlight reclining on the charpoy.
Resting my head upon the study-table above which there was a picture of Daddy in a suit and Mummy in a white bridal gown cutting their wedding-cake together, I imagined him in the suit and me in the bridal gown. My body trembled each time I saw and heard him. He grew like the train dashing ahead in its journey. With the clattering sounds, the high whistle, slow to start with but unstoppable in his course; with steady speed, George surged ahead. When he flattened a big leader in the elections, my heart quavered equally with pride and sorrow. My first love. In truth, my last, too.
The only good thing about first love is that it is the beginning of the journey. The fresh white clothes of the travellers, their innocent raiment, will not have been soiled and crumpled yet. The optimism of the mind would not have begun to get crushed yet. There would be no wealth of experience to invoke the fear that the rain may slip off its tracks or fall into the river.
Not waiting for me, George dashed ahead in the train that had left the platform before I could reach it.
I wished dearly to run behind it. But in the bat of an eyelid, both the train and George had vanished. Very soon, he was married. My heart-beats were ground into the clatter of running trains. That terrible ache shatters me at times even after full forty years. Having turned paths and traveled un-retraceable distances, our fate was to unite in the ashram with red-blossomed weeping willows in its garden. You people have a lot of learn from our life.
What a time it was. A world like a smouldering heap of paddy-husk. The railway strike. For twenty days, the country was stilled. Impossible to forget that image of George making his speech atop of the stilled trains at Bombay VT, the red garland around his neck. George shook the rulers of the land for twenty days. The struggle died but George emerged a victor.
Soon after the time of the boots and the whistles arrived. Daddy was hospitalised, hit by a rifle-butt. George went into hiding. He challenged the whole country. The police went mad looking for him. His aged father and brothers were arrested. The police broke a brother’s leg. But they could not find him. In my tiny room in the nursing quarters, I hid him for eighteen days like a baby in a womb. He had heard the declaration of Emergency on the radio while having a meal with his wife in a restaurant. He got up.
I have to leave. The country needs me. Don’t know how long she waited for him. George murmured to me sometimes. Our boy, he was crying.
Those days, I did not dare to look at him. Did not dare to speak. I took care not to touch his fingers when I served him food or handed him books. George paced about in the room. The glow of red-hot coals lit up his face constantly. Everything around was fearsome. I kept watch while he slept. Trembled if I heard a footstep outside.
The picture of the bombing of Hiroshima was on my wall even then. I plodded through my nights staring at the pillar of smoke that rose up like a gigantic mushroom. News arrived soon that they had arrested George’s woman-friend. She was chronically ill. Hearing that she died in police custody, he was overcome. I still remember the moment in which he left to give himself up.
I swallowed my unease and tried to cling to the walls, my hands hidden behind me. On his way out, he pulled off the picture from above my head. I jumped aside, caught unawares. He did not look back at me. Did not say goodbye. Later, till I left that room, the helpless lover would look at the marks left behind by the picture, the emptiness that it left, and weep piteously. What sorrow it was. The heart had been shattered long back by the bomb of rejection. The gigantic mushroom of poisonous gas grew each moment within.
He was taken to court shackled hand and foot.
Within my heart, anger and pain, and also pride, in equal measure, blazed up. I wanted to smash everything, scream, burst into laughter. It was the image of George walking tall, turning his shackles into ornaments, which made me forgive life for all its lacks. Then, in jail for a year and a half, the government’s fall, elections, George’s massive victory from jail with a lead that surpassed others outside, his elevation to Minister-dom. What a time it was.
But by then I was no writer. An ordinary military nurse. A lonely person, by her nature, her desires. She who could not clamber on the train that had left or take the next one. A life trapped on a platform. Why did our lives end up thus? I read history books hungrily, hoping to find an answer. With a curiosity that was useless to a nurse, I studied about Kings and Emperors. All inquiry led me to back to Georges.
George the First, the first British King from Hanover. George the Second. The last British Emperor to lead an army. George the Second, I sorrowed, gazing at the pictures of the Minister in the newspapers. Why does not your kingdom come, though you hold the scepter? Why do you not begin the movement of your army? Wounded soldiers reminded me of George. Their wounds whistled through my lost love.
