Author : Asher Ben
Chapter 1 – Debashish and the palm wine.
‘Honk the horns’ the attender shouted to me, instinctively I looked back at the tail end of the wagon.The guard was waving the green flag frantically. I turned forward and looked at the signal which was now lit green. The attender instructed his helper to place the tools back in the toolkit, he then turned back to me and waved his hand.
‘Bon Voyage sirji, we are all done here‘.
From my vantage point I looked down at attender he had sweat formed as tiny droplets all over his bald head, some were trickling down his sideburns onto the khaki collars of his shirt. His khaki attire spoke a story of a hard day at work.
‘You should be reaching the Biswanpur station by 8 pm… ask the shunter there to have a look at the coupling.‘ he pointed the spanner in his right hand towards the rear end of the engine. Then wiping the sweat on his forehead with the back of his hand, he said ‘ Keep the speed under 60‘.
My mom’s constant push for a secure government job had landed me a job with Indian Railways and at the age of 24, I was starting my career as a goods train driver. After 2 years of rigorous training at the Railway yard as ‘Trainee’ this was my first journey on a freight train as ‘Assistant Loco Pilot’.
‘Engage the bell … and Notch 1‘ Debashish instructed as he climbed the engine. He brought with him a severe stench of Palm wine ,Toddy. I am repulsive to any form of alcohol and I wondered how a staunch Hindu brahmin like Debashish could act with such unholiness. Forget religion, this was serious violation of rules.
The engine which was still buzzing when I set it to ‘Notch 1′ now came alive and it hissed and shrieked. For a couple of minutes the noise was so high that nothing could be heard. Then when I slid the window on my side of the engine, some sanity was restored.
‘Notch 2‘ Debashish shouted in my ear as he closed the window on his side of the engine. The stench travelled faster than sound and I wonder if I followed his instructions in fear of the stench or in obedience of a subordinate .
‘Sir, you are drunk, isn’t that a violation of duty rules?‘ I questioned with all humility.
‘Your internship on matters of duty begins today‘ he chuckled and reclined into his seat.
He then pulled up a corner of his shirt to take out a pint bottle that was tucked hidden inside waistband of his underwear. With a swift motion of his palm he patted the cap of the bottle twice and then uncapped the bottle.
‘Cheers!! … to duty rules and your internship‘ he laughed out loud, his oversized tummy wobbled to match his joy.
It had been more than 2 hours since I started off from the Marze Station and the sun was setting right in front of me at the farthest end of the railway track. The Orange orb of the sun and the golden wheat farm on either sides of the track was perfect picture. Occasionally, sheaves of grains were stacked together in pyramidic shape on the fields and birds were feasting around in urgency before they left for their nests.The twilight was slowly descending and few stars were visible.
Meanwhile, my senior pilot was fast asleep. The gush of strong wind coming from the open window on his side regulated the stench of the toddy.I looked as far as I can in the direction of the setting sun. ‘This was just me, the engine and wide span of farms’..I thought.I patted the control board just as a jockey would pat his whining horse.
My thoughts now travelled back and forth randomly.
The speedometer read 90 km/hr, well above the advice of the attender.
At first it looked like fireflies spread evenly on either sides of the track , slowly I could identify the flicker of flames. Then as the distance reduced I saw something lying on the track, like a boulder or was it an animal?. Something was definitely moving.
‘Screeecchhh …..‘ the brakes were engaged and the engine shook violently and revolted. For a split second I thought I would have derailed the bogies. The brake reading was now shooting to red from yellow. All the while my eyes were transfixed on the sack in front of me. I was clenching onto the lever of the brake, my feet were pressed heavily on the floor; in anticipation of the misfortune that was about to happen.
Smoke billowed from the sides of the engine and it wheezed heavily as the train came to a halt. From the cabin, I couldn’t make out if I had over ran the object. With prayers on my lips I jumped down from the cabin onto to the ballast that lay on the sides of the track. I hurried my steps towards the front of the engine and scanned the track. The sack was nowhere to be found.
Instinctively,I hurried back towards my cabin and stopped midway and then bent down to inspect the wheels to confirm my horrors…Nothing there.
