- A Stranded Railroad Car
All of this, Brother, means nothing. To tell you the truth, travel isn’t enjoyable anymore.”
Bundu Miyan’s story was absorbing. But Shujaat Ali somehow didn’t care for his concluding remark and said, “Well now, I wouldn’t go that far. Travel must have meant quite a lot to our elders. Why else would they have stirred out of doors? They weren’t crazies. You’re too young and inexperienced to jump to conclusions. All you had was a single trip, which ended somewhat badly for you. And right away you decide there’s no fun and adventure left in travel. As I look at it, you never did any travelling—I mean any real travelling, which is something else again. Well, Mirza Sahib, what do you think?”
Mirza Sahib gently removed the mouthpiece of the hookah from his lips, opened his drowsy eyes, cleared his throat, and said, “Shujaat Ali, you shouldn’t argue with these modern boys. What do these kids know about travelling?! Especially on account of the train—they’ve taken all enjoyment out of journeying. You blink your eye, and you’ve arrived at your destination. But there was a time when kingdoms fell and governments toppled by the time you reached where you were going. And the babies you’d left naked and crawling on all fours—you returned to find them fathers worrying their heads over a suitable match for their marriageable daughters.”
The idea of political upheavals caught Bundu Miyan’s interest. He couldn’t resist remarking, “Mirza Sahib, entire governments fall today in less time than it takes to blink an eye. You go to the station counter, purchase your ticket, hop on the train, then at the very next stop, you hear the hawker yelling of a coup somewhere.”
“Oh, yes, just a coup. Nothing more and nothing less,” Mirza Sahib was quick to remark. “But in the past,” he continued, “a change of government invariably meant a change of coinage too. New monarch, new coins. That was a real journey, one hell of a journey. One went on travelling hundreds and hundreds of miles, back and forth, with the destination nowhere in sight and all traces of the starting point irrevocably obscured. Each journey seemed to be the last. Just imagine the hazards attending a journey in the past: the fear of tigers, of snake bites, of highwaymen, and yes, of ghosts too. You had neither clocks nor electricity in those days. You travelled by the dim, starlit sky overhead and the burning torches below. A torch was suddenly blown out by the wind, and your heart dropped between your [End Page 31] feet; a meteor shot through the sky, leaving behind a blazing, bright trail, and your heart pounded fitfully. You prayed, ‘Lord God! Take care of us and don’t let us wayfarers down!’ These days the night’s over before you know it. Back then, though, it took ages to pass a single night in travel; a night spanned a century.”
Mirza Sahib paused thoughtfully. Bundu Miyan and Manzur Husain were speechless. The mouthpiece of the hookah froze between Shujaat Ali’s lips; the pipe’s gurgling monotone flowed gently across the darkening patio and blended with the tranquil silence of nightfall.
Mirza Sahib resumed talking, sounding as though he knew he had strayed too far from the topic and was now back to the point. “No horse-drawn carts, no journey. But today the train is in fashion. I just don’t feel like travelling anymore. By God, only one journey’s left for me now. But come to think of it, who needs a carriage for that one? Off I shall go when my time’s come. . .” He sighed and became silent.
The mouthpiece was still firmly under Shujaat Ali’s grey moustache, and the gurgling continued. Then Sharfu, the servant, emerged from the house, holding a lantern. There was a stir as the darkening portico lit up dimly. Sharfu pulled up a stool near the chairs, set the lantern on it, and turned the wick up a little. Shujaat...