Short Story 2018 Longlist, Tarun Chakraborty

Eureka!

A playground separates the long row of barracks for family living quarters from a railway track, fenced by barbed wire. It’s not any game that the children of the Kalaikunda Air Force family station are playing that evening. Some eight to ten of them are standing in a semicircle and one standing at its centre lobs a tennis ball at each one of them by turn, who catches the easiest of easy catch and returns. So the game goes on. I am not in the game and keep loitering. Rather I am kept out of the game because I find it hard be attentive. I am deficient in attention.

A shrill whistle blowing reaching my ears tells me that a train is approaching. I sneak away unnoticed and cross over to the other side pulling up and making an opening just enough to pass me through the barbed wire fencing. The train is approaching. I walk briskly towards the rail tracks, as if heeding to some supernatural call. The train is on its route along the distant tracks winding its way towards me. I am going to meet it. I don’t know why. I get onto the tracks. It blows whistle- getting shriller as it comes nearer. Now I am dancing on the wooden sleepers between the rails. I am also ‘hyper active’- that completes the nomenclature ADHD to describe my childhood existence.

I hear the engine straining, as if, the train is in some kind of trouble and trying to force itself to a halt. The train pulled by a big black engine is curving toward me slowly and very soon it is going to be upon me. The train screeches as brakes are applied, sparks coming out from wheels rubbing against rails. But it does not stop. It does not have enough time. It is now almost over me when I move from the middle and stand just beside the tracks, but still on the edge of a wooden sleeper. Suddenly I see a hand popping out from the engine hurl a piece of coal towards me. The engine driver doesn’t really throw it at me- rather lobs it forwards towards me softly, the way that boy had been gently lobbing the ball from the centre at those standing in a half circle on the playground. Yet I see the piece of coal in its flight whizz past my ears speedily. I jump backwards onto the slope of stone chips. The goods train trundles past. All happens within the twinkling of an eye. 

I succumb to the suddenness of the event and lie down eyes closed for how long I don’t know. When I open my eyes I find myself surrounded by faces peering upon me. The whole populace of the barracks seemed to have gathered around me, looking too stunned to throw any abuses at me. I must have done something very grave I realize. I run home and swiftly climb on top of the cement cupboard, before mom can catch hold of me. Her howling doesn’t reach my ears as I am still haunted by– ‘If at all that piece of coal was hurled so slowly then why did it narrowly miss my ears at such a great speed?’       

Now it is well past dusk. Father is just back after doing his duties as a signaller at the Kalaikunda Air Base runway. My childhood eyes magnified him as a hero whose signal brought down mighty aeroplanes from the skies and silenced them! He wears a sombre face- must have heard everything before entering our family unit. He looks furious and ‘signals’ me down. His raised right palm is just about to inflict a heavy slap on my cheeks when I suddenly ask with a blank look, “Dad, if the engine driver had lobbed a piece of coal at me so gently, then why did that fly past my ears so fast?”

Father stares at me in astonishment, but I don’t know why. His hands get lowered. His rage has been instantly quelled. My question rescues me from his fury.

“You must be in IIT one day” he gently says looking at me intently.

“One day I will be inside that tall tower dad?” asks the seven year old ‘local boy’ that is me, from his perception about what IIT is. Father cannot help laughing out loud.  But mother breaks down. The trauma frozen into her simply from hearing about that near-miss somewhat thawed until then, the ‘what if’ afterthought sends her into a fit of sobs.

“My God! What would happen if the engine really ran over you,” she whimpers uncontrollably, her hands shiver intensely, holding me in her tight grip and with it a faint sense of something terrible that didn’t happen dawning slowly upon me makes me realize that I am now cuddled in the safest arms. Calmness invades me. I withdraw into a feel of bliss and close my eyes. That is a mother’s touch.

Yet her lamentation does not cease, “When shall you learn to think? When are you going to stop doing weird things without knowing what you are doing? I got you after suffering so much of pain, enduring so much of agony, swinging between life and death I carried you inside my belly …” Hardly paying any attention to her bawls until then, I catch that last part instantly. I release myself from her grip and jump on the cot, “Maa, but you had told me that I came down to you from the skies by an aeroplane”.

Dad and mom look at each other in surprise. That has been an emotional slip. Her wailings stop immediately.  