I pulled my britelite torch and flashed it under the wheels and under the bogie wheels as far as possible. The hot air emanating from the engine made it difficult to keep my eyes open.
Then, I thought I heard the grinding of ballast…….. a second of silence except for the chirping of crickets……. Then again the same uncomfortable sound. I tried to focus my ears in the direction of the sound. Something was moving or something was being dragged.
I found the sack on the other side of the engine and it was indeed dragging itself towards the field and I was unable to distinguish if it was being dragged by an animal or was it moving on its own. I was myself scared of venturing in the direction of fields as the visibility from the engine was limited to a few feet.
I aimed a stone in the direction in which the sack had by now disappeared.
“ Goooommmm…. mooohh …. mooooo “.
I heard a plaintive groan; horrified, when i recognized that it was a human cry. I stood there unable to decide what to do ,goosebumps ran all over my body.
I ran back to the cabin and called Debashish.
‘Sir, there is someone stacked here in a sack, please help.’ I shook him with urgency. ‘Mand your buzz..ness ….. , you leave it .. mind ..‘he muttered unsteadily in his half sleep.
‘Will I be a coward or will I stand up.If I leave today, I will never be able to face myself… I have to take a call… I have already broken the rules and stopped the train…., am I inviting new troubles ?‘ my mind was busy processing a decision.
I breathed deeply and clenched my fist. I had made up my mind. ‘I am going to unleash… whatever trouble it is‘ I told myself.
Just when I was about to leave, Debashish caught my hand. ‘Pleeze…. leave it..lisan tuo my words‘ his tongue faltered with words and he collapsed from his chair and continued to murmur.
It was quite heavy to drag, heavier than I had anticipated. All the while, ‘someone’ inside the sack kept groaning. I managed to bring it to near the engine where visibility was better if not poor.
The sack was now wobbling uncomfortably and I had to wrestle with it to keep the top end of the sack steady and untie the rope tied at the top of the sack.
I looked into the eyes of a girl. ‘Black eye’ ,brusies all over her face, hair all messed up and strands of hair sticking to the facial wounds. She looked disoriented. A cloth strip was taped over her mouth and she was choking. I reached to lower the tape that was almost obstructing her breathing. Her eyes were fixed on my approaching hand and she jerked violently to protest my attempts. At that moment I read terror in her eyes and my own fear of the situation discouraged me from making any further attempts.
‘Do you want some water‘ I inquired.
She threw her head back and forth rapidly to indicate her urgency and thirst.I ran back to the cabin and brought a bottle of water that I had carried for my journey.
Just when I was about to lower the cotton tape on her mouth and help her with the water, I heard a rustle in the wheat crop. Torches appeared here and there and slowly they seemed to move towards me. I looked around and the torches were closing on me from all directions. I was terrified beyond words.
One man appeared, then another, then another; all from different direction. The torches they carried emanated smoke that smelled of kerosene. In the light of the flame , I was not able to recognize faces, their bodies up till the torso seemed alike; all wearing cotton dhotis,bare chested, bare footed with a heavy round anklet on their right foot.
I was in the most defensive position that I could be in. Arms drawn in towards my chest and in an obstructive position and my knees slightly bent like a sprinter , ready to run at the opening opportunity. I slowly circled to analyse my situation, trying to lock my eyes with the figures that stood behind the torches.
I realized a warmth growing behind me and before I could turn around, I felt the cold edge of metal on my neck and a strong arm twisted my right hand around my back. I jumped on my toes in agony.
‘All this is a dream and when I open my eyes this will be over‘. I comforted myself and shut my eyes. My whole being was terrorized and I felt my calves trembling.
Chapter 2 – ‘Madira’ – My escape
‘You clever son of a whore..what you think you were doing’ a voice whispered coarsely in my ears. I felt a sharp pain as my arm was twisted a little more to induce higher degree of torture and the sharp edge of the dagger was pressed closer to my neck. My eyes opened up involuntarily and my mouth uttered words of forgiveness without my knowledge.
Tears rolled down my eyes and my heart was pounding so loud I could hear it. My legs felt weak and I collapsed in fear. My oppressor kicked my back with his knees; the pain brought new life to my collapsing body and I sprung up.
