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At the End of My Comfort Zone: A Reverie

Strangely enough, railway stations have always meant departures to me; and very rarely, arrivals.
At the End of My Comfort Zone: A Reverie by Anuradha Mazumder
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There was a time when I used to find railway stations somewhat unsettling, without knowing why. Perhaps it had to do with the note of transience, of anxiety, of journeys with uncertain outcomes that hangs about them. Or perhaps because railway stations are among the city’s liminal spaces, where people arrive only to leave, and are in permanent states of transition – walking, running, jostling, pushing, shoving, catching, missing – the ‘-ing’ in each word translating into rushed and ever-shifting states of being. I was equally scared of escalators for a very long time, for the self-same reason. For those who prefer roots to wings, stability to adventure, the liminal nature of railway stations can be disquieting. Besides, the railways also denoted the blurring of boundaries to me – trains made you realize that great distances can be bridged in a very short time; you hop on a train, and in a flash your beloved city vanishes and the suburbs begin. As any city resident would tell you, they take pride in having a fixed city address, and the bridging of distances between city and suburb does not excite them. In the eyes of its residents, the city is the glamourous while the suburb is the gloomy; the city is urbane and happening while its suburban counterpart is woefully provincial in outlook. In my younger days, therefore, I was comfortable with buses and cars and trams but the railways made me uncomfortable.

The uneasy relationship I shared with the Majherhaat Railway Station in south Kolkata those days was the result of all these childish prejudices, and more – this particular station was, for me, a doorway to disappointment. I was twenty-six, and had just landed my first job in a government-aided school, in a place that bore a Kolkata postal code but ticked all the supposed registers of provinciality – narrow, muddy and dusty roads; bumpy rides in ramshackle autorickshaws; crowded road-side bazaars where goats and cows and men jostled and jousted; where lazy buses refused to budge from the terminus, and chatty strangers sported a mysteriously relaxed attitude to life, as if long-resigned to its chaos and randomness. This was an unfamiliar ‘Kolkata’ for me. Who would believe that barely six kilometres away in Behala their metropolitan counterparts, filled with purpose and drenched in sweat, huffed and puffed and rushed to “Splanade” or “Parkes Steet” every day, in buses overtaking each other in daring displays of road rage! That was my Kolkata, my comfort zone.

My new workplace, just an eight-minute trainride away from Kolkata – a place where camels would walk by the school during Eid festivities to the loud cheer of children – was inexplicably confusing to me. My exposure to it drilled an unsettling, cricket-ball sized hole in the safety net of my mind, which had always taken cognizance of itself against the visual, auditory, and olfactory images of a very different Kolkata. The city of my birth was in my blood, I’d always thought, proudly; its shops and streets and nondescript corners, its sights and sounds and smells were my frames of reference – much as space and time were for Kant – around which my mind organized and understood its perceptions. I didn’t know at the time that there are different cities within a metropolis. It would take me many more summers, and a handful of rural, suburban, and urban college postings, to understand how porous the city-suburb divide is (and yet, how rigid); to learn about the slippery line separating dream from disenchantment, and about the massive mismatch between life imagined and life lived. In my twenties though, I was simply indignant at having missed a ‘proper’ city posting by a whisker; and my dissatisfaction spilled over and settled into a strange aversion to the Majherhaat station, from where I boarded the 5.50 am train to work every day.

Born, raised and educated in Kolkata, I had subconsciously nurtured the absurd notion that any place connected to my city by train was small-town … a distant Other of whom I knew little, and understood even less. My segregationist mind had its own exclusionist cartography: places to which one could travel by bus constituted my Kolkata (and by that logic, train routes meant suburban life). I turned a wilfully blind eye to my over-simplistic mental mapmaking, and to the several railway tracks crisscrossing across the length and the breadth of Kolkata, and one even surrounding it lest the ever-expanding city spilled right over into the Ganges. There was one exception to my discomfort with railway stations, though: I was all admiration for the old-world charm and behemothian structure of the Old Howrah Station. Though Howrah lies on the other side of the mighty Ganges I was convinced in my childhood that the historic station was very much Kolkata; that it had come to be known as ‘Howrah Station’ only due to some freak bureaucratic error in the past. I disowned the district after which it was named but Howrah Station was all mine as much as the Victoria Memorial was mine. However, that single exception was not enough to dispel my discomfort with either liminality or the railways. My mistrust of the railway as a liminal space ran so deep that I once turned down a matrimonial alliance only because the prospective groom had, upon his arrival, tried to explain his dishevelled look saying, “Ami Chawkre eshechhi” (“I’ve arrived by the Chakra Rail”)! …. But I mustn’t digress.