“Yes, I meant you were inside the belly of an aeroplane”, she tries to make over.

“His attention filters out only those juicy ones. So we will change his name from Peter to Filter” father jokes, while taking off his military cap, a practice he follows habitually just upon entering the house, taken away by the awkward happenings. I am the sensation.        

“Dady, Dady, two policemen are standing at the door”, brother a year younger but supposedly more ‘matured’ than me comes in running. Instantly my naughtiness is taken over by timidity. I hide under the cot. The Engine Driver reported the whole incident to the RPF Chief who has sent them here under permission from the Station Commander. This is a serious lapse for which father takes responsibility and gives it in writing that his minor son will not do it again. The Engine Driver gets rewarded for his presence of mind that saved an ‘errant’ child’s life.

During the next few days father looks grim. But that has very little or no effect on me. A flow of visitors follow. Mom with her every repetition of narrating the same episode becomes more skilful in doing it with lesser words.  Uncles and aunties harp on the same string– that I should learn to be calm and thoughtful like my brother. But I do not like what they say. Who says that I am not thoughtful? Ever since mom blurted out that she carried me in her belly, I had been thinking about how I got in there and then how at all I got out of there!

However, that single misadventure of dancing on the railway tracks brings me some sort of an ‘instant fame’ within the confines of the camp. Others who do not know the truth that– ‘I really didn’t know what I was doing’ take me for a ‘daring boy’. My so called ‘fearlessness’ inspires some sort of an owe among my little playmates. And most importantly, to Subhas the adolescent bully, years elder to us, who ignored and bullied me until then, I become someone to reckon with. He gifts me his whistle and never keeps me out of games anymore. I proudly keep the whistle with me as a prized possession. It is recognition from our captain. Thus many more evenings pass away on the playground after spending daytime at the local AF school and with each passing day I am possibly learning to ‘think before acting’ and ‘look before leaping’. Thus I add more years to my boyhood and with it perhaps I have grown more thoughtful or perhaps not. I am not sure because that ‘belly riddle’ still haunts me without a clue

 That intrigues me. But however curious, my 9 year old murky understanding is still far away from figuring it out that,  just as my ‘brave boy image’ rests on ‘misconception’, so does the first clue to the ‘belly puzzle’ rests on ‘conception’, unless another mishap gets me any near.

The uncle next door uncle will be on night duty in the hangar for the next two nights. Aunty feels scared about being home alone, so I have to go to her house for these two nights mom tells me.

“Then why don’t you get her to come here” I say.

“Because she thinks you are a brave boy”, she says to get me going there somehow, as though, the delusion would make her feel secure in being with a weakling like me.

Dinner is just over. Mom sends me off to auntie’s house clad in striped pyjama and shirt. Keeping all lights on and playing Radio Ceylon on full volume aunty is possibly trying to keep fears away. I revel in my ‘brave boy status’ as she turns off the radio just as I enter.

After some chit chats I am tucked into a double bed beside her, formed by two conjoined charpies. The lights are turned off. Auntie doesn’t need them anymore to keep her fears at bay because I am there. I like that.

“Auntie, if you are so afraid to stay alone at nights then why don’t you go to your parents?” I ask.    

“I can’t do that always because they stay in faraway Beneras”, she replies drawing out further curiosity in me. And from there on, like a bedtime story she starts narrating about her house in Beneras where her father is a postmaster. She talks of the Ghats, the Viswanath Gali, and the Temple whose images start playing in my mind in a fantasy.

 She then talks of her brother who has done Mining Engineering from BHU, unearths coal from mines at a place named Dhanbad where he stays in a big bungalow and not in small barracks like us.

 “Did your brother dig out the piece of coal that was going to hit me?” my naive question sends her off to convulsions of laughter.

 “Oh! You are too simple”, her giggles still do not leave her but I am feeling sleepy.    

 “You also must become an Engineer, and then you too will stay in a big bungalow like my brother”, are the last words those enter my ears before I doze off, only to wake up after how long I don’t know, to find myself in her tight grip.

