Sunday, December 30, 2007

Train of thought 3.5 - Water everywhere

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**
Tiredness brings about a dreamless, quick sleep, and with it a calm, clear-headed wake up. So much so, I dont quite mind or resent the slightly clouded window to my left. I raise myself slightly, and still half-reclining upon my berth, look out the window.

The squeak-to-a-halt provides a good excuse for getting off. Barauni, the boards tell me. I immediately recollect the Gwalior-Barauni Mail of a few years ago. If your're the sort who'd like to sample the messiest, filthiest train ever, you'd need look no beyond the Gwalior Barauni Mail. Still, the platform at Barauni has no evidence of squalor-levels that would befit such a legendary train. There's a coat of mist all over as I peer out from the door over the length of the platform. The hot-water+tea-bags+milk-powder is being distributed, so, the 'tea' is slowly imbibed on a stroll on the chilled platform.

**
I'm on the Eastern-UP-and-Bihar belt now. Everything there is is drowned out, literally, by the floods. The entire landscape is a huge water body occasionally pockmarked by land patches. There're stretches of water in every direction. Houses, or parts thereof, peep out like gyroscopes. Huts, and parts thereof, float atop the water. Occasional temple spires stand out, as if to reassure people that there is, indeed, a steady divine presence in all this upheaval. The railway track looks terribly frail, perched as it is upon hardly-adequate-seeming ledges amid water on either side.

The towns, when they do come, are hardly reassuring. Washed-away houses are lumped together now. Decrepitude is wholesale here. What emphasises the direness of it all is the fact that you can see the human cost of the flood. Every railway platform is brimming over with refugees from the water. They're camped upon the railway platforms, they arent quite waiting to go off on the next train. They're waiting for they know not what - there're makeshift tents and huts, cramped, stuffed amid the limited space there is. The railway platform affords the advantage of being at a slight elevation compared to the rest of the town. However, those who are unfortunate to get pushed to the edges of the platform find themselves getting shoved closer and closer to water levels by the upstream crowds.

It's a bleak, foggy, sunless morning. The rains, thankfully, have ceased today. The mind's eye is dimmed by the sights around. The makeshift tents are just feet away from where I stand at the door. People line the tracks outside the stations, in the countryside just as well, in areas where the track but is a temporarily safe bank from the advancing waters. The track is a thin line, almost like a tightrope, with water all around it. The train almost seems to tiptoe on it, hoping to get it over and done with.

**

There are, as you may have imagined, fellow passengers around my hardly-occupied seat. There's a young Army jawan, hardly 22 or so, there's a young lady with her dad, and a couple of other middle aged men. The jawan asks if I've friends in adjoining compartments. No, I tell him, I dont park at my seat because I'm at the door, that's all.

So, does he get to actually fight, shoot people, I ask, with more than a hint of sarcasm that he doesnt quite catch. Oh yes, says he, he's headed to either Sudan or Afghanistan, right after the vacation for which he's headed home. The UN forces, he adds. I remember Heller writing something like - "Young men out there figting for what they've been told is their country". It just seems way too cynical to actually quote the same, so I desist.

So, has he killed any man so far? Nopes. But he's had plenty of target practise, and workout with guns. But does that prepare him to kill a flesh-and-blood human being? To exterminate a life? The instinct of self-preservation, he is sure, will take over, so what he does need do is have his reflexes and skills ready. When it's him-or-you, you'd rather it's you than him.

What if you get cold feet? Killing isnt easy, I suppose. Well, you can back out before you get sent. Once you're there, you have to go out and fight. If you back off on the battlefield, folks on your side have orders to shoot you. The fear of death can infuse great quantities of courage into you, he adds.

Death is an occupational hazard, aint it? Well, he's had only a modest education, and this, fighting is his only chance of being of any significance in life. This is the only way he can rise above himself, he adds. He is a big man in his town because he's a soldier. If people think wars arent necessary, well, too bad - someone's got to do the job.

Somehow, speaking of death in the specific seems strangely, eerily different from speaking of it in the abstract, armchair-expert way.

**

The train wades onward. The water slowly, agonisingly recedes, subsides. The trackside crowds steadily thin down. In an hour and a half or so, all that remains is the wetness in the air. There is impoverishment around, you see the villages and houses are still ramshackle - even railway stations have shriveled down to one-chamber shacks with single-track-no-platform. But it's almost a relief to see that this is the normal course of affairs, that it's not an abrupt fury of nature that has afflicted these lands.

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