Image via Shutterstock

The Layers in Railways

When I wake up in the middle of the night in my hometown, I often hear passing trains going thadak, thadak, thadak, like a steady heartbeat. When I was younger, I imagined the trains were filled with travelers, children who slept in soft pajamas, ready to wake up in a new destination by morning. In reality, the trains that pass through my hometown are filled with coal and industrial chemicals. They travel westward from Tennessee at fifty miles per hour, with no one aboard except for a conductor and an engineer. Were they ever lonely?

On the fifth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, my aunt boarded a train to Madurai. Her sister had asked her to distribute Zakat money on her behalf, as Ramadan was only a few weeks away. Too weary of thieves to store the money in a suitcase, she carefully folded the crisp notes into a small jute bag. Clutching it close to her chest and reciting Ayatul Kursi under her breath, she boarded. The bombs detonated at Trichy station, and she was impaled by a metal beam. Her pallu hung limply from her body, small vermilion spots spreading hungrily like dye. As she faintly watched her life seep from her belly, she noticed she was still gripping the bag. Reciting Ayatul Kursi had protected the money, at least. It was discovered later that the Islamic Defense Force was responsible for the attack. Who were they defending?

Forty four years prior, and forty kilometers from Trichy station, M. Karunanidhi lay down on train tracks with four others in Kallakudi to protest its renaming to Dalmiapuram in honor of a Rajasthani cement moghul. Karunanidhi viewed the renaming as an imposition of North Indian control upon Tamils. See if your trains run now, his body dared. There would be no Hindi cemented atop Dravidian soil, which had been tirelessly enriched by the sweat of Dravidian laborers. The protesters were arrested, and Karunanidhi shot to fame. It wasn’t until fourteen years later that Dalmiapuram became Kallakudi once more. What is the value of a homeland?

On May 8, 2020, an exodus of jobless migrant laborers in Maharashtra are forced to journey home on foot since public transportation has been halted. They have been beaten for moving, beaten for staying. Desperate in their exhaustion after walking forty kilometers, they fall asleep on the train tracks, thinking no trains would be operating because of the lockdown. Surely, if passenger trains were still operating, they would not need to walk hundreds of kilometers to reach home. At least sixteen sleeping migrant workers were killed that day by an incoming freight train that ran them over. What goods were more important than their lives?

I think of my maternal grandfather, and our interactions while I visited Tamil Nadu as a child. He spoke of the railroads in India as an excellent addition by the British, and a decade after his death, I revisited this conversation often. This idea, that, despite everything, my grandfather could find solace in an accidental silver lining. I used to think that my grandfather was a British sympathizer, but the truth is that he understood that perpetrators take many forms. He was not convinced by the nationalistic rhetoric suggesting all of society’s ills were a product of colonialism. He witnessed his own countrymen destroy each other without any help from the White Man: for political gain, because they ate beef, because of their perceived inferiority. In any case, I thought, why should the British get credit for railways built by landless laborers?

***

Back then, my grandfather’s rheumy eyes were blurred with age, his head supported by a thick neck brace that extended to his large protruding ears. From where I sat at his feet as a child, he appeared to be a tortoise slowly sinking into his shell, into his memories. I speculated that if by some grievous error he removed the brace, his head would perhaps simply flop over and his prayer thoppi would fall off. I would finally see the top of his head, peppered with age spots, and all his thoughts would pour out like water, dissolving his paper-thin brown skin until he was a pile of wet cotton on the concrete floor. I would have cried, “Can’t you see, Grandpa? Today is August 15. Your country is free from oppressors.”

He would not respond, but by then I would have understood. In his eyes, I would see ghost trains, filled with countrymen who had tried to flee to Pakistan. I would see his daughter, clutching a jute bag to her chest before a blast. I would see men with sticks beating the leather worker, the meat eater. “Freedom!” they would say, “this country is ours, we are independent. Indians are no longer minions of the British.”

As if, by placing indefinite blame on the Raj, they were absolved of their crimes. For the marginalized and powerless, ‘freedom’ remains intangible, it was never granted  with Independence. What is freedom, if we cannot live? What is the purpose of a train, if it cannot take us home?