Picture a train leaving an underground station. Neither the name of the station nor the destination of the train should be important. Names and destinations rarely matter. You could be anywhere while picturing the train. Anywhere with a river before you, preferably standing on a river-bridge. For rivers are like trains. They help you imagine moving bodies. Moving bodies help you make memories. The loveliest memories are of course of things and events that did not happen. How many real rivers have you really seen? Liffey, Brahmaputra, Thames, Ganges. But don’t digress. Bring yourself back to the image. Picture a train leaving an underground station.
Of course you are in the train. On a lovely window seat if you like. Looking out at yourself standing on the platform. Two pairs of hands waving goodbyes at each other, if you want to picture something more sentimental. This isn’t a dream by the way. This isn’t real by the way. There aren’t many ways anyway. You look at yourself leave in the train. You think of leaping in front of it. Not now, not yet. But that would be so much better than jumping off a window ledge or a bridge. You could never do it. You have tried. Why only last night. You were sitting on the ledge of your hotel window. Overlooking the Liffey with all its bridgelights falling across the cold Dublin nightair. For twenty minutes or so you ceased to care. You felt so free that you wanted to fly, knowing you will fall. You didn’t care. You just wanted to end it all. But it never works out that way. And you always end up with a tiredness that traps you back. Then it all dies with the thoughts about things to do and stuff to produce and reproduce. Stuff you know you cannot produce and reproduce. For your life is a long lonely struggle not to be found out. So you step down. From the ledge or the bridge. Hoping you will climb again soon. Your stories are never complete.
Waiting for trains in a platform full of strangers is a good exercise in existential solidarity. For you end up sharing a slice of time with a random group of people, a slice of time that will slip into all your lives and connect you all for as long as you live although you may never see each other again. All your lives will always contain this wait. Standing with strangers in a metro station makes you feel most comfortable with yourself. You feel freer, sweat lesser and breathe easier. Away from the familiar faces you endlessly entertain with your overdone orchestra of mindful mannerisms and manoeuvres. Waiting at a metro station is a pleasant break from the barbed wires and booby traps in the world of contraptions above. Till the train that comes to take you back. There’s always a train to take you where you don’t want to go. To what you don’t want to know. But waiting for a train isn’t that bad. Especially in the underground where the white platform light oversees yellow trains swishing in like monocled machines. The lights cross and mix with the electronic announcements and screeches. Like metronomic music pieces. Triggering off a synaesthetic stream of consciousness. Together the alchemy makes you feel more alive than you really are. Everyone seems to behave better in the underground. And noises turn to smaller sounds.
You may also want to experience the smells in the underground station, if you like. It’s that time of the night when the smell of bleach mixes with sweaty shirts in quiet corners. You have always thought bleach smells a lot like rotting knee-wound, especially mild bleach of lesser quality. You could be mistaken. Perhaps you smelt bleach right before or after you first smelt a rotting knee-wound. Your knee-wound. Perhaps that memory stayed with its associative effect. Memories of smells and their subconscious stains. But you digress again. Meanwhile, someone in the platform has just peeled off an orange, or a peach, if you please. An orange smells better though, you think. And then there are evening newspapers with coffee smells and old leather bags and warm groundnuts bought from the station entrance above. Smells bring back memories, as scientists say and novelists show. Almost everyone around you is remembering something now as the bleach, sweat, orange, coffee, leather and groundnuts mix in unequal intensities. The train is still leaving the station. Slowly slowly slowly. Just in case you don’t lose sight of it in your mind. You can quicken or slow it down as per your wish. Remember. You are in it.
Step back a bit. Step up again. Position yourself in the platform perfectly diagonal to the driver’s cabin. Till the train becomes a hazy yellow. Till the only things clear are a wholly peeled orange skin on the platform and you sitting in the moving yellow by a glass. Let a moment pass. The faces around you have become apparitions. Apparitions in a cold morgue like metro. Think of all the madmen you have met. The ones who revisit you in narcoleptic afternoons, standing on the edge of your Rapid Eye Movement visions. By the Brahmaputra, the Thames, the Liffey, the Ganges. Rivers again. Rivers leave memories and madmen behind by their muddied banks. By the bridges. The Howrah Bridge, Old London Bridge, Ha’Penny Bridge. All have homeless madmen along their railings staring at stars. Not all madmen are homeless though. Some draw salaries and drive their own cars.
Look at yourself sitting on the train looking at you on the platform. One of you should be leaving behind the other. You aren’t sure yet who is really being left behind. The train is now a river. A yellow river with no name. Remember. A certain madman before the closed Coffee House in Calcutta had told you that the State shouldn’t exist, except as an idea shared by all. Your watch showed 1 AM then. The tramlines looked like tired veins resting atop the skin of the street. The Calcutta College Street. That madman also said that a revolution is brewing somewhere in the north. North of what you had asked. He had laughed. Before slapping your twenty-one-year old face. For being a disgrace. To the Party. For choosing to get away. For betraying the cause. Then he walked off. You saw him merge with the tramlines, singing a saddening song. Of wars that were nearly won.
