I ran my eyes aimlessly over the artificial wood grain of the stained Formica surface before me. A similar surface behind me was sticky from the perspiration of countless others leaning against it for support, as I was doing now. My wrist ached from gripping the metal bar to avoid being thrown about by the relentless swaying of the train. The crescendo of sound, of carriages crashing against each other, of wheels moving over sections of loose track and the nerve–rending screech of metal on metal, was deafening. It reverberated back and forth within my skull. I stayed for long moments in that state of immobility; not moving, not perceiving, not thinking but just standing there in a neutral sphere of existence.
Then I shifted my gaze to the man on the other side of that crammed space at the end of our carriage. He, too, was leaning against the side of the car for support. His rather inconspicuous face looked greasy from invisible droplets of sweat. But otherwise it had no particular expression. He was gazing ahead with unseeing eyes, lost in his own private thoughts. His garments categorised him in the lower income bracket; tattered shirt, faded striped sarong, artificial leather slippers. Our eyes met momentarily but there was no communication, no empathy. We looked away.
I glanced back into the carriage behind me. The two seats on one side of it, closest to my end, were visible at an angle through the doorway. The man next to the window was dozing fitfully. As sleep overtook him, his head slowly shifted forward until his shoulders no longer supported its weight. Then, as it started to drop, he woke with a start, noticed his position almost subconsciously, sat back slightly embarrassed, and eventually fell asleep again. Watching him gave me a strange sensation of fellow feeling for this total stranger. I could remember the same thing happening to me on so many occasions.
The man seated beside him, next to the central aisle, was awake. He was regarding the bulky bag resting between my feet with a curious expression. There was the slightest trace of anticipation in his face. Idly I wondered what he was thinking. Was he thinking that it was a bomb? With all that had been happening lately and the dire warnings broadcast over TV and radio, the idea could hardly have failed to occur to him. The irony of the situation struck me and a faint smile twitched my lips. The man sensed me watching him and quickly glanced away, guiltily, silently embarrassed. He feigned interest in something else, hoping that I had not noticed him watching me.
My mind was returning to its previous condition of thoughtless inactivity. I forced it out of this state, forced it to ignore the envelope of sound around me that was steadily rendering my ears impotent. I had heard that so many trips in a Kandy-Colombo Express brought about deafness. Then that thought, too, faded away.
Fragmented images from memory passed through my head like a slide show. The facade of Fort station constantly being renovated, blocks of concrete lying about, filthy when it rained, and a maelstrom of private buses and people. Inside, like stepping into a different century, the overpowering ambiance of British railways, the ancient cafeteria with its smudged glass panels, dirty tea cups and oily short eats. The chipped, cracked and grimy surface of the concrete platforms, the blackened tracks lying between, oil stained sleepers, old green diesels pulling worn red carriages.
Here inside, people crushing in from every side - tired mothers, sun blackened skin and sagging breasts behind tattered hattas, the traditional bodice, and seven to a seat designed for three. A mesh of sweaty arms as people hung on to the rusting baggage racks above and the steel rungs set into the sides of the seats, faces faint and drained; an old government agent’s leather brief hanging from a middle aged man’s hand.
I thought back on past events. This was the best opportunity for it. The only one. I cast my mind back to the moment when the three of us had arrived at the train station in Colombo Fort. The throngs of people all going about their personal matters, uncommunicative, impersonal... apathetic.
The rat race: rushing through life, competing for minor victories, without a moment’s breathing space, without stopping for introspection, without true objectives. “Never get involved in the rat race,” my father had said. “It’s a vicious circle with no beginning and no end and no real benefit when you’re done with it.” I’d never been one to follow advice and I hadn’t been able to do so with this one either, although the Gods know I had wanted to. But at least I could look back on what I had done and feel a sense of pride about it. A sense of achievement. I at least, unlike most, had been able to benefit from it.
Outside, the countryside rushing by, was slowly turning green as we left the squalid grey suburbs of Colombo behind. The wailing of the train had assumed a rhythmic character that pulsated across the open fields. Huge tracts of abandoned paddy fields flashed by to the left, flooded in some areas, coconut trees and patterns of rubber trunks on distant hillocks. And sometimes we would cut through a village, a gravel road lying across the rail tracks; a station that was no more than a platform made of compacted earth behind a bank of stacked sleepers, simple faces looking on as we blasted past. Rushing on, relentlessly. Soon we would be in the mountains that had fought so valiantly against the British, where men like Saradiel, our own Robin Hood, had hidden, or a queen had leaped to her death because a king had played a foolish prank.