It was when I was transferred from Cutch to Rajasthan that I got the news that George and his wife had parted. In the train’s vibration, my fellow-travelers’ words fell on me like slivers of hard rock. The divorce of his beautiful, bright, woman colleague also wounded me. Then, till the journey’s end, I did not hear anything, eat or sleep even a little.
I got to know much later, from the newspapers, that the train which had gone ahead of us had derailed, and that we were stuck for hours without water or food in the terrible heat. I did not feel thirst, so I didn’t need water. I did not feel hunger, so I didn’t need food. I didn’t marry, do I didn’t need a divorce. My soul burned and was charred. My body crumbled bit by bit. The sea swallowed the carriages of hope. The salt water of time made scales of rust sprout on them.
How time crushes and mows people. How it knocks them down. George was also changing. De-railings. Some turnings upside down. A George who was foreign to me and my coal-hauler Daddy. Our youth had begun to fade. Our middle-age had begun. You have many lessons to learn from our middle-age too. Reading George’s statement in favour of the communal party filled my mouth with the bitterness of venomous vapours.
George became a Minister again the year I retired from the army.
On the day he was sworn in, I was harried by memories of Daddy. Everything had changed right in front of his eyes. The coal engine became the diesel engine. Old foes became new friends. Old friends became new foes. Daddy did not recover from the assault with the rifle-butt. But till his last moment, he believed that he would. Continued to love George. Hoped from the bottom of his heart, that he would return. George’s third coming.
The diesel engine became the electric engine. States changed. The face of power changed. Everyone changed, except our loves, his and mine. George the Third, I thought. The one who fought Napoleon. The one who fought in America. He won some battles. Lost others. Was wounded by hidden arrows, in yet others. Only that high-headed tall walk did not change when the chains bound hands and feet. And so I could never hate him fully. How to hate the Emperor who shakes hands with the General but warmly embraces the foot-soldier?
My shrivelled hands had longed to break up everything during the nuclear trials. But then I saw, on some TV channel, George’s home which had no security guards. The office room. On the wall, the picture. The same picture of Hiroshima that had hung on my wall. The hands that had eager to smash everything grew weak. Within the soot-black of old age, the embers of youth reddened once more. For nothing. How few do we have in our lives, to love with pride?
George’s arrival at the ashram was a blow to me. It was hard to cope with that reality. I tried not to hear of him. Me, an old woman. I have nothing to do except care for the sick. No one existed who would worry about me. Just another person who was a witness to the twists and turns of Indian democracy. Who had expected a better life. Who would die, reaching ripeness or not. In an age when the body could leap with the mind, the dreams of trains yet to arrive could persist. When the body weakened, so did the mind, and in despair.
One morning, I woke with a start at the screech of an ambulance. It was past two-thirty. We saw our ambulance grate on the gravel path along which we took our patients for morning walks. I stepped into the veranda asking angrily – who’s playing at driving the ambulance to disturb our patients?
The attender who ran up scratched his head. That’s one VVIP, Madam. Made a fuss saying that it was time to go to the Parliament. Threw a fit about the vehicle. Oh, what a voice. Like thunder. It was doctor saab who said, just take him for a ride.
I was shattered. The ambulance turned round and round with the red light on its head. Even then, in the remaining moonlight, it looked like an engine that the bogies had abandoned. When it completed a circle and passed by me, I saw that form with its head raised high. I watched it as if in a dream.
How soon did we turn old. Yes, old age. The time when it was possible to race only ahead was over. The race now is in a circle. Around the same circle, after one’s own self, racing to take it back. My eyes burned wet. The ambulance raced for a long time and came to a stop in front of Cottage One C.
I watched with an inner shudder, the nurse and the attender run up to help a frail figure step out.
He clutched in his left hand the case sheet that hung above patients’ heads as if it were some crucially-important file. He tried to hold his head high like before, as he walked. But he faltered and nearly fell. He took faltering, halting steps in the moonlight like the soldier with chains on his arms and legs. As he climbed the steps, however, he turned his head and looked at me.
I was in the darkness, too dark for him to recognise my form. Even then, he smiled. Waved his right hand. Feeling weak, I fled to my room. My legs faltered too. I too was about to fall.