Strangely enough, railway stations have always meant departures to me; and very rarely, arrivals. So, the Majherhaat Station meant lugging my sleepy self, early morning every day to catch the train to work, come rain or shine or cold. And cold it was, indeed, on some foggy winter mornings when the chill sent shivers down my spine and froze my legs, defying the thermals I wore underneath my saree. On such cold dawns the India Government Mint at Majherhaat used to be the only entity in New Alipore that towered over the fog blanket; the rest of the world – dogs, cats, vehicles, buildings, hawkers, beggars, and passengers – was shrouded in it. Quite unlike Eliot’s fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes and settles, this occasional winter-morning Kolkata fog was overpowering (this was a time when the Bengalis of Kolkata had not yet acquired the habit of calling it ‘smog’ just to score a point over the Bengalis of Delhi). This was the kind of fog that blurs the distinction between people and atmosphere, between life and afterlife. Once the fog had, indeed, almost played Charon, ferrying me to the netherworld, when a bus had suddenly and threateningly appeared out of its dense blanket, and screeched itself to a halt just inches away from my nose on the Majherhaat railway bridge.

However, nothing prepared me for the surprise that the Majherhaat railway station would spring on me on another cold and hazy winter dawn. I’d reached the station earlier than usual that day, which meant fewer people around. I entered the station premises and walked towards my usual platform seat that remained mostly vacant. This was, again, a childhood habit – seeking the anonymity of the farthest, the emptiest, the most peripheral seat anywhere. I felt the usual chill up my spine as my derriere touched the cement seat on the platform. About three feet away from me on the same seat dozed a frail old man, evidently from the suburbs, clad in a stained cotton fatua-and-lungi, his feet stretching ahead, and his head lightly resting on the cement backrest. His lack of woollens on such a cold day made me inexplicably ashamed; my fleece jacket and muffler felt heavy with guilt. But by twenty-six most of us are reconciled to the fundamental unfairness of life, and to our own limitations as individuals in improving the lot of the less fortunate. I pulled my mind away from him with conscious effort, realizing that poverty had made him immune to the same cold that made me shiver in my jacket. Such an old man, and yet, no sign of discomfort without woollens.

And then a tea vendor felt sorry for him, and offered him a steaming hot cup. Once. Twice. Thrice. But the man wouldn’t respond. The vendor touched him lightly on the shoulder; and off the backrest slid his torso, as if in slow motion, falling sideways on the seat we shared. “He’s dead!” the vendor screamed. I froze in my seat.

The next few minutes became a blur… somebody said, “Didi, uthe ashun…” (“Get off the seat, Didi”), and I obeyed unquestioningly. Shocked out of my mind, I didn’t have the time to experience fear. I couldn’t believe what had just happened – I’d been sharing a seat with a dead man on a foggy winter dawn, without the faintest suspicion that my elderly neighbour had crossed the bar! Numb with nameless emotions, I stood humbled in the shadow of death. A small crowd had gathered around us; somebody claimed that they’d seen a young man getting off a train with the now-deceased man a while ago, making the latter sit in the cement seat, and walking away. Who was he? Family, relative, or a kind stranger? Or was this another heartrending case of children leaving their elderly parents in pilgrim spots or some such places to be rid of the burden of caregiving? There was little time to wonder… the Budge Budge Local had just pulled in. The workaday world was calling, and I had to leave. But it was bewildering to think that life and death had unfolded before me in a dramatic turn of events in less than half an hour on a railway platform … and yet, “what a distance there is betwixt life and death,” as Lamb famously said!

Oddly, I became somewhat reconciled to my suburban workplace after the incident. In our undergraduate literature course, we’d studied a play about an old fishing community in the Aran Islands: the islanders kept wooden planks ready in their kitchens to be made into coffins whenever one was needed (and the need was frequent enough). It was their matter-of-fact way of acknowledging that our lives are lived in the omnipresent shadow of death. City people don’t live that way. Eyes “assured of certain certainties,” we go about life as if we are immortal, as if not only Time but even Eternity belongs to us. But Death had travelled to Majherhaat railway station that day, amidst all of us, to take his prey; and while we took trains to school and work and other mundane businesses, the man who’d shared my seat travelled into the dark waters of the Unknown. On that day it was the turn of an old man from the city’s fringes; tomorrow it could be me. This otherworldly experience pushed me to acknowledge that our existence as humans – the space between birth and death – is itself liminal in nature. It is like the passengers’ waiting room in a railway station where we’re but waiting to travel to the other side of life. Death is that great leveller, in whose blazing entrails city and suburb, centre and periphery, rich and poor merge into each other till no borders remain. 

Anuradha Mazumder is an Assistant Professor of English in Prafulla Chandra College, Kolkata. She likes to juggle her professional responsibilities with her passion for writing; her poetry, essays, and short stories have been published in different literary e-journals like Setu, Muse India, Saaranga-English, and Café Dissensus.

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