I realised that my thoughts were wandering. I redirected them back to where they had gone off at a tangent. We had arrived at the station only to find that as usual the train time tables were completely fouled up and as inconvenient as they could get. The normal express train left at 5.55 a.m., and they only started issuing tickets for the comfortable and desirable Inter-city train at 6.00 a.m. So if you waited to buy tickets for the latter, and discovered that they were sold out, as you did on many occasions, it left you stranded. You were faced with either a three hour wait for the next train, which would also be full and overflowing with passengers like this one, or you had the distasteful prospect of taking a bus – an option that did not bear thinking about.
I took a platform ticket along with my two friends and checked out the express train that was about to leave. There were no seats available – typically. It left me with the difficult option of deciding which train to take. My friends would part with no advice, content to leave the entire matter to my judgment. They said I was taking the train, so I had to decide. I’d had two minutes, the revving of the train engine a persistent and constant reminder in the background of the essence of time. Thinking back on it now leaves me with a strange kind of awe, at the countless times one has to make such arbitrary decisions throughout life. Life... how alien a word that sounds to me.
My friends had nodded approvingly when I had picked the Express. And later I had realised that it had been the right choice. This train offered a much wider and more comprehensive cross section of our society. It was the common man’s train while the Inter-city was a more high class train altogether. The express had more passengers – was bursting with them – and was cheaper anyway.
The older of my two friends, the veteran at these things, had rushed off to buy the ticket and we began running along the platform, navigating through the people milling around on it, as the train began to pull out. I clung onto the handrail of an open door and swung round. The two of them stood there side by side, like brothers, regarding me with unfathomable emotions. I raised my arm in a gesture of farewell that evoked a similar, almost reflexive reaction from them. But it was more than just another waving of good-byes that took place innumerable times on that platform each day. It was far more, for it was truly fare well. That moment held a strange kind of significance for all of us; a moment of deep camaraderie, of the parting of a close bond, as destiny took us our separate ways. And in the face of the younger of the two I noticed a trace of what may have been respect, perhaps even hero worship. That look brought a lifting feeling to my heart and at the same time managed to settle a deep sense of melancholy upon it. They stood there growing smaller and smaller as the train pulled away. Then they had disappeared completely, and I immersed myself in my thoughts.
I cast my mind further back, looking with perspective upon the short nineteen years of my life. I remembered the small mud hut standing alone on the barren wastelands of the Eastern Province. My parents from whom I had been parted four years ago. The sister I had watched grow from girl to woman; a process I would never see to a close. I thought about all of them, an image that brought back nostalgic recollections. It wasn’t much, but to me they meant the one thing above all others – home. The only one I’d ever had. I thought about my school days that had been aborted prematurely. I hadn’t been doing badly, I thought modestly. But that was all over. That life was gone.
My thoughts returned to the train, to now and here, to the relentless screeching of sound, to the swaying of the carriages and the dull pain and stickiness. Shifting my weight from one foot to the other, to relieve the growing ache in my heels, I peered forward into the next carriage. I ran my eyes over the dozen or so green uniformed figures occupying a carriage that could have comfortably seated in excess of forty. This was the kind of thing against which people rebelled; behind me, hundreds of people cramped into one carriage, and before me, a handful of others reclining luxuriously, oblivious to the discomfort of their fellows. And I in between the two.
I looked at the battered metal watch strapped to my wrist: 7.45 a.m. We’d been traveling for an hour and forty five minutes. I sighed with the weariness that was already settling upon my limbs and picked up the strap of my bag. Heaving its weight upon my shoulder I slowly began making my way towards the coach on the far side of the military carriage. Halfway across, the swaying of the train made me lurch. One of the army officers made a cynical remark to his comrades and they looked at me and snickered.
A sudden anger welled up inside me. And I saw the officers as all the evil in our society, the perpetrators of all injustices, the symbols of all that was bad and wrong and corrupt. I was overwhelmed by uncontrollable emotion and knew I had to end it here and now. They saw the intense hate reflected in my eyes. Astonishment had barely begun to register upon their hardened faces when I slipped my hand into the bag and twisted the hard metal knob there.
For a split second I saw the red orange inferno of flame mushroom around me and felt the unbearable agony as it seared my flesh.
And then, oblivion...
Eternity had arrived.
- From the Collection "just another bomb blast" (1999)