The scene is, once again, Heaven. Eminences from our History are lazing around, as always bored out of their minds. Heaven is, after all, in permanent Lockdown, without having to worry about haircuts. Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Hansa Mehta, Rabindranath Tagore, Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Sri Aurobindo, Sarojini Naidu, Jayaprakash Narayan, Deendayal Upadhyaya are milling around. Narada shows up to needle them.
Narada: Hey, Jawahar! How come you are still in Heaven? I thought they were moving you to Hell. Didn’t you destroy India and all that?
Jawahar: They were trying to arrange a third-class train ticket to Hell for me. Then, the lockdown happened. So I am stuck.
Mohandas (admonishingly): While you are stuck, read Hind Swaraj seriously, my dear Jawahar. Remember, I wrote there that trains “are the carriers of plague germs”. “The Railways too have spread bubonic plague.”
Jawahar (with a pained expression): But Bapu, you discovered India through trains.
Kasturba: And Bapu, a train was your moment of enlightenment. If you had not been thrown off one, you would have never woken up.
Bhim Rao: Gandhiji, did you not also write, “Our leading men travelled India either on foot or on bullock carts. They learned one another’s languages and there was no aloofness between them.” Did you not say that it was after the railways “that we began to believe in distinctions?”
Jinnah interjects: I told you, this new fellow of yours, Narendra Ranchoddas Modi is just like Mohan. He made millions of Indians travel on foot across the length and breadth of the country. That tapasya will make them all leading men, and India will be without distinctions. Just as Mohan said. He has made all of them Shankaracharya (laughs).
Sarojini: Er, Jinnah, I have caught you watching an Indian film again. You mean Narendra Damodardas Modi. You should respect the Indian PM. Ranchoddas is the guy in Three Idiots, who had issues with his degree.
Jinnah: Sorry, Sarojini behn, all these Hindi rhyming names. Sometimes it is easy to confuse.
Bhimsen Joshi: A das is a das. (Breaks into Asavari Todi) “Main toh tumhro das, janam janam se”.
K M Munshi: Hey Jinnah, Narendra bhai is building a bullet train.
Hansa Mehta (whispers under her breath): Maybe he got misled by the word bullet.
Mohandas (pained): My Gujarati brothers always misunderstand me! I did tapasya myself, never brutally imposed it on others.
Bhim Rao interjects: Come here, Vallabhbhai. We are discussing your favourite subject, railways. The real steel frame that holds India together. Disabuse Mohan of his nonsense.
Vallabhbhai: I have fond memories of trains. In fact, I waited on a train for the princely states of Orissa to deliver their treaties of accession. Good things, trains.
V P Menon interjects: Sir, princely states may have given their accession on trains. But some states are now not accepting trains. Centre blames the states, states blame the Centre.
Vallabhbhai: What? Can’t the Centre coordinate? We left India a strong Centre.
Jayaprakash: Centre is strong when you want to lock down, weak when you want to open up. Same as in Emergency.
Narada (looks at Rabindranath): Why are you so silent? Babu, kichu bolo? You wrote poems on railway stations.
Deen Dayal (repeating with joy): I have a railway station named after me.
Rabindranath (airily) recites his poem: Some get aboard/some stay behind; succeeding boarding failing or remaining/Nothing but picture after picture/Whatever catches the eye for a moment is erased the next moment after/A whimsical game of self forgetting. (Railway Station, translated by William Radice).
Sri Aurobindo: Sounds like “maya”. On second thoughts more, more like social media — “whatever catches the eye is erased the next moment”.
Bhim Rao snaps: Between Maya and Tapasya, India is done. People are dying on railway tracks.
Jawahar (turns to Rabindranath): Forget this whimsical game of self-forgetting. Did you not see what happened at Muzaffarpur station? A toddler was pulling a cover off her dead mother, imploring her to wake up. Does not reality ever stare at you? I can never think of a railway station without playing that image in my mind. Maybe Bapu is right: The railway station is the scene of our moral desolation. It spreads evil faster than goodness.
Mohandas: They have forgotten my talisman. I won’t repeat it. Even I have forgotten it. Something about the poor.
Someone (inaudibly) whispers: But did the station have wi-fi?
Vallabhbhai: Jawahar, you always get sentimental. Do you not remember the trains of death we dealt with in Partition? One train up with dead bodies, one train down. Godhra and the aftermath. Our trains are what we make of them. Stop crying.
(Everyone looks down; some try to sneak a look at Jinnah’s face.)
Deen Dayal: Speaking of railway tracks, you all do know my body was found on one?
Narada: Of course. Since you high-minded people never read novels, you never pay attention to reality, let me tell you, Indians have always complained about dying on railway tracks. Some guy called Rohinton Mistry, in A Fine Balance, wrote about the Emergency, a time that resembles ours in some ways. One of his characters, a passenger miffed at a delayed train, complains, “Why does everyone have to choose the railway tracks for dying?” Grumbled another: “No consideration for people like us. Murder, suicide, Naxalite-terrorist killing, police custody death, everything ends up delaying the trains. What is wrong with poison or tall buildings or knives?”
Bhim Rao: And now hunger deaths on tracks too… We complain more about how they die than why they die.
Silence hangs in the air.
Subhas Bose interjects: Speaking of trains not running on time, I once had buddies who made the trains run on time. Mussolini ran trains on time. I am not advocating it, but think about it. Maybe a stout dose of discipline and the trains will run in time.
Bhim Rao: In India, dictators cannot run trains on time. And as we just found out, they cannot even ensure that trains reach the right destination. With the passengers alive.
Jawahar: I think I will take a flight to Hell. Forget the train. Too much death and confusion associated with them.
Hansa Mehta: You can escape, but what about the Republic, Jawahar? Go at the speed of a train or will it fly? Will it walk to its destiny? Will it collapse in the middle, exhausted? And we, like the toddler at the station, imploring the mother to wake up long after its life has been eviscerated.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 29 under the title “Trains on their mind”. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.