In The Hindu’s Summer Special, May 21
Gift for grandma
Zorro had made a request and Isak felt he could not refuse. So, he set off all dressed up in Zorro’s uniform.
“Absconders! Running away when you need them most,” Colonel Tejo’s words boomed across the bungalow, grazed the tea gardens and the window panes jangled, but Isak was no longer afraid. It was the plucking season and he was short of labour. His words echoed to the sound of a gunshot in the distance. “The army doing its job, son,” the colonel had explained, “the militants, or maybe the poachers.”
Tomorrow, Isak knew, he would be an absconder too, all because of Zorro’s request. Zorro, the postman wanted him to deliver a parcel to Margherita three hours away. The army was holding its annual recruitment test in Dibrugarh and Zorro wanted to be there.
“Will you take this shawl to my grandmother?”
He couldn’t say no to Zorro, and then Zorro had added, “I’ll tell her to look for you.”
That was nice to hear. It rarely happened that someone looked forward to his coming, Isak thought. He was 15, his parents were abroad and so here he was at Dibrugarh on his uncle’s tea estate and the next day he would, in place of Zorro, travel in the passenger train to Margherita, to deliver a shawl to his grandmother. Margherita with its old coal mines, the bridge on the Dihing River was close to Ledo, the easternmost railway station in the country.
Morning arrived early in the east, faster than anywhere else in the country, even the church bells sounded newly-washed as Isak headed for the station, in Zorro’s uniform and badge, as Zorro had insisted. The cap slipped often over his eyes, and each time he raised it, everything around looked mistier, cloudier and greyer than before.
Cold and misty
The crinkly-eyed driver smiled on seeing him, “Be my guest. Men in uniform always sit with me.” His cabin was small, with windows on every side, and Isak looked curiously at the array of dials in front. The train horn sounded, long and sorrowful, the signal lights blinked, vanished and when they came on again brighter than before, Isak knew the train was moving. It rumbled past old cedar trees, clumps of bamboo, conical shaped huts, while everywhere else, the tea gardens rose and fell with the gradient.
The driver hummed and whistled, Isak shivered and the train rattled in sympathy. “You’ll feel warmer with the shawl around you.” The driver pointed to the parcel but the mist was now in his beard, his eyelids too were dewy with it. “Lisa won’t mind,” he said, “I know her, she’s been waiting. Perhaps this time she will be lucky.”
Isak found the shawl’s warmth soothing. He listened almost drowsy, as the driver’s voice unspooled like a story in his head. “Not so long ago, this train was really special, carrying soldiers and supplies for the American and Allied forces during the war. The Stilwell Road runs very close.”
The train slowed to a crawl, as if it was sleepy too, but Isak soon heard the buzz of aircraft, low and insistent. The driver nodded, “Japanese soldiers somewhere close. Stay quiet.” There were more gun shots, and when Isak looked out of the window, the coal smoke lashed him full on the face, and he heard the spitfire planes fly low, past the trees. “They will fly over the Hump, dropping supplies to the Chinese in Kumming.”
The train started again cautiously for stray battle sounds could still be heard. A while later, Margherita, with its old railway bridge, was visible in the distance. Somewhere a violin played and it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It seemed familiar and the driver was humming it too.
“There’s Lisa,” the driver pointed her out and Isak jumped from the train. His feet landed firm on the ground, and he felt confident and older than he was, while the woman looking up at him had a glow on her face, and she was laughing, a sound full of happiness. “Oh look, you’re all blackened up,” she said. Isak was suddenly shy, unable to say a word as he followed her to a small white-walled house, where he left the shawl on the table. “You might want to take a swim to get that coal off.” The moon fell full on her face, the night insects whirred and cheeped and Isak knew his journey had taken him much longer than he had imagined
“Come when you are done,” Lisa said, and it was blissful to have the cold water hard on his face. He took a dip and when he surfaced, there was Colonel Tejo standing by his jeep, “Gave me a real chase, didn’t you?” The water swirled and danced randomly around Isak but he wasn’t going to be cowed down. He had after all done it for a friend.
“I was getting the coal off,” Isak said. Colonel Tejo laughed but he wasn’t angry, “That’s one tall tale. Why, the last steam train ran here 2000.”
Lisa was asleep by the coal stove as they entered. She had the shawl around her and the light threw shadows on her old lined face. The uniform he had worn was on the table. Isak touched it gently and this time no blackened soot caught in his fingers. He pulled the shawl over her, and Lisa smiled in her sleep, still happy.