The rain was quiet and slow, but it was continuous and all-enveloping. The lightning flashed across the sky for a moment, illuminating the forest, the high mountains all around, the drazzle of heavy clouds in the sky. It illuminated the silver steel snake that stretched its winding, meandering way a hundred kilometers through the forest. It also shone its benevolence on the Blue and White, puffing little dragon that sat on the snake’s belly. The bolt of lightning tore through the sky and revealed to us the inscription etched on the dragon’s snout: "KSR-700." It also revealed to us the faces of the men inside the cab of the ZDM-3 Diesel-Electric railway locomotive sitting still, dark and silent on the Kalka-Shimla railway line, otherwise known as the "toy-train."
The description might not be entirely wrong, as this remains one of the last narrow-gauge lines in the country, at 66 centimeters of track width. The British built it in 1903, and all we have done in the ensuing 112 years is to marvel at its system of bridges and tunnels built in seemingly impossible places. It seems that they took the secret home with them, as repeated attempts to replicate its design have come up naught.
It can be safely said that none of this was on the minds of the three of us loco-pilots sitting inside the engine. There was the super, his assistant, and me, the apprentice trainee hoping to work my way up the technical hierarchy. I kind of liked it here though, granted that I was working on maybe the slowest train in the country. But I came from the mountains myself, and like the slow, idyllic pace of everyday - hauling a six-coach passenger up from Kalka to Shimla, have breakfast, then haul it back. The tourist season ensured a more-than full load. I had been up here for a month now, in another month my requisite hours would be complete, and I would be done. The ZDM-3 locomotive was ancient, about the size of a mini-bus, but it was perfect for the steep slopes, and the slow speed we operated on.
This was supposed to be an overnighter in Shimla, but somebody had called up for a loco to be available before morning in Kalka, so we were driving it back down, a journey taking nearly six hours. That was until a red-signal had been seen immediately after passing Solan station. "That’s really strange, there isn’t supposed to be any traffic on this line tonight, the signal shouldn’t be red," mumbled my supervisor. There was nothing else moving on this line tonight. At least nothing to do with trains.
It had been raining all day, but the rain really picked up as night fell. Now there was wind, thunder and lightning, really a sound-and-light show. So now we were stopped in the middle of the forest, and had shut-down the prime-mover after a few minutes. We were carrying only a limited amount of diesel - there was no sense in wasting it all idling. The lights had been switched of too, simply because a stopped machine in the middle of the dark forest with its lights switched on would be like a beacon inviting the million kinds and numbers of insects that abounded in the bush. Silence existed only as a matter of perspective - because the cacophony of crickets, cicadas, and god-knows-what-else was everywhere - it came through the trees, around the rocks, flew on over our heads, and spread over to everything around. They are never quiet; they are cursed never to rest.
"Walk on towards Barog station and find out what’s wrong," my super ordered his assistant. I was relieved - I had been expecting to be sent out on this particular errand. The assistant, a hard-working man of 40, quietly got up, picked up a torch and left. I watched his shadow, framed by the cone of light, receding down the track, and vanishing around a bend.
"Perhaps you can give me the truth now, mister B., I guess," muttered the super, startling me out of my composure.
"It’s more than evident that your story of ‘loving the mountain air’ is utter bullshit. It's bullshit because it smells to high heaven. Come on, tell me once more - why exactly did you pass up a transfer to comfortable shunting job to end up here of all places?"
I had nothing to tell him. Nothing but the truth that is - but I think he did not need to know about the girl and her parents who were looking for me. And the debtors who had been hounding us ever since my father passed away. And the police, looking for my brother, not see for over a year. I had to get it away from it all. From them all.
I came out here to lay low and let it blow over, maybe tarry over my debt somehow, the one with an interest rate that’s a crime against humanity in itself. Maybe to be gone long enough to break the girl’s heart, so she may forget me and move on. Maybe somewhere in this jungle, behind some tree, under some rock, I will find some talisman to make everything go away. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter why I was here - there were enough reasons. None that I was willing to talk about.
"Hell if I had the choice, I would be down there, driving those 6000-horsepower monsters. Running 100er express trains, maybe run over a school bus or something now and then, and generally making double than I do here. Look at this! People don’t consider this a goddamn train."
"Err… my mother was born here, she loved the beauty of the place and always wanted me to come back here… it was her last wish…"
I have always been good at lying. Lied in my railway job form, lied in the interview, and lied to the technical board. The super sniggered and for a moment, gave me the kind of look that a thief gives to another thief whom he recognizes.
"Bullshit," he replied.
"Not that good at lying," I think.