 I am startled, but keep quiet. Is her scare so intense that is making her cuddle so tight in her arms? My eyes are wide open but cannot see her in the darkness. Her embrace in all its tightness is different from that kind of a thing from mom I can sense. Her grip further tightens on me and I can hear her intense breathing. She has kissed me on my cheek once and then twice and then again. My eyes are wide open, which she cannot see. What is happening? I still pretend to be fast asleep keeping myself as stiff as a block of wood. My heart is pounding as fear engulfs me. Then all on a sudden she releases me. Her intense breathing has stopped. She kisses me gently, on the forehead. This time, I can sense the touch is like my mom’s– as soothing as a lullaby, as comforting the calm after a storm. A lull settles inside me … I know that is a mother’s touch. Who says that I cannot think? I can well think out that all that oddity was really happening to her in her deep sleep. But what was that after all? I am on to my next puzzle.   

But what keeps me wide awake for a long time before dozing off for a second time is a revelation that– she must be doing it to uncle every night in her sleep and uncle too …  I cannot think any further…

                   The doorbell rings. Uncle has arrived. Auntie drowsily walks up to the door and answers.

         “Good Morning” uncle wishes on entering, “Did you sleep well last night?”

         “Good Morning. Yes uncle” I say aloud.

         Uncle carries in a thermos flask the remnants of the tea that he made in the hangar to keep himself awake during the night. He pours some of it in its cap and offers me and then pours the rest into two cups for him and auntie. I had my first ever cup of tea and something that was ‘not my cup of tea’. I am going to find out what.

         Back home an emptiness strikes me as to be desolate. My quietness seems to be as rather unusual of me. Mother stares at me piercingly. Has she suspected that something has gone wrong? And yes she has, because on this night she sends younger brother as the ‘guard’.

         Free of intrusive thoughts, a night of sound sleep dawns to a new day with bird’s chirpings those disappear under the rumbling of a big bird that is taking off and reappear as that big one gets airborne and flies away high into the skies. I am feeling good. Daylight is ready for the ‘everyday back-and-forth’ to school for the children, to the aerodrome for the Airmen and to the sky for the Pilots on their routine sorties.

         But for mom, a ‘Liberty-Run’- (which is a Shaktiman Military Truck, also called a 3 Tonner, with a tarpaulin body top having open ends), brings her the eagerly awaited back-and-forth to Kharagpur town on Sunday evenings. True to the name it is quite a runaway from the regimentation, the encampment and the isolation of the cantonment area. Uncles and aunties occupy two long wooden benches placed alongside the side panels while the children squat on a mat spread on the flooring. But I love to stand at the canopy’s front end opening with the wind blowing on my face and thump on the driver cabin’s roof to the tune of a Hindi song I am humming. A new world opens up as the Liberty-Run is on the run! I am feeling so happy. Everybody inside is enjoying the joy-ride. As the town nears, the IIT tower– so symbolic it’s ‘towering technological stature’ pops up from behind a row of fleeting buildings and then again dips behind sheds of Railway workshops. Does father want to encage me inside that tower as a punishment for dancing on the railway tracks? I wonder.

         The Shaktiman parks on a clearing just out of Golbazar and first uncles disembark down a moveable flight of steps placed at the rear and then help aunties, to be followed by the youngsters. But I want to help mom in alighting; so I jump on the ground raising squeals and my knees get bruised by gravels. First aid comes readily for me from the well-equipped military truck. That marks the beginning of the getaway mom had been weeklong waiting for! Then families disperse in separate groups and agree to get together here precisely at a fixed time. That seems like an extension of the same military discipline.

         From here on mom takes over; after all it is her day and by the time we reassemble she has made her day. I get my first Naughty Boy shoe from the Bata Shop, conforming to what I am. Brother finally gets a whistle he has been clamouring for ever since Subhas had gifted me his own on the playground. Mom looks so cheerful even with her meagre bargains.   

          Mounting starts with Children first and I comply this time. By the time everybody gets in, names of all the shops visited are out of the bags, but for the liquor shop finds no mention– it is not because uncles are totally abstainers but they can get that tax free at less than half the price from the Air Force ‘canteen’– (meaning a stationary cum grocery shop lying inside a cantonment.)