That madman is beside you on the platform now. All the madmen you have known are around you now. Carefully hidden among the civilized citizens who wait for the last metro with their sweaty shirts, leather bags and warm groundnuts. The earlier train has left. With you in it. The peeled orange skin on the platform has grown into a fleshy mound. It’s growing further. And then you kick it from the platform floor into the railtrack. It begins to float, falling slowly. It begins to grow, to stretch its skin like bird wings. Only you can see it grow. The citizens around are meanwhile checking their lives in their smart phones, enjoying little quick-fire alleys of quirky as well as conventional orders of masturbatory narcissism. The madmen around you begin to chuckle. They don’t have smart phones on their bodies. You turn back and recognize them one by one. One of them looks like someone you betrayed, and quite possibly drove to death. An old Anglo-Indian train driver who couldn’t get away from Calcutta on time. Maybe he didn’t really want to. Maybe he didn’t really try. He had taught you to think and write stories. The two of you sat across a creaky table in a small room at his place in a smelly Howrah alley. He showed you how to make love to language. He taught you to frame fantasies about revelations and sudden deaths. You grew up and he grew old. In time you stole it all and walked away.
Tired tannoy female voice. A train is approaching the metro station. People are requested to step back from the edge of the platform. To wait for the passengers to disembark before getting in. It’s the last train of the day. Meanwhile the orange skin on the rail track has stretched into a giant pair of bird wings now, with scenes of your sins and shame. It looks like the massive stone you saw in Connemara with names of men who died in the sea. It becomes suddenly visible to all. To citizens and madmen alike. Your petty little masturbatory life of selfish slippages, blowups and betrayals stretched across a giant pair of orange bird wings. Consequently there is considerable consternation and panic among the civilized citizens on the platform. This is perceived as a hi-tech terrorist attack. The smart phones click images of the bird wings which begin to invade virtual walls. It has blocked the rail track between the platform and the tunnel wall as well. Meanwhile you hear the last train of the day swishing in from the distance. Like an angry sea wave coming to claim something periodically precious. You can see the yellow point becoming a glow and getting longer from where you stand. The train comes closer, slows down. You see your old Anglo-Indian teacher on the driver’s seat. You wave at him furiously to stop the train but he just smiles from the cabin. He speeds up the train and crashes into the orange wings which burst into a dust storm. The madmen give a collective cheer. The sounds fill the skies which suddenly show up through the broken brick roof of the metro station. You can see night birds sitting on stars looking down on you. A close up tells you that it’s the madmen who’ve all become night birds now. Merrily goading you on to leap up to them. Don’t listen to them. Don’t leap off the ledge. Not now, not yet.
Meanwhile the citizens on the platform stare at you suspiciously. You seemed to have caused the act of terror. You are probably perceived as a religious extremist by some, an attractive anarchist by others. But you know you are just a shallow stylist who struggles to forget. You set out to explain. That you really wanted to stop the train. No words emerge. Instead you laugh. The others come closer. You leap into the rail track. Where the giant wing has become an innocuous tiny orange peel again. It sits like a forgotten foreskin of a bigger body which has outgrown and abandoned it. The last train of the day has disappeared. There is no evidence of any casualty. No loss of non-innocent lives. Instead there is a yellow light in the sky. The afterglow of the accidental act. You point to it and the citizens look up too. Before they begin to crouch and move towards you. In choreographic cohesion. Their human faces begin to disappear and their teeth grow longer, along with the nails. It’s a ballet of buyers who have quickly gravitated into angry animals being cheated of the purpose of their tiny train tickets. You smell danger. That smell carries memories too, especially that of your mother’s lover clicking off his big broad belt in order to hit you with it across your face. You begin to run along the rails. Chased by what sounds like a pack of wolves. The madmen scream from the stars. Especially the one who taught you to write. The one you shamelessly betrayed. He screams that your limbs should be torn bit by bit. Word by word.
You should be terrified. But as you run you realize. All this can turn into a story. About revelations and awakenings and sudden deaths. Way better than what that old Anglo-Indian taught you across the creaky table in the smelly alley in Howrah. This is the raw stuff, the rough draft. But a fully fleshed out story is quite possibly in order. So you need to live. To survive this subterranean slaughterhouse. This thought speeds you up. Your arrogance and alliterations return and you begin to experience an arousal. You run. Burning away with a new-found bouquet of breaths. You sprint away into the naked nightair which sneaks you in. Away from the wolves which can’t tear your words or limbs. Not tonight. You hear the howls die.
You keep running. In order to reach the words before they dry up or freeze. Before the moonlight cuts you down. Before the night skin grows too thick.
Picture another train leaving another underground station.
Don’t wake up. Don’t go to sleep.
Avishek Parui is an Assistant Professor in English at IIT Guwahati and researches on memory, consciousness and the storytelling self.