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The Path Of A Coward


Pain is the hammer of the Gods to break a dead resistance in the mortal’s heart.” -Sri Aurobindo

The bleak dusty monotony of the landscape was only broken by the scalding hot railway track, its gleaming contours shuddering as if in anticipation of a long-lost lover. The distant black smoke on the horizon heralded the approach of the relentless metal monster that folks these days clung bloody knuckled to get to the “other side”. The ground shook, each grain of the sandy earth jostling with the others in excitement, welcoming the deep rumble that rushed from the shattered west.

Where will you run, O Firefly
Your husband’s house is burning
Your father’s fields lie ravaged
Your sons and daughters float senseless
Down the five rivers of blood.
Around me these strangers celebrate,
O Firefly, this freedom is nothing but trouble!

The fall of empires is the playground of chaos. Be it hallowed Babylon or proud Rome – history bears witness to the dark periods of bloodshed which herald the age of discord that arrive inevitably when once mighty civilizations descend into decay – the tighter their grasp on power, the more violent is the advent of anarchy in their passing. The pre-destined whistle of an inescapable socio-political pressure cooker, if you will!

Yes, those were troubled times filled with desperate men willing to do desperate things. A moment of unparalleled churn, grinding down one and all to pathetic extremes in a desperate clamour for survival. But the real tragedy was that it were the sufferers themselves who had to be blamed for their own predicaments – for trusting those who should not be trusted, for heeding words that should not be heeded, and as some say, for abandoning righteousness by going to sleep wrapping the blanket of cowardice, instead of keeping vigil in the all-enveloping night.

The train sped along accompanied by a thunderous cacophony of steel grinding on steel, punctuated by ear splitting hoots and angry steam exhausts. It may be argued that to the outside observer, this strange apparition did not look like a regular locomotive by any stretch of imagination. Indeed, the resemblance was more akin to a particularly nightmarish spectre of the frenzied mind. Like quick spreading fungi, human beings stuck out from every side of this ugly machine. In some ways it looked a comical sight, the engine angrily rushing forward spewing thick black fumes, with thousands of people chugging along, gasping for their next breath. It looked very alive, this metal-man apparition; grotesque but alive. The route was managed by the as yet unofficial Northern Division of the Indian Railways, and this particular journey had its origins at Lahore. Nobody on the train cared much about the destination to be honest, anything would do as long as it was “on the other side”, as far away as possible from the hellscape unleashed on Hindus and Sikhs and Parsees and all other assorted Kafirs by the followers of Muslim League since their Direct Action Day.

Inside one of the sweat smelling bogeys, the passengers swayed gently in cramped, contorted torpor. Sickly air hung around their faces in the manner of an unseen curtain of rank hopelessness – not quite suffocating yet making every breath seem like a melancholy duty towards nothingness. The ones fortunate enough to be near the grille-less windows could see nothing but the unending Thar, and the bare legs of the unfortunate souls hanging from the roof of the train. Every so often a piece of luggage, or a human being would lose their grip and fly off the bogies – abandoned offerings to an uncaring monster.

Time moved slowly. Ram Lal stared unseeingly at the middle aged man in front of him – a typical refugee wearing soiled clothes which were once fancy, drooping shoulders weighed down by the loss of everything he ever possessed, vacant faraway expression remembering the good times and replaying the bad ones ceaselessly – barely comprehending the world which was crashing down around him. His fingers painfully clutched the wrists of his wife, who in turn tried to put a protective arm around their five uncomfortable children. From time to time one of these children started crying – now it was the youngest one, a mere toddler of about two who was shrieking with all the power in her tiny lungs. In their stupor, no one paid any attention. Like always, after around five minutes, the man turned and slapped her with all the might in his wheezing frame. The cry got shriller, and after some time, descended into an almost inaudible whimper inside her mother’s breasts. Kids are most irritating when they cry. It was indeed much better this way, the stifling silence punctuated by the regular chug chug of the train, soothingly soporific in addition to being far more suitable to both the ambience and the occasion.

It is tempting for me to tell you in detail about Ram Lal (since we will be spending a lot of time with him) – the respectable father of two from Anarkali, whose secret hobby was to collect pictures of Hollywood actresses from under the counter glamour magazines. The thing is, this man is not that Ram Lal. Sure, this greying person with glazed, lifeless eyes once used to be that Ram Lal; or more appropriately, there used to be a greying man called Ram Lal, from Anarkali Lahore, father of two, who surreptitiously thumbed through his collection of cut-outs of fair skinned actresses from across the ocean when he was alone – but that Ram Lal is no more. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any evidence that Ram Lal had ever existed, even if you roam the nooks of Anarkali for three days and three nights straight (don’t do it though, it is not advisable under the present circumstances). The identity of Ram Lal has descended, thanks to yours truly, upon this person, precisely because that identity, like so many others, is now meaningless. I could have as easily called him Giridhari Prasad, or maybe Hanuman Singh – and it really wouldn’t have mattered at all at the end of the day. This blank, empty husk of a man, now going to the land of his supposed ancestors, his past blood-washed and burnt up, would remain just another lost soul in a train bursting at its seams with misery, regardless of what you called him.

O Firefly! You listened to Kabir and clung to the pivot,
Fearing the grindstones that churn without relent.
All whom you loved got crushed before your eyes,
And you fluttered mute at the heart of chaos!
Why did you curse your deliverance and let go?
Firefly, now you too are trapped without escape
The world and its tricks were too strong for you.

“God, it is this heat!” said the old man with the once-sharp moustache sitting beside Ram Lal, “and the times.”

Obviously, no one wanted to talk about “the times”, at least openly.  They were bad, no doubt.  But the times were a reality.  And in those days, reality was discussed only in careful whispers, designed to be overheard and further gossiped about. Thus spread the stories of the various massacres in and around Punjab, in Bengal and Bihar, and in Central provinces and Hyderabad, in Kerala and Kashmir, in Lahore and in Dhaka, and elsewhere too, in each town and village and street of Bharatvarsha, that was Hindustan and soon to be India – each incident like an angry gash on the body of a helpless cow, every cut more vicious than the last one. Nevertheless, the old man went on. “They killed my only son.  My daughter-in-law jumped down the well to save her honour from those Muslim bastards”, his voice quivering as he remembered the heroic deed.  Did he seek pride in this protestation of valour, like the Mewaris of yore sought in the ashes of their fire queen Padmavati? Or do we seek what many might argue are meaningless victories out of total defeat as fuel to go on living our lives, to provide the comfort of a desperate justification to keep our heads raised even though we know in our heart of hearts that we have failed? Be that as it may, the only sound that answered the old man was the humming of the flies that were feeding off the perspiration, littered scraps of food and the festering open wounds of the passengers. The well of sympathy had run dry among those present, each one of them busy navigating their own personal ocean of despair.

This is an extract from Ratul Chakraborty’s upcoming new book ‘Sutradhar’.


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