          “Start” …  Brother exalting in the joy of his new whistle blows through it raising a wave of laughter. The Shaktiman purrs to a start on its retreat and as it is on the run, the IIT Tower with its beacon light at the top stands out like a lighthouse in stark contrast against the backdrop of the darkness gathering in the distance– A lighthouse that by figuring out co-ordinates, guides in the vast technological ocean; A lighthouse that through the light of knowledge, illuminates technological destinies…

            By the time we reach home, the far flung camp seems to be much deeper into the night than what really it is in. The same routine is to resume at the first light from tomorrow on. Mom, after her morning chores, gets some diversion in a short tittle-tattle with the other aunties which come to an end as soon as we arrive from school at noon. But the next door uncle’s being away on duty during the nights without me or brother being called, makes me ask out of curiosity, “Mom, is auntie feeling so scared that she has gone to her father’s house in far off Beneras this time?”

         However, when mom says that she has gone there to bring a baby from the sky flying down an aeroplane, it seems to me as rather silly. Though ‘insensible’, I can sense a closely guarded secret there.

           In the quietness of one sluggishly drifting afternoon, with mom napping and my ‘sensible’ brother silently playing on his own, I am once again bitten by the same ‘bug’ that always makes me fail to understand what I am up to, as happened on the railway tracks that evening. I notice the door entering into the adjacent family unit wide open and I want to enter into it, as if to answer the call of insensibility. I cross the common stoop and sneak inside. The interior, with everything tucked away neatly, wears a makeshift look, as though the soldier with his family is always on the move in all readiness to move in the fleet. One piece of larger packing box placed with its open face erect, serves the purpose of a low height cupboard while its cover plank shifted on top of a medium sized packing box, with a table cloth made from a discarded curtain, serves the purpose of a table. A few other smaller sized packing boxes with pieces of discarded cloth on their tops, serves the purpose of stools. The furniture consists of packing painted boxes that are always ready to be re-tilted to their openings towards the top and their cover planks nailed back in place with belongings packed inside for the next move, except for a cement wardrobe that stands immobile. But in its entire coarseness the military cap occupies its distinguished place– hung high from a peg on the wall. That reminds him of his pride, his honour, his promise.

          When several jumps fail me to get hold of the cap, I am on to my next move. I quietly steal into the other room where military uncle is snoring in an afternoon nap with a book resting inverted on his chest, open to the page he had been reading just before dozing off. Absurdity crosses my mind once again. I take out the whistle, my prized possession which I always carry in my pocket and blow it on his ears. He springs up startled, eyes red partly from of the sleeplessness of the night before and partly from an instant state of rage. He catches hold of me tightly by the arm, flips the book to the page he was reading and threatens- “I will pack you up inside a sack like this”, showing me the picture of a baby apparently trapped upside down inside a transparent sack and in a flash can reason what that really is. That is exactly the reason for auntie’s being away to her father’s house in far off Beneras. That is the reason for mom’s concealing this hard fact in the womb of an airplane– the aeronautical womb. Lost to the self-revelation, I am staring blankly at uncle, oblivious of his shouts which he suddenly stops in disgust, “You will never learn to become attentive in life”. But I know that is a fallacy and quietly run away.

          Under the lowering sun, the post afternoon shadows have just begun to stretch out longer. Children have started gathering outdoors. But I am in no mood to play with them. I keep on loitering alone. A revelation that is my own,     instead of quelling my curiosity raised further confusion- I am perplexed as to how at all did the baby get into the belly in the first place and then how at all did it get out? The happenings vaguely pictured in my half understanding did not become closer to reality until the day auntie returned carrying a baby in her arms… 

          Ever since I surprised him by asking, ‘Dad, if the engine driver had lobbed a piece of coal at me so gently, then why did that fly past my ears so fast?’, he has been trying to explain it to me in various ways. But I have been somehow finding them unintelligible, till the day he said– ‘It happened so because the velocity of the train at which the piece of coal had been already moving inside it got added to the velocity at which it was lobbed’. That makes some sense to me.

          “Just as sixty apples added to one apple makes fifty one apples?” I ask, my eyes lighting up.

          He looks delighted and again casts that same keen look on me, as though he can sense some promise. Expectations are building up.

           “Not exactly, because unlike the number of apples, velocity has a magnitude as well as direction”, he goes on, “Directions too can be combined, like when we air drop relief materials in marooned areas from a carrier aircraft through an opening or hatch at the bottom of a moving aircraft then we drop it a little ahead of the target because the item dropped travels in both of the directions– that in which it was moving along with the aircraft before falling and also the direction of its downward fall”.

          I hardly hear anything until that one single thing– ‘opening or the hatch at the bottom of the belly of an aircraft’ catches my instant attention.