I did not become strong enough to enter I. C, even after many days. I struggled to escape him taking care of other patients and speaking with their relatives. Still, when I returned to my room, my heart would sear. The embers within the soot would burn me. The giant mushroom in the picture would grow bigger before my eyes.
I would see many pictures within that picture. An opened white umbrella. Or a clenched fist. Or dishevelled straight hair. Or, two eyes that pierced through the smoke. It all reminded me of one person. He is within my reach, just across the turn in the garden; that thought made me shudder. And so, one day, it was the image of someone bound in chains that appeared.
As I gazed at it, a duty nurse came up. Madam, some trouble in the VVIP’s room in I. C. The doctors are not in. I had to go. That moment, the memory of age hung heavy on the legs. Sixty-two years. How far to race at this age? If only trains raced backwards. My heart beat the rhythm of the train. As I stepped on the verandah of I. C, I tried to gather courage. It was dusk, but the earth still glowered. The wind was a searing one. And yet the flowers on the weeping willow refuse to wilt.
I opened the glass door with a trembling hand. The coolness of the air-conditioning flowed out. There was a big racket inside. The old army administrator woke up. What’s going on? I held on to the door and asked aloud, not looking at anyone. The room became silent. Thirty years, after a minute, a woman’s voice faltering with anger, rose up, thirty years, where were all of you till now?
Before I raised my voice again, the beautiful middle-aged woman, her eyes wet with tears and scorching anger swept past without looking at me.
It was clear who she was. A smoky mushroom of jealousy sprouted in me. He must have never noticed my love. Must have not have remembered me even once. While I wandered among dead and wounded soldiers trying to figure out the meaning of life and men, this woman was loved, valued. An engine of pain raced whistling through my brain.
That moment, a woman who had her back turned to me and her son came out. Shaking her bobbed hair off her face, ignoring me, she lashed out without addressing any one particularly: thirty whole years, and never have we asked for an account, even once, isn’t it? Last to come was George’s brother. He did not recognise me. Folding his hands in front, eyes fixed on the floor, he walked slowly as if following a hearse.
Suddenly, the precincts were empty. I too had accounts to settle, of full forty years. But I don’t want to see him. And he should not see me. I started to leave. Then the Duty Nurse came rolling the trolley. Good evening, Madam. Is the quarrel over? I had gone to the pharmacy to get diapers and medicines. I started. The word diaper shook me.
The figure raising its voice standing on top of the stilled train and wearing the red garland, finger pointed towards the sky, surfaced in my eyes. The intense eyes. The thundering voice. I have no rest until this country is free. True freedom is not what we have experienced hitherto. That is just freedom on paper. True freedom is that of the mind. I felt as if many engines were returning. They were rushing over me. I felt that I must see him one more time.
I opened the door again. George the Third sat on the bare floor, one leg folded, the other extended.
He held a fat book in his hand. The white straight hair was closely cropped. He wore a white kurta and pyjama like a convict. He has no memory at all, Madam, the nurse said, replacing things upon the shelf. I went near him slowly. George, I called him gently.
He raised his head. Smiled innocently. Held the book out to me. I took it, trembling. It was his own biography. He himself was on its cover. I felt that it was a four-year-old in front of me. Maybe if I had a son in my bright, free, pure adolescence, his face would have been like this. That child was never born. We moved away from each other, a great distance, like trains that ran in different directions.
Saab, don’t you have to exercise, the nurse came close. She made him sit against the wall and helped him hold a remote control in his hand. Push these buttons. Uh-h, like this. She pressed his index finger on the remote. Exercises to restore the link between the brain and the fingers. The book fell from my hands. Please press this button, saab.
George’s fingers slipped on the remote. Then, a sudden whistle rose up, making me jump. A clattering sound rose up. On black plastic tracks fixed on the floor, a red toy train began to run. Saab, the stop button now. I stood there, frozen. God, our old age. George failed to press his index fingers and raised his four-year-old’s eyes. He held out the remote to me. God, what a climax.
There is much that you people can learn from our old age too.
Translated from the Malayalam by J Devika from Kathakal, K R Meera, DC Books, August 2014.