Monday, August 29, 2005

insomniac at the railway station

sleight of hand and twist of fate
that a guy who wakes up at six and ideally goes to bed by ten gets to write a column called insomniac.
so once a month, in the grand tradition of majaz, i wander forlorn and jobless through the nights of the city, excpet that this is work.
you've already read me at gb road. here's me at old delhi railway station - with all the spelling mistakes and general arbitness the editors of city limits will cut out...

Doggerel doesn't let go - Ten o' clock and the station rocks. Outside Old Delhi Railway Station dates fake watches leather belts shoes tongas bus rides to Jaipur.

Coolies line up at the entrance, jostling into a single file just like in Coolie. A thousand licensed porters they say but there's no work, all the trains diverted to New Delhi and Nizamuddin and Sarai Rohilla. No Rajdhani or Shatabdis, and just five 'mails'. Two hundred porters to be transferred. Between eleven and four, no trains depart, except the 'locals' – Shahdara, Nizamuddin, Palwal, Ghaziabad...

A touchscreen PNR assistance machine. The coolies see no people but hundreds sleeping. A puppet horse glitters among the sea of snores. The station starts at Platform 16. Each platform so long that it's actually two. On platform 8 the guard tries to wave the Kalka Mail off. the train moves twenty feet and halts. Guard stalks in fury up length of train muttering into his walkie talkie. Can't find anyone looking supicious enough to pull the chain and gets into his cabin still muttering and the train departs. A one legged ragpicker stomps along the tracks. The magazine stads shut down, and the tea and snacks kiosk guy pulls cardboard and gunny sack from under the nearest bench and stretches out. The train from Ghaziabad comes in, a forlorn battered version of the Bombay locals – which wouldn't have so few people at eleven thirty, and so many of those few sleeping.

The chai walahs move their heavy carts loaded with gas cylinders onto lifts which go down beneath the platforms. What willl you do going down there? It's dirty, don't say anything to me if you fall sick. the lift trundles down into a long tubelit passage which connects all the platforms – heavy goods move under. It's hot even near midnight, the heat trapped in the stale subterranean air.

The station is haunted by puppet horses. I see them boarding trains, on footbridges, entering the station, everywhere. All of these horses that you chase around... are lyrics from the Wallflower's song Invisible City. The Kaifiyat Express leaves for Azamgarh, only train named for a poet? A woman lifts her ghagra and pees off the edge of the platform. The train for Rohtak stands empty in its siding, people slumber beside, atop huge bales of freight. Parathas and sabzi cooking well past midnight as others play cards, and talk. No one disturbed by the hooting of locos but sntaches of song and dance from over the wall elicit abuse. A shiv mandir built into the side of a platform means the only clean patch of tracks in the whole staion.

Near the entrance I see myself on a high TV, caught live on surveillance cam. I weigh 76 kilos. In a lonely airconditioned room, a cop sits in front of a bank of CCTV monitors, spending the night watching 16 channles of reality TV. Will the horses haunt his dreams?

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