          “There is a hole at the bottom of an aircraft Dad?” he is taken aback by my unexpected question.

          “Yes there is one opening at the bottom through which cargo is loaded with a hydraulic ram and then its door is closed” he replies and hurriedly leaves me alone with the junior science books  full of science facts and pictures that he has zealously given me. One of them contains ‘Newton’s Laws of Motion’ explained with pictures in the simplest manner, but first I want to know the ‘Laws of Newton’s Motion’– their general name as I came to know at IIT many years later. My interest in those junior books is suppressed deep under my curiosity for the book that uncle was reading. I must get my hands to it, but I cannot. I am slowly withdrawing into myself. I am losing interest in the games on the playground. Subhas resumes his bulling and seizes his whistle when he comes to know about the prank played with it. I feel bad about my ‘demotion’. The evening fades away. Night is falling fast and with the feeble click of the switch putting off the last light, yet another nondescript day is gone…

          The next day is born washed in the crimson glow in the boundless open space of the camp and invites everybody to their usual chores… And as the morning ticks away to noon we are returning from school.    

          A ‘Posting Run’ has just halted in front of the barrack. (The same 3 Tonner, Shaktiman Military Truck is called a Posting-Run when it runs back and forth the Railway Station). From a distance I can see the next door auntie alighting, holding a baby in her arms and uncle is finding it hard helping her. It seems she won’t let anyone else hold her baby. By the time I get nearer all the nearby aunties have surrounded the mother with new born for getting a glimpse. Conch shells are blown. Animated talks turn into hubbub as each one of them wants to hold the baby. Uncle has unlocked the entry door and stands quietly just out of the circle which shows no signs of melting away in the comfortable sunshine of the cold season.

          I stand there watching the fun till I suddenly realize that the chance I had been longing for lies unguarded just a few steps away without my asking for it. I turn back and stealthily sneak into uncle’s house unnoticed…

          The walls have been white washed clean. The air inside is smelling of fresh disinfection. I cross over the front room and then for a while stand in cold sweat at the door of the other where the key to the secret lies. Quite unlike while dancing on the tracks, an awareness of what I am doing now gives me the jitters. There is a throbbing that doesn’t leave me as I dash inside and grab the book out from under the pillow. My hands are shivering, sweat as if oozing out from inside my head is condensing in droplets on my forehead as my prying eyes are devouring the pictures one after another. As I go on flipping the pages, I realize why my drawing teacher keeps on harping on my inattentive ears– A picture is worth a thousand words! By the time my eyes run ahead of the one uncle threatened me with, I know the ‘facts of life’ … It is a different version of the model dad had used to explain relative motion to me– starting from the hydraulic ram loading the cargo into the aeronautical womb through the hatch at the bottom of the aeroplane’s belly up to the point it is air dropped through the same hatch. I am dumbfounded at the revelation when a voice seeming to be receding away rings like alarm on my ears.  I hastily shove the book under the pillow and flee as fast as my shaky legs can get me away from the scene. Again I remain unnoticed; they are still busy with the ‘new arrival’ the difference being, I know the secret of its arrival during my exit.

          The world looks different when something very basic to it comes to light. The same sky glows a mysterious shade of blue, the sunny winter afternoon appears even more lit up as I run on the playground ecstatically, until I touch the fence separating the Railway Tracks. My hands can feel that the barbed wire has now been spanned so taught to prevent another trespassing, that when plucked it hummed and resonated with the tune that is playing within me– from the euphoria of the exploration, the delight of the disclosure all by me….

  “You are not attentive when your seniors are speaking to you!” a heavy smack inflected on my head by a flat palm ejects me out from the reverie I sank into after hearing a senior ask, ‘ What are The Laws of Newton’s Motion?’ That is a ragging question at Nehru hall, that has triggered off the flash back from the depths of my timeline– the story of a simple revelation, the story of a simple wish fulfilled that I should be here someday. [My eyes are moist as I am writing the last line]

  [When we were little and innocent, we had our own theories about how babies arrive into this world. If asked what had been your notion back then, the answers given by each one of you would differ. But as we grew older, we all learnt the well-kept secret about how babies are born- but there too, each one of us got it differently. This was the weird story about how I arrived at the ‘facts of life’]

 

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