‘Take that girl and lay her back on the track’ he shouted to his comrades.
While I was watching the men force the head of the girl back into the sack and tie the rope on the end, she began to wobble and quiver. Her groans of agony pierced my heart and soul.
The man behind me released my hand for a second before pulling my hair back. He then pricked my ‘Adam’s apple’ with the tip of the knife, pushing it a little until I screamed in pain. I felt a drop of blood flowing from the wound down my neck toward the neckline.
From the corner of my eye , I saw a few men carrying the sack and placing it back on the track in front of the engine.The struggle of the girl was horrific, she continued to moan and move inside the sack . One of the men who had carried the sack to the railway track pulled out a wooden club and silenced the girl with a heavy blow.
‘A few bones might have broken’ I Imagined and I felt bile build up in my stomach. I couldn’t control my emotions , fear and pity ; I wept like a baby.
‘You listen to me carefully, you are going to start that train and run it to your goddamned destination. If you show any signs of resistance I am going to pack you with that girl in that sack and beat you to pulp. You understand me!!! … You are going to DIE’, the menacing voice of my oppressor echoed in my ears.
He threw my head forward as he released his grip on my hair and pushed me forward.
The warning had registered not in my ears but in my soul, for I became detached from myself; this world. My ears went deaf and my movements mechanically. My eyes never blinked for they were fixed on the sack lying motionless on the track.
My legs felt heavy with each step weighing a thousand pounds. I wavered everynow and then, almost falling down. I supported myself on my knees. My throat was dry and my vision blurred. I was gasping for breath as if I had just finished a marathon.
One more push or was it a kick, I don’t remember, and I was now climbing onto the engine. Through the window of the engine I could see the sack lying in front of me . A patch of red had now spread on one side of the sack and I reigned my mind from imagining the details.
The man with the wooden club banged the side of the engine so hard that I felt the vibrations of the impact on the lever and the control board. I closed my eyes and prayed all my gods to forgive me for what I was about to do.
Meanwhile the mob was shouting abuses at me, throwing stones aimed at the window, everything possible to push me to drive the engine forward; only that my hands on the lever wouldn’t move.
This was my ‘moment of truth’. I was forced into inaction by my fear for my life and pity for the life that I was about to take. No amount of will could move the lever which I held so tightly. I prayed under my breath and I clenched my teeth to force myself to action.
All of a sudden I felt a hand close over my hand on the lever and it pushed the lever forward. I didn’t open my eyes for the fear of discovering the face of man who had held me at knifepoint.
Slowly the engine came alive and hissed, I felt the wheels moving and I imagined the scene as the distance between the sack and the engine was closing. I waited obnoxiously long to feel a thud or a vibration of wheel as it would run over the sack. I lost count of time passed until the grip on my hand released.
‘ He might have jumped out of the train’ I comforted myself and opened my eyes. Infront of me, the train had now picked up quite some speed. I looked back to see Debashish standing behind me, his eyes full of pity , I pressed my head onto the side windows and looked back in the direction of the tail end of the train. The mob was still standing on the sides of the train, I kept staring at mob as they stood motionless in anticipation. The outlines of their bodies dissolving into the omnipresent darkness and only the flame of their torches dancing in the dark.
While I was still looking, I heard gunshots fired into air and howling of the mob as they broke into celebration.
They had confirmed the death of the girl.
I succumbed to desperation and shrank onto the floor of the cabin with my head hidden between my knees. I wept, screamed and poured my heart out. The last half an hour of my life ran several times through my head.
‘The face of the girl will haunt me forever… I am a murderer now … my hands are tainted’ I raised my head to look at my hands and then pressed my face into my arms. Then anger engulfed me and I banged my fist on the floor of the cabin.
Debashish pulled me up and said ‘Your burden is heavy , but you know that you are not to blame yourself’ his voice was steady and gentle any stimulant effects of the palm wine were now missing.
‘What you need is a medicine to free yourself’. He offered me the pint bottle containing his brew. I looked at the bottle for a second and then at the face of Debashish and gulped the bottle empty. As my eyes closed, I found peace,stars twinkling everywhere, cool breeze and the soft tone of bells.
Alchol (Madira) – My escape from the bitterness of life.