Thin squirming clouds in the sky above maintain a safe distance from what is like a hormone enraged adolescent sun now at the summit of its climb. Below a train sits helplessly on its steel rails. It has stopped at a station.
Within each compartment of each bogie of this train and baking equally on all sides the many weary and nearly drained passengers. There eyes wide, looking outside, hoping against all hope for a wisp of pleasant breeze. For them the train cannot start off along its way, fast enough. In the meantime drip by slow drip they wane into dark sweat stains and waft away into rank bouquets.
Eight years old Ahmed does not want the train to begin moving yet. He and his parents occupy one of the compartments and a while ago his father had stepped off to the platform to buy some chicken-tikkah.
“It’s the best here,” he had said before stepping outside. “Shut the door. I’ll be back in a second.”
Ahmed had believed him. That was ten minutes ago. Since then he had been straining his neck against the three iron rods placed horizontally and equidistant on each of the two compartment windows. He pushed against them trying to squeeze his head in between. Despite the sweat on his brow it wouldn’t pass. He could only see the platform directly outside his window but nearly nothing ahead or behind.
“Where has Baba gone, Ama?” he asks vexed with this situation.
“Settle down, he’ll be back,” his mother replies wiping her brow with a handkerchief, sitting on her bench seat opposite to his.
“But the train is about to start Ama, when will Baba be back,” Ahmed turns away form the window. In his eyes the dampness of a sob.
“Don’t worry the train is not going to leave him behind.”
He doesn’t believe it and turns back to try the window. What’s the use of a window if you can’t poke your head out of it?
“Here look, look at that man there,” his mother says pointing out a coolie. “See how many bags he carries.”
“There look in the red, look.”
It’s indeed a spectacle, wow, Ahmed would have had to crane his neck to look up at the coolie had he been standing next to him on the platform. But where is his father?
Just then the train jolts; a hum vibrates through the floor of their compartment, the beast is rousing from its temporary sleep. A painfully sorrow horn bellows somewhere ahead.
“Ama, the train is starting,” Ahmed says in earnest. The swell in his eyes glistens with the yellow heat outside.
“Baba…will be here, don’t worry, he knows…he would,” she says trying to crane her neck at an angle to see along the platform. But the angle is too steep she can’t make anything out.
“Where is he Ama, I can’t see him. I cant.”
Many of the passengers on the platform are rushing back to their bogies.
His mother wants to reassure him but waits, where has he gone? He must be here. She will find him any second among the crowds on the platform and point him out to her son. Any second. Any…second now.
“Why did he have to go. Why? I am not even hungry. I don’t want to leave without him, Ama. ”
The train starts to slither on its metal rails below. Squeak by slow squeak the joints of the beast respond. The platform starts to fall behind. Another second. Then another. He still can’t see him. The mother scans faces. The son looks around. The train keeps crawling. People in the crowd fizzle about – none appear familiar.
“Why doesn’t he come back, Ama?
“What is taking Baba so long?”
“Everything will be alright…my love,” she says, craning her head against the window, now turning her head to look behind, now turning to look forward. But her words fall flat; he can feel the fear in them, its stirs a new vexation in him.
“Ama, stop the train, stop it,” Ahmed’s voice is now crackled with sobs.
She looks at the red emergency chain dangling above the windows. This is an emergency. She could pull on it. But what if he got on the train but is in the wrong bogie, or maybe in the right bogie and is making his slow way to their compartment now.
What if something had happened to him, people getting robbed all the time? What if the heat?…No, no please god no.
The train is picking up a jogging pace, now it is becoming faster. The platform is falling behind. The train is picking up speed.
“Stop the train Ama, stop it! – Stop it!”
Yes, yes she must. She gets up – falls back – puts a hand to the window – regains her balance… and then reaches for the emergency chain…
“Hey open up,” a familiar voice like a cool breeze fills up the compartment.
*Ama is a term for mother in Urdu
*Baba is a term for father in Urdu
Credit: illustration by Mariah (M.S)