It was an early August evening and raining when I rode a train. ‘Nothing special about riding a train in August’, you all must be thinking. Except that I was young and sitting on the front grill of the locomotive, my legs dangling two feet over the track. The rain drops pelting my face were cold but the chill was balanced by the warm glow of the locomotive’s heat spreading across my back. You have to be a lover of both the trains and rains to guess the height of my ecstasy. It was an undreamt dream coming true.

The scenery the train was passing through was magical. The thick sheet of rain drenching God’s earth and everything on it, masked the harsh poverty behind a steamy veil of mystery. I looked up – the sky was a great grey shroud; lightening cracking the dark shadows at regular intervals. For a moment I rode the dark billowing rolls of the black grey clouds and looked down. I saw a mythical mist covered land and a giant earthworm riding a pair of shiny steel tracks. The long hoot by the engine driver vibrated in my bones and disturbed my reverie. I looked around. Trees looked tall and graceful, dancing in the wind; their long branches full of glistening olive black leaves, swinging and playing invisible cellos. I became a dervish to join them and felt the moisture laden wind spinning me around. I moved my hands and could hear myself playing long forgotten symphonies.

I saw naked children playing in the brown dirty rain water, waving madly at me with barely hidden envy, their faces lighting up even more when I waved back. I joined them for a moment and felt the pure pleasure of splashing my feet in brown muddy water, old dirt making trails on my wet brown body. Even the overly clad women gave me a smile, secure in the most temporary nature of our chance encounter. I peeked inside their delicate hearts and felt them brimming with love and security and a bit of fickleness. The train passed small lonely platforms and the station masters with green flags, peeked at me from under their sodden umbrellas with open-mouthed disbelief. ‘Keep on looking my friends. I am unstoppable’, I laughed at their helplessness and disbelief.

The smell of smoke from the wet and smoldering cooking fires; the stink of the open and overflowing drains; the seduction of the dark wet soil; and the songs sung by the dark green trees: I was a king and the land all around me, my humble and most beloved kingdom for a short period of time. I was a fascinated traveler wandering head long at more than seventy kilometers per hour into a land of wonder, unfolding its many secrets with each jolt of the turning steel wheels.

The train slowed down and finally crawled to a stop at a small station. It was a cross and the wait for the express train coming from the opposite side, was expected to be quite long. It was almost dark when I jumped down onto the crumbling platform. The rain had stopped but the romance was still vibrating in the moist breeze, synchronized with the throbbing of the tired engine. I was not alone. There was one small family sitting on the wooden bench under an old peepal – a husband, wife and their three young children. The couple was quiet, each busy in their solitude, but the children were playing, their laughter and cries creating a strange contrast to the somber silence of their parents.

Suddenly, a small crowd emerged onto the platform. It was a barat from a local village going back to the groom’s place, as was obvious from the presence of the shy and red covered dulhan. I watched with interest. Apparently tired of the day’s festivities and irritated by their sodden clothes, the new entrants hastily occupied the few left over benches. The dulhan sat sandwiched between the groom’s relatives, looking uncomfortable in her heavy attire. The women though as tired as the men, were teasing the girl. Her discomfort was obvious from the way she was constantly adjusting her clothes. ‘Poor girl, can’t even ask her companions for a visit to the toilet’, I thought to myself.

In the distance, I could see a waving light floating towards me. Gradually, the waving light became an old lantern in the hands of an old man. He was dressed in tattered and soiled clothes and when he came too near, the smell of the long unwashed body nauseated me. I tried to look into his eyes hidden behind thick grey and bushy eyebrows. When the light from the lantern touched his eyes, I could see that they were full of weariness. My heart full of romance and the opportunity of engaging in some light conversation made me greet him. His answering mutter and a deep growl dampened my spirits a little. ‘Who are you?’ he eyed me with suspicion. ‘I am a traveler babaji’, I blurted out. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I am just seeing life and enjoying the weather’, I was gradually becoming a bit uncomfortable and confused, unaccustomed to such strange inquiries. Suddenly he laughed a deep cracking laughter ending in phlegm-filled cough.

‘So….what did you see?’ he questioned me sardonically.

‘Colours, romance and mystery’, undeterred by his sarcasm, I maintained my optimism.

‘Colours of the green fields and muddy earth; romance behind the smiles of beautiful women; and mystery in the emotions I can appreciate but still cannot understand’, I carried on.

‘Did you also hear something?’ the old man queried me once more, losing none of the barbed sarcasm.

‘Yes…..I heard the deep rumbling of the weeping clouds; I heard the laughter of the playing children; and I heard the wind singing a thousand songs’.

The old man sat down, gesturing at me to do the same. I looked down suspiciously at the wet platform and the muddy water still outlining its numerous cracks. Anyway I sat down, feeling like a damn fool for doing so.

‘So…..how have you found this world?’ he gently plucked an ant floating on a very small XXX of muddy rain water, cupped it carefully in his dirty hands and gently blowing on it, released it on dry ground.

‘It is beautiful, full of colours and songs’ I thoughtfully replied.

‘Hmmm….what else?’ he asked still looking at the thankful ant scurrying along.

‘It is a world full of happiness and joy, smiles and laughter’ I made a wide gesture encompassing both the playing children and the wedding procession.

The old man kept on looking down, his fingers absent mindedly combing his dirty beard.

‘You don’t think so old man?’ I felt uncomfortable with his prolonged silence.

‘Do you see this lantern?’ he apparently did not hear me.

‘Once it was shiny and new. Once its light shined with brightness and its round glass cover magnified the light,’ he continued in a deep thoughtful tone.

‘Now it is dirty, the glass has lost its transparency due to dirt and scratches and the light shines brightly no more,’ his dirty fingers caressed the grimy surface of the lantern’s glass.

‘Yes, it is old. You should buy a new one’, I got tired of his apparently self-dialogue.

‘It is not old. It has been kissed deeply by time. Time kisses everything and like a leech which feeds on blood, time feeds on light, brightness and happiness’.

‘No. It is not time. It is a matter of perspective’, I insisted.

‘Perspectives are individual in nature. You develop perspectives once you see through the coloured goggles of time. The colour deprives you of your ability to see the true nature of time. Perspective is time’s weapon and its tool which it uses to disguise its true self.’ His last few words were lost again in a deep rumbling cough.

Spitting a dark glob of phlegm aside, the old man waved a hand at the red clad bride, ‘Do you see that bride?’ He did not wait for my answer. ‘From your perspective, she is life; from the perspective of her groom, she is lust and a commodity; and from her own perspective, she is hope and desire. One day, time will pass and all these perspectives will vanish into thin air. Then you will see what she really is: a pawn, an object and a slave.’

Sensing my growing discomfort, the old man softened his tone, ‘Life is not happiness and romance my son. It is sad and tragic. Time makes it so. Happiness is temporary and sadness is eternal; happiness is ignorance and sadness is maturity and understanding.’

‘Then I hate time’ I blurted out. ‘No, do not hate it because brings along empathy and acceptance’, the old man consoled me, ‘and that what makes you a human being. One day you will shed off the coloured goggles of perspective and see life in its true manifestation’.

The sudden toot by the engine brought me back to reality. I got up and looked back to see the guard waving the green light. I looked around. The romance had gone and so had the old man. I cursed my dark imagination and mounted the train, thinking I would never see the old man again.

I was wrong. I saw the old man again many years after that train journey. He lives with me now. Rather, it would be appropriate to say that he lives inside of me now and I hear him laugh at the cruelty of time and the fickleness of life, each time I look in the mirror.

Shehryar Khawar

5 October, 2015

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