The questioning ceased, and he looked ahead. The red glowing stick that was his cigarette, the only source of light other than the near-constant lightning, giving his face a surreal glow. I had the sudden urge to scream and bawl at the same time. The background noise of insects and thunder, playing over and over and over again, was getting to my nerves. I wanted something to change, anything.
A further few minutes must have passed without any conversation, because presently I saw the assistant walking back up, the torch bobbing right and left. He came up alongside, gripped the handrail, eased himself up, opened the narrow cabin door and squeezed inside, expelling raindrops all over me.
"Some kind of animal got into the tunnel ahead and is trapped. They’re making noise and trying to scare it off, apparently it’s not working. He said that he can’t say how long we may have to wait."
Animals do get into tunnels, specially these days, when it rains. It’s a welcome way to escape the rain. Rules prohibit us from harming animals in railway operation as long as "technically" possible. Notice I said "technically" and not "humanely."
Back in loco-pilot school, they taught us that if ever we were at the wheel of a speeding train, and saw an "obstruction" - colloquial term that covers suicidal humans, animals, cars and buses - up ahead on the track, standard procedure is to break hard. But if the target is too close, standard procedure is to swear loudly, duck your head, and do nothing. Motive physics totally change when the "vehicle" you are driving is the size of a 30-storey building and weighs 5000 tons, and even at a snail’s pace, has the momentum of a cruise ship. Loaded trains, if there is something in their way, simply cannot stop, even though they may be travelling slower than you walk. A sudden break can send the whole behemoth barreling off the track, killing hundreds more and destroying much more in the process. Car drivers simply cannot understand the intricacies of having to apply breaks three kilometers before the point you need to stop, and so we are told to sacrifice the delusional idiot who was stupid enough to wander onto a railway track "in the interests of greater safety."
We had been stopped because there was an animal in the tunnel, and policy dictated that the local staff had to get it out of the tunnel, by shouting and hilariously flapping their arms at the tunnel entrance, and slowly move inwards, driving the animal towards the other end. In our case, it doesn’t work very well, as the tunnel in question is one of the longest in the country.
"Screw this. That damn tunnel is more than a kilometer long. This is going to take all night. I am not sitting in this godforsaken place all night. Crank ‘er up."
I got up, opened the door and climbed down to the ground. If he wanted to go ahead on a red-signal, he was welcome. It’s his ass on the line.
I opened up the side panel in the engine’s body, reset the main electrical circuit breaker, and waited for the assistant to throw the oil breakers and call out the oil level, and the battery voltage.
"Oil is OK, battery needle is centered."
Those were brand new batteries - gleaming in the dark before me. Like I had done hundreds of time before, I reached into the dark and touched the green button. I wavered for a moment and pressed it. Thankfully, the overbearing symphony of the forest was broken by the shrill ringing of the start-warning bell, to warn any unfortunate mech who might be working in there, that he is going to be simultaneously blinded and deafened. She might be small, but she makes a terrific racket starting up.
Eighteen… 19… 20. My hand was still on the button, and the bell stopped. The ongoing battle to serenade our ears was about to be won by the forest, when the six cylinders suddenly fired up at once. A sound somewhere in the middle of a cat screeching, and that given out by a very broken trumpet, rising like a wave, to a high, and then slowing down to a rhythmic chugging. The front light on the long hood switched on, bathing the track ahead. The parking breaks had been released, and as I climbed in, we watched the RPM become stable on 1000. The super help the round notch handle, and notched the engine to one. Slowly, but with a lurch, the loco started creeping forward. It would catch speed in a few minutes. Our definition of speed being 25 Kmph.
The light could not penetrate the darkness. The forest was too dark, and as you approached, the tress would appear as if in a revelation. I thought I saw a pair of shiny eyes in the bush as we passed, I leant over to look, but it was gone with a swish.
If dreams were people, reality would be a serial killer. Remember when you were six-seven? What did you want to become then? What did you want for your life? You may have wanted to fly aero planes, or be a singer, or a scientist, or be a racecar driver, or be a goddamn wizard for all I know. You did not think how much it would pay, you only thought that you would be happy doing it.
As you grew up, Loans, grades, friends, demands and expectations - all came together to beat the shit out of your idealism. So you worked hard to top your "engineering" course, and a year later ended up working in a bank doing absolutely no engineering, because the money was good. Now you spend the week convincing yourself that you are happy, and the weekend blowing your money on movies and popcorn, tools to keep up the façade, to keep ignoring the fact that you buried your dreams and your life with your own hands.
I am nobody to lecture you on this - I never went to university. I do not have your cushy job on the horizon. My dreams consisted of things much simpler, quieter, things much truer. The reality today consists of dead parents, an absconding brother. And crippling debt.
Although don’t think, even for a moment, that your pathetic excuse for a life, is any better than mine. The differences between us are only physical.
We approached Barog around a bend slowed down so that I could get off, to find a solitary staff member smoking on the platform.
"The sounds of scratching indicate that it’s a bear. Nobody is going to go into that tunnel until morning," he said.
Never go into a tunnel if you can’t see the other end. I have adhered to this - I have gallantly dodged every challenge and every conflict. My most sincere tenet is that the only reason you must fight should be to run away from it. It has kept me up and going until now. Hopefully longer still.
"Here’s what we will do - we will move into the tunnel, slowly, lights switched on. Whatever it is will at least get off the track then. We will be out of the other end in 20... say what?"
"I will make the signal green," said the signalman, "but you will proceed at your own risk."
The signal arm rotated to position its light window in front of the green bulb, clearing us to go ahead. We hadn’t even stopped fully, so we just notched to one and lowered the throttle. A little, to slow down. Even then, because of the downward slope, I had to apply moderate braking every 10 seconds.
One... Two... Three... Four… Five... Six... Seven... Eight... Nine... Ten…
The tunnel opening loomed like a mouth, and enveloped us a second later. The silver snake being our only guide now. My father was killed in a railway accident. I don’t know what happened - something about getting caught in machinery. Everything went to hell after that. Everything crashed down in a single moment. Money changes even saints, and in a second, everyone - family, friends changed. Baying for our land, our blood. There was no hope in sight. We lost everything. Two years later, I and my brother were on the street, stealing, brawling, and bootlegging - to stay alive. The railway offered me a job on "compassionate grounds," because I had been to school. Seeing this as an opportunity to get out of this place, and this situation, I grabbed it with both hands. For a little while, things looked up - I could put the little skat through school. But the ghosts of our pasts won’t leave us. The same people came back for more and more, to suck us dry like a spider does to a fly. Then my brother went and knifed one of them.
"Hey keep it down! We are going over 25…"
We were 400 meters in, and I braked a little harder - maybe too hard. But it was a lucky break. Twenty feet ahead, a Leopard, in all its majestic glory, stood over the track. It turned to look at us, eyes shining in an otherworldly glow, irritated at this mere human disturbance.
The animal backed up, but stayed on the track, letting out a low growl. My super shifted in his seat and closed the window on his side. With mounting panic, I realized that my procrastination had allowed us to speed up and we wouldn’t stop in the remaining distance.
"No! Run the beast over!"
"I am not going to clean the blood and gore off the hood, damn you!"
Half surprised at this sudden interjection of our assistant, but mostly still mesmerized at the beauty of the animal, now crouching in front of us, perilously close, I omitted to do anything at all. For a moment, it crouched, ready to jump - onto the hood itself. I had a fleeting image of the animal crashing through the windshield and ripping through my face, a surrealistically but immensely beautiful image.
It jumped out of the way, with the fluidity of water, less than six feet to spare. It gracefully jumped onto the other set of the twin tracks, as our cone of light swept past it. The last image I saw of it, its body had already disappeared into the dark, but the eyes still hung in naked space, like a pair of stars, a pair of yellow diamonds, a pair of divine fireflies, and then it was gone.
That single moment woke something up inside me. It was like a breath of fresh mountain air, like the first dew drops of the morning spraying all over your face, like a body that had been looking for its lost soul, and finally knew where it had gone - and how to get it back. I would never forget that image to my dying day.
"Whew! Close call!"
"Best damn story to tell the boys over drinks."
These were but voices to me. Consciousness for the sake of this world was not appealing anymore. All my life I had been looking for somewhere to run - an escape. In that moment, I knew the answer. The only thing that I had been running and escaping from was inside me. There were things I needed to face, things that I finally settle for once and for all. I could not - did not want to - run anymore. I found my talisman, my omen.
But was it easy? Is it easy to fight with your own inner demons? Your own fears? I didn’t know, because all my life I had run from both. I did not know. I guess I will have to find that out. At least I had direction now; at least my back was a little bit straighter. At least I knew that light did exist at the end of the tunnel. It would need work and sacrifice, and it will most certainly cause pain, but it had to be done. I hoped and prayed that this flame would never go out.
We did not encounter anything else in the tunnel, except the tunnel’s ghosts, and exited uneventfully. The rain had relaxed for a moment, and a werewolf moon shone through the clouds. There was one truth though - until the day I reached that light at the end of the tunnel, I will still be running.
The locomotive chugged quietly through the night. We sat quietly, the super lighting another cigarette, me looking straight ahead and our lights futilely cutting through the darkness. As we slowly headed onwards to Kalka, the forest and its sights and sounds returned. And like eternity, one sound rose above all, and drowned every other - the sounds of the million kinds and numbers of insects in the jungle around us. They are never quiet. They are cursed never to rest.