My brother runs to the front of the train.
He gazes fondly
at the thonthi engine, which will
belch soot as, with its fat stomach,
it pants its  way  over the tracks
to my grandma’s home.

My mother counts the luggage
as the porter jogs off,
his head a pastry tower
of boxes, bags
and the rolled-up hold-all.

My skinny legs try to keep pace,
with my be-ribboned braids
slapping against my thighs.

My mother counts again,
once our bodies are berthed
inside the train.

Seven pieces of luggage,
eleven coins for the porter.

My brother hogs the window seat,
as I stare at a small, bald head
that appears from under a seat,
only to be yanked back again
by a bangle-laden hand
from the next compartment.

A lady high-heels her way past me,
the fingers of her right hand
eagerly clasping
a Daphne du Maurier,  
bought, perhaps, from
the Higginbothams booth
on the railway platform.

The guard’s whistle
pierces the evening air.

A man comes running down the platform,
his angavastram slipping off,
As he screws the lid back on his kooja
that brims with water.
He jumps on the train.
One sandal slips off his foot
and drops to the tracks beneath.
A pregnant lady
unwraps a fragrant strand of gundu malli
bound in banana leaves
and tucks it into her hair.

Write as soon as you reach,
Take care of yourself,
Take care of the baby.
Give my regards to your in-laws.
Don’t forget the savories
And the sweets,
Give them to your husband.
Say tata, bye-bye, cheerio
To thatha and patti.
Mama, will you get me
A mechano set next time?

My brother whoops in delight
as a giant key
jumps from a hand on the platform
to lodge itself
in the crook of an elbow
that shoots out
of the engine driver’s cab.

Having seen us off,
the sun climbs into his chariot.
Its bejeweled wheels spray paint the sky
in dazzling oranges, yellows and reds,
as he gallops off
without a backward glance.

My brother jots impatiently in his railway timetable,
annoyance marking every second lost
by the locomotive, as it slows down
and decides to cruise placidly,
rather than thunder on
like a juggernaut.

He drops the book
and starts drumming on the wooden seat,
signaling me to follow suit.
Tadaktak, Tadaktak, tadaktak, tadaktak,
tadaktak, tadaktak, tadaktak, tadaktak,
Brother and sister, older and younger,
Imperious leader and faithful follower,
the thinker, the seer, the philosopher,
the naive, drudgery-loving doer,
we keep beat
to the ceaseless shimmying
of the train.

Dinner time.
The mama across from us
opens his thooku pathram
and piles tamarind rice
onto a banana leaf.
My mother gives us
thair  sadam,
with the lemon pickle
gleefully oozing oil
into the thick cream.

Sleep gives me a piggyback ride,
as the train races through the night.
Arakkonam junction, Renigunta.
The train slithers in and out
of various stops,
and races through others
that whiz by
in a blur of light.
People, bags and memories
hop on and off
in a ceaseless procession.
Curiosity pries open my eyelids
and I spy my brother
craning his neck
from the top berth
to short-sightedly
peer through the window
and – once again –
jot frantically
in his railway timetable.

My mother has withstood
the frenzied onslaught of sleep.
I see her glancing at her watch
with the gold strap,
which I would try to prise open
(so she has told me)
with my baby fingers,
as a squint-eyed toddler
with a lazy eye.

Her hair is nestled still
in a chignon,
held captive by hairpins
and a net.

Cries of ‘chaya, chaya, chaya,’
‘Kapi, kapi, kapi,’
pluck me out of
the cozy hammock
of my dreams,
and toss me into
the cool air
of the dawn.

Food vendors crowd around the train.
My mother sips her tea
as she watches me
gazing at a tiny ant
struggling to get out of my milk.

My teeth gratefully sink
into the crispy layers
of aama vadai
and my tongue
at the fragrant sweetness
of the steamed plantain,
pazham puzhunginathu.

Some college girls
share cold idlis
seasoned with mustard seeds
and sesame oil.

The train crosses a bridge.
I toss a coin
through the window
and see it
twirling with silvery flashes of light
toward the river below.

Our train finally pulls
into Poongkunnam station.

My mother grabs her handbag.
My brother grabs his railway timetable.
I grab my sandals.

We peer through the window,
our sooty faces scanning the crowd.

We see my aunt,
a stray strand of hair
stuck to the sandalwood paste
adorning her forehead,
umbrella in hand.

Image Source

Meera Parasuraman

Meera Parasuraman is a poet and scholar. Her work has been featured in Miracle Monocle, New Note Poetry (online and anthologized), and Copihue Poetry.