Off-Centre Society

Summer vacations in my father’s home town were miserable but I had an ally in the trains

The apartment where I live is near the railway tracks, close to a level crossing. Trains pass by through the day and late into the night. The engines blow their horns in short and long warnings as they approach the crossing and, as you might imagine, it gets really noisy for a few seconds. Then a subdued clatter later, in just a few seconds, all the boxes have gone and everything fades away into the distance.

Call me strange, but I love that outofmywaynow swagger of a fast-approaching train and its hushed getaway more than any other sound in the world. Brings me joy every single time, though it wasn’t until I was an older adult that I realised that it is connected with restless memories from my childhood.

When I was growing up we used to spend a part of our summer vacation in my father’s home town. Though it was a family vacation and we all travelled together, I was a reluctant participant, as were my siblings. They were strange and listless, those days. There was nothing much to do, but it wasn’t the inactivity we dreaded as much as the indifferent silence of the adults around us.

Belonging nowhere

Aunts and uncles went about their day without so much as a hitch in their routine, bustling to their respective offices, visiting friends, going to the shops; it really didn’t matter to anyone that we were around, and in any case we were the ones on holiday, not they. But it still felt like we were given a wide berth, like they didn’t want to have anything to do with us.

It might have just been that we were as alien to them as they were to us.

Language was a problem. Their Tamil sounded different to us, but they also spoke Telugu and Kannada, and the words sounded twisted and mysterious to our ears. I and my sisters spoke a little Tamil, a little English and a little Hindi, not really comfortable in any of these languages either, but enough to be able to get by. My father’s job came with a posting every two years and moving around from one small station to another in fits and starts had left us with a sense of belonging nowhere.

Sometimes questions were addressed to us, or we’d have to ask for assistance from a distant-looking aunt or uncle or grandmother, and those times I’d be terrified and tongue-tied. Curious stares and bemused prompts can have that effect on any child, I think. I’m not sure how much of all this my parents understood or even cared about, but then we didn’t really speak to them with any degree of frankness. I honestly don’t think I knew how to explain what it felt like to live through day after day in a bubble that was part boredom, part apprehension, part self-pity.

In the night we would lie in rows in a central hall that felt like some vast playground back in those days. It wasn’t. It was actually pretty small. But we’d lie there, staring at pictures and paintings of the gods on the walls. They were all around us and of no help at all; in the night light they too seemed to sneer at us.

Falling apart

But we had an ally in the trains. A railway track ran just behind the house. A favourite pastime for me and my sisters was to hang around on the terrace, counting down the days to our departure, dreaming about which of those trains would spirit us away. The rest of the time we did holiday homework or handwriting practice. It was too hot to run around during the day, but we played as best as we could, in twos or threes, the difference in our ages separating us naturally into who could be included or not.

There was a tiny room adjacent to the sitting room that had mountains of bedding, all the way from the ceiling to the floor. Sometimes we climbed those mountains for fun; there were always plenty of soft pillows to break our fall. It was also a good room to hide in if you wanted to shed a few tears of anger and loneliness.

I would go through my stash of Enid Blytons two or three days into the holidays and then would come a long dry spell. But one of my uncles was an English lecturer in the local college and there were always books to be found. Sometimes in the bedding room, I’d find a few fallen between mattresses. A shelf in another room had a handful of offerings. Inevitably, as the days dragged on, I’d give in and begin to browse. I never saw anyone else touch them or read them. They looked like they’d been there forever, their spines stiff and arthritic, and when you opened the pages they fell apart in relief, almost. They were brown, those pages, stained with age, their corners brittle so that they disintegrated and flaked in your fingers like dead leaves. But there were others that were just yellow and getting on in age — Shakespeare, George Elliot, D.H. Lawrence, Hardy, Cervantes.

I read them over a period of several years, from when I was eight or nine till I was twelve or thirteen, not understanding the words at all, but just spelling them out to myself, taking little baby steps out of the miserable universe I found myself trapped in. I haven’t ever understood people who say they discovered the classics when they were young and impressionable, in mysterious libraries and pregnant bookshelves, and thereafter went on to lead joyful readerly lives. The books I read during those summers from long ago only ever brought me sorrow and a deep desire to stay away from old books and their incomprehensible worlds.

Even now, secondhand books of a certain vintage don’t make me jump for joy or want to burrow my face in their pages and inhale deeply of their musty smell.

But the sound of a fast-moving train, now that’s a different thing. I want to get on one right away and let it take me away to a happier place.

The writer’s latest novel is In Now & Then.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 9:22:12 